Rural society in the People's Republic of China encompasses less than half of China's population (roughly 45%) and has a varied range of standard of living and means of living. Life in rural China differs from that of urban China. In southern and coastal China, rural areas are developing and, in some cases, statistically approaching urban economies. In northwest and western regions, rural society is still perceived as lowly and primitive. Basic needs such as running water and accessible transportation are a problem in these areas.
One of the major avowed objectives of the Communist Party of China (CPC) during its rise to prominence between 1921 and 1949 was the improvement of the standard of living of the average Chinese citizen, the vast majority of whom were rural dwellers. During the pre-1936 period, the CPC played a major role in transforming rural life in areas it influenced or controlled. A major area was land reform, where control was taken from traditional land owners and wealthy peasants, and appropriated to the state, that is, collectivized. China in the early post-1949 period saw increases in mechanization of agriculture, the spread of electricity, running water, and modern technology to rural areas. However, by the late 1950s, much remained to be done.
Mao noted that most benefits were accruing not to the rural areas, where the vast majority of Chinese still lived, and who were the ostensible focus of the revolution, but to urban centers. Identity card systems channeled unequal degrees of resources, including food rations, to urbanites and rural dwellers. The "rustication" of the Cultural Revolution failed.
During the Great Leap Forward campaign of 1958 to 1961, China's leaders attempted to accelerate collectivization and dramatically increase the pace of industrial production throughout the country, particularly in rural areas. This mostly involved small-scale production, such as the smelting of "backyard" steel. It was thought that through collectivization and mass labour, China's steel production would surpass that of the United Kingdom within only 15 years from the start of the "leap."
An experimental commune was established in Henan early in 1958, and soon communes spread throughout the country. Tens of millions were mobilized to produce a single commodity that was symbolic of industrialization: steel. Approximately 25,000 communes were set up, each with around 5,000 households. The hope was to industrialize by making use of the massive supply of cheap labor and avoid having to import heavy machinery. Small backyard steel furnaces were built in every commune where peasants produced small nuggets of cast iron made from scrap metal. Simultaneously, peasant communities were collectivised.
The Great Leap Forward is now widely seen, both within and outside China, as a major economic disaster. Peasants often abandoned farming to produce steel or work in other industrial production. The three years between 1959 and 1962 were known as the "Three Bitter Years," the Three Years of Natural Disasters (although this name is now rarely used in China), and the Great Leap Famine, as the Chinese people suffered from extreme shortages of food. The period had a profound impact on the history of rural life in China.
Under Deng Xiaoping, urbanization in China has expanded at an unprecedented speed since the declaration of "Reform and Open Policy". new policies in China's economy shifted the approach from collective farming to household-based production quotas, in many ways reversing decades of collectivization efforts. In many areas of China, especially southern and coastal China, the standard of living improved dramatically after Deng's reforms. Township and Village Enterprises brought industrial production to rural areas—predominantly along the southern coasts, helping open these rural communities to greater economic prosperity. (The idea of industrial production in rural areas had been attempted under Mao but with much more limited success; for instance, industrial plants in highly remote areas found their ultimate production efforts hampered.) Soon, however, an imbalance appeared where northern, interior, and western China remained at a far lower degree of economic development, a situation which persists to the 21st century. However, there are multiple, complex factors contributing to this state of affairs. For instance, distances are much farther, and geography often more challenging, in western and interior regions. Population is more spread out; social structures may also play a role, in that the demographics and social structures of these regions often differ significantly from those of coastal China.
Deng Xiaoping's reforms included the introduction of planned, centralized management of the macro-economy by technically proficient bureaucrats, abandoning Mao's mass campaign style of economic construction. Deng sustained Mao's legacy to the extent that he stressed the primacy of agricultural output and encouraged a significant decentralization of decision making in the rural economy teams and individual peasant households. At the local level, material incentives, rather than political appeals, were to be used to motivate the labor force, including allowing peasants to earn extra income by selling the produce of their private plots at free market.
Rural markets selling peasants' homegrown products and the surplus products of communes were revived under the more free-market economic approach of Deng. Not only did rural markets increase agricultural output, they stimulated industrial development as well. With peasants able to sell surplus agricultural yields on the open market, domestic consumption stimulated industrialization as well and also created political support for more difficult economic reforms.
Development remains uneven, with many highly prosperous areas far outpacing deeply impoverished regions where parents have great difficulty attaining enough income to ensure their children can be sent to school, despite the already-low education fees. Indeed, educational and social imbalances are a salient feature of this uneven development.
