- Prosperity’s Predicament: Identity, Reform, and Resistance in Rural Wartime China by Isabel Brown Crook, Christina Kelley Gilmartin, Yu Xiji
Prosperity is a small town in the province of Sichuan, and this book is a study of life there during World War II, when the nearby city of Chongqing was briefly the national capital. It is based on the ethnographic notes made by Isabel Brown Crook when she went there with Yu Xiji 俞錫璣 to work on a social project sponsored by the National Christian Council of China in 1941. By the time the notes from their interviewing took shape as a book during the 1990s, ethnography had become history. Crook worked together with Christina Gilmartin, who as a historian not only did considerable research to fill out the Republican historical context but also framed the project in a way that makes it a fascinating read for anyone interested in the impact of the war on local society. [End Page 190]
The book’s extraordinary background is a story in itself, conveyed through a preface by Crook and an introduction by Gail Hershatter and Emily Honig. Crook’s acknowledgments include James Yen, inspirational leader of rural reconstruction in China during the 1920s and 1930s, who provided experts to advise the project Crook was working on in Prosperity. To most who will read this book, Crook’s is a voice from another age, but an age that has deeply influenced our own and whose ideals have echoed down through the years. Crook had studied anthropology as an undergraduate and used what she had learned while she was living in and thinking about Prosperity. The result is a fascinating ethnography of Prosperity as it was when Crook arrived. But Crook went to Prosperity not simply to observe society as it was but with the avowed intention of changing it. Her commitment to these goals interacts as the book proceeds with Gilmartin’s more reflective voice, and the effect is most engaging: the reader is compelled to think not only about how things were but also about why people felt so strongly that they should be changed. The outcomes of this passionate drive for social change that lay at the heart of China’s twentieth-century history were varied and not always what was intended. It is these outcomes that form the second half of the book, which discusses the impact of the wartime Nationalist government’s efforts at reform on the town.
The first half of the book covers the social structures that shaped life in Prosperity when Crook arrived, many of which had deep historical roots. There are chapters on markets, land tenure, family, lineages, and what may loosely be termed secret societies. This section of the book contributes to the emerging literature on Sichuan, which is giving us a new view of the changes that took place in Chinese society during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that is deeply rooted in a particular place. Sichuan’s wealth of well-preserved archives, especially those of Baxian 巴縣, have made possible a whole range of studies of local society during the Qing dynasty, most notably works by Madeleine Zelin on the salt industry and Matthew Sommer on law and the family.1 These works are then complemented by an ongoing stream [End Page 191] of works on Sichuan during the Republican era, with the two newest being the books by Kristin Stapleton and Xiaowei Zheng.2 Together this literature is helping us to get a much more nuanced understanding of how the 1911 revolution and the changes that followed played out in one province: what were the forces that drove the revolution, who gained power, and how life changed as a result.
Prosperity’s Predicament provides an account of the same processes but from a very different point of view, that of a small town and its everyday life during...