One of my first posts on this blog focused on the idea of being a waiguoren (外国人), an “outside country person”, and the fact that a foreigner can never be fully accepted in China. Today though, we’ll be looking at the idea of a waicunren (外村人), an “outside village person”, and how it presents new challenges in an increasingly mobile China.
Along with your name and age, a person’s hometown is considered an important part of their identity. This comes out of the fact that for thousands of years a person’s village in many cases mostly consisted of their extended family members. In a traditional village one would expect to find only a few family names with lineages tracing their history in a single place back hundreds of years. Even today a person’s hometown reflects their parent’s hometown, not their actual place of birth.
In the past when villages grew too large, meaning there was insufficient farm land, a group would set off to settle new land. The new village was often seen as an extension of the old one, and could even be referred to by the same name.
In the traditional village, you 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 were simply not necessary in a society where you literally knew everyone and their ancestors. These close relationships created a tightly bound community.
For a waicunren though, the village was impenetrable. In ancient times and today, “outsiders” find it next to impossible to become a part of a different village. Land ownership is hereditary (or based on hukou), so most of these outsiders were left running small businesses, and even after a few generations one could not expect to be seen as a local.
A clan based society
Perhaps the most interesting impact can be seen in the riots that happened this summer in Guangdong, where groups of migrant workers from a single hometown protested the actions of the local chengguan. Their village identity proved incredibly strong, despite all of Mao’s efforts to break down clan culture by moving people into work groups and collective farms.
These riots illustrate an idea that is key to understanding life in China today; who you are related to is still often more important than who you are. As a clan based society, there are clear circles of obligation, and within that group there are few limits to your relationship. Large loans can be made and vows of revenge are taken seriously, this bond is what lays just behind what initially appears to be a typical migrant worker vs. chengguan skirmish (this is also a factor in China’s village land grab protests).
Chinese people also complain of an increasingly indifferent society which is a secondary effect of living in a clan based society. While bonds between clansmen are incredibly strong, they are non-existent between waicunren. For a Chinese person, someone pick-pocketing from the man next to you on the bus isn’t any of your concern since you have no social obligation to them (perhaps this explains Chinese apathy when it comes to foreign genocides as well?).
One day in Liuzhou I spotted a man reaching with metal tongs into a young woman’s purse. When I confronted him about it, the woman looked almost as surprised as the thief was. I was living with the assumption that in a foreign country I often rely on the kindness of strangers, so I should repay that in some small way. My Chinese friends though saw this as some kind of insanity, why on earth would I help someone I don’t know?
So take comfort the next time a small child points and shouts “Waiguoren!” from across the street. Just because they can spot you from an incredible distance, doesn’t mean you are the only “outsider” on the block.