Towards a Chinese Sociology for “Communist Civilisation”
In Peking, a group of sociologists at Tsinghua University are proposing a new course of research

Sociology, having been banned from China’s universities and research
centres for nearly thirty years, was rehabilitated at the start of the 1980s by
the central government, which called on sociologists to join the campaign to modernise
the country (1). Under the guidance of Marxist-Leninist
theory, the task ahead was to “rebuild-restore” (chongjian huifu)
a “Chinese” and “socialist” sociology (2).
The equation for the sociologists to resolve was generally: how to combine Marxist
theory with Western sociological theories and methods in the Chinese context?
The development of the discipline over the subsequent two decades was marked by
a gradual relaxation of ideological control. But the question, how to use knowledge
acquired in the West to study Chinese society, still remained, the replies often
varying between universalist and culturalist poles (3).
The aim of this article is to provide for that question a reply that is innovative
in its theoretical and methodological aims. “The sociology of practice”
(shijian shehuixue) was developed by a group of researchers in the Department
of Sociology at Tsinghua University; it set the discipline in China a new subject
for research—the study of “communist civilisation” (gongchan
zhuyi wenming
) and its changes—and proposed an adapted theoretical and
methodological framework. How did this “formula for research” (4)
emerge? Why did this change of emphasis, from “socialist” sociology
to the sociology of communism and its transformations take place? And how is it
reflected in practice? These are questions that we shall try to answer. But, beyond
such purely academic issues, arises the question of the sociologists’ commitment
and the social purpose of their scientific production—what is this new sociology
for? And who is it for?

The “enigma” of the Chinese countryside

In May 2000, the first edition of Qinghua shehuixue pinglun (Tsinghua Sociological
) (5), the review of Tsinghua’s
brand new Sociology Department, devoted a special report to the question of relations
between the state and society in the Chinese countryside of today (6).
The report, the fruit of several years of empirical research, opened with a theoretical
discussion paper: what tools did sociology provide for assessing the relationship
between the state and the peasants in present-day China? This study, carried out
by Sun Liping, one of the founders of Tsinghua’s Sociology Department, opened
with an enquiry into the control exerted by the political authorities over the
Chinese countryside. The disappearance of the People’s Communes and the
redistribution of the collective means of production to peasants’ homes
from the 1970s onwards suggested a weakening of the local power structures in
the countryside. For some, this “retreat of the state” was to lead
to genuine autonomy in the countryside. Sun Liping, however, pointed out, this
was only one aspect of the matter. This view of a retreat by the authorities could
be opposed with another view—that the application of the state’s will
had been maintained. The collection of grain and of various forms of taxation,
the imposition of birth control, and the basic functions of local representatives
of the state were, despite difficulties, mainly fulfilled. How was this paradox
to be explained? The sensation of having come up against a theoretical enigma
led sociologists to question the traditional frameworks for observation and analysis,
and to seek a new approach that would go beyond the existing dichotomous and static
view of the state and society.

To observe as closely as possible the concrete forms of relationship between
the peasants and the state, the research strategy that was developed and called
“process-event analysis” consisted in starting off with “events”,
envisaged as “dynamic processes” (7).
Thus, Sun Liping and Guo Yuhua looked into the collection of cereal quotas sold
to the state (dinggouliang). In a period of transition, what resources
would officials at district and village levels mobilise in order to collect the
amount of grain required from the peasants? Ma Mingjie studied the intervention
of a Party secretary in the economy of a district in the northeast of China and
illustrated the mobilisation techniques that the official used to “force
the peasants to become rich”. Ying Xing and Jin Jun retraced the collective
action of shangfang (appealing to higher levels in the administrative hierarchy
to resolve an injustice) that had been pursued for over ten years by peasants
moved off their land by the building of a hydroelectric power station.

In these three case studies, the emphasis was on the description and the detailed
reconstruction of events. The researchers based themselves on a qualitative methodology,
close to anthropology, using participant observation (8)
and in-depth interviews; they sought, before any analysis, to “relive”
these events, to take account of the interactions between the various participants.
The attention paid to such interactions helped to throw a new light on power relationships.