One emerging trend since at least the 1990s is the "floating population" or "black (e.g. black market) people", rural migrants (民工 min gong) entering urban areas in search of work. Until recent developments, rural residents lacked the legal permission to resettle in urban areas without approval, yet between tens and hundred of millions did resettle in search of jobs. Many have found work, in the form of construction and other sectors with relatively low wages and benefits, and high workplace hazards. Numerous social issues have developed as a result, namely discrimination of ruralites in cities, psychological isolation of rural migrants, some of which has led to crime. In this sense, then, rural life has "entered" the cities.
Lack of employment opportunities has increasingly made life in many rural regions difficult, hence the apparent enticement to resettle in urban areas. Of course, jobs are still limited, so many do relocate in cities only to find prospects much more meager than they had expected. Statistics suggest a very high proportion of residents of rural areas are unemployed or underemployed.
The development of Special Economic Zones also spurred rural growth in some parts of China.
In 2013, China announced a new plan to reduce poverty and develop impoverished rural regions by raising rural farmers' income growth and reducing obstacles in agricultural development. The plan includes the promotion of new types of agricultural businesses, such as family farms and organized cooperatives, and encouraging industrial and commercial enterprises to invest in agriculture.
The first major action to alter village society was the land reform of the late 1940s and early 1950s, in which the party sent work teams to every village to carry out its land reform policy. This in itself was an unprecedented display of administrative and political power. The land reform had several related goals. The work teams were to redistribute some (though not all) land from the wealthier families or land-owning trusts to the poorest segments of the population and so to effect a more equitable distribution of the basic means of production; to overthrow the village elites, who might be expected to oppose the party and its programs; to recruit new village leaders from among those who demonstrated the most commitment to the party's goals; and to teach everyone to think in terms of class status rather than kinship group or patron-client ties.
In pursuit of the last goal, the party work teams convened extensive series of meetings, and they classified all the village families either as landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, or poor peasants. These labels, based on family landholdings and overall economic position roughly between 1945 and 1950, became a permanent and hereditary part of every family's identity and, as late as 1980, still affected, for example, such things as chances for admission to the armed forces, colleges, universities, and local administrative posts and even marriage prospects.
The collectivization of agriculture was essentially completed with the establishment of the people's communes in 1958. Communes were large, embracing scores of villages. They were intended to be multipurpose organizations, combining economic and local administrative functions. Under the commune system the household remained the basic unit of consumption, and some differences in standards of living remained, although they were not as marked as they had been before land reform. Under such a system, however, upward mobility required becoming a team or commune cadre or obtaining a scarce technical position such as a being a truck driver.
Collectivization and other political processes led to widespread famine and tens of millions of deaths. In the late 1970s, administrators in provincial-level units with extensive regions of low yields and consequent low standards of living began experimenting with new forms of tenure and production. In most cases, these took the form of breaking up the collective production team, contracting with individual households to work assigned portions of collective land, and expanding the variety of crops or livestock that could be produced. The experiments were deemed successful and popular, and they soon spread to all districts. By the winter of 1982-1983, the people's communes were abolished; they were replaced by administrative townships and a number of specialized teams or businesses that often leased such collective assets as tractors and provided services for money.
The agricultural reforms of the early 1980s led to a confusingly large number of new production arrangements and contracts. Underlying the variability of administrative and contractual forms were several basic principles and trends. In the first place, land, the fundamental means of production, remained collective property. It was leased, allocated, or contracted to individual households, but the households did not own the land and could not transfer it to other households. The household became, in most cases, the basic economic unit and was responsible for its own production and losses. Most economic activity was arranged through contracts, which typically secured promises to provide a certain amount of a commodity or sum of money to the township government in return for the use of land, or workshops, or tractors.
The goal of the contracting system was to increase efficiency in the use of resources and to tap peasant initiative. The rigid requirement that all villages produce grain was replaced by recognition of the advantages of specialization and exchange, as well as a much greater role for markets. Some "specialized households" devoted themselves entirely to production of cash crops or provision of services and reaped large rewards. The overall picture was one of increasing specialization, differentiation, and exchange in the rural economy and in society in general. Rural incomes increased rapidly, in part because the state substantially increased the prices it paid for staple crops and in part because of economic growth stimulated by the expansion of markets and the rediscovery of comparative advantage.
