From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society is not a typical book on modern China, largely because it was written 70 years ago. It’s author, Fei Xiaotong, was one of China’s first sociologists, and was writing at a time when it seemed that new China would have limitless potential. Fei wrote a number of essays that were published throughout China in the 1940’s firstly to describe China’s essential nature, and secondly to describe how this national character could be used to China’s advantage. I don’t think he realized how relevant this book would be today.
Fei’s main argument focuses on his idea that China is essentially a rural country, which describes a great deal of modern China’s social structure all these years later.
I read this book originally for a college course, but his writings were lost on me then. I didn’t have enough experience to appreciate how profound his thoughts were. This book is not for everyone, but those who pick it up will be rewarded.
Since reading this book, I have quoted this short passage to a number of friends, only to watch their mouths drop wide open and ask “When was that written again?”
Selfishness is the most serious shortcoming of country people. That is the opinion of those intellectuals who advocate rural reconstruction. When we think of selfishness, we think of the proverb “Each person should sweep the snow from his own doorsteps and should not fret about the frost on his neighbor’s roof.” No one would deny that this proverb is one of the Chinese creeds. Actually, this attitude is held not only by country people but also by city people. The person who only sweeps the snow from his own door is still regarded as having high social ethics.
Ordinary people usually throw their garbage onto the streets right in front of their door, and that is the end of their garbage problem. For instance, in Suzhou the houses usually have back doors that open onto slow-moving canals. This sounds very beautiful, and, in fact, literary works depict Suzhou as the Chinese Venice. But I do not think that there are any waterways in the world dirtier than those in Suzhou. Everything can be thrown into the canals, which even in the best of circumstances do not flow well. Filled with garbage, they flow even worse. Many families use no other toilets. Even knowing full well that other people wash clothes and vegetables in the canals, they feel no need for self-restraint.
His writing offers many insights into the Chinese way of thinking, and is a great resource for people who have enough background in China to learn from his works. This book covers dozens of topics including: literacy, personal relationships, problems with government, ideas of justice, family issues, and thoughts on how Chinese society is organized.
This book is available on Amazon.com, and I highly recommend this quick read.