I first came to Fujian as a Duke graduate student looking for a case study on which to base my sociology dissertation. Although I had grown up in Taiwan, where the closest I had gotten to China was peering 2 kilometers through binoculars everyday while stationed in Jinmen (Quemoy) during mandatory military service, I had an intuitive feeling that China's economic reforms were not only deceiving but also non-uniform. Sure these reforms have been touted the world over as a shift away from a command economy and towards free market capitalism, and the literature about the transition and its consequences swamp libraries, but it all struck me as disjointed, if not illusionary. If policies were uniform, why would peasant workers in Tianjin be striking while former peasants in Fujian were opening clothing manufacturing businesses in their living rooms? If the party was the protector of the people then why were lineage families in the southern coastal provinces responsible for village affairs, including infrastructure projects, while party secretaries in Shanghai got rich off large chemical factories? Indeed, was it even possible to talk about the reforms and their outcome - or even China for that matter - as a plenary constant?
My idea was to pick two diverse regions - Fujian and Jiangsu - and perform in-depth case studies, charting the past twenty years of development of these two areas since economic reforms. Such a study would, presumably, show how each region moved out from the umbrella of uniform state regulations at the end of the 1970s, to grow in drastically disparate ways over the next twenty years due to endemic factors.
While in Fujian on summer vacation in 1995 I happened upon a recently published lineage history of Hancun village, a coastal village about 120 kilometers north of Xiamen. It was meticulously compiled, charting the village and its inhabitants from its birth in the Ming Dynasty up until the present. I got in touch with the copy editor who agreed to introduce me to Lin Shuiqiang, the chief editor and initiator of the project and also the village elder. The editor said he would meet me at the Shishi bus station, just 3 kilometers southwest of Hancun, and take me to meet Lin.
I woke late on the said morning, and the muggy Fujian heat had