Decollectivization increased the options available to individual households and made household heads increasingly responsible for the economic success of their households. In 1987, for example, it was legally possible to leave the village and move into a nearby town to work in a small factory, open a noodle stand, or set up a machine repair business. Farmers, however, still could not legally move into medium-sized or large cities. The Chinese press reported an increased appreciation in the countryside for education and an increased desire for agriculturally oriented newspapers and journals, as well as clearly written manuals on such profitable trades as rabbit-raising and beekeeping. As specialization and division of labor increased, along with increasingly visible differences in income and living standards, it became more difficult to encompass most of the rural population in a few large categories. During the early 1980s, the pace of economic and social change in rural China was rapid, and the people caught up in the change had difficulty making sense of the process.
The state retained both its powers and its role in the rural economy in the 1980s. Decollectivization, like the collectivization of the 1950s, was directed from the top down. Sometimes, apparently, it was imposed on communities that had been content with their collective methods. But in permitting households and communities greater leeway to decide what to produce and in allowing the growth of rural markets and small-scale industries, the state stepped back from the close supervision and mandatory quotas of the 1960s and 1970s.
Decollectivization obviated the supervisory functions of low-level cadres, who no longer needed to oversee work on the collective fields. Some cadres became full-time administrators in township offices, and others took advantage of the reforms by establishing specialized production households or by leasing collective property at favorable rates. Former cadres, with their networks of connections and familiarity with administrative procedures, were in a better position than ordinary farmers to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the growth of markets and commercial activity. Even those cadres not wholly devoted to increasing their own families' income found that to serve their fellow villagers as expected it was necessary to act as entrepreneurs. Village-level cadres in the mid-1980s were functioning less as overseers and more as extension agents and marketing consultants.
By 1987 rural society was more open and diverse than in the 1960s and 1970s, and the rigid collective units of that period, which had reflected the state's overwhelming concern for security, had been replaced by networks and clusters of smaller units. The new, looser structure demonstrated the priority placed on efficiency and economic growth. Basic security, in the sense of an adequate supply of food and guarantees of support for the disabled, orphaned, or aged, was taken for granted. Less than half of China's population remembered the insecurity and risks of pre-1950 society, but the costs and inefficiencies of the collective system were fresh in their minds. Increased specialization and division of labor were trends not likely to be reversed. In the rural areas the significance of the work unit appeared to have diminished, although people still lived in villages, and the actions of low-level administrative cadres still affected ordinary farmers or petty traders in immediate ways.
The state and its officials still dominated the economy, controlled supplies of essential goods, taxed and regulated businesses and markets, and awarded contracts. The stratification system of the Maoist period had been based on a hierarchy of functionally unspecialized cadres directing the labors of a fairly uniform mass of peasants. It was replaced in the 1980s by a new elite of economically specialized households and entrepreneurs who had managed to come to terms with the administrative cadres who controlled access to many of the resources necessary for economic success. Local cadres still had the power to impose fees, taxes, and all manner of exactions. The norms of the new system were not clear, and the economic and social system continued to change in response to the rapid growth of rural commerce and industry and to national economic policies and reforms.
Increased commercial activity produced a high degree of normative ambiguity, especially in areas like central Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces, where rural economic growth was fastest. Neither the proper role of local officials nor the rights and obligations of new entrepreneurs or traders were clear. The line between the normal use of personal contacts and hospitality and extraordinary and criminal favoritism and corruption was ambiguous. There were hints of the development of a system of patron-client ties, in which administrative cadres granted favors to ordinary farmers in return for support, esteem, and an occasional gift. The increased number of corruption cases reported in the Chinese press and the widespread assumption that the decollectivization and rural economic reforms had led to growing corruption probably reflected both the increased opportunities for deals and favors of all sorts and the ambiguous nature of many of the transactions and relationships. The party's repeated calls for improved "socialist spiritual civilization" and the attempts of the central authorities both to create a system of civil law and to foster respect for it can be interpreted as responses to the problem. On the local level, where cadres and entrepreneurs were engaged in constant negotiation on the rules of their game, the problem was presumably being addressed in a more straightforward fashion.
In past Chinese society, the family provided every individual's support, livelihood, and long-term security. Today the state guarantees such security to those with no families to provide for them, and families and work units share long-term responsibility for the individual. The role of families has changed, but they remain important, especially in the countryside. Family members are bound, in law and custom, to support their aged or disabled members. The state, acting through work units, provides support and benefits only when families cannot. Households routinely pool income, and any individual's standard of living depends on the number of household wage earners and the number of dependents. In both cities and villages, the highest incomes usually are earned by households with several wage earners, such as unmarried adult sons or daughters.