Sun Liping and Guo Yuhua thus described how, in the course of grain collection,
local officials combined “force and good words” (ruan ying jian
that is to say, using the state’s formal methods backed by informal
resources to achieve their purposes. Ying Xing and Jin Jun showed that society
might also, in certain conditions, mobilise formal resources, such as the shangfang
procedure. Ma Mingjie, analysing the process of reactivating the basic structures
of power, drew attention to the fact that political power exerted locally did
not flow automatically from the existence of organisational structures.

By stressing the necessity for meticulously observing the effective practices
of the central authorities and by showing the complexity of relations between
the state and society in present-day China, the writers proclaimed their willingness
to distance themselves from the two paradigms that at this time dominated research
on China. The first, known as “the theory of state centralism” (guojia
zhongxin lun)
(9), favoured the analysis
of the structures of domination and the apparatus of the state and the Party,
and stressed a total control, exerted from the top down, by the political authorities
over society. In reaction to this totalitarian paradigm a different view was developed
from the 1980s onwards: a view favouring the study of society and popular culture,
and emphasising the predominance of phenomena of social resistance; it led, in
its most radical form, to the image of a traditional peasant society that was
scarcely touched by the central power or the state structures. As Sun Liping pointed
out, this “indigenous” view (bentuxing) had a significant echo
in the China of the 1990s; Chinese anthropologists of this period threw themselves
into the “seeking the temple movement” (xun miao yundong) (10).
Confronted by these two paradigms, the studies presented in this report and the
results reached by the writers appeared as real and key cases, which were to challenge
the categories and the frameworks of sociological thinking.

In the first two cases, it was the analytical opposition between a strong state
holding a monopoly of official resources and a weak society with only informal
resources available to it that came under empirical attack. In the same way the
third case invited us to switch our scrutiny to the effective functioning of structures.

Even though, confronted by these two paradigms, the method proposed in this
special report was presented primarily as a “research strategy”, as
a means of access to another level of reality and not as a new paradigm, it was
nevertheless based on a different view of the central power. It is in the daily
life of the Chinese peasants that sociologists must look for manifestations of
domination and must uncover the secret mechanisms of power. This position, strongly
influenced by the work of Pierre Bourdieu, focuses attention, not on static structures,
but on practices and interactions envisaged in a dynamic way. The emergence of
this position must be seen as an attempt to grasp the economic and social transformations
that China has been experiencing over this period of time. Sociologists, confronted
by a particular context of transition towards a market economy, but with the political
structures unaltered, place at the heart of their enquiry the reconstruction of
relationships between the state and society. But in order to fully understand
the enormity of these changes, their enquiry into present-day power relationships
must inevitably include a historical study of the dominance exerted by the central
political power since 1949. One attempt to answer such questions was made by the
project to discover the oral history of the countryside.

A rival to official history, the oral history project

At the beginning of the 1990s, Sun Liping and his students at the Sociology
Department at Peking University launched an oral history project. For those taking
part there were twin objectives. One was to gather oral sources on the social
changes that had overtaken the Chinese countryside in the second half of the twentieth
century; the second was, by describing and analysing social life in the countryside,
“to discover and interpret the cause of these changes” (11).
Why, when the country is entirely preoccupied with the future and with economic
modernisation, did they embark on such a project? The project arose from an awareness
of a lack of “popular sources” on the daily life of the peasants and
how it had changed over the past fifty years.

As Sun Liping explains: “When we began describing social processes, we
realised that we didn’t have access to any sources to assess these experiences.
So, at the time, we saw the oral history method as a means of gathering such sources.
To give an example: the system that apportions individual responsibility for the
land means that the fields are shared among individual people. In the libraries,
there must surely be more than a thousand studies on this subject. But if you
want to know precisely how the share-out took place in a village, or what exactly
was shared, or which conflicts broke out during the sharing process, you can’t
find any replies to such questions in the books. Some of them deal with the situation
in a village, but don’t describe the practical process of sharing out the
land. In these circumstances, we decided we would turn to oral history as a way
of collecting non-official sources within society, so as to understand them and
to preserve them” (12).

Taking a new approach to an official history, a history of the Party or of
the Revolution (13), the sociologists decided
to use in-depth interviews with peasants and village officials who had personally
lived through these transformations, to harvest a different, more “authentic”
history and to “plug the gap” that exists in this field (14).
It was an ambitious plan, both in the length of the historical period being covered,
half a century, and the need to understand these transformations across the whole
of the Chinese territory. Six villages—one each from the north east, the
north, the north west, the south east, the south and the centre south of China—were
chosen as case studies and the project was divided into six historical periods:
the agrarian reforms, the co-operative movement, the people’s communes and
the Great Leap Forward, the movement for socialist education, the Cultural Revolution
and, lastly, the policy of reform and openness (15).

