From Village to City

Madlen Kobi

Because urbanization has been the overarching theme in China since the economic reforms of the 1980s, social scientists working both in and on China are kept busy by urban transformation. Large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou have grown into metropolises on a world scale, while county seats all over China have faced similar scenarios of growth on a smaller scale. 

One of these county seats, Zouping in the province of Shandong, stands in the centre of Andrew Kipnis’s portrait of a city in transformation. In the monograph From Village to City: Social Transformation in a Chinese County Seat, Kipnis not only traces the growth of the urban area in spatial terms, but convincingly connects the expansion of the city with the everyday realities of its inhabitants. The author has conducted ethnographic research in China for almost three decades and published widely on topics such as education, modernization, religion and citizenship, among others. His in-depth knowledge and personal experience of urbanization in Shandong make the book worth reading for its reflections on the social implications of urban growth.

Kipnis’s approach to ‘the city’ is an organic one. Through repeated use of the word ‘recombinant’ – a term borrowed from biology, where it describes the exchange of DNA strands, forming new genetic combinations and characteristics – the author theorizes the social transformation of the city as resulting from the amalgamation of existing and new materials. The book explores “how practices, ideas, ideals, fantasies, dreams (and nightmares) are displaced, reinvented, or shifted rather than simply eliminated” (p. 15). Instead of understanding urbanization as a rupture with the pre-industrial and pre-urban past, Kipnis subtly engages on ethnographic terms with different forms of continuity. He reveals that while urban spaces in Zouping are constructed anew, social practices are in fact redeployed. Urbanization does not mean breaking with all the old values. Rather, Kipnis manages to “show not only that modernity and tradition forever intermingle in practices of memory but also that the transformations of urbanization in fact create the conditions for the intermingling” (p. 12).

Recombinant forms of urbanization

The first section of the book outlines the transformation of the built environment in Zouping, including changes and upgrading of infrastructure since the 1980s. We learn about the impact on trade due to the expansion of road connections to Qingdao and Jinan in the 1990s, as well as about the setting up of a ‘Development Zone’ in the eastern part of Zouping and a ‘New City’ in its southern areas in the early 2000s. Through maps and illustrations, it becomes clear that the spatial layout of the city area has fundamentally changed since Kipnis’s first visit in the 1980s. However, he emphasizes that the new architecture refers to traditional tastes and understandings of power (such as geomancy) and maintains a continuity with the old Zouping.

In the book’s second section, Kipnis takes the reader into the everyday lives of Zouping’s residents. Applying five main categories based on classifications used locally (migrant workers from nearby, migrant workers from afar, villagers-in-the-city, middle classes, youth), Kipnis explores the ways in which different population groups deal with the rapidly changing built environment. The lively portraits of individuals and households allow us to understand recombination as something embedded in daily practices.

In line with his theoretical frame, Kipnis’s analysis highlights a number of recombinant forms: for example, there is the continuing relevance of the socialist work unit (danwei) that even in times of a market-driven economy provides workplace security and inexpensive home ownership for its contract workers. Furthermore, throughout the twentieth century the importance of education shaped people’s decision-making practices in ways that remain important today. Money saving practices are adopted by households in order to increase the education level affordable for its offspring. Probably the most potent recombinant aspect that Kipnis evidences is the ongoing significance of kinship relations, in particular the importance of viricentricity and marriage. Despite changing living conditions and the emergence of new public spaces, the household (nuclear family or extended to include paternal grandparents) remains central for the organization of everyday activities. Familial and status-related factors play an important role in the consumption of goods such as electronics, clothes or food. Through consumption, individuals relate themselves symbolically to provincial, national and global imaginaries. Moreover, when Kipnis takes us to the roller skating park to interview the youth of Zouping, we discover that despite a state of uncertainty concerning their future occupations, these young people cultivate hopes and desires about where to live and whom to marry. The uncertainty about the concrete manifestation of the future exists in parallel to a certainty about marriage as a watershed for ending one’s youth and securing property.

An ethnographic approach to Zouping

Although From Village to City in places reads as an unspectacular account of urban changes that anyone may observe either at home or abroad, it is precisely these detailed descriptions of the transformations in the built environment and in people’s everyday lives that add to our understanding of urbanization. Rather than merely juggling with impressive statistics about urban population growth or economics, Kipnis’s book animates its subject matter by engaging thoroughly with the social realities on the ground. While urbanization in China is often addressed by social scientists from a politico-economic perspective, this book provides a valuable anthropological study based on long-term fieldwork. The on-the-ground data shows that despite the changing material surroundings, certain values and social patterns remain significant.

The strength of Kipnis’s fieldwork and interview-based approach lies in underlining place-specific characteristics: Zouping’s urbanization shows similarities to other Chinese cities, but also has various local particularities. One example is the relatively loose household registration system, which allows children of migrant workers to go to school – even free of cost if their parents work for Wei Mian, the largest company in town (cotton spinning, cloth weaving, electricity, aluminium). Such a facilitating of access to schools is unlike the situation in many other large Chinese metropolises where migrant children face more restrictions. Another particularity of Zouping is the strong presence of industrial companies offering jobs and boosting the local economy.

The ethnographic approach here enables readers to get insights into the differing spaces and lives that coexist in a city; Kipnis takes us to landlords in urban villages and to middle-class inhabitants of the new residential compounds in the New City district. He introduces us to the anxieties of the more socially isolated long-distance migrants and to the irregular life patterns of entrepreneurial local migrants. Besides the lives of common citizens, we get to know about institutional processes in the planning offices, the history of the largest industrial company in Zouping (as mentioned, Wei Mian), or the government’s intention to construct a common memory through the naming of parks, landmarks and other public places. These insights into the intertwined lives of institutions and individuals unfolding within the same urban territory underline Kipnis’s intention to show the multiple forms of social transformation.

Additionally, Kipnis’s ethnography challenges the often taken for granted rural–urban divide. The household realities reveal that many informants involved in this research consciously live between rural and urban worlds, as both offer them benefits. This becomes particularly evident in the habits of migrant families from nearby areas who simultaneously farm their land in the village and work in Zouping. It is the closeness of kinship relations that enables such practices: through the maintenance of a rural household registration for some members of the family land rights in the village are secured, with the fields often farmed by the elderly. At the same time, employment in the city helps to save money for purchasing a heated apartment where in the winter three generations (including the parents from the village) will live together.

Taken as a whole, Kipnis successfully engages with how despair, hope, expectations and bitterness shape the lives of his interlocutors in Zouping and how these conditions unfold within the processes of spatial transformation. The blurring of boundaries between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ spheres makes it obvious that urbanization is not something happening apart from rural spaces. Further investigation needs to be done to engage more thoroughly with what ‘urbanity’ actually means in this context. For Kipnis, “[p]erhaps ambition itself will become synonymous with urbanity” (p. 230).