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Fei Xiaotong provides insights into Chinese society

Author  :  ZHAO XUDONG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-07-29


FILE PHOTO: Fei Xiaotong (1910–2005) was one of the foremost Chinese sociologists and anthropologists, noted for his studies of China’s rural society and ethnic groups. His works on these subjects, such as Peasant Life in China and From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society, laid a foundation for the sociological and anthropological studies in China.

As a renowned Chinese sociologist, anthropologist, social activist, and scholar on ethnic studies, Fei Xiaotong (1910–2005), or Fei Hsiao-Tung, had deep love for his family and his nation. This love was inseparably intertwined not only with his era, but also with the changes in modern China’s position in the world.

Plurality and unity

Fei said that he was born two years before the founding of the Republic of China (1912–1949). Educated during the era of China’s transition from traditional society to modernity, Fei was schooled in the Western scientific curriculum. After graduate work at Tsinghua University, Fei went to the London School of Economics and Political Science at public expense and studied under the pioneer anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. Based on studies of rural industrialization in his hometown, Kaixiangong Village in Jiangsu Province, Fei published his book Peasant Life in China (1939). This book is regarded as a classic and is still counted as a landmark in the development of anthropological fieldwork.

In 1988, based on his lifelong thoughts and observations on the relationship between many ethnic groups in China’s urban and rural areas, Fei put forward a new theory known as “Plurality and Unity in the Configuration of the Chinese Nationality.” This theory is still an important and unshakable cornerstone of the theoretical construction in the study of Chinese ethnic issues. It plays a guiding role in solving many ethnic problems. Even over 30 years after his article “Plurality and Unity in the Configuration of the Chinese Nationality” was published, this theory still represents a starting point for much of the research on ethnic issues in China.

‘The kinship society’

Fei said that there were two aspects of research in his life. One was the rural study he engaged in at the beginning of his career, and the other was what he called ethnic study. The former made him realize China’s unique social relationships, or chaxu geju [a concept that Chinese social relations work through social networks of personal relations with the self at the center and decreasing closeness as one moves out]. The latter allowed him to consider from a global perspective China’s blueprint of being a holistic national entity formed by the simultaneous existence of a multitude of ethnic groups, which develop and flourish together, while retaining their differences.

Fei started with China’s rural research and conducted field research on the ground. He focused on studying small and medium-sized cities along the Beijing-Kowloon Railway and corresponding rural development issues. In his later years, he tried to expand his research from “rural” to “urban areas”—he studied Shanghai as China’s financial and economic center, and its indispensable hinterland. Today, Fei’s concept of the mutually beneficial development between the center and its hinterland gradually proves to be accurate.

Fei started with the analysis of structure and function of kinship systems, which is the core of anthropological research. His attention to the forms of interpersonal relations eventually led him to the domain of China’s xiangtu shehui [a new anthropological concept introduced by Fei, which refers to a society mainly characterized by person-centered networks based on a multiplicity of individual distinctions of status and distance], where family and kinship play an important, irreplaceable role in social relations. Fei used the rock-in-the-pond analogy to explain chaxu geju, in which social relationships are often open-ended. The rock-in-the-pond analogy suggests that on throwing a stone in a pond, ripples are created. The ones that are close to the center are larger than those further from the point of impact. These ripples represent social relationships where every individual is at the center of his or her own network. As these ripples remain elastic, the strength of each bond and therefore its obligations are variable. The closest relationships, such as those within the immediate family, are expected to be much closer and important than the other relations down the line.

In the 1980s, Fei began to study the township and village enterprises (TVEs) that flourished due to China’s reform and opening up. While many others still didn’t know the value of the TVEs, Fei had been keenly aware of China’s upcoming new wave of rural industrialization. In other words, rural families were supporting the development of rural industry and commerce. Fei noted that a former structural model of rural society, known as “agricultural and industrial productions complement each other” [farmers whose income from agricultural production is inadequate to feed the family, have to gain more income from industrial production] once again played a unique constructive role. When studying the development of small cities and towns, Fei noted one strategy for them was to serve as “population reservoirs” for surplus rural labor. He also paid attention to a corresponding mode of agricultural labor transfer of “leaving the land but not the hometown” [i.e., encouraging farmers to shift out of agricultural production to employment in the TVEs].

Today, how to support and take care of the aged has become an increasingly prominent and unavoidable issue in China. Fei’s research on this issue started with the concept of “family.” He noticed China’s distinctive family-based pattern of supporting the elderly. Fei proposed a feedback model for these intergenerational relationships, in which parents take care of their young children, and get supported in their old age by grown-up children. Therefore, the Chinese pattern of supporting the aged is still rooted in family, which is difficult to change.

Unity in diversity

Ethnic studies, as the second pillar of Fei’s academic work, gave him a clearer view of China as a whole. In other words, the study of ethnic groups after 1950 made him notice the existence and future development of China as a holistic national entity in a more macro perspective. It was related to his original research on Mount Great Yao in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. When first studying the social life of the Yao [one of the 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities in China], which was an unfamiliar culture to him, Fei noticed the diversity of several sub-groups within the Yao ethnic group. In time, he realized that this diversity could form a unified consciousness of Yao identity through a process of mutual adaptation and mutually beneficial cooperation among the Yao’s sub-groups. Similarly, larger populations can emerge as a holistic nation through unity in diversity.

As mentioned above, in the 1980s, Fei proposed “Plurality and Unity in the Configuration of the Chinese Nationality” based on his previous ethnic studies. Such a magnificent framework of ethnic relations was first posited, and then continuously improved upon, on the basis of his initial survey of Yao society.

According to a fundamental theme in Confucian moral philosophy, self-cultivation is the starting point of an outward-moving system of morality. The next step is managing family affairs, followed by governing the state. The final step is moving to provide peace and sound governance to all under heaven. This gradually expanding process, which begins with the individual and emanates outward into serving and benefiting an ever-larger whole, coincides with Fei’s chaxu geju with the self or family at the center and decreasing closeness as one moves out.

‘All the beauties co-exist’

Near the end of his career, aided by academic exchanges with Western anthropologists and his own field work, Fei realized that the world was changing, and a significant global cultural transformation was taking place. He stressed that sociology needed “supplementary instruction,” and read Robert Ezra Park’s works again to explore the essence of the Chicago School of Sociology and its possible application in China.

Fei developed a unique Confucian concern for the world, today known as the awareness of “a community of shared future for mankind.” Such concern grew stronger as Fei got older and was connected with the concept of “All the beauties of different cultures co-exist” [Achieving harmonious co-existence among different civilizations] that he repeatedly emphasized in his later years.

Late in life, Fei spent most of his time on seeking a key to achieving a world order in which peace is highly valued. He tried to bridge the gap between China and the West, the gulf between different social groups within a state, and the divide between himself and others.

As a big fan of football games, Fei noticed the logic of international competitions—all the football teams, no matter if they win or lose, obey the same rules. In his view, it may represent an ideal situation when different civilizations and cultures come into contact and wish to communicate with each other.


Zhao Xudong is a research fellow from the Center for Studies of Sociological Theory & Method at Renmin University of China.

Editor: Yu Hui

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Fei Xiaotong provides insights into Chinese society

Fei Xiaotong (1910–2005) was one of the foremost Chinese sociologists and anthropologists, noted for his studies of ...

>> View All