From Village to City: Social Transformation in a Chinese County Seat

From Village to City: Social Transformation in a Chinese County Seat

by Andrew B. Kipnis

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Between 1988 and 2013, the Chinese city of Zouping transformed from an impoverished town of 30,000 people to a bustling city of over 300,000, complete with factories, high rises, parks, shopping malls, and all the infrastructure of a wealthy East Asian city. FromVillage toCity paints a vivid portrait of the rapid changes in Zouping and its environs and in the lives of the once-rural people who live there.

Despite the benefits of modernization and an improved standard of living for many of its residents, Zouping is far from a utopia; its inhabitants face new challenges and problems such as alienation, class formation and exclusion, and pollution. As he explores the city’s transformation, Andrew B. Kipnis develops a new theory of urbanization in this compelling portrayal of an emerging metropolis and its people.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520289710
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/29/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Andrew B. Kipnis is Professor of Anthropology in the School of Culture, History and Language of the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University.

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From Village to City

Social Transformation in a Chinese County Seat

By Andrew B. Kipnis


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96427-3


Recombinant Urbanization

From 1988 to 2013 I regularly visited a place called Zouping in Shandong province, of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Zouping is the name of both an agricultural county and the urban area that is the county seat (map 1). Over these years, the county seat transformed from a relatively impoverished, sleepy town of thirty thousand people to a bustling city of more than three hundred thousand, complete with factories and high-rises, parks and bus routes, shopping malls and school campuses, and just about everything you might expect from a relatively wealthy mid-sized city in eastern China. In the process of its expansion, many rural villages were incorporated within the county seat's borders. In addition to the villagers incorporated into the city's territory as it expanded, many other former rural dwellers moved there from more distant villages. This book is about the urbanization of Zouping: the transformations of the place itself, the transformations of the lives of formerly rural but now urban people who live there, and the interrelations between these two types of transformation.

Urbanization is one of the key concerns of modernization theory, which typically differentiates the premodern "rural" from the modern "urban" in a series of black/white, either/or transformative contrasts. A shorthand version of this theory suggests that premodern, rural people ate what they grew, were enmeshed in the ecologies of their land, lived in face-to-face communities and extended families, raised their children at home, had parochial worldviews, arranged their children's marriages, and suffered from patriarchal oppression; in contrast, modern, urban people are said to work in factories, obtain their food in supermarkets, be enmeshed in the economic webs of the world market, not know their neighbors, live in nuclear families, find their own spouses, turn their children into national and global citizens by sending them to school, and suffer from various forms of alienation and anomie. In anthropology and other disciplines, this theory has been dismissed precisely because the contrasts it draws are too standardized and too stark. Rural people often produced for wider world markets, sent their children to school, and thought about world affairs. Urban people still find communities of belonging and think locally (Smith 1979), and patriarchal ideas about family life and marriage are not dead (Harrell and dos Santos forthcoming). Moreover, what the rural and the urban consist of has continually evolved, with the result that how the urban is contrasted with the rural has also changed, in different ways in different eras and places (Williams 1973).

While I agree with much of the standard critiques of modernization theory and certainly will not be championing a return to the sorts of teleological, hackneyed forms of modernization theory imposed by development agencies on third world countries, I have two related concerns about the manner in which subtler ideas of modernization have been dismissed. First, the dismissal has resulted in turning the topic of urban anthropology away from questions of the social transformations related to urbanization. In urban anthropology, new and interesting concerns such as urban citizenship, urban renewal, and urban social movements have replaced urbanization itself as disciplinary foci. These topics take an urban environment as a given and focus on struggles within it. While such issues are important, changing the topic does not result in forms of theorization that are better able to address the problem of conceptualizing urbanization and the related social transformations themselves. Second, while I devote much of this book to showing how transformations in patriarchy, in lifestyle, and in lived experience are never black and white, it is the case that urbanization in Zouping has involved shifts that resonate with the classic concerns of modernization theorists. In Zouping, people have increasingly moved from courtyard-style homes in villages to apartments in complexes of high-rise buildings; at the same time that they have moved into new dwellings, the number of years that children spend in school has drastically increased, and as the number of years spent in school has increased, the ability of people to speak the national dialect has improved; consequently, the ease with which they can travel to different parts of the country and even the world, in search of fortune or love, has grown. At the same time that the number of years of schooling has increased, a demographic transition has emerged, with the vast majority of households having only one or two children; as Zouping has urbanized it has also industrialized, and as it has industrialized it has become more wealthy, and as it has become more wealthy, people have begun to purchase all manner of modern consumer goods, including automobiles, motorcycles, mobile phones, and computers; these purchases have greatly facilitated "time-space compression," and the country and the world have become a smaller place (Harvey 1989); and last but not least, rather than grow what they eat, or even shop in local outdoor markets, Zouping residents now mainly obtain their food at supermarkets that are branches of provincial or national chains.

The dismissal of modernization theory has caused a wide variety of social theorists to ignore questions of social transformation in places that are simultaneously industrializing, urbanizing, and developing. Some see the rise of the industrial city as an eighteenth-century European phenomenon (Short 2012). Such a periodization elides entirely a place like contemporary Zouping where interlinked industrialization and urbanization have taken place outside of Europe during the twenty-first century.

