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From The Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society – Book Review

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.


13 Comments

  1. huichun says:

    sounds just like chinese people nowadays. thanks 4 sharing!

  2. Actually, for anyone who’d ever grew up with WW1 generation of Chinese people, the phrase is often one of “Selfishness is the most serious shortcoming of THE country’S people.”

    Now, I make no representations here, only that this was what I grew up hearing from practically every other old fogey – but that could be the crowd I ran with. Your mileage may vary is my disclaimer.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I’m interested if you can find a version of the book in Chinese online. I tried and couldn’t find. My sense of the chapter as translated is that while it most definitely begins with a comment on people of the countryside, Fei means to say that there is no fundamental difference in the mode of organization at all levels of society.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I went to the library instead. Here is the original in Chinese: “在乡村工作者看来, 中国乡下老最大的毛病是“私”。Somehow Fei’s original construction draws attention more to the opinion rather than the problem they identify. This isn’t to undermine the importance of what you heard. Interesting to note, however, that a very specific observation became a general one.

  3. Yaxue C. says:

    I would also like to contribute a great quote from a book titled “The Years that Were Fat–Peking, 1933-1940″ by George N. Kates that I read some years ago and like very much:

    ” What is true of the people is also true of the land. It is broad open country, wept by every wind of heaven, under a boundless sky, its blue often so pure as to be truly celestial; but also occasionally streaked with dust storms that completely obscure the sun, tearing dragonlike toward the walls of the capital from the deserts of Central Asin. Man fits well into this land. Blue-clothed figures are ever at work in the fields, the unbroken succession of the simple crops harmonizes with the cycle of the year; and agraian China, leviathan, deeply good, touchingly simple, is indeed the true China.” (Oxford, 1952, p. 215)

    While Fei Xiaotong seemed to be speaking, as it were, from the village street or off the Suzhou canal, Kates gave an incredibly long shot. Both are great.

  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I am reading the book and find it fascinating. To think that Fei spent the duration of the Cultural Revolution cleaning toilets! Arghhh!!

  5. gregorylent says:

    china, like india, a culture founded on the twins realities of nature and the nature of the mind … for the latter see http://selfdiscoveryportal.com

  6. […] would trust your neighbors to nearly the same degree as family members. This was one reason that Fei Xiaotong argued that rural China didn’t need literacy, written contracts where simply not necessary in […]

  7. […] Fei Xiaotong said in his book, From the Soil, “For the sake of the party, they would sacrifice the whole nation.” This example of […]

  8. […] 费孝通在他的书《乡土中国》里讲到:“为了党,他们可以牺牲整个国家。”这些草率的“新闻”为他的观点提供了佐证。可能是时候该政府发布宣告要求记者为人民服务了,在此之前,我想我只能试着屏住呼吸。 […]

  9. Lorin Yochim says:

    I’m looking at some of the pieces in this book for something I’m writing at the moment. The passage citing selfishness is often misread or taken out of context. The second sentence is key: “That is the opinion of those intellectuals who advocate rural reconstruction” (p. 60). Importantly, Fei attributes this opinion to those at the forefront of the rural reconstruction movement of the day. I happened across an interesting account of that work in China Today: http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/English/e2005/e200505/p1001.htm. It’s worth a read. Fei goes on to discuss why the concept of “selfishness” is inadequate to the task of understanding the observed behaviours and goes on to elaborate chaxugeju, the differential mode of association (the chapter’s title). I think this point is quite clear in Fei’s work. Equally clear in the analysis is that, while there are unique problems in terms of adapting old ideas to the needs of modern society, the old ideas are nevertheless the place to begin the work of reform. As Fei puts it, “To reform a culture is to weed out the old in order to let the new emerge….Of course, historical continuity is a burden to reformers anxiously wanting to change society” (p. 142). Now Fei was no acolyte of Mao, but it’s interesting to read how common the notion of “out with the old, in with the new” (thinking also of GPCR here, esp. the pi lin pi kong campaign) was amongst China reformers of the 20th century. There is a difference, I think, between thinking of reformers like Fei’s and radicals like Mao, that is, Fei saw the power of old cultural forms as objectively limiting the prospects for reform. Mao saw them as important but relatively weak, that is, they were ideational barriers that could be changed through a particular form of education or thought reform. The negative consequences of these efforts both reformist and radical ought to give pause to those of us who tend to label features of contemporary Chinese society as “backward.”

  10. erraffety says:

    I’ve just finished rereading From the Soil, and it totally resonates with me that the text imparts SO much more meaning after time in China. I’m wondering, however, whether you felt that Fei was privileging the West in his comparison between organizational modes of association (Western society) and differential modes of association (Chinese society). While I agree that the passage on selfishness is eerily apt for the contemporary context, I can’t help but think that Fei didn’t seem nearly as critical in his treatment of the West (granted he was trying to create a Chinese sociology, but I think he’s guilty like other Eastern scholars of romanticizing the West…of course that changed much in his later works because of his political position, but I’m thinking we need to be careful with how we apply his words today).

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