- The Rural Modern: Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China by Kate Merkel-Hess
In her fascinating examination of the Rural Reconstruction Movement in China in the 1920s and 1930s, Merkel-Hess shows us a vision of national modernization in which rural residents, through education, literacy, and self-improvement, would be able to achieve modernity and become citizens on an individual level. In her recounting of this unrealized "alternative, rural vision of a Chinese modernity," Merkel-Hess seeks to show how these reconstruction efforts "established an important precedent" by setting "the terms of the debate" : that is, China could be both "modern and rural" (p. 14). In so doing, she makes a significant contribution to the broader literature on modernization and development, showing us that today's exemplars of Chinese modernity—huge dams, high-speed rail, urban industrialization—represent but one of several paths that might have been taken. Merkel-Hess's story is primarily an intellectual history, focusing on the assumptions and perceptions of elite reformers. This is in part a function of the surviving archival material: few sources directly document the thoughts and feelings of rural people themselves.
At their height in in the years between 1933 and 1937, Merkel-Hess's rural reconstructionists were "a loosely organized group" of people, "ranging from county magistrates to central government officials to university professors to foreign missionaries" (p. 6) connected by "a few key government committees, scholarly networks, and independent conferences" (p. 7). While the Communists loom large as the foremost proponents of rural change, Merkel-Hess reminds us that the Communists were "neither the first nor the only group of urban intellectuals to look to the villages as the foundation of a new nation" (p. 2). The prefix "re-" in the term "reconstruction" (as opposed to the Chinese term jianshe, or "construction") reveals the awkward match between the local terminology of Chinese rural reform and a global discourse of modernization, a discourse that Chinese reformers were very much a part of. Merkel-Hess persuasively demonstrates the contingency of today's world, in which cities (and not the countryside) are the primary site of a globalized, capitalist modernity.
As interlocutors in a global discourse of development and modernization, many of the reformers, such as Mass Education Movement (MEM) leader James "Jimmy" Yen (晏陽初), were educated abroad. In Chapter 1, [End Page 190] Merkel-Hess tells of the establishment of the MEM as an exemplar of how rural reformers believed that education—literacy, in particular—could transform rural people and teach them modern ways of behaving. Basing her story on rural reform publications, among them pamphlets and textbooks for "new literates" (p. 27), she describes the reformers' emphasis on literacy as the cornerstone of modern selfhood and as a basis of national citizenship. While the MEM began in Beijing (then, Beiping 北平) in the 1920s as a part of an urban literacy drive, the low literacy rates in the countryside were a great cause for concern and thus impelled the shift of the organization to Dingxian (定縣), 120 miles southwest of Beiping. In its didactic and popular publications, the MEM sought to educate its rural audience about "agricultural methods, home sanitation, health, and women's issues" (p. 43) and about the place of rural residents as citizens of a new Chinese nation. To fund these efforts, the MEM (in spite, one imagines, of the Christian injunction otherwise) found itself serving two masters, or at least performing for two audiences. In addition to addressing the needs of his rural subjects, Yen sought funding from such foreign sources as Henry Ford and Christian missionaries.
In Chapter 2, Merkel-Hess discusses two other sites of reform: Xiaozhuang (曉莊, near Nanjing) and Xugongqiao (徐公橋, halfway between Shanghai and Suzhou) to explain how reformers sought to bring about the self-transformation they thought necessary for modernity to take root in rural China. The Xiaozhuang School was founded in 1927 by Tao Xingzhi (陶行知), who had been born into poverty in Anhui and educated in missionary schools in China...