In late traditional society, family size and structural complexity varied directly with class. Rural landlords and government officials had the largest families, poor peasants the smallest. The poorest segment of the population, landless laborers, could not afford to marry and start families. The need to provide for old age and the general association between the numbers of sons surviving to adulthood and long-term family success motivated individuals to create various non-standard family forms. Couples who produced no sons, or no children at all, adopted or purchased infants outright. Families with daughters but no sons tried to find men willing to marry their daughters and move into their families, abandoning their original families and sometimes even their original surnames. Families with daughters but no property to attract a son-in-law were sometimes forced to sell their daughters as concubines or prostitutes. The variation in family size and complexity was the result of variation in class position and of the dual role of the household as both family and economic enterprise.
In contemporary society, rural families no longer own land or pass it down to the next generation. They may, however, own and transmit houses. Rural families pay medical expenses and school fees for their children. Under the people's commune system in force from 1958 to 1982, the income of a peasant family depended directly on the number of laborers it contributed to the collective fields. This, combined with concern over the level of support for the aged or disabled provided by the collective unit, encouraged peasants to have many sons. Under the agricultural reforms that began in the late 1970s, households took on an increased and more responsible economic role. The labor of family members is still the primary determinant of income. But rural economic growth and commercialization increasingly have rewarded managerial and technical skills and have made unskilled farm labor less desirable. As long as this economic trend continues in the countryside in the late 1980s, peasant families are likely to opt for fewer but better educated children.
The consequence of the general changes in China's economy and the greater separation of families and economic enterprises has been a greater standardization of family forms since 1950. In 1987 most families approximated the middle peasant (a peasant owning some land) norm of the past. Such a family consisted of five or six people and was based on marriage between an adult son and an adult woman who moved into her husband's family. The variant family forms - either the very large and complex or those based on minor, nonstandard forms of marriage - were much less common. The state had outlawed concubinage, child betrothal, and the sale of infants or females, all of which were formerly practiced, though not common. Increased life expectancy meant that a greater proportion of infants survived to adulthood and that more adults lived into their sixties or seventies. More rural families were able to achieve the traditional goal of a three-generation family in the 1980s. There were fewer orphans and young or middle-aged widows or widowers. Far fewer men were forced to retain lifelong single status. Divorce, although possible, was rare, and families were stable, on-going units.
A number of traditional attitudes toward the family have survived without being questioned. It is taken for granted that everyone should marry, and marriage remains part of the definition of normal adult status. Marriage is expected to be permanent. That marriage requires a woman to move into her husband's family and to become a daughter-in-law as well as a wife is still largely accepted. The norm of patrilineal descent and the assumption that it is sons who bear the primary responsibility for their aged parents remain. The party and government have devoted great effort to controlling the number of births and have attempted to limit the number of children per couple. But the authorities have not attempted to control population growth by suggesting that some people should not marry at all.
In the past, kinship principles were extended beyond the domestic group and were used to form large-scale groups, such as lineages. Lineages were quite distinct from families; they were essentially corporate economic-political groups. They controlled land and, in some areas of China, dominated whole villages and sets of villages and held title to most of the farmland. Like most other late traditional associations, lineages were dominated by wealthy and educated elites. Ordinary peasants paid as much of their crop to their lineage group as they might have to a landlord. The Communists denounced these organizations as feudal systems by means of which landlords exploited others. The lineages were suppressed in the early 1950s and their land confiscated and redistributed in the land reform. Communal worship of distant lineage ancestors lost much of its justification with the dissolution of the lineage estate and was easily suppressed over the next several years. Domestic ancestor worship, in which members of a single family worshiped and memorialized their immediate ancestors, continued at least until 1966 and 1967, in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards destroyed altars and ancestral tablets. In 1987 the party was still condemning ancestor worship as superstitious but had made little effort to end it.
Main article: Chinese marriage
The Marriage Law of 1950 guaranteed everyone the freedom to choose his or her marriage partner. Nevertheless, especially in the countryside, there were few opportunities to meet potential mates. Rural China offered little privacy for courtship, and in villages there was little public tolerance for flirting or even extended conversation between unmarried men and women. Introductions and go-betweens continued to play a major role in the arrangement of marriages. In most cases each of the young people, and their parents, had an effective veto over any proposed match.