Here we should point out the originality of this enterprise and of the writers’
field of investigation: at a time when sociology in China was mainly committed
to research into modernisation and its effects, and when the main approach was
that of social engineering, the oral history project opened up a new field for
research, namely, the revolution. By taking the path of oral memory, the task
was to discover the direction of the Maoist Revolution and its impact on Chinese

Fang Huirong, in her memoir (16), looked
at the exercise of communist power during the period of agrarian reforms. Focusing
her attention on the movement for “pouring out grievances” (suku),
her central argument was that the penetration of communist power into the countryside
had not taken place from the starting point only of economic measures (the redistribution
of land to the peasants) but also of the peasants’ relationship with the
past and with other people.

Without going into Fang’s dissertation in detail (17),
we will highlight two essential points, beginning with the attention she drew
to the link between social investigation and the central power in communist China.
Carrying out the agrarian reforms meant dividing the peasants among the various
social classes (18) established by the Party.
How was this division to be effected? Going back over the survey carried out by
the work teams (gongzuo zu) sent on several different occasions to the
village that she was studying, Fang showed that these relationships were part
of a power relationship: the investigators responsible for determining to which
class the individual members of the new society belonged were to practise a new
form of investigation, founded on suspicion and the search for proof, and one
that would be widely used during successive political campaigns. Fang laid stress
on the contradictions between the investigators’ demands and the peasants’
memories; but on extending her argument we are led to question the practices of
the sociologists. In a China where social survey rhymes with authority, how can
the investigators avoid being seen as representing those in power? How can they
escape from this peculiar relationship, that between the investigators and the
investigated? In the selection of terrain and in the method of enquiry these methodological
precautions will be the object of specific attention.

The heart of Fang’s study concerns another aspect of the role of the
research teams in the village, that of mobilising the peasants to “pour
out grievances”. By dint of an exhaustive study of the narrative method
adopted by the peasants, she showed how the collective denunciation of suffering
imposed a new meaning on the past and contributed to building up an opposition
between the “old society” and the “new society” in the
representations of the peasants. “More powerful than ideological training”
(19), this denunciation of suffering gives
us the first key to understanding how communist power penetrated the regions.

In another article (20), Sun Liping and
Guo Yuhua extended the study of the denunciation of suffering and showed how those
in power were stealing that former practice for their own use, using it to shape
the category of social classes and also to create the idea of the state as an
embodiment of the “people” (renmin) or of the “masses”
(qunzhong) in peasants’ minds. The writers pointed out that the relationship
built was far removed from one built historically in the West: it was not as a
citizen (gongmin) that the individual was linked to the state but as a
member of a social class composing the people.

Using the example of the agrarian reforms, the writers of the oral history
project illuminated the influence of communist power over Chinese society. This
influence was exerted not only through economic measures or by recourse to force
and propaganda but also in a more “subtle” and “secret”
way through the production of a real habitus, imparting a new vision of
the world and new principles of division. These discoveries led sociologists to
redefine not only their practices but also the subjects for their research: “It
was at this time that we were really confronted by ‘communist civilisation'”,
Sun Liping and Guo Yuhua declared (21).

The oral history project was an important step in the intellectual development
of the researchers; it marked too the start of a collective research undertaking.
It was during this period that Sun Liping invited Guo Yuhua and Shen Yuan (who
were at that time researchers at the Academy of Social Sciences) to join the project
and take part in the discussions. The founding of the sociology department at
Tsinghua was a further step in the careers of these researchers, encouraging them
to blend their differing forms of intuition into a properly constructed theoretical
framework. But before outlining these new orientations we must first describe
the founding of the department and the project for which it was founded.

