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  • Power, Entitlement and Social Practice: Resource Distribution in North China Villages
  • Gene Cooper (bio)
Xiyi Huang. Power, Entitlement and Social Practice: Resource Distribution in North China Villages Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2007. xix, 276 pp. Hardcover $39.00, ISBN 978-9-629-96315-6.

This book made a reasonable doctoral dissertation, but, unfortunately, it needed a good deal more work to prepare it for publication. It is laden with malapropisms [End Page 65] and riddled with jargon, and the application of concepts is often clumsy and wooden, all of which sorely undermine the interesting empirical data author Huang presents comparing the circumstances of two village communities in North China’s Hebei province.

The main difference between the two villages lies in the development of the cashmere processing industry in one and the absence of much industrial development in the other. Party authority was undermined by the profits to be made in industry in the processing village (p. 122), whereas it remained stronger and relatively more rewarding in the less developed village. Local government was more effectively supported by industrial taxes in the processing village, whereas the less developed village was forced to rely on a variety of additional “illegal” local levies, greatly increasing the poorer villagers’ burden (pp. 168, 173). Women’s role in cashmere processing led to delays in their marriage in the processing villages, and often to a period of postmarital residence with the groom’s parents for a couple of years, to allow each son to accumulate the resources necessary to operate an independent processing enterprise (p. 58). Marriage networks were cast more broadly in the commercially networked cashmere processing village (p. 66), which also experienced a high degree of in-migration by those seeking employment (p. 210). Patrilineality remained more efficacious in the less industrially developed village, where it formed an “unwavering triangle” with political power and economic advantage (p. 132). Outmigration by those seeking economic opportunity prevailed in the less developed village (p. 210).

The overall point of the book is to suggest that the economic, social, and political institutions, of both a formal and an informal type, are interconnected in the differing experiences and patterns of resource distribution in each village, but getting there is a tough slog.

Given the dismantling of the centralized socialist system of resource distribution in China, it is not clear from the outset exactly what resource distribution the book intends to study. This is ultimately clarified, but the book includes a great deal of ethnographic data that one would not normally expect to find in an economic study of resource distribution: information on marriage practices; household division; provisions for the elderly; the significance of kinship, both agnatic and affinal; non-kin relationships; and family planning. This data is not a problem in itself. Indeed, it is all common grist for good old-fashioned ethnography, and there is much of interest in Huang’s descriptions of the activities of her villagers.

No one could argue with the finding that “resource distribution in the postcollective period has been effected through the interaction between market forces, state settings and cultural mediators” (p. 16), or with the conclusion that “[c]hange in the nature of marriage finance and in the content of household division results partly from the influence of socialist transformations and partly from the rise of the market economy” (p. 219). [End Page 66]

In her discussion of marriage, Huang also convincingly suggests abandoning the terms “bride price” and “dowry” for “endowment from the groom’s family” and “endowment from the bride’s family” (p. 50). She also effectively shows that both villages, to differing degrees, experienced “a shift in preference” from a general reliance on agnatic relationships to greater reliance on affinal kin and non-kin relationships, and from fictive kin ties to friendship with non-kin (p. 225).

Further, Huang’s consideration of the “five unpopular policies” — tax collection, grain procurement, birth control, controls on allocation of land for house building, and the movement to create “villages with comfortable living standards” — is most informative (p. 167) and sheds light on the sources and prevalence of rural discontent in contemporary China.

Had I been on Huang’s...