China & Inner Asia: Table of Contents
Organizer: Lynda S. Bell, University of California, Riverside
Chair: Maurice Meisner, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Discussants: Maurice Meisner, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Thomas C. Patterson, Temple University
Going beyond standard development theory, this panel posits a new starting point for studying the history of Chinas rural economy. Each of the three paper-givers has a new book on the early-twentieth-century Chinese countryside, or on contemporary ideas about the countryside, that will appear in the next year (all with Stanford University Press). Arising from those studies, we have concluded that linear, totalizing stories of development and underdevelopment need to be superseded by new-style narratives that analyze class, gender, and state-society relations, as well as the broader contexts in which they arisematerial and cultural, global and local. The purpose of the panel is not simply to recapitulate themes raised in the books, but rather, through their juxtaposition, to bring new collective thinking to bear on peasantries under the impact of imperialism and domestic industrialization, thus inviting discussion about the potential for new theoretical standpoints. Said another way, the purpose of the panel is not merely to add new empirical evidence to our understanding of the Chinese economy. We also want to encourage self critical movement beyond the assumptions of development theory and reinvigorate the long-dormant yet vitally-important political economy subfield in Chinese historical studies. We will also discuss our China-focused papers comparatively, to delineate similarities and differences with economic change in other third world locales. In this way, our panel will contribute to the bigger project of retheorizing twentieth-century global capitalism.
Lynda S. Bell, University of California, Riverside
A decade ago, a furious debate on the Chinese rural economy raged, defined by the polarized positions of Philip Huang and Thomas Rawski. The debate centered on whether or not peasant lives were improving in the early twentieth century via increasing per capita incomes. After several rounds of cross-fire, in which many historians and economists participated, the debate seemed simply to "wither away" with no final resolution. On reconsideration, what rendered the debate sterile was insufficient concern with issues of class and gender hierarchies, and state/society relations. Because little analysis in these areas was forthcoming, competing, de-personalized stories of "development" or "underdevelopment" resulted.
Local studies grounded in political economy and gender analysis can reopen the debate from a different standpoint. New problem areas include processes of class formation arising within global and local capitalisms; peasant womens work linked to industrialization; and struggles between state and society over development policy. Analysis of newly-available peasant household data from Wuxi county in the 1920s, an era of rapid silk industry growth, demonstrates the proposed shift. Based on patterns of income stratification seen from within these data, an argument emerges about class-and-gender-specific aspects of a destabilized "small-peasant economy," the presumed backbone of the Chinese countryside, with movement toward a new "worker-peasant economy." Recent and forthcoming research suggests that similar processes were occurring elsewhere in China during the same time frame; and that these trends have strong parallels with shifts in peasant economies throughout the rest of the third world over the course of the twentieth century.
Kathy Walker, Temple University
Emphasizing semicolonialism as structural context, this paper opens a pivotal silent area in the historiography of modern China. Colonial studies have shown that by establishing organic relations between capitalism and domestic peasant economies, imperialism reproduced cheap peasant-based labor for its own profit. In China, where the directive power of a colonial state was absent, imperialism had to depend on alliances with Chinese elites, thus becoming a crucible fostering multiple hegemonies.
In the northern Yangzi delta, a variety of competing rural and urban "capitalisms" became the chief expression of semicolonialism. These many "capitalisms" stood at the center of a cluster of interpenetrating changes through which the majority of rural families became more unstable economically and, in effect, were repeasantized as peasant-workers. Despite the brief flowering of modern industry, the ultimate economic trajectory became the intensification of a petty commoditized productive mode based on the reproduction and over-exploitation of subproletarianized rural labor. As a specific modernity, the northern deltas many "capitalisms" simultaneously benefited local elites and would-be wielders of power, and organically linked imperialism and the peasant economy.
The contours and contingencies of this mode of economy and control must also be understood in light of older patterns and outcomes of agrarian class conflict in the delta; changes in gender relations affecting social replication and the organization of work; and social struggles in which the economic mode was imbedded. Struggles emanating from poor subproletarian families expressed an alternative developmental line that not only contested semicolonial process but, in the last analysis, conditioned and destabilized it.
Catherine Lynch, Eastern Connecticut State University
During the 1930s in China, amidst increased economic research in the countryside, journals such as Zhongguo jingji (Chinas economy) and Zhongguo nongcun (Chinas villages) carried a debate over the nature of Chinese economy and society. The participants were largely influenced by Marxism, and all sides were opposed to imperialism. However, imbedded in the terms of the debate itself were assumptions regarding the nature of modernity, and these assumptions were those carried by the capitalist imperialism which the debaters opposed.
This image of modernity remains dominant and implies dichotomies of modern and traditional, West and East, universal and local, objective and subjective. Whether debating the agencies of change in China, Chinas relation to the capitalist West, the interaction of city and countryside, the role of technology, or the nature of class structures and political organization, those on opposing sides of the debate recreated a shared set of assumptions about the nature of progress and development.
Yet there was another strain in the debate, best exemplified by Liang Shuming, which focused on the countryside instead of the city, and on society instead of the state, as the locus of constructive change, and conceived of a non-capitalist industrialization. In so doing this approach challenged not only imperialism but also the terms of the debate itself. Rather than appropriate the image of modernity earned by imperialism, this strain revisited its basic assumptions. In the process, it generated fresh visions of modernity, visions which still offer an alternative to the dominant image of what it is to be modern.