The role of the sociologist

The Sociology Department at Tsinghua University was officially founded in May
2000, after several months of preparation (22).
The department is a small one, composed of a dozen researchers; it was born, in
part, out of the university’s wish to develop a social sciences faculty.
But for the researchers who took part in the foundation of this new institution,
the challenge was to create a new academic environment. Shen Yuan, now Deputy
Director of the department, recalls: “We wanted to create an academic environment
that was alive, an academic environment capable of facing up to the complexity
and the richness of social life. … We were hoping to have the capacity to tackle
the real problems of Chinese society, but at the same time we wanted to be able
to establish a constructive dialogue with contemporary social theory. At the time,
we had the impression that this ideal could not be realised in the other departments;
and that we would be obliged to found a new department … in which we could pursue
research projects in common, in which we could debate and exchange our ideas ”

Why did Shen stress the necessity to “tackle the real problems of Chinese
society” while maintaining “a constructive dialogue with contemporary
social theory”? And why would he seek to combine the two? Sun Liping offers
the first answer in going back over the recent history of sociology in China:
“The 1980s was essentially a decade of ‘indigenisation’ (bentuhua)
. . . we didn’t know what the common aim of research in this discipline
was; we had no idea what stage of development it had reached; what concerned us
more were the problems of Chinese society. If Chinese sociologists didn’t
resolve them, we wouldn’t be able to enter the twenty-first century! What’s
more, research was taking a very official direction … socialism, and then came
the twenty-first century. But in the 1990s, the situation of Chinese sociology
started to make progress and, more fundamentally, there was a change of identity
… Originally, Chinese intellectuals said, “I must take charge of this
society.” Well, the change of identity is like this: I now have knowledge
available to me; I recognise the existence of a community of knowledge, of which
I am one element ” (24).

Thus, in the 1980s and 1990s, sociologists in China were going through a process
of specialisation and professionalisation. The 1990s in particular witnessed a
new generation of researchers stepping into the spotlight; they had been trained
specifically in sociology, whether abroad or in mainland China. For them, sociology
was more than just a “tool” for resolving the problems of Chinese
society; it was a scientific discipline with its own agenda, its own standards.
Thus, it became an objective in itself to develop this discipline in China, within
the framework of an international scientific environment. This phenomenon was
also accompanied by the gradual relaxation of ideological supervision. This change
is particularly noticeable in the vocabulary used by sociologists: Marxist phraseology
is used far less in sociological writing; also, in the choice of subjects, the
prescriptive style that marked the research of the 1980s gave way to a technical
or neutral viewpoint (25).

Yet, the transition from traditional intellectual to expert was not achieved
without raising questions about where sociological research was heading. Sun Liping
and Guo Yuhua dwell on the dangers of this specialisation, Sun summing them up
thus: “In the course of this process [of specialisation], another tendency
could be observed, namely, a diminishing awareness of the real problems of Chinese
society or, more fundamentally, a complete loss of it. Researchers carry out studies
in China; then they take a small part of this material, the least important part,
and use it to seek an international dialogue.” To which Guo adds, “The
other tendency is ‘to stir Western concepts into all the sauces’,
by [systematically] incorporating fashionable concepts into their research (26)“.

Criticism of the role played by the “scientist” has developed,
in reality, on several levels. Firstly, critics point to the risk of a drift towards
formalism, towards legitimising common sense opinions by dressing them up as abstract
scientific concepts (27). Also questioned
are the import of concepts produced in the West and their use to describe a Chinese
context. “We have this problem today with Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu”,
Sun explains. “They created concepts and theories that corresponded to certain
problems in their time, to a certain context. If we merely pick up their concepts,
it is quite useless (28).” The problem
of using sociological theories in the appropriate context arises all the more
seriously when research is carried out into political issues or in response to
a demand by the public authorities. That is the case, for example, with the research
into the urban communities that have multiplied over recent years in China, financed
mainly by the public authorities following the policy of building communities
(shequ jianshe). As Shen Yuan points out during a reading seminar (29),
“Research on communities comes directly from the United States: we have
been influenced by it. However, the notion of ‘community’ as it’s
used today in China has nothing to do with the communities observed by sociologists
in the United States”.

Such reflections show that it is the link between science and ideology, between
sociology and power that is being questioned. It is to this spirit of reflectiveness
that Guo Yuhua appeals during a class on rural sociology (30).
Reminding students of the need to combine theoretical thinking with attention
to the problems of Chinese society, she insists on the particular “vocation”
of the researcher who must constantly adopt a reflective attitude towards power
relationships: “Why should we think about the resistance of the peasants?
The most widespread argument within the government, among researchers or city-dwellers,
is the need for social stability?a view that considers the peasants in terms of
their numbers. By adopting this argument, we adopt the viewpoint of the dominant
class. We ought to be on the side of the peasants”. But taking the viewpoint
of those being dominated must not lead us to becoming their “spokesmen”
(dai yan ren) because, as Guo Yuhua explains to her students, to set oneself
up as a spokesman is to develop a “paternalistic relationship” with
the peasants and to move into politics.

