ASPAC Blogging: Change in Rural China

Flowers of Soka - Pink LotusI heard a few China papers at ASPAC and, though they weren’t all on one panel, they might well have been, because they all dealt with the rural response to changing 20th and 21st century circumstances.

On Friday I heard Soka University’s own Xiaoxing Liu discuss rural responses to the marketization of the labor and agricultural economy in China over the last few decades. She noted that the share of Chinese workers involved in agriculture dropped below 50% in 2003, a critical landmark for modernization theorists: many former agricultural workers have become migrant laborers (more about them below) and the remaining agriculturalists have a great deal of structural and economic trouble: lack of land rights being high on the list. Perhaps more important, according to Liu, is the lack of information. Agriculture in a market economy is a series of educated guesses about what will grow and what will sell: rural cooperatives (of which there were, she noted, many different types) have been trying to improve the quality of the guesswork by pooling information, creating better paths to bigger markets, and building negotiating power. Despite the success of some of these projects, Liu noted that participation rates are still low: “Trust crises are widespread in China,” she said, including financial institutions necessary for long-distance and long-term trade, land rights, and problems of bureaucratic authority.

On Saturday morning I got to hear Kate Merkel-Hess of UC Irvine relate the career of rural reform educator Tao Xingzhi, particularly the short-lived teacher training school he founded in 1927. The “Rural Modern” movement he spearheaded was an attempt to merge rural Chinese values with Western progressivism, and use education to jumpstart rural reform along May Fourth movement lines. Tao’s thought was a combination of John Dewey and Wang Yang-ming Confucianism, among other things; one of the successful innovations of his school was that it was in a rural area, so that the teaching students didn’t get “citified” and resist “returning” to teach in rural areas. The education projects carried out by students at the school often — as rural reform often does — morphed into social reform, including a great growth in self-government in the 1930s. There were some fascinating connections between Tao’s movement and contemporary (and slightly later) CCP shifts — the realization of the potential of rural society for reform echoing Mao’s contemporary reports from Jiangxi — and Tao worked closely with the CCP in the development of preschool and kindergarten in China. His students went on to become very influential in education as well, and the mix of physical education, scientific thinking and access to literacy (some great stuff about the new generation “Thousand Character Readers”) lay a new foundation for modernization in the latter 20th century.

On Sunday I got to chair a session on education in Asia which included a paper by Yi Schuler, from Biola U., on the education of the children of migrant laborers. She started the paper (and the powerpoint) with a great quote:

“Education is a mirror held against the face of a people. Nations may put on blustering shows of strength to conceal public weakness, erect grand facades to conceal shabby backyards, and profess peace while secretly arming for conquest, but how they take care of their children tells unerringly who they are.” — George Z. F. Bereday1

The critical issue here is the hukou residence registration system which limits social and educational services to the place of official residence. It isn’t impossible to change residences, but it is difficult and rare for migrant laborers, which means that their children, for those who bring them along, are unable to attend public schools. It’s true that the majority of migrant laborers with families leave them behind, but even a small share of the tens of millions (some estimates say hundreds of millions) of migrant laborers bringing children along represents a huge population. Interestingly, parents who are better educated are more likely to bring their children when the migrate, and also more interested in making sure their children get decent educations (which is often difficult in their home villages). Yi’s focus was on Chengdu city, which has taken a much more creative and flexible approach to the education problem (in the absence of a complete abandonment of the hukou system), including supporting unofficial schools in their quest for licensing and better facilities and creating official migrant student schools that draw on government education funds.

  1. Comparative Methods in Education, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964, p. 5  


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