Jennifer Robinson (2006) surveys the entire field of urban studies and concludes that two major types of research dominate. The first examines "global cities" (e.g., New York, Tokyo, and London) as sites of power, innovation, and cosmopolitanism. The second focuses on "third world cities" as sites of social problems, poverty, and developmental failure. Robinson usefully points out that the "global cities" also suffer social problems and that "third world cities" are also sites of innovative living and urban policy. She concludes that all cities should be viewed as "ordinary," as sites of both suffering and innovation. But where does the global city/third world city dichotomy leave a place like Zouping? On the one hand, as "ordinary" as almost any place could be, Zouping could never count as a global city. On the other hand, despite the fact that, like New York and London, Zouping is not exempt from poverty (later chapters introduce the very real problems confronting many of Zouping's inhabitants), neither is it a site of extreme deprivation or decline. For the period of my research, it was a site of rapidly expanding wealth, development in the classic sense of the term, and increasing (but rarely satisfied) aspirations. Robinson's work suggests that lack of attention to places like Zouping is widespread across urban studies.

In anthropology, modernity is often dismissed as myth, mirage, or ideology. James Ferguson's (1999) exploration of urban life in the Zambian Copperbelt is one of the most influential works to do so. When Ferguson did his research, the Zambian Copperbelt had suffered through twenty years of severe economic decline. For Ferguson, this decline laid bare the faults of modernization theory. He takes the central myth of life in the Copperbelt as that of "modernity" itself and explains that the term myth has a double sense: "a false or factually inaccurate version of things that has come to be widely believed ... [and] the anthropological use of the term, which focuses on the story's social function: a myth in this sense is not just a mistaken account but a cosmological blueprint that lays down fundamental categories and meanings" (Ferguson 1999: 13).

Ferguson (1999: 42–43) furthers his dismissal of modernization theory by invoking Stephen Jay Gould's well-known critique of viewing evolution as a "tree" that progresses through distinct stages. The "tree of evolution" begins with bacteria, proceeds through insects, fish, reptiles, and mammals, and ends with "Man." Such an image masks the fact that the bacteria, insects, fish, reptiles, and mammals are still with us. Rather than see evolution as a tree with a "main line," we should envision it, Gould argues, as a bush with many branches in which change is not linear and in which many forms of life might be imagined to coexist. Ferguson applies this argument to his discussion of forms of social life in the Copperbelt. He demonstrates that both before and during the period of economic decline multiple forms kinship practice, multiple styles of inhabiting the world, and multiple strategies of migration to and from rural areas existed. He calls the coexistence of these multiple forms the "full house." This book likewise shows how a full house of patterns of family life, migration strategy, and even styles of inhabiting the world coexisted in Zouping over a period of marked economic change. However, though I can agree with Gould and Ferguson on the faults of treelike depictions of evolutionary or social change, I am not entirely satisfied with the metaphor of a bush either. As bushes grow, the intertwining of their branches becomes ever more complex, but they never undergo anything like a transformation. There may be subtle changes in the size and shape of the individual branches, but there is no sense of the intertwined nature of the changes. And herein lies the gist of the matter. While Ferguson admits that there have been changes in the types of social strategies available in the Copperbelt and the frequency of their appearance (79), he grants little attention to these changes, does not explore the interrelations among changes in various arenas of social life, and refuses to name any before or after state that would discursively highlight the interrelation among the changes. To speak of social transformation is more than just admitting that change exists. It requires a sense of the interrelatedness of a wide variety of changes, even if, as Ferguson, Robinson, and others would emphasize, we must never imagine that transformations occur in exactly the same way or at the same rate in different places.

Another problem with Ferguson's book from the perspective of Zouping is his focus on decline. Certainly it would be easy to declare that Ferguson examined a place experiencing economic decline while I examine a place that underwent rapid economic growth and that different places in different times can experience different economic fortunes. But as in the case of Robinson and the entire literature that Robinson critiques, I believe that Ferguson's preference for exploring and generalizing from cases of decline over those of growth reveals theoretical biases. He concludes his book by pointing out that decline occurs not just in Zambia, but in all of Africa, in Russia, in Indonesia, and in Korea. He states, "Decline, though often hellish to live through, is 'good to think'— at least for those who would critically interrogate the certainties of modernist metanarratives" (Ferguson 1999: 257). I would counter that for those who want to envision how social transformation can be imagined without resorting to a treelike metaphor, places undergoing rapid economic change are equally "good to think."

Finally, there is the manner in which Ferguson dismisses theories of modernity as myth. Imagine the uproar that would occur if I were to dismiss "theories of decline" as myth in the double sense of being both simply false and a cosmological generator of the discursive imagination of the world. I could point out that ideas about decline and failure, about the imminent collapse of the local or national economy for this or that reason, circulate among academics studying China, media pundits discussing China, political leaders in China (Patricia Thornton [2009] depicts how talk of crisis is manipulated by the Chinese political elite), and people conversing in the streets (later chapters discuss street rumor in Zouping) almost with as much regularity as narratives of the historical inevitability of China's rise and coming world dominance. I could also point out that simultaneous industrialization, urbanization, and economic growth has occurred in many places other than Zouping. If the fact that Zambia has experienced serious economic decline makes theories of modernization simply false, why does not the fact that Zouping has experienced rapid economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization make "theories of decline" simply false?

