Chinese Village Life Today: Building Families in an Age of Transition

Suvi Rautio

Gonçalo Santos’ book, Chinese Village Life Today: Building Families in an Age of Transition, draws on the experiences of a village community in South China to consider the intimate choices that rural families face in an age of transition. Told through fine-grained ethnographic and historical analysis, the book studies these intimate choices through state-led technocracy and digital connectivity that seep into how people make everyday decisions. Set in a age of transition, Santos continuously reminds the reader that there is also continuity. This continuity is located in the firm grip that China’s villages continue to hold as a source of identity and a safety net for villagers who struggle to cope with the precarity and constant flux of hyper rural-urban mobility driven by the nation’s labour migration system.

The book’s strength is its solid ethnography and the highly detailed research that Santos has committed himself to over a period of two decades in northern Guangdong – in a village he calls Harmony Cave, some 200 kilometres north of Guangzhou city. It is because of this long-term engagement with the people in his field-site that villagers open up to him and share the many stories that unfold in the pages of the book, covering themes that touch upon intimacy, individuality, and technocratic governance. The introduction delves into these themes to outline the theoretical framework of the study. Here the reader learns that Chinese Village Life Today does not merely depict technocratic modernisation through the agency of macro-level actors (such as experts, developers, and policy makers), but also through the micro-level negotiations and intimate choices that Chinese rural citizens make.

Moving away from the introduction, Chapter 1 provides a detailed overview of the social demographics and local history of the field-site, Harmony Cave. This chapter also frames one of the main objectives of the book, stating that in the age of spatial mobility and labour migration, bounded territory alone does not define Chinese village life.

Chapter 2 looks at the changing frameworks of intimacy, love, and marriage. Birth Planning Policy remains a central component of these transitions that are driving people towards a more sentimental and individualised regime of love, marriage, and family life. What is particularly insightful about this chapter is the argument that Santos makes about the processes of individualisation. Rather than breaking individuals free from their collective entities, Santos depicts how the workings of technocratic modernisation have seeped into people’s everyday practices of love, marriage, and family planning to redefine individualisation through top-down disciplinary procedures and bottom-up processes of self-formation.

Chapter 3 takes a multi-layered, woman-centred approach to uncover generational divides in perceptions of childbirth practices. In this chapter, the power of ethnography comes to the fore. Through the emotionally moving recollections of mothers’ hardships in birthing practices, Santos sheds light on familial hierarchies and generational divides to illustrate how interventionist models of birth are perceived and what this means regarding how much pain and protection women should endure. These perceptions are in transition, shaped by techno-moral evaluations that are changing what Santos refers to as techno-moral subjectivities and medicalised visions of childbirth.

Moving away from childbirth, Chapter 4 discusses the challenges that village families face in terms of childrearing. The chapter portrays how intensive parenting is taken on by multiple actors, processes, and institutions under the conditions of labour migration. Through insightful ethnographic analysis, the reader learns about how class ideals and China’s educational system are both modifying and strengthening local multigenerational practices of parenting and child rearing in the rural context.

In the final two chapters of Chinese Village Life Today, Santos moves away from the more in-depth analysis of how the intimate choices of village families shape the configurations of village life to move closer to the more mundane everyday level of decision-making. Chapter 5 takes the book in a different direction from the first four chapters, steering away from family practices to the technical arrangements and procedures in place for bodily hygiene. Santos describes how the shift towards flush toilets and private bathrooms in the household goes hand in hand with new notions of personal privacy and hygiene. Bodily hygiene and public sanitation also exist as fields of technical intervention, which are subjected to civilising forces of hygienic modernisation to promote the construction of a new state-led “socialist material civilisation.”

Following the theme of technical intervention, Chapter 6 shifts the focus from hygiene to popular religion. Through extensive research on the monetary value and ceremonial auctions of symbolic mirrors inscribed with words representing key morals and ideals, Santos describes popular religion as technologies of ethical imagination that are subject to larger civilising forces of ethical modernisation and standardisation. Buying inscriptions becomes another example of the intimate choices that villagers make to construct a locally shared moral compass and framework of ethical imagination.

As a reader, I was perhaps anticipating that the final chapters would make Santos’ argument about continuation and transition come to life through the same ethnographic richness that the first chapters hold. Throughout the book, Santos reminds the reader that, although Chinese rural communities no longer depend on ancestral land as a major source of livelihood, the sense of identity and attachment that people associate with their native lineage villages has not been broken. Santos tells the reader that this sense of belonging is sustained through ritual celebrations. Yet Santos does not explicitly tell us what these celebrations are. One would assume rituals and ceremonies practiced through popular religion might offer instances of continuity and attachment, but whether the inscription and auctioning of symbolic words, as discussed in chapter six, are an example of such celebrations remains unclear.

The gap in thoroughly engaging with the notion of transition and continuity in Chinese rural life does not devalue the value of Santos’ research. Chinese Village Life Today is an evocative, comprehensive, and ethnographically rich piece of scholarly work offering a timely perspective to understand Chinese village life through techno-moral subjectivities and new high-tech medicalised visions of childbirth. If we want to better understand the workings of the Chinese state’s expansive, top-down, technocratic processes of governance, it is these voices that Santos documents – those of ordinary Chinese citizens in rural communities – that we need to be listening to.