One can see in this advice given to student-researchers in the department a
particular sensitivity to the sociologist’s mission and the unremitting
care to avoid power relationships. In practice, how can one realise this ideal?
Aside from methodological precautions, the problem raised by Sun Liping, Guo Yuhua
and Shen Yuan lies squarely with constructing the subject for research. Through
this questioning, they are initiating an overall reformulation of the issues and
aims of Chinese sociology.

“Communist civilisation”: a new subject
for research

Extending their earlier thinking, Sun Liping, Guo Hua and Shen Yuan are developing
within the Tsinghua Sociology Department a line of research directed towards “social
transitions” (shehui zhuanxing). Behind this general title, the real
aim is to open up a re-evaluation of the changes to communist systems, in particular
of “market transition” (shichang zhuanxing) in China and the
social changes accompanying it. How did the market appear to people in China at
the end of the 1970s? What are the relations between the state and the market?
While questioning of the appearance and the development of the market is not new
and has already been the subject of their research (31),
the new department will be a favourable setting for carrying out an in-depth assessment.
A special course has been opened that is to enable the student-researchers to
peruse the whole range of literature on this question (32).
This would include the classical literature on socialism, especially from the
economic and social point of view, with writers such as Polanyi, Mannheim and
Schumpeter; and also the material on the transition stages of communist regimes
in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (33),
as well as articles on the Chinese experience (34).
This course is designed, on the basis of this course of reading, to pursue an
investigation into the nature of the communist system and its changes, and above
all to examine what is specific to the Chinese case.

In several articles (35), Sun Liping makes
a comparison between Eastern Europe’s market transition, analysed by the
Budapest School, and the process China is going through. His thinking is structured
on two levels: an empirical level looking at the characterisation of these different
transitions and a theoretical level that, starting from the empirical difference
observed, looks at the analytical tools specific to each process. Sun advances
several elements. Firstly, he points out that the particular attention directed
by the Budapest School to structural changes and the question of the elite, as
with its use of large-scale surveys, accords with the form the transition has
taken in these countries. Indeed, the transition was preceded by the collapse
of the political system and its dominant ideology. That in turn opened up the
possibility of an economic change led by the state, within a legal framework,
with a very strong intervention by the new economic and intellectual elite. Yet,
Sun remarks, in China this process is going forward in the context of a stable
political regime; thus the economic changes will take place according to two strategies:
bringing the reform measures into the official ideology (take, for example, the
formula of the “socialist market economy”) or, secondly, the “non-debate”.
This special feature will in its turn have repercussions on how social life unfolds:
as Sun Liping sums up, “It all comes down to ‘doing things without
saying anything’, or to ‘adapting to circumstances'” (36).

This special character of the Chinese case requires us to find new tools for
analysing it. That is what Sun Liping is proposing by developing the concept of
the “sociology of practice”, which he defines thus: “Invoking
a sociology that faces up to practice is not the same thing as stressing the practical
nature of sociology in itself as a scientific discipline; nor is it the same as
pointing out the possible use of sociological knowledge in everyday life. Invoking
a sociology that faces up to practice means to confront social events in their
practical forms, that is to say, taking practical situations as a research subject
for sociology. So what is practice? What are the practical forms of social events?
Speaking generally, practical situations are the concrete functioning processes
of social factors ” (37).

Here may be found the insights that had been developed in the special report
of the first edition of the Tsinghua review, devoted to relations between the
state and the peasants, in particular the attention paid to the practical forms
of events. Yet, in the course of thinking about the transition to the market,
an important change took place: the transition from the concept of “process-event
analysis” to that of “sociology of practice”. No longer is the
aim merely to propose a “method” or a “research strategy”,
or again a “style”; rather, it is to create a new sociological approach,
or a new “research formula”, presented as an organised whole and offering
a new model for the analysis of social phenomena and an adapted methodology (38).
The heart of this approach lies in the clear definition of a new subject for research
(yanjiu duixiang): the “functioning logic of communist civilisation”
(gongchan zhuyi wenming de yunzuo luoji).

