- Village China under Socialism and Reform: A Micro-History, 1948–2008
From both inside and outside of China, there have been many recently published volumes on China’s post-revolution history at the national scale. As with similar histories of many nations, such volumes outline the major events and players that brought the nation to its current state. The least of these books serve as summaries of China’s tumultuous past, while the better ones seek to position these events within various historiographic perspectives or focus more sharply on specific issues. For the purpose of contrast with Village China, these might be grouped as conventional histories writ large — top-down History with a capital H. Unfortunately, in such national studies, events associated with rural China usually lose out to the complex forces that resulted in the nation’s great urban transformations and the rise of the nation’s economic and political influences over the past sixty years.
The heterogeneity of China, especially considered over long periods of time, almost demands that the small policy currents, local resistances, local attitudes and opinions, and the actual outcomes of events in specific places across eras must be winnowed from national studies in favor of synthesis (and perhaps under persistent pressure from publishers who would prefer every book they manage to be [End Page 209] ideally under three hundred pages). However, Huaiyin Li’s volume is a history from the bottom up, which sharply and effectively reminds us how much is lost in this filtering.
In writing Village China, Li challenges the arguments of many of these conventional national histories and asks the reader instead to consider China’s history over the past six decades from the vantage point of the village — history built up through a recounting by multiple voices with decidedly local concerns and perspectives. He invites readers, then, to view China’s history through the eyes of the local officials and farm families of Qin village who lived through these challenging times to see what really happened during China’s headlong rush to prosperity as leaders sought to develop a harmonious society. Based on a wonderfully detailed and documented case study of Qin village located within Dongtai County of Jiangsu province (now Dongtai Municipality), Huaiyin Li opens a genuinely new window on the trials, travails, and successes of many local places in rural China and joins these to an equally effective analysis of some of the greater forces under which rural places in China pragmatically operated from the revolution to 2008. As noted in the preface, the study also includes data for purposes of comparison from Songjiang country in Sunan. However, the major focus remains on Qin village in Dongtai, and related events in other places in Dongtai. The village, located in central coastal Jiangsu province within an area once known largely for severe flooding and poverty but now incorporating some of the most productive cropland in the nation, serves as a focus for evaluating not only China’s myriad rural development and social planning campaigns and policy shifts over time, but also the outcomes of these programs as they impacted Qin village residents and their families of all types. The book, then, is both a very detailed study of a single place with well-defined boundaries, as well as an effort to assess what went wrong and (more recently) right with national rural development policies and campaigns over this long period.
It is important to note from the outset that this volume could only have been written by a very limited number of scholars possessing access to such detailed information as well as the theoretical grounding to place these rich data in the broader context of theoretical studies on rural China’s historical development. Huaiyin Li was able to access village records for the entire period of the study because of family and friendship ties to the people of the village and the Qin village government. Through these family connections and (presumably) great persistence...