Sociology Chinese Society
Xianbi Huang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0086


Chinese society, with the largest population and one of the oldest civilizations in the world, is experiencing continuous transformation and upheaval on an unprecedented scale. These unique characteristics of China combined with the country’s rising economic and political power have attracted wide interest from Western scholars and students from multidisciplinary backgrounds. At many Western universities and institutions, the study of Chinese society has become a fascinating and popular subject. In existing literature and publications, a full range of scholarship has covered the topic. From a sociological perspective, then, this article provides a selective guide to the most useful sources related to Chinese society in sociology as well as incorporating relevant readings from other disciplines. The focus is placed on Chinese society since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Two main considerations guide the selection of the sources: empirically, a selected work is expected to be accurate and solid, and leaves the readers well informed of the facts and reality––what has happened and what is going on in China; and theoretically, the work is expected to be conducive to inspiring thoughts of implications of the study for Chinese and Western social sciences.

General Overviews

“Chinese society” is an all-encompassing term, of course, and presents a very broad picture. Whatever aspects are highlighted, they may run the risk, as the Chinese saying guan zhong kui bao implies, of looking at a leopard through a tube and ending up with a limited view. Over the decades, however, a number of works have been produced that offer a sound, general overview of Chinese society, through which readers can acquire a sense of the most important issues and domains that are involved in understanding China. In this regard, both Chinese and Western scholars have made significant contributions. Fei 1992 is one of the best-known sociological books on Chinese society. Stockman 2000 and Zang 2011 provide general surveys of the sociology of Chinese society, capturing major dimensions in China’s social changes and transformation, while Perry and Selden 2010 examines the complexity of life in contemporary China from the angles of social change, conflict, and resistance. Kipnis, et al. 2009 adopts a dual approach of empirical description and theoretical analysis to investigate Mao-era and contemporary Chinese society and politics. Tang and Parish 2000 presents an overview of varying patterns in Chinese urban life in the post-reform era. Chan, et al. 2009 portrays a picture and analysis of Chinese rural society from the revolution to the globalization period. Li, et al. 2008 is a representative work of Chinese sociologists on sociology and Chinese society in recent years.

  • Chan, Anita, Richard Madsen, and Jonathan Unger. 2009. Chen Village: Revolution to globalization. 3d ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

    The authors chose Chen Village as a microcosm to reveal a broad theme of rapid changes and transformations in rural China. It explores village life and local politics in both the Maoist revolution period and Deng Xiaoping’s reforming period, and discusses the impact of globalization on peasants.

  • Fei, Xiaotong. 1992. From the soil, the foundations of Chinese society: A translation of Fei Xiaotong’s Xiangtu Zhongguo, with an introduction and epilogue. Translated by Gary G. Hamilton and Wang Zheng. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

    This classic text by Fei, the best-known sociologist in China, is widely regarded as one of the most influential works to promote understanding of Chinese society. In a succinct and straightforward style, this book describes the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western societies and reveals the distinctive characteristics of Chinese society. First published in 1947.

  • Kipnis, Andrew, Luigi Tomba, and Jonathan Unger, eds. 2009. Contemporary Chinese society and politics. 4 vols. London: Routledge.

    This work offers an empirical examination of Chinese governance and social dynamics and discusses the theoretical implications of the studies for Western social science. It is made up of four volumes: The Maoist Era, Politics and Social Institutions, Urban China, and Rural China in the Reform Era.

  • Li Peilin, Li Qiang, and Ma Rong, eds. 2008. She hui xue yu Zhongguo she hui. Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press.

    This book covers the birth and development of sociology in China as well as a wide range of social issues, such as social stratification, community and civil society, organization and institutional arrangements, family and marriage, migration and social mobility, urbanization, social changes, and so on. In Chinese.

  • Perry, Elizabeth, and Mark Selden, eds. 2010. Chinese society: Change, conflict and resistance. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

    This book follows the theme of change, conflict, and resistance to examine the complexity of life in contemporary China. Authors from multidisciplinary backgrounds investigate a broad range of issues such as labor and environmental disputes, rural and ethnic conflict, migration, legal challenges, intellectual and religious dissidence, opposition to family planning, gender, and the hukou system.

  • Stockman, Norman. 2000. Understanding Chinese society. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    This book provides an introduction to the main features of Chinese society and examines China from pre-revolutionary times to today’s rapidly modernizing society. It covers various topics such as rural and urban society, family, political and economic power, cultural hegemony, education and the media, patterns of social inequality, and the differentiation of Chinese society.

  • Tang, Wenfang, and William L. Parish. 2000. Chinese urban life under reform: The changing social contract. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This book examines how the Chinese urban population is experiencing the rapid socioeconomic reform by using survey data, covering various fields such as life chances, education and jobs, economic inequality, labor-management relations, civil servants and bureaucratic behavior, political participation, and gender inequality, and discusses how the shifting social contract influences ordinary people’s lives and China’s future direction.

  • Zang, Xiaowei, ed. 2011. Understanding Chinese society. London and New York: Routledge.

    This collection of essays provides an introduction to the structures and dynamics of Chinese society, including a wide range of topics such as identity, family and marriage, gender and sexuality, community and neighborhood, education, ethnic minorities, religious influence, work, mass media, and state-society relations.

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