Etudes rurales, « Le retour du marchand dans la Chine rurale »

After Disputes au village chinois (1)
(Disputes in the Chinese Village), Isabelle Thireau has renewed her collaboration
with Chinese specialists in the social sciences in the framework of this special
edition of the journal Etudes rurales. This time the object is one which has been
“largely ignored by current studies”: the recomposition of mercantile
spaces and exchange in rural China at the end of the Maoist era. The stakes in
this research are double. It is a question of observing and analysing the rapid
transformations which the Chinese countryside has experienced on the economic
level for two decades. But its interest lies also in contributing to the development
of economic sociology, from the “living laboratory” constituted by China.

The first part of this edition, Baigou : une étude
de cas (Baigou, a case study), devoted to the study of a specialised market in
northern China, makes clear immediately the theoretical and methodological approach
which guides the authors: the return of the merchant in rural China can only be
understood based on the study of local configurations. The market in Baigou, which
has been the field of research for a team of Chinese sociologists for almost ten
years (2), offers several “mysteries”
which cannot be elucidated by the classical economic theories. How to explain,
indeed, the emergence and economic success of this market in an isolated rural
area (Shen Yuan)? Why has this economic effectiveness rested for more than a decade
on the local production of a multitude of domestic workshops (Liu Shiding)? How
to explain the interest of the local authorities in the development of the markets
(Wang Hansheng)? If the emergence of brands is not determined by property and
competition, what logic does it follow (Shen Yuan and Liu Shiding)? The originality
of this first section is also that it submits the “case of Baigou” to
the inspection of a specialist in French economic history, Jean-Yves Grenier,
thus making it possible to establish parallels with the historical development
of markets in France, and to extricate the specificities of the Chinese case.

In order to place these case studies in perspective, the second
part, entitled Nouveaux Héritages (New Legacies) widens the geographic
area. He Bochuan analyses the growth of various markets in villages on the Pearl
River; she presents other forms of trade and other political contexts, while questioning
the appearance of new social practices. Isabelle Thireau and Hua Linshan look
at roadside businesses and the new forms of sociability which develop there. Ma
Mingjie and Sun Liping analyse how the cadres of a canton forced the peasants
to undertake the cultivation of a certain kind of melon. Yunxiang Yan ponders
the strategies and new behaviour with regard to the birth rate in a village in
Heilongjiang. The perspective is also historical, whether the relatively recent—R
Bin Wong’s analysis of commercial forms and practices in rural China from
the ei€hteenth century up to the reformsÑor the more distant past:
Christian Lamouroux’s recounting of the relations between trade and bureaucracy
in Song dynasty China.

Lastly, References, the third part, provides a more reflective
point of view and sheds a different light on the research presented here. Reprinting
the founding text by William Skinner which presents the model of the macro-regions,
and then retracing, as Christian Lamouroux does, the peregrinations of this model,
is a calling into question of the paradigm (3)
which has dominated the economic history of China for almost thirty years.

This special edition is characterised by the plurality of
its investigations, approaches and objects, and the authors state that it is a
question of “opening up a field rather than of defining a common position
or offering general conclusions”. However, several theoretical and methodological
directions emerge from this work and deserve our attention.

First of all, by choosing the village as the scale of observation,
the authors make clear their refusal to apprehend the reorganisation of market
spaces and exchanges on the scale of the nation or of the macro-regions, and open
up the road to a local approach to economic dynamics. As in the example of Baigou,
it is not a question of isolating the village, but rather of taking it as the
point of reference for discovering how trade networks are set up and extended,
networks which can go beyond the regional or even the national framework.

The significance of this approach lies in rejecting any form
of determinism and in placing the initiatives of the social actors at the heart
of the analysis. These initiatives cannot be apprehended on the basis of the logic
of economic rationality alone. Using qualitative methodology, the various authors
shed light on the principles and norms invoked by the actors in order to justify
their activities, and show that the economy is never separate from the whole of
social activities and customs. It is because they are deemed acceptable in the
eyes of the actors and other members of society that these activities become possible.
Thus the development of the Chinese countryside over the last two decades cannot
be understood without taking into account the process of legitimisation of commercial

The emphasis placed on the analysis of the interactions between
the various actors who intervene in local economic configurations also contributes
to a renewal of the problematics of state intervention in the Chinese countryside.
The contrast presented by the case of Baigou and that of the canton of Yan (4)
shows that relations between the local administration and the social actors cannot
be defined a priori, but must be grasped in context and in a dynamic fashion.
The link between national policies and local interests is then apprehended through
an analysis of the local mechanisms for interpreting and reappropriating public
plans of action.

But the value of this research does not lie only in a better
understanding of the recent economic transformations which have affected the Chinese
countryside. The authors’ concern not to enclose the study of contemporary
Chinese rural economics in a culturalist framework, but on the contrary to compare
their observations with classical economic theories as well as with the models
of the new economic sociology, makes it possible to question the bases of these
models, to point out their limitations, and to bring to bear new information which
is likely to contribute to a redefinition of the debate—as well as new directions
for research—in economic sociology.

Translated from the French original by Michael Black

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