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  • Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920–2000
  • Yuehtsen Juliette Chung
Jacob Eyferth, Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920–2000 Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. xiv + 335 pp. US $45.00.

While the conventional study of modern Chinese history places a big signpost at the divide of 1949, when the Nationalist regime fled to Taiwan and the Communist regime took over the mainland, Jacob Eyferth sets his papermaking story during the latter eight decades of the twentieth century, leading into contemporary China with barely a pause at midcentury. This sort of chronological breakthrough sheds new light on the transition from the traditional division of labor to the maximizing of profits and production of the Maoist years. Despite all the efforts of socialist ideology, the country’s rural-urban gap widened and intensified throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Chinese state capitalists, as Eyferth shows us, were more Chinese than Marxian, determined to increase national production so as to surpass the United Kingdom and the United States within a decade of liberation. As to the historical actors in Jiajiang, Sichuan, where this study is set, Eyferth presents them as a diverse group—or group of groups—whose lives embody the development of one kind of papermaking; he assesses their skills by considering a broad field of relations. Such an approach broadens our view of the sociotechnical network beyond Bruno Latour’s actor network theory (ANT) and confirms that interdisciplinary science and technology studies elicit remarkable insights from historical materials.

In his introduction, Eyferth emphasizes a sociopolitical methodology as he situates his approach to Chinese peasants, social organization, and skill production. His materials are oral history interviews (fieldwork was done from 1996 off and on to 2004), archival documents, local gazetteers, and stone inscriptions from tombs and temples. Bamboo is the source for the paper made in the area. Standard procedures include cutting, soaking, steaming, pulping, molding, brushing, and finishing, all apparently unchanged for centuries, except for the introduction in the 1980s of steel steamers, coal fuel, caustic soda, and mechanical pulping. Due to these changes, labor inputs and [End Page 569] turnover time have been reduced. However, increased labor inputs continue to improve the quality of the paper.

A sexual division of labor is the norm. Women handle paper brushing and finishing, while men are assigned to vat work and pulping, both of which are considered complicated and demanding. The crafts are passed from father to son, except for rare cases of daughters learning the techniques when no sons are born. “Knowledge is transmitted within existing hierarchies of gender, age, and generation; recruitment is by birth. . . . Skill acquisition requires residence, and residence requires membership in the kinship group” (41).

Chapters 2 and 3 explore further the links between skills and social relationships, examining one by one community, kinship, religious associations, workshops, and the market. Jiajiang’s settlers owed much to their migrant ancestors who arrived in Sichuan from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. During unrest, mutual aid networks known as gelaohui (Society of Elders and Brothers), organized around lineages, sprang up to cope with threats beyond the reach of the Qing state. In addition to security, kinship groups provided loans, arranged for workers to help during peak labor needs, owned equipment that was lent out to relatives, and disseminated production-related knowledge. The state could make a big difference in the local economy too, as shown by improved transportation and credit in the Republican period; technical skill and capital were less important, let alone the factors of class and markets.

Chapter 4 discusses the technological reforms instituted from above and below in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1935 the county government bought the machinery needed to set up a modern factory. Manual production could be expanded rapidly and at low cost because of plentiful bamboo and grasses near the urban areas, where paper products could be sold. Such efforts did not have lasting impact. Due to limited funding, in 1943 mechanized paper mills only accounted for 20 percent of Sichuan’s paper output.



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