From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society

From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society

by Xiaotong Fei

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This classic text by Fei Xiaotong, China's finest social scientist, was first published in 1947 and is Fei's chief theoretical statement about the distinctive characteristics of Chinese society. Written in Chinese from a Chinese point of view for a Chinese audience, From the Soil describes the contrasting organizational principles of Chinese and Western


This classic text by Fei Xiaotong, China's finest social scientist, was first published in 1947 and is Fei's chief theoretical statement about the distinctive characteristics of Chinese society. Written in Chinese from a Chinese point of view for a Chinese audience, From the Soil describes the contrasting organizational principles of Chinese and Western societies, thereby conveying the essential features of both. Fei shows how these unique features reflect and are reflected in the moral and ethical characters of people in these societies. This profound, challenging book is both succinct and accessible. In its first complete English-language edition, it is likely to have a wide impact on Western social theorists.

Gary G. Hamilton and Wang Zheng's translation captures Fei's jargonless, straightforward style of writing. Their introduction describes Fei's education and career as a sociologist, the fate of his writings on and off the Mainland, and the sociological significance of his analysis. The translators' epilogue highlights the social reforms for China that Fei drew from his analysis and advocated in a companion text written in the same period.

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From The Soil

The Foundations of Chinese Society

By Fei Xiaotong, Xiangtu Zhongguo


Copyright © 1992 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91248-9


Special Characteristics of Rural Society

Chinese society is fundamentally rural. I say that it is fundamentally rural because its foundation is rural. Several variations have arisen from this foundation, but even so, these variations retain their rural character. Moreover, in the past hundred years, a very special society has formed as a consequence of the encounter between East and West. For the time being, however, I am not going to discuss the characteristics of these variations, but instead will concentrate exclusively on rural society and on those so-called hayseeds, the people living in the countryside. They are truly the foundation of Chinese society.

We often say that country people are figuratively as well as literally "soiled" (fuqi). Although this label may seem disrespectful, the character meaning "soil" (tu) is appropriately used here. Country people cannot do without the soil because their very livelihood is based upon it. In the earliest times, there may have been some groups of people in the Far East who did not know how to farm; but for us now, how those primitives lived is merely a matter of curiosity. Today, most people in East Asia make a living by working in the fields. To be more specific, even from early times, the tributaries of China's three large rivers were already entirely agricultural. Historically, wherever people from those agricultural regions migrated, they took with them their tradition of making a living from the soil.

Recently, I met an American friend who had returned from a trip to Inner Mongolia. He told me he could not understand why the people who moved to those frontier prairies still tried to farm as if they lived in China's heartland. Mongolian grasslands are best suited only for pastureland, but he said that every family had carved up the land into small plots for farming. It was as if they had dived, headfirst, into the soil, as if they were unable to see any other way of using the land. I remember that one of my teachers, Dr. Shirokogoroff, once told me about some Chinese who had moved to Siberia. In total disregard of the climate, those Chinese still planted their seeds just to see if anything would grow. These accounts show that the Chinese are really inseparable from the soil. To be sure, out of this soil has grown a glorious history, but it is a history that was naturally limited by what could be taken from the soil. Now it appears that these very limitations imposed by agriculture will hold China back, will prevent the nation from moving forward.

Only those who make a living from the soil can understand the value of soil. City dwellers scorn country people for their closeness to the land; they treat them as if they were truly "soiled." But to country people, the soil is the root of their lives. In rural areas, the god represented in the most shrines is Tudi, the god of the earth. Tudi is the god closest to human nature; Tudi and his wife are an old white-haired couple who take care of all the business of the countryside and who have come to symbolize the earth itself. When I went abroad for the first time, my nanny slipped something wrapped in red paper into the bottom of my suitcase. Later, she told me in private that if I had trouble getting accustomed to my new home and if I were too homesick, I should make some soup from the stuff wrapped in the red paper. In the package was dirt that she had scraped from her stove. I remember seeing a similar custom in a movie called A Song to Remember, which took place in Poland, an Eastern European agricultural country. It made me realize even more what an important role the earth plays and should play in a civilization like ours.

Agriculture differs from both pastoralism and industry. Farmers are necessarily connected to the land, whereas herdsmen drift about, following the water and the grass, and are forever unsettled. Industrial workers may choose where they live, and they may move without difficulty; but farmers cannot move their land or the crops they grow. Always waiting for their crops to mature, those old farmers seem to have planted half their own bodies into the soil; it is this inability to move that causes farmers to appear so backward and sedentary.

