Xin Liu, In One’s Shadow. An Ethnographic Account of the Condition of Post-Reform in Rural China

Here is a book which provides much interesting information.
Nonetheless, it leaves the reader somewhat perplexed, given the discrepancy between
what the author announces as his aim and what he offers in terms of analysis.
The problems encountered by Xin Liu in answering the entirely relevant questions
he asks are exemplary of the problems encountered in some research, that is the
loose links established between theoretical developments and empirical data. As
such, they deserve to stimulate debate about the methodological and conceptual
approaches considered legitimate nowadays in the field of ethnographic research.

The village observed, Zhaojiahe, is situated not far from
Yan’an, in the province of Shaanxi. This is a region about which few village monographs
have been written, which makes the choice interesting. It is also a choice that
is unusual in geographical terms and in social terms: Zhaojiahe is among those
communities that are often passed by in studies of recent changes in rural areas,
and where there is a lingering nostalgia for the Maoist period. Indeed the inhabitants
here complain of being isolated and ignored nowadays. They also disapprove of
the growing inequalities among residents of the same locality, as well as of the
weakening of the control they feel they once exercised over local leaders.

However the author’s purpose is not a more detailed analysis
of the factors that might explain such disenchantment, nor is it a comparison
of the situation in Zhaojiahe with that in other localities. His study aims to
observe a process of modernisation or more precisely in the words of the preface:
“the process of experiencing a historically specific form of modernisation by
a particular group of rural residents, burdened with a revolutionary past”. To
do this he initially studies certain fundamental aspects or events in local life
such as kinship, marriage and diet (especially the symbolic dimension of food)
and, in the second part, seeks to understand everyday practices connected with
hospitality, with the expression of emotion at weddings and funerals, with certain
stages of negotiation and with the appearance of new forms of social stratification.

There is much to be learned from reading this book. The chapter
on kinship is particularly interesting since the data is presented in a sufficiently
systematic and detailed way as to allow comparison with other localities. Concepts
such as zijiawu, or the group made up of descendants of the same ancestor,
as well as yuanzi (court) and yao, one of the most important buildings,
are very well described and certainly a contribution to knowledge of questions
of kinship in contemporary Chinese society.

Although each chapter contains ground-breaking descriptions,
Xin Liu nevertheless fails to convince when he offers an analysis of the facts
presented—for two fundamental reasons.

The first, without doubt, is that one waits in vain for the
author to justify his choice of events or practices observed in relation to his
initial problematic: the analysis of a process of modernisation. Indeed, one has
the feeling that the collection of facts reported has not really been thought
through, but depends either on certain anthropological traditions—structuralism
with its emphasis, for example, on the study of kinship, or Bourdieu’s sociology
and especially the notion of habitus—, or simply empirical facts that the
author has observed and that are in his view part of the everyday “practices”
according to which he wishes to discuss “the social unconscious”. In other words,
it is not, very clearly, the diversity of phenomena studied which is surprising,
rather the uncertain status assigned to each of these phenomena, and the lack
of connections established between them. More precisely, the analyses put forward
and distinguished as related to the “macro” or to the “practices”, to the structure
or the social agents, reveal a problematical use of these concepts. The author
takes his inspiration from different traditions that have given different interpretations
of these notions (Levi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, Bourdieu, and Foucault, for example,
are referred to one after the other). From this stems the book’s lack of epistemological
and conceptual coherence.

The second difficulty is that the theoretical developments,
quoting the work of the various anthropologists and sociologists, and evidencing
the author’s concern with taking part in these debates, are juxtaposed rather
than integrated with the data collected in the field. More precisely, the discussions
of the secondary literature, although carefully carried out, add rather little
to the analysis of the empirical facts described, which is disappointing for the
reader. This difficulty in bringing closely together the events and the analysis
of them, stems from the first problem we mentioned: that the author, by dint of
embracing different conceptual positions, seems to have lost track of his own
position in relation to the events observed, and thus how to analyse them. One
of the major difficulties he encounters is in particular the status to give to
what those he observes have to say: is it a reflection of deep unconscious structures,
an expression of strategy, or an act of innovation that seeks to reinterpret the
rules and create new forms?

Thus, between the description of certain facts and the discussion
of a number of works, the author does not manage to develop his own analysis and
offers conclusions in an often abrupt manner. He asserts, for example (p. 50),
that the practical aspects of kinship have been reinforced by the revolution,
but does not really show how he arrived at this conclusion. He posits that the
peasants are now in a position to manipulate cultural forms, and more precisely
to separate a cultural form from its content, which was not possible in the past,
since the link between a form and its content was then sacred (p. 155). Quite
apart from the relevance of such a distinction, one cannot but question the validity
of the implicit assertion that the members of society were formerly passive in
the face of a certain kind of cultural inheritance, and incapable of introducing
innovation into it. Lastly, one of the most interesting hypotheses in the book,
which is restated in the conclusion (p. 182)—that present day practices are the
fruit of a combination of traditional, revolutionary and modern elements—is unfortunately
not really demonstrated.

It is not a question here of advising against reading this
book, which gives interesting facts about a little-known region, and in which
the author opens up a number of research directions. This slightly stern commentary
simply seeks to draw attention to the need for researchers who take an interest
in Chinese society to not only bring to bear, but also take a position in, current
debates in the social sciences; to adopt an approach which exhibits a certain
coherence in relation to traditions which are opposed in certain fundamental aspects,
and thus to contribute, by the analysis of Chinese reality, past or present, to
enlighten these debates.

Translated from the French original by Michael

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