But how should we understand the concept of “civilisation”? While
the term has the advantage of being relatively “neutral” from a political
point of view, it refers also to the idea of a “total social fact”,
which includes at the same time the political, economic, social and cultural dimensions.
Shen Yuan offers us a first definition of it (39):
“Chinese society also belongs to communist civilisation. Communist civilisation
is a complex community: it includes a whole range of institutional arrangements
(zhidu anpai), but also a number of ways in which individuals can act.
It also includes all sorts of ideologies. All of that comes together in everyday
life. We shall observe the formation of a “manuscript” (wenben),
but also the norms for action that are present in people’s minds. We say
that all these things together form a complex totality that is communist civilisation.
Its formation, its development, its changes, we define all these as the subject
for research for Chinese sociology”.

We can see in this first explanation that the term defines a complex totality
that includes “institutions”, that is to say, ways of organising social
life and the sharing of resources, whether from an economic, political or social
point of view (We may think, for example, of the planned economic system and of
the particular form that it imposes on the distribution of economic resources,
or of the danwei system with its particular forms of organising work and
social life, or again of criteria for social classification, and so on). But the
term also encompasses individuals’ logic for action, as well as a whole
range of beliefs and views of the world. We must also point to the emphasis laid
on changes to this communist civilisation. Shen Yuan specifies that how it emerged,
developed and changed must all be studied. So the research programme extends over
a long historical period, which includes the period of the reforms.

Initiated by the oral history project and the investigation into relations
between the state and society, the research formula proposed by Sun Liping, Guo
Yuhua and Shen Yuan has shifted the questions about the link between sociological
knowledge produced in the West and Chinese society. It is not the opposition between
Western knowledge and Chinese culture that is advanced but rather the gap between
the sociological knowledge arrived at out of an enquiry into capitalism and the
communist experience into which Chinese society has been plunged.

Shen Yuan (40) says that defining this
subject for research enables them to overcome the problems of Chinese sociology
by offering a general framework for analysis: “It’s an important step
forward. We shouldn’t imagine that all Chinese sociologists know what they
are studying. When they begin, they don’t have a total concept. They say,
‘I’m studying the family’, or ‘I’m studying the
factory’—but they don’t know that the family or the factory
are systems produced by communist civilisation. They will go and carry out surveys
and conduct interviews while having no awareness of that. … Their main problem
is that they can’t see the wood for the trees … But the family or the
factory that are studied, if you don’t first make them part of an enquiry
into communist civilisation, well, you’re making a serious mistake … The
biggest mistake made in Chinese sociology is that it hasn’t defined the
subject for research. When we mention communist civilisation, [that means that]
we can study it from different angles. This can help us to explain how to use
Western theory to confront the problems of China. Otherwise, the problem is insoluble”.

While the “great masters of sociology”, as Sun Liping recalls,
Marx, Durkheim and Weber, despite their different approaches, were enquiring into
the same subject, capitalism, the problem facing today’s sociologists in
China is that of communism and the society that characterises it. From this point
of view, the enquiry described here is not presented as a “new sociology”
but rather as a return to the great questions with which classical sociology was
concerned (41).

And this thinking is for Sun a field of research in its own right, within which
would be included studies about China and also more generally about all the societies
that have experienced or are experiencing communism: “We may begin from
very different places, from culture, history, social networks, relations between
the state and society, communities, xiagang (laid-off workers from state
enterprises), from social security or from migrants: perhaps what everyone does
will be different, but what is very clear for us is that the research must be
integrated into a field of knowledge about communism and its changes” (42).

This new field of knowledge may even represent, as Shen Yuan wishes, a “new
source of inspiration” for sociology and, more generally, for the social
sciences (43): “This source of inspiration
has been blocked for a long period, partly because of the Cold War… But now
the situation is different; we can study it more calmly; these different experiences
can contribute towards producing concepts that the social sciences will be able
to use in a universal way”.

