- Rural Origins, City Lives: Class and Place in Contemporary China by Roberta Zavoretti
For some time now, China’s rapidly growing cities have been viewed by many journalists, scholars, and officials alike as social condensers capable of transforming rural residents into civilized citizens. This official, hegemonic narrative is complemented by one that views cities as incubators of a new middle class citizen-subjectivity that is at once more self-disciplined, individualistic, market- and consumption-oriented, as well as patriotic and invested in the stability provided by a strong party-state. This is a powerful narrative that has affected the way many of us think about urbanization in China today. Its power could be measured, one might argue, by the strength of the critique that it has precipitated: that is, a counter-narrative of institutionalized discrimination, second-class status, and ultimate failure that rural migrants face in their efforts to become bona fide urban citizens of China. Roberta Zavoretti’s ethnography, Rural Origins, City Lives, seeks to challenge both the official narrative of progressive social transformation and the critical scholarly narrative of failure by exploring the everyday social and cultural practices of rural-born non-permanent urban residents, and the more privileged urban-born citizens who live amongst them, in the city of Nanjing.
Based on a year of fieldwork in Nanjing in 2007–2008, Zavoretti seeks to disrupt the tidy labels and categories through which the stories of rural-to-urban migration and urbanization in China have been told. Focusing our attention on everyday practices of rural-born urban residents, the book’s primary argument is that migration from the countryside to the city should not be viewed as the singular, transformative event in the lives of these residents. It should be viewed, instead, as merely part of a whole range of strategies with which people engage as they pursue success. The idea (or ideology) of a rural migrant’s life path progressing toward self-improvement and becoming a “civilized subject” through migration is challenged by the incoherent nature of actual life paths. Zavoretti argues that “a focus on everyday practice reveals how people’s visions of success cannot be reduced to the enterprise of migration and money making, but are rather bound to their own social relationships and visions of continuity” (p. 161). She finds that rural-born urban residents view their “move to the city not as a pioneering enterprise toward a modern life of glamour, but as the imperative of a fine tradition of family and intergenerational continuity and assistance” (p. 164). In this sense, she places rural-to-urban migration squarely within a long history of family-based strategies for building success [End Page 204] in China, and in so doing, pushes back against a dominant discourse of migration in China as a revolutionary rupture and uprooting of traditional culture and society.
Zavoretti’s is a welcome perspective on a subject that is often overheated with broad claims about modernity, governmentality, and social engineering. Her focus on family-based strategies for success is reminiscent of Hill Gates’ (1996)1 work. But Zavoretti is not arguing that contemporary migration in China is simply an updated version of China’s long sojourning traditions. Her informants have little intention of returning to rural life after undergoing their so-called “rite of passage” to modernity, or their “baptism into civilization.” Peasant workers (nongmin gong) are typically viewed as a transient presence in the city, both by virtue of their nonpermanent residence status institutionalized through China’s hukou system as well as by the assumption that they have no desire to relocate permanently, hoping instead to stay long enough to make some money so that they may return for marriage or other forms of social advancement in their home village. Zavoretti finds, however, that most of her informants have no interest in or intention of leaving their homes in Nanjing. Most plan on staying. It is useful to have an ethnographic account that demonstrates so clearly...