I will not go so far as to assert that "theories of decline" are simply false. But neither will I accept that theories of modernity are simply false. As in Zambia, in Zouping modernization can be a myth in the anthropological sense of the term. It can also be an ideology used by elites to cynically dismiss the concerns and interests of the less powerful in the pursuit of personal profit. It can also be a discourse that informs the plans of governing officials in their honest attempts to make Zouping a more prosperous place. But various theories of modernity, as espoused by social scientists, also, to greater and lesser degrees, illuminate aspects of the social transformations Zouping has undergone. As critiques of modernization theory have led to its outright dismissal and then a lack of interest in examining places that actually are "developing," it strikes me that a treelike imagination of the evolution of social theory has led to a disregard of the full house of social processes unfolding in today's world. The ambition of this book is to contribute to theorizations of social transformation by critically drawing on certain aspects of theories of modernity. Which theories, exactly, do I refer to here?


Consider three perspectives on the question, What is modernity? The classic answer sees modernity as the period after the all-encompassing historical break in which agricultural societies become industrial societies. Postbreak societies are marked by industrialization, urbanization, capitalism, the rise of the nation-state, new governmentalities, bureaucracies and biopower, national systems of education, a concomitant increase in the number of years children spend in school, and a demographic transition. Exactly which aspects of this break are considered to be most important shift with the theorist examined and even the particular book of a given theorist. Wage labor and capitalism (Marx and Engels 1886), the division of labor and nation building (Durkheim 1956, 1960, 1973, 1979, 1992), industrialization and bureaucratization (Weber 1978), and discipline and punishment (Foucault 1979) are all important enough. As Arjun Appadurai (1996) suggests, theories of modernity as historical rupture or "break" implicitly pose the "traditional" as the antithesis of the "modern": societies or countries or places that have not yet industrialized or urbanized or established an education system take the label "traditional." This label becomes an epithet in the mouths of government officials in charge of "modernizing" their countries. Appadurai's solution to the dilemma of posing a modern historical rupture without disparaging the nonmodern as traditional is to redefine modernity in terms of recently globalized media imaginaries. The planetary reach of new technologies of communication and the worldwide dispersal of imaginary "scapes" suggest that no place on earth can still be called traditional.

Appadurai's book was one of a series of works (e.g., Bauman 2000; Beck, Giddens, and Lash 1994; Beck and Grande 2010; Castells 1998) that attempted to redefine modernity in terms of a new, second wave — that is, post-nineteenth-century European industrialization — break or rupture. Despite also theorizing the modern in terms of a historical rupture, these redefinitions contributed to the demise of classic modernization theory. As the moments and causes of rupture multiplied in the imaginations of social theorists, the general importance granted to classic modernization declined. But more important, the continued positing of ever newer historical ruptures to fit the present moment raised the question of whether any single historical rupture was important enough to define an unchanging line between "tradition" and "modernity." Newly posited forms of modernity proliferated to include reflexive modernity, liquid modernity, socialist modernity, and so on.

Scholars who use the term alternative modernities likewise shook the view of modernity as a single break. While admitting that the entire world took something from "Western modernity" (at the very least this would include the now-universal governing form of the nation-state), they also argue that regardless of what was taken, the modernity of a particular non-Western place is not simply Western because it depends upon the social (national) context in which that modernity is received. This perspective gives a slightly different twist to the discussions of theorists like Appadurai, Bauman, and Beck. While the "second wave" theorists suggest that social transformations continue to occur after the urbanization and industrialization of the nineteenth and early twentieth century (in Europe), theorists of alternative modernities imply that the history of what happens or happened before industrialization and urbanization also matters. The history before forms the national social context that differentiates various modernities. In positing a singular rupture, classic theories of modernity erase both what happened before and what happens after the rupture of modernity. Taken together, theorists of second wave and alternative modernities thus provide an important corrective to classic theory. However, taken to an extreme, these theories imply that all transformations are equally important and that the concomitant rise of industrialization, urbanization, biopower, large state bureaucracies, national education systems, and demographic transition is no more important than any other moment in history. Thus this second perspective on modernity is one that effectively deconstructs the entire category.


Excerpted from From Village to City by Andrew B. Kipnis. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations and Tables,
1 • Recombinant Urbanization,
2 • Recombinant Planning,
3 • Recombinant Production,
4 • Recombinant Consumption,
5 • Recombinant Phantasmagoria,
6 • Between Farm and Factory: Migrant Workers from Nearby,
7 • Distant Homes or a New Life: Migrant Workers from Afar,
8 • Villagers-in-the-City: Time for Community,
9 • The Middle Classes in a Manufacturing Center,
10 • Youth between Factories and Services,
11 • Recombination Reconsidered,

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