For these academics, what is at issue is not strictly scientific. A generation
that has lived through the full rigour of the Maoist era and the period of the
reforms can now, starting from this sociological rethink, go back over its experiences
and understand them. Shen again: “While our thoughts have gradually been
developing, the whole of the history and culture of this nation-state has gone
through a great transformation [the policy of openness and reforms]. We have lived
through the earlier period [the Maoist period]; we have also lived through the
later period. People older than us have above all lived through the earlier phase,
which is why, with regard to the process of change in the later phase, their attitude
is primarily one of complaint: they do not understand it. Members of the generation
following us, when they understand things, will have had contact above all with
the later phase. For them, the earlier phase will already be a far-distant period
of history. It isn’t necessary to understand it. From primary school, where
we first started to understand, until 15 to 16 years old, when impressions of
the world were formed, we knew only the communist system. Later, starting at 17
to 18 years old, we witnessed the process of change, a change so profound that
history has known nothing like it. We are the generation that lived through this
change” (44).

The appeal, “We must rapidly catch up”, that Deng Xiaoping threw
out to the sociologists in 1979 seems over these past twenty years to have been
answered (by taking a different route, obviously, from that which Deng envisaged).
Chinese sociology has not only won the confidence of the authorities but has also
endowed the international scene with innovative and high-quality pieces of work.
Of the latter, the direction proposed by Sun Liping, Guo Yuhua and Shen Yuan is
probably one of the most original and accomplished at the theoretical and methodological
levels. By basing their research on “communist civilisation” and its
changes they are opening a new path for Chinese sociology. Not only are they transforming
the initial project for a socialist sociology, as desired by the central power,
into a sociology of communism, but they are also helping to renew the debate on
the connections between sociological theories produced in the West and those produced
in the Chinese context. No longer do we have two cultures in opposition but, with
this connection, we note two distinct historical trajectories, one marked by capitalism,
the other by communism. The emphasis placed on qualitative studies, on meticulous
observation of the events and practices of daily life while maintaining an advanced
theoretical approach, contrasts also with the present-day tendency for Chinese
research to pursue quantitative studies. But while this looks like pioneering
work within this youthful Chinese discipline, the question of how it will be received
is still to be answered. Now that the country is entirely (or almost) facing towards
the future and towards modernisation, now that the “experts” have
the wind in their sails, what place remains for a reflective school of sociology
that scrutinises the past while seeking to understand the present? •

Shen Yuan

Born in 1954, Shen Yuan’s first academic field was philosophy (a Master’s
degree at Renmin Daxue (People’s University) in 1986). From 1989 to 1999,
he was a researcher at the Sociology Institute of the Academy of Social Sciences
where he took the successive posts of Director of the Bureau of Scientific Research
(1989-1997), head of the editorial office and Deputy Editor of the review Shehuixue
yanjiu (Sociological Research) (1997-1999). In 1998, he was awarded his doctorate,
for a thesis entitled “Commentary on research into the market by the new
economic sociology”. At present Deputy Director of the Sociology Department
of Tsinghua University, his fields of research are economic sociology and the
sociology of work organisations.

Among the research projects that Shen has taken part in, we should mention
the research programme on social justice, in collaboration with the Centre National
de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), as well as a research project on rural markets
in north China. Pursuing his thinking on the special features of the industrialisation
process in north China (production based on home workshops in rural areas), his
present work is devoted to the nongmingong in north China and the special character
of their participation in the world of work (migration from one rural area to
another, finding work in peasant homes). Strongly influenced by Alain Touraine
and his method of sociological intervention, the programme is aimed in particular
at intervening in work relations between peasant-producers and peasant-workers,
the right of body, the right to work, and the right to take part in public affairs).

Three of Shen’s articles have been published in French: “L’affaire
du tirage au sort. Principes de justice et d’équité des commerçants
d’un marché du Nord de la Chine” (The draw affair: principles
of justice and equity among traders in a market in North China) in Isabelle Thireau
and Wang Hansheng (eds.), Disputes au village chinois. Formes du juste et recompositions
locales des espaces normatifs, Paris, Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme,
2001, pp. 205-247: “Naissance d’un marché” (Birth of
a market) in Etudes rurales, “Le retour du marchand dans la Chine rurale”,
Nos. 161-162, January-June 2002, pp. 19-36; “Histoire de marques”
(On brand names and trade marks), with Liu Shiding, ibid, pp. 67-76