Indeed, those who must depend on farming seem to be stuck in the soil. I once met a friend who had studied language in the Zhang Bei area of northern China. I asked him if the language there had been influenced by Mongolian. Shaking his head, he said that no influence at all could be seen, in language or in any other aspect. "For hundreds of years," he noted, "there have always been only a few surnames in the village. I reconstructed the genealogy of each family from the gravestones, and it is clear that only these few families have ever lived there. The entire population of the village seems rooted in the soil; generation after generation, not much appears to have changed." We could add some qualifications to his conclusion, but, generally speaking, this kind of attachment to the soil is one of the characteristics of rural society. It is normal for farmers to settle in one spot for generations; it would be abnormal for them to migrate. Of course, droughts, floods, or continuous wars may force some farmers to leave their homes. But even such big events as the war of resistance against Japan did not, I believe, produce high mobility among rural people.

I certainly do not mean to argue that the rural population of China is fixed. That is impossible, because the population increases so quickly. After only several generations of normal reproduction, the number of people on one piece of land reaches a saturation point. The surplus population has to leave; those people, all carrying their own hoes, go out to open up new lands. But the core groups seldom move. And those who do migrate, if they find the land to survive, like the seeds blown from the trees by the wind, create the same small, lineage-based villages that they left behind. Those who do not find land simply vanish, or perhaps go into business. While I was in Guangxi province, near the mountains where the Yao people live, I saw some migrant villages—seeds that had been blown from the old trees—where people had to struggle bitterly to create a home from new soil. In Yunnan province, I saw other small villages that had been in existence for only two or three generations. In the same places, I have also seen homeless vagrants who failed to find any land at all, and some dead bodies, half eaten by dogs, along the sides of the road.

This immobility, this enduring attachment to the soil, points to a relationship between people and space. Being fixed in space, people live in solitude and isolation. But the unit of isolation is not the individual but the group. For farming, it is not necessary for many people to live together. The division of labor required for agriculture is very simple. At most, there are a few distinctions between what men and women do; women typically transplant rice seedlings, whereas men usually hoe the soil. But this kind of cooperation is not designed to achieve greater efficiency; rather, it occurs because during the busy farming season there are just too many things for men to do by themselves, so their families come out to the fields to help them. Because farming has not developed a specialized division of labor, it is unnecessary for many people to live together in the same place. Therefore, when we see various sizes of rural communities, we may be sure that many of the larger ones were formed for reasons other than agriculture.

The smallest rural communities can be as small as one household. A husband, a wife, and some children, living together, fulfill the need for sex and procreation. In any kind of society, except for such special cases as armies and schools, the family is always the most basic social unit. In China's countryside, however, communities with only one family are seldom seen. There may be some such communities in terraced mountainous areas of Sichuan, but the majority of farmers live grouped together in villages. This pattern of residence greatly influences the nature of Chinese rural society. In rural areas of the United States, each family is geographically separated from its neighbors and constitutes its own individual collectivity. This pattern is the consequence of the early frontier period, when the land was vast and the people few. In those days, settlers held fast to a spirit of individual responsibility and self-reliance. In China, the same situation would be very rare. Generally speaking, Chinese farmers live grouped together in villages for the following reasons: (1) The piece of land that each family cultivates is invariably small. This is a petty agricultural economy; people live together in the same place so that they can be close to their fields. (2) Where irrigation is required, people must work together as a group, so living together is quite convenient. (3) Living together as a group also greatly contributes to everyone's security. (4) We practice partible inheritance of land, which gives an equal share of an estate to all male heirs. Therefore, because of this practice of dividing land among brothers, and thus attaching each of them to the same soil, over a period of several generations small communities grow into large villages.

No matter what the reasons, the basic unit of Chinese rural society is the village. Some villages may have only three households; others may have as many as several thousand households. When I mentioned that a characteristic of Chinese rural society is solitude and isolation, I was referring to the situation of villages, not individuals. The solitude and isolation are, of course, not absolute. But because villagers do not move around much, the communities themselves do not interact much. I think it is safe to say that life in rural society is very parochial. Villagers restrict the scope of their daily activities; they do not travel far; they seldom make contact with the outside world; they live solitary lives; they maintain their own isolated social circle. All of these characteristics contribute to the parochialism of rural China.

