Social Change and Continuity in a Village in Northern Anhui, China: A Response to Revolution and Reform

By Min, Han; Bossen, Laurel | Anthropologica, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Social Change and Continuity in a Village in Northern Anhui, China: A Response to Revolution and Reform


Min, Han, Bossen, Laurel, Anthropologica


Han Min, Social Change and Continuity in a Village in Northern Anhui, China: A Response to Revolution and Reform. Senri Ethnological Studies 58, Suita, Osaka, Japan: National Museum of Ethnology, 2001.

Packed with interesting and useful information, Han Min's ethnography of a north Chinese village is one of the most comprehensive and data-rich anthropological studies published in the post-Mao period. Examining different periods before and after the 1949 revolution, it describes the many forces affecting village life in China's northern Anhui Province, an area where little ethnographic work has been done. Its detailed social history of the patrilineage is an outstanding illustration of the importance of kinship to understanding political and economic dynamics in rural society.

Han's research site was Lijialou, a single-lineage village, or "natural village," where nearly all the families share the surname, "Li." Located close to the borders of Henan and Jiangsu Provinces, and near a major east-west railway built by the French in 1914, this region is part of the north central plain, the heartland of Chinese civilization, and the site of many military campaigns. It is also the site of Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck's famous novel, The Good Earth (2004 [1931]).

This is one of the first English-language ethnographies of rural China written by a woman from the People's Republic of China. Han was not trained in the West, but was exposed to Western anthropology in Japan. (She wrote her PhD at the University of Tokyo, under the supervision of Funabiki Takeo, and also worked with Jerry Eades). This background contributes to a unique perspective drawing on different Asian and Western academic traditions as well as insider access to Chinese political culture. As an outsider to the village (she grew up in northeast China), she developed unusually good relations with the villagers by pursuing their shared interest in lineage genealogy. Her fieldwork was conducted from 1989 to 1991, supplemented by follow-up visits.

The central focus of Han's book is her detailed description and analysis of a Chinese lineage. She traces its long history, and its survival through the political transformations of the last half century, and the significance of its current revival. This was formerly a lineage of gentry landlords that produced many scholars and officials. Scholarship, not farming, was the fountain of their success in past centuries. Comparing this Anhui village to other lineage studies, Han reinterprets the various forms lineages have taken in different regions and contexts within China. The lineage revival and reunification she witnessed in the reform period shows how lineage ideas still provide a powerful template for social organization in rural Chinese culture. The lineage is a familiar social tool and source of identity employed by villagers as they adapt to the social and economic conditions of reform China.

Understanding lineage dynamics is inherently complex but Han has made it easier through a variety of helpful aids. The book includes a detailed fold-out genealogy that looks intimidating at first, but is actually very easy to follow and helps keep track of individuals described in the text using a simple code. There are also useful maps and diagrams of housing compounds, tables, and an appendix with a detailed cast of characters (full of anecdotes about each one) listed according to their location in the lineage and in the village, as well as significant individuals from outside the village. The photographs include a good selection of images of villagers at work, and at ritual and ceremonial events. The most powerful image illustrating lineage unity is that of a hundred solemn men on their knees, facing forward, at a ceremony for their lineage ancestor. Han succeeds in demonstrating the central role of the lineage in this particular village and in showing how lineage relationships were affected by the politics of the collective and reform periods. …

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