From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Asian Miscellany (8)—Urban and Rural China

[a] Rurotopia RF
My last few posts in "Asian Miscellany" have been driven by deadline—and many of them will follow in the coming weeks and months, since I have signed contracts to deliver a whole passel of encyclopedic material to various publishers before a self-imposed deadline of December 20th. As I explained in the introduction, this series of posts allows me to try out a few ideas that I plan eventually to include in various encyclopedias or on-line sites that have asked for my input. They are not the same as the pieces that will eventually be published, but constitute more of a "long draft," meant to work through a few ideas as I work on brief essays that often mandate strict "word counts" of 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. 

For today's post, I have been asked to write about the relationship between urban and rural China. The distinction between the two has been dramatic from even the earliest periods of China's imperial era (221 BCE-CE 1911). Today, China's development is unfolding at dramatically different paces, with the largest gaps occurring between rural and urban areas. There is nothing new about urbanization in China, and there is everything "old" about rural life. Together, they create one of the most important ways of looking at China today and through its history.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children
Urban and Rural China
[b] Travelin' RF
Stark contrasts exist between “urban” and “rural” life in China today. The greatest differences can be seen in education, and this is a point that is not lost on China’s population. The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, and the damage it caused to rural schools, was only the most dramatic recent indication that far more attention is paid to every aspect of urban schooling than can be found in any of China’s remote locales. The contrast goes much further, though. Although many Chinese cities—even quite modest ones—have populations that rival the greatest cities in Europe or North America, the “power” configuration can be found—economically, politically, and even “artistically”—in a handful of cities across China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Chengdu. This contrast between urban and rural life is not at all new, and has had echoes back at least to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The Chinese government today sees the relationship as particularly important for social order, and that is one of the reasons why it remains in almost every “news cycle” in China, even with a press careful not to create controversy.
Cities and Countryside in Chinese History
[c] Fort RF
Chinese cities are hardly "new." Even from the earliest written records, we can see evidence of administrative centers with tens to hundreds of thousands of citizens. Modern-day Xi'an (ancient Chang’an) is just one such city with a truly long-lasting heritage of over two thousand years. China’s largest cities are older than all but a few others in world history. These administrative centers got their first competition from rapidly rising market centers all over the territory, and some of these grew quickly, with a bustling commerce and population growth that brought them several million residents and outsized influence both within and beyond China.

All the while, the countryside continued to matter a great deal, and for far more important reasons than the resources shipped to the cities. Family wealth almost always had to be grounded in large estates in the countryside, because it was rarely possible to sustain economic influence over the generations without some kind of landed wealth to provide a foundation for other economic activity. Even today, the ties of wealthy urban families to the countryside remain significant.

Although just as many stereotypes and even prejudices surround the “country bumpkin” in urban Chinese lore (this has been another constant for at least a thousand years), corporations draw upon the wealth and labor of the countryside to make their own place in China’s growing economy. For at least thirty years, labor has been flowing to the cities from the countryside, and often in far more organized kinship network patterns than outsiders have realized.

Rural China Today
[d] Frosty-rural RF
Deng Xiaoping is known for his statement in the early 1980s, "To grow rich is glorious." The subsidization of private farming the decade that followed did, indeed, allow a significant cross-section of rural China to do very well. Houses, small-scale industry (often importing to North America and Europe), and other changes have altered the rural landscape in China in the last three decades.

The Chinese landscape is truly vast, and most of it is rural. Much of it is so distant from even moderately sized cities as to call into serious question the image much of the world has of China after seeing Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. Rural news events find their way into international press coverage at times, but—short of disasters and the occasional recognition of the farm economy—the vast majority of Chinese territory (almost all of it rural) is ignored by both the international and Chinese press.

Despite the close ties between city and countryside, it should be noted that urban dwellers in China often have a much harsher judgment of rural compatriots than is even found in the West, where such comparisons are hardly unknown. A young Chinese anthropologist from Beijing tells the story of his decision to study a poor, rural village in Shaanxi province. Although he describes a number of challenges that lay before him as an urban dweller in a rural area of his home country, nothing compares to the disdain heaped upon him by his fellow students in Beijing, who might have understood going across an ocean to study a different society, but could not fathom stooping to study the “ignorance” of rural China. This harsh, urban view—which is at least as old as China’s largest cities—needs to be understood as part of the complex ties between the vastness of rural China and the splendored sophistication of urban China.

Urban China Today
[e] Skyline RF
The anthropologist's story works the other way, too. Where did critics think they came from? Clearly, only a generation or two (or less) is sufficient to give a person an identity as an urban dweller, and this can be seen both in China and the West. One need only read any nineteenth century French novel to see almost precisely the same dynamic at work. That urban dwellers do not usually recognize the close ties they have on many levels, both in terms of family and economy, should not surprise readers. It is one of the widest gulfs in social and economic life today all over the world.

There can be no doubt that urban China today—particularly from Beijing to Tianjin and then down the eastern seaboard—has outsized power when it comes to governmental, economic, and even “cultural” power. A few cities in the interior play a large role in Chinese life, but there is an “eastern” focus that any American might recognize in her own country. Beijing and Shanghai dominate all other cities, with Hong Kong (“newly-arrived” in 1997) not far behind. Shenzhen, known exclusively for its entrepreneurial (and government protected) status, is an outlier that has continued to show influence. The more than thirty provincial capitals, always important for their governmental role, have also grown to prominence as economic centers in the last thirty years.

***  ***
It is often noted that the food is in the countryside, while the wealth, power, and status is in the cities. This is not mistaken, but it is only part of the equation. Rural China is both reviled and relied upon, the object of urban jokes and citywide need for resources. Urban centers are often seen as a mecca for rural laborers looking for work, even though travelers often give up security in terms of housing, schooling, medical care, and other matters. The most important thing to understand is that these worlds are not distinct, and certainly far from being either/or propositions, even for the hardiest farmer or most effete urbanite. They need each other, and this theme dominates all others in the understanding of modern China.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children
[f] Palatial RF

No comments:

Post a Comment