Hygiene, Sociality, and Culture in Contemporary Rural China

Susan Engel

Lili Lai uses Freud’s notion of the uncanny to try to give an original take to anthropological study of the lived experience of rural Chinese in an era of modernisation that frames the rural fundamentally as a problem. 

 China’s rural problem is generally described by officials and local scholars as caused by three related issues, first that rural villages are naturally dirty, second that peasants are unable to organize themselves socially and third that peasants have little ‘culture’. Lai aims not just to challenge this discourse but to encapsulate how this discourse and the experience of rural life combine to demonstrate an uncertainty, obscurity or uncanniness at the centre of our ideas about rural being. In part thanks to my own disciplinary biases, but due too to thinness of the analysis of the meaning of the uncanny, I found limited value in this particular concept in an otherwise engaging book. In contrast, Lai’s political economic analysis of the growing rural–urban divide as part of a neoliberal reorientation of the approach to the rural, based on its functionality in a global capitalist system, offered a clearer lens.

Still this is primarily an anthropological text, which – as Lai aims – challenges the conception of a rural problem in China. She paints a rich picture of how people manage the benefits and challenges of rapidly changing rural existence deeply shaped by ‘temporary’ urban migration and neoliberal industrialisation. Rural areas are, in fact, criticised for their ‘inadequate’ consumption levels, yet as Lai demonstrates, modern disposable consumption goods have deeply penetrated rural villages. At the same time, villages have not been supplied with garbage collection services, thus villagers find themselves having to develop new sets of norms and etiquettes around waste disposal of an entirely new kind. In a related vein, Lai notes that chemical fertilizers have displaced the need for recycling of human faeces and that many new houses have running water and flush toilets but no sewage system producing another waste challenge with many negative side effects, in particular on health. These clashes produced by ‘civilization’ are not limited to rural areas of course, but Lai demonstrates both how rural people work through such challenges and how these challenges have been exacerbated by the state’s approach to development, which systematically underfunded rural infrastructure and support in the name of some getting rich first.

Lai initially links the hygiene challenges to the idea of ‘uncanny modernization’ (p. 100), which is a rather depolitised approach. I found the later discussion of Norbert Elias[i] more satisfying, but felt that Lai did not to justice to Elias’s focus on not just manners but the increased salience of shame, repugnance, and embarrassment as a means of establishing social order between groups including rural-urban ones. There is a wider literature on both hygiene and colonialism[ii] and on poverty, hygiene and shame in recent time that Lai could have engaged with.[iii] Indeed, using the concepts of shame and stigma might have ultimately been a more profound way to interrogate the hygiene realm than the uncanny, and one with more resonance to public policy debates.[iv]

Lai’s critical gaze turns next to ‘the prevailing discourse that sees a lack on the part of Chinese peasants of any sense of the collective or of any capacity to organize by themselves’ (p. 111). She demonstrates the existence of an extensive but informal sociality, which exists beyond the state view and is hence unnoticed. Here Lai’s target is recent Chinese scholarship that supposedly demonstrates a rise of selfish individualism and growing lack of morality in rural China. This portrayal, regardless of its ‘truth’, presents an interesting contrast to donor-funded development interventions that often represents rural villages as natural, homogenous and cooperative sites, though these discourses share the tendency to portray rural villages as fundamentally different to urban ones.[v] Lai’s deconstruction of Chinese discourse on the rural is generally deft though at one point, her claims for harmonious village life felt a little exaggerated and in danger of turning into the development project portrayal of rural life.

Chapter Four explores the fascinating official state discourse about the rural problem of low culture and low suzhi (population quality). As Lai notes, this is state biopower writ large, which conceives of the rural populations ‘as being both mentally and physically “backward”’ and hence blames the rural population for underdevelopment (p. 169). Yet at the same time, the responsibility for population welfare has shifted ‘from the socialist state to entrepreneurial individuals’ and the structure of blame has shifted from the economic system to individuals (p. 184). This is a divergence from Maoist era, which was more sympathetic to rural population. Again, I felt the role of morality and shaming of peasants deserves greater exploration.

Overall, this is an engaging anthropological exploration of the rural–urban divide and its focus on hygiene is important as it is a much neglected topic. The book will be of interest to not just China scholars but development studies, cultural studies and related fields too.

[i] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, Volume II: State Formation and Civilization, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982.
[ii] Sunil S. Amrith, Decolonizing International Health: India and Southeast Asia, 1930-65, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; Warwick Anderson, Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006; John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier, Volume 2, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997; Anne Perez Hattori, Colonial Dis-Ease: US Navy Health Policies and the Chamorros of Guam, 1898-1941, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.
[iii] Sarah Jewitt, Geographies of shit: Spatial and temporal variations in attitudes towards human waste, Progress in Human Geography 35(5), 2011: 608-626; Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay, Crossing the Howrah Bridge: Calcutta, filth and dwelling - forms, fragments and phantasms, Theory, Culture & Society 23(7-8), 2006: 221-241.
[iv] Susan Engel and Anggun Susilo, Shaming and sanitation in Indonesia: A return to colonial public health practices?, Development and Change 45(1), 2014: 157-178; Robert Walker, The Shame of Poverty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
[v] Tania Murray Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practices of Politics, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.