People in rural China know no other life than that dictated by their own parochialism. It is a society where people live from birth to death in the same place, and where people think that this is the normal way of life. Because everyone in a village lives like that, distinctive patterns of human relationships form. Every child grows up in everyone else's eyes, and in the child's eyes everyone and everything seem ordinary and habitual. This is a society without strangers, a society based totally on the familiar.

In sociology, we usually make a distinction between two basic types of societies. One type of society forms as a natural result of people growing up together, and has no other purpose than being simply an outgrowth of human interaction. The other type of society is that which has been organized explicitly to fulfill goals. In the words of the German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies, the first type is called Gemeinschaft and the second Gesellschaft. To the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, the first is an example of mechanical solidarity and the second an example of organic solidarity. Using our own terms, we would identify the first type of society as one based on ritual and customs (lisu) and the second as one based on law and reason (fali). Later on, I will carefully analyze the differences between these two societies, but for now I merely want to emphasize that the land itself constrains the lives of rural people. The people they see every day are the ones they have known since childhood, just as they know the people in their own families. They do not have to select the kind of society they would live in; they are born into it; choice is not a factor.

Familiarity is an intimate feeling that develops from frequent and repeated interaction occurring over a long period of time. The character used in the first sentence of Confucius's Analects expresses this process of interaction. The character is xi, which means "to practice." If we put this character together with xue, which means "to meet strange things for the first time," we obtain the idea "to learn" (xuexi). First we encounter, then we practice; and through this process, the unknown becomes the familiar. One obtains a real sense of satisfaction from becoming thoroughly intimate with one's environment. In a society characterized by this level of familiarity, we achieve a level of freedom whereby we can do whatever we please without fear of violating the norms of the society. This type of freedom is unlike those freedoms defined and protected by laws. The social norms in a familiar society rest not upon laws but, rather, upon rituals and customs that are defined through practice; hence, to follow these norms is to follow one's own heart and mind (xin). In other words, society and the individual become one.

"We all know each other very well (shuren). If you need my help, you have it. You don't have to ask twice." Expressions such as these expose the limitations of our modern society. Modern society is composed of strangers. We do not know each other's pasts. When we talk, we must explain things clearly. Even then, we fear that oral agreements are not binding; therefore, we draw up written contracts to which we sign our names. Laws arise in just this fashion. But there is no way for laws like this to develop in a rural society. "Isn't that what outsiders do?" rural people would say. In rural society, trust derives from familiarity. This kind of trust has very solid foundations, for it is rooted in customary norms. Even today, Western merchants often remark that trustworthiness is an innate quality of the Chinese. Many stories sound like fairy tales, such as the one told recently about a Westerner who received, after the war, a whole set of porcelain that his grandfather had ordered years earlier when he was in China. The goods were delivered without any charge and with the seller's profuse apologies for being unable to send them earlier. Trust in rural society is based not on the importance of contracts but, rather, on the dependability of people, people who are so enmeshed in customary norms that they cannot behave in any other way.

This sort of familiarity is a distinctive characteristic of being rural, of being a "hayseed," if you will. Only those who depend on the soil for their livelihood would root themselves in one place like a plant. Over time, people rooted in the same small place come to know everybody's life just as a mother knows her children. Strangers cannot understand what a baby says, but a mother not only clearly understands everything that her baby says, but she also understands what the baby wants even though the baby does not use words.

Rural people not only know each other intimately; they also get to know other aspects of rural life equally well. If an old farmer sees ants moving their anthill, he will quickly dig ditches in the fields, because he knows the meaning behind their move. Knowledge acquired from familiarity is specific and is not deduced from abstract general principles. People who grow up in a familiar environment do not need such principles. They only need to know the specific relationship between means and ends within the scope of their activities. They do not seek universal truths. When I read the Analects, I noticed that Confucius gave different definitions of filial piety (xiao) to different people. I realized then the special character of rural society. What is filial piety? Confucius did not give an abstract explanation, but gave different answers to different students by describing concrete behavioral examples. Finally, he concluded that filial piety is simply a peaceful mind. Sons and daughters should become thoroughly familiar with their parents' personalities in the course of daily contact, and then should try to please them in order to achieve peace of mind. The basic methods of human interaction in rural society rest on familiarity and on maintaining a peaceful mind.


Excerpted from From The Soil by Fei Xiaotong, Xiangtu Zhongguo. Copyright © 1992 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gary G. Hamilton is Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington. Wang Zheng is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Davis.

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