- The Life and Death of an Artisan Community in Modern China
This is a wonderful book. On one level, it is a finely and skillfully constructed history of a community of traditional artisans in rural China — people whom modernizing states tend to consign to history’s rubbish bin. Throughout the book, however, larger arguments related to the nature of revolution in twentieth-century China are firmly in the foreground. The study is innovative and bold; it sets new paradigms for research in the fields of modern China’s rural and industrial history.
The author did much of his fieldwork in the mid-1990s while based in Shiyan village, Jiajiang County, about 150 kilometers south of Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu. With a lot of help from local people, he has been able to construct a history that demonstrates the surprising resilience of a community of traditional craftspeople in the face of vigorous efforts by modernizing state builders to rationalize and standardize rural industry. Jacob Eyferth shows that neither the Guomindang state nor the more “aggressively transformative” Maoist state succeeded in changing “social and technological relations at the point of production” in Jiajiang (emphasis added, p. 226). State authorities in the 1950s did put time into mapping and documenting the papermakers’ craft, but made no further attempt to commandeer it. Only when the post-Mao state dismantled collectivism and elevated the household as the primary unit of production do we see the beginnings of an erosion of the social structures and techniques that have underpinned the handicraft paper industry.
This is not to say that the Maoist state had little impact at the grassroots level in Jiajiang. In the tradition of China’s nationalist modernizers since the late Qing, the Communist Party has always been committed to the development of big industry, the urbanization of industry, and the “agrarianization” of what had previously been a mixed economy in rural China (p. 9). During land reform, most rural artisans were classified as “peasants” and pressured to grow their own food. The Maoist state’s on-and-off “grain first” and local self-sufficiency drives forced [End Page 429] papermakers to abandon their workshops, chop back the bamboo forests (defined as “wasteland” by the government), and try to grow grain. Predictably, the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution did particular damage to the papermaking industry, and to the trade that was its lifeblood. The trade had created, over time, a set of “dense cultural and economic ties” between the paper districts and urban centers. When the trade declined, “the Jiajiang hills became a periphery” (p. 153).
Periodic relaxations of the self-sufficiency-in-grain policy, however, enabled the Jiajiang paper industry to survive, even if attenuated and damaged. And post-Mao decollectivization gave it a new life. The return to pre-1949 ownership and production arrangements, a soaring demand for paper, access to new technologies (including chemicals), and improved transportation and infrastructure are all important reasons why the industry recovered and flourished in the 1980s. Of particular importance, in Eyferth’s argument, was the reactivation of traditional norms of interhousehold mutual aid and reciprocity — long-established traditions that had “survived in a permutated form under the collectives” (p. 231). The restoration of old cooperative practices is what made “the remarkably quick recovery of the industry possible” (p. 177). Cooperativism was not to last, however; as papermaking became more strongly based in the household, the long-standing traditions of mutual obligation, team work, and information sharing among households began to fall into disuse.
For Eyferth, the reform-era erosion of communalism within Jiajiang society marks the beginning of the end of the artisan community. He places most of the blame for this on the state, both the Maoist and post-Mao states. Like modernizing states almost everywhere, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) state builders require “direct, unmediated access...