In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rural Society in Contemporary China

  • Introduction
  • Statistics and Yearbooks
  • Journals

Chinese Studies Rural Society in Contemporary China
Sally Sargeson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0093


Efforts to define “rural society in contemporary China” engage both with broader sociological debates about the persistence of peasant production, kinship institutions, and social organizations in the course of modernization and globalization, and with three recurrent controversies in Chinese Studies. First, China scholars disagree about whether the post-Mao era—which commonly is understood to have begun in 1978—constitutes a coherent period that began with, and is characterized by the operation of a market economy; or whether the 1980s and early 1990s was simply a brief transition between socialist central planning and neo-liberal epochs; or whether, in fact, there was no clear rupture between pre-revolutionary, Maoist, and contemporary periods. Second, there are disputes over the validity of generalizing about a singular “society” in a country of enormous geographic, ethnic, economic, cultural, and gender diversity where different regions, communities, households, and generations are experiencing social transformation at varying paces, or whether there is, indeed, a “society” that is unique to China’s countryside. Third, the descriptive utility of the word “rural” has come into question, following changes to the dual urban-rural residential registration system, mass rural-urban migration and off-farm employment, the integration of rural and urban administration, infrastructure and social services, breakneck urbanization, national equal rights legislation, and the emergence of cross-class movements. As a consequence of these changes, between the 1980s and 2013, the proportion of the Chinese population classified as rural declined from more than four-fifths to less than half. In addition, many people still classified as rural regularly move between village and city, or have been educated and now work, live, and socialize alongside urban residents and share their values and patterns of consumption. For these reasons, there are now many subfields of research on rural society in China. Some subfields focus on geographic regions such as the Pearl River Delta; some concentrate on issues of particular sociological interest, like lineages’ domination of community business or village elections and intra-community trust; and yet others examine emergent social categories such as people “left-behind” in villages by out-migrating children, spouses, and parents. This article prioritizes work produced after 1990 and identifies the main disciplines, subfields of research, and lines of debate in this literature. Focusing on a wide range of social, rather than economic, issues in rural China, this article adopts a relatively broad-brush approach. On many topics, such as post-collective agriculture, rural enterprises, poverty and living standards, family relations, gender, birth planning, religion, migration, education, and health, more detail can be round in other Oxford Bibliographies articles.

General Overviews

As the speed and scale of social transformation in China increased and foreign scholars gained better access to rural field research sites, findings published in the 1980s quickly became outdated. Hence, with the exception of some longitudinal village case studies such as Chan, et al. 2009 (cited under Historical Overviews) that provide detailed local portraits but which offer limited grounds for answering large sociological questions, few works provide an overview of this vast, multifaceted topic. The literature in this section is therefore divided into Conceptual Overviews, Historical Overviews, Edited Anthologies, and Textbooks.

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