Guo Yuhua

Born in 1956, Guo Yuhua specialised in the study of folklore and traditional
customs at Peking Normal University. She was awarded a doctorate in 1990, after
completing a study of popular funeral rites in China. She then joined the Institute
of Sociology of the Academy of Social Sciences. In September 2000, Guo visited
the United States for a post-doctoral year at Harvard University’s Anthropology
Department, before taking up an earlier appointment as professor in the Sociology
Department at Tsinghua University. She has taken part in numerous research programmes
in China (“Changes in the social and cultural life of the peasants in Yangjiagou
in north China”, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; research on the “third
sector” [associative sector] in China, China Youth Development Foundation)
or in collaboration with institutions abroad (research on social justice, Centre
National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS); the project, “Food culture
and social changes”, Harvard University). Among her ongoing projects, we
should mention a research programme on the functioning of the social security
system for laid-off employees of state enterprises, a sociological intervention
project carried out with Shen Yuan on workers’ rights, as well as a study
on the impact of globalisation and local reaction to it, based on the case of
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in China.

Among Guo’s most recent publications, we should cite the following: editorship
of the book Rites and Social Changes (Zhongguo shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe,
2000); “The movement for denouncing suffering: an intermediate production
mechanism for the notion of the state among the peasants” (with Sun Liping,
Zhongguo xueshu, No.4, 2002); “The collectivization of mentality: women’s
memories about agricultural cooperation at Jicun village in northern Shaanxi province”
(Social Sciences in China, n°4, 2003); and also an article published in French:
“D’une forme de réciprocité à l’autre.
Une analyse de la prise en charge des personnes âgées dans les villages
du Hebei” (“From one form of reciprocity to the other. An analysis
of the undertaking to accept responsibility for old people in the villages of
Hebei”) in Isabelle Thireau and Wang Hansheng (eds.), Disputes au village
chinois. Formes du juste et recompositions locales des espaces normatifs, Paris,
Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2001, pp.39-78.

Sun Liping

Born in 1955, Sun Liping is one of the first students to have been trained
in sociology in China since it was revived as a discipline in 1981 at Nankai University
in Tianjin). From 1982 onwards, he taught in the Sociology Department at Peking
University; then, in January 2001, became a professor in the Department of Sociology
at Tsinghua University. During the 1980s, his research mainly focused on the question
of the modernisation of society (The Modernisation of Society, Huaxia chubanshe,
1988). From the 1990s onwards, Sun devoted himself to reflection on the changes
within China’s social structures and the emergence of new social groups.
His analysis of the polarisation of contemporary Chinese society, and in particular
the concept of “social fracture” (shehui duanlie), had a significant
impact in China that went beyond the purely academic (see particularly his two
articles: “Tendencies and potential crisis in the short and medium term
of China’s social structures transition”, with Li Qiang and Shen Yuan,
Zhanlüe yu guanli, No. 5, 1998; and “New tendencies in the development
of China’s social structures since the mid-1990s”, Department of Sociology,
Tsinghua University, 2002).

Turning his attention today towards the sociology of transition, Sun, in addition
to other work, is directing three research projects. The first is a programme
of oral history on the social changes that have taken place in the Chinese countryside
since the mid-twentieth century; the second is an analysis of the relations between
the state and the peasants in the contemporary Chinese countryside; and the third
is a research programme focused upon the transition from the work unit system
to the construction of the community, a programme aimed at analysing the process
whereby a “total” society (zongtixing shehui) becomes a “post-total”
society (hou zongtixing shehui).

Sun Liping’s main theoretical output includes: “‘Process-event
analysis’ and the relationship in practice between the state and the farmers
in contemporary China” (Qinghua shehuixue pinglun,

No.1, 2000); “Sociology directed towards practices” (Jianghai
, March 2002); and “The sociology of practice and the analysis
of the practical process of market transition” (Zhongguo shehui kexue,
No. 5, 2002). Several articles have also been published in French: “Les
armes faibles des forts
. L’usage des normes sociales informelles
dans l’exercice du pouvoir
” (The weak weapons of the strong. The
use of informal social norms in the exercise of power), in Isabelle Thireau and
Wang Hansheng (ed.), Disputes au village chinois. Formes du juste et recompositions
locales des espaces normatifs
, Paris, Editions de la Maison des sciences de
l’homme, 2001, pp. 249-286, and “Forcer le peuple à s’enrichir!
(Forcing the people to become rich!), with Ma Mingjie, in Etudes rurales,
Le retour du marchand dans la Chine rurale“, Nos. 161-162,
January-June 2002, pp.165-182.

Translated from the French original by
Philip Liddell

Back to top