In the past, marriage was seen as the concern of families as well as of the two parties to the match. Families united by marriage were expected to be of equivalent status, or the groom's family to be of somewhat higher status. This aspect of marriage patterns has continued while the definitions of status have changed. Because inherited wealth was eliminated as a significant factor, evaluation had been shifted to estimates of earning power and future prosperity. The most desirable husbands have been administrative cadres, party members, and employees of large state enterprises. Conversely, men from poor villages have had difficulty finding wives. From the early 1950s to the late 1970s, when hereditary class labels were very significant, anyone with a "counter-revolutionary" background, that is, anyone previously identified with the landlord or even rich peasant class, was a bad prospect for marriage. Such pariahs often had no choice but to marry the offspring of other families with "bad" class backgrounds. At the other end of the social scale, there appeared to be a high level of intermarriage among the children of high-level cadres.
Most rural Chinese has lived in one of some 900,000 villages, which have an average population of from 1,000 to 2,000 people. Villages have never been self-contained, self-sufficient units, and the social world of Chinese peasants has extended beyond their home villages. Almost all new wives come into a village from other settlements, and daughters marry out. All villagers have close kinship ties with families in other villages, and marriage go-betweens shuttle from village to village.
Before 1950 clusters of villages centered on small market towns that linked them to the wider economy and society. Most peasants were only a few hours' walk or less from a market town, which provided not only opportunities to buy and sell but also opportunities for entertainment, information, social life, and a host of specialized services. The villages around a market formed a social unit that, although less immediately visible than the villages, was equally significant.
From the early 1950s on, China's revolutionary government made great efforts to put the state and its ideology into direct contact with the villages and to sweep aside the intermediaries and brokers who had traditionally interpreted central policies and national values for villagers. The state and the party were generally successful, establishing unprecedented degrees of political and ideological integration of villages into the state and of village-level awareness of state policies and political goals.
The unintended consequence of the economic and political policies of the 1950s and 1960s was to increase the closed, corporate quality of China's villages and to narrow the social horizons of villagers. Land reform and the reorganization of villages as subunits of people's communes meant that villages became collective landholding units and had clear boundaries between their lands and those of adjacent villages. Central direction of labor on collective fields made the former practices of swapping labor between villages impossible. The household registration and rationing systems confined villagers to their home settlements and made it impossible for them to seek their fortune elsewhere. Cooperation with fellow villagers and good relations with village leaders became even more important than they had been in the past. The suppression of rural markets, which accompanied the drive for self-sufficiency in grain production and other economic activities, had severe social as well as economic consequences. Most peasants had neither reason nor opportunity for regular trips to town, and their opportunities for exchange and cooperation with residents of other villages were diminished. Villages became work units, with all that that implied.
Decollectivization in the early 1980s resulted in the revival of rural marketing, and a limited relaxation of controls on out-migration opened villages and diminished the social boundaries around them. The social world of peasants expanded, and the larger marketing community took on more significance as that of the village proper was diminished. Village membership, once the single most important determinant of an individual's circumstances, became only one of a number of significant factors, which also included occupation, personal connections, and managerial talent.
After 1949, the Chinese healthcare system, in rural areas the first tier was made up of "barefoot doctors" working out of village medical centers. They provided preventive and primary-care services, with an average of two doctors per 1,000 people. The barefoot doctors emerged in 1968 when China lacked qualified health workers in rural areas and in 1985, China stopped using the term of barefoot doctor. Most of them were transferred to village doctors as private practitioners, making a living out of drug sales based on user fees. At the next level were the township health centers, which functioned primarily as out-patient clinics for about 10,000 to 30,000 people each. These centers had about ten to thirty beds each, and the most qualified members of the staff were assistant doctors. The two lower-level tiers made up the "rural collective health system" that provided most of the country's medical care. Only the most seriously ill patients were referred to the third and final tier, the county hospitals, which served 200,000 to 600,000 people each and were staffed by senior doctors who held degrees from 5-year medical schools.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, the availability and quality of health care varied widely from city to countryside. According to 1982 census data, in rural areas the crude death rate was 1.6 per 1,000 higher than in urban areas, and life expectancy was about 4 years lower. The number of senior physicians per 1,000 population was about 10 times greater in urban areas than in rural ones; state expenditure on medical care was more than -Y26 per capita in urban areas and less than -Y3 per capita in rural areas. There were also about twice as many hospital beds in urban areas as in rural areas. These are aggregate figures, however, and certain rural areas had much better medical care and nutritional levels than others.
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