In Review

Fei Xiaotong’s Humanism Infuses From the Soil

Fei Xiaotong as a young scholar. Wikimedia Commons, CC-PD

By Anna Sun

I always travel light when I am in China doing research on religion and culture. I have been conducting surveys, as well as ethnographic fieldwork, on religious life there for more than a decade, and there are a few things I never fail to carry with me: my notebook, my gadgets for taking photos and recording interviews, and a copy of a small book in Chinese, 鄉土中國—barely 120 pages, first published in 1947. The title in English is From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society (the translation, published in 1992, is available from the University of California Press).

The man who wrote the book was Fei Xiaotong, a pioneer Chinese anthropologist and sociologist. He was from a small, prosperous southern town known both for its silk production and for its long tradition of Confucian education. He was born in 1910, barely a year before the republican revolution dethroned the last emperor in the Forbidden City. Educated during the era of China’s transition from traditional society to modernity, Fei was schooled in the classical Chinese canon and in the Western scientific curriculum. As a young man, he studied anthropology and sociology at Peking University and conducted fieldwork in rural southwest China. In 1936, he went to the London School of Economics to study with Bronisław Malinowski, returning to China in 1938, where he had a long and distinguished career as scholar, teacher, and public intellectual.

In his essay “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline” (2000), Bernard Williams argues “that philosophy should get rid of scientistic illusions, that it should not try to behave like an extension of the natural sciences (except in the special cases where that is what it is), that it should think of itself as part of a wider humanistic enterprise of making sense of ourselves and of our activities, and that in order to answer many of its questions it needs to attend to other parts of that enterprise, in particular to history.” Fei had the same humanistic motive as a social scientist for whom learning about others was part of “making sense of ourselves.”

However long ago they live, people like Fei are our sources of light as we advance along the path ahead. They illuminate us in a world that without them would have been a still darker, perhaps an unbearably dark, place. But what exactly is the source of their illuminating power? I shall try to answer that question using the example of Fei Xiaotong.

When Fei died in 2005, The Guardian ran a glowing obituary:

Professor Fei Xiaotong, who has died aged 94, was one of China’s finest anthropologists. His book Peasant Life in China (1939) made him famous in the English-speaking world, but he will be remembered in China for his role in advising the economic reformers in the post-Mao era, when the policy of rural industrialisation, which he had advocated since the late 1930s, flourished. No anthropologist or sociologist, anywhere, has been so politically prominent. Yet Fei had, inevitably, been caught up in China’s political turmoil: he escaped death by the Nationalists during the civil war, and, later, during the years of Mao Zedong was sentenced to hard labour and banned from teaching or publishing for 20 years.

This story is well known to Chinese intellectuals: Fei made a triumphant return to academic life in 1980, at the beginning of the reform era, and led the reestablishment of sociology and anthropology in major Chinese universities. Several generations of students have read his books with close attention. In addition to Peasant Life in China, they include such classics as Earthbound China, China’s Gentry, and Small Towns in China. He reached the pinnacle of influence and esteem by the time he died, his name synonymous with rigorous social science research and political integrity among Chinese intellectuals. It is necessary to note that, for us, there is always the shadow cast by the tension between Fei’s thought and the constant engagement with the socialist policies that he and his generation of Chinese scholars could not escape—trying to be “politically correct in the current official party line,” as stated by Andrew Abbott in his insightful 2013 reassessment of Fei’s work (in a review, under the nom de plume Barbara Celarent, in the American Journal of Sociology 118, no. 4 [January 2013]: 1153–60).


From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society. A Translation of Fei Xiaotong’s Xiangtu Zhongguo, trans., with an introduction and epilogue, by Gary G. Hamilton and Wang Zheng. University of California Press, 176 pages, $26.95 paper.

Book cover for From the Soil

From the Soil

I think Fei himself would not refrain from acknowledging this tension. He was fully aware of the often-unavoidable fate of intellectuals being committed actors in history rather than detached observers, especially during periods of great turmoil. Fei was ready to be politically engaged even before the Communists took power. It is true that his later political prominence might have affected his intellectual views in complex ways, but he was not a scholar who subordinated his mind to the power of the state. However, neither was he someone who believed in value-free social science. Indeed, for him, terms such as “useful” and “practical” would be welcome descriptions of a social scientist’s work. The connection between Fei and John Dewey, as Abbott articulated it, is well taken, especially given that Fei’s work was produced under much less propitious conditions.

For me, and for many others, however, it is his profound understanding of the cultural foundation of Chinese society that makes Fei a seminal figure in Chinese intellectual life. This foundation consists of the essential ideas, values, and traditions that hold a society together, not only in times of peace, but also in times of war and revolution. Such a foundation likewise persists, as it does today, in periods of dramatic social change brought on by economic and technological transformation.

This foundation is what Fei called “the soil of China.” Out of his own visceral and intimate knowledge of this soil, Fei produced his celebrated works on peasant life and village economy. It was also out of this lived and experienced knowledge that he wrote the slender volume that, during my frequent research trips to China, has been my constant companion.

What makes this book special? Although he was trained in the West and absorbed its standards of empirical research in the social sciences, Fei nevertheless spoke in a voice that transcended empirical data. From the Soil reads like a volume of lyrical essays about everyday life in China, although we know that the book is built upon years of demanding fieldwork, including the perilous and ultimately tragic journey in his youth, during which he lost his wife to a fatal injury in a ravine in rural Guangxi province, only a few months after their wedding. He had himself been caught in a tiger trap, and his wife fell to her death while running for help.

As I study social and religious rituals in the Confucian tradition, practices still followed by ordinary people in China today, I am continually reminded of the following passage from Fei’s chapter “Rule of Ritual”:

A ritual (li) is not something that is carried out by an exterior force. Rituals work through the feeling of respect and of obedience that people themselves have cultivated. People conform to rituals on their own initiative. In fact, people can simply enjoy rituals. . . .

On the surface, “a rule of rituals” seems like a self-generated form of social order in which people’s actions are unrestrained by laws. Actually, “self-generated” is the wrong word here, because a rule of rituals implies that one uses one’s own initiative to follow conventional rules. Confucius often used the words restrain (ke) and bind (yue) to describe the process of ritual cultivation. These words suggest that “a rule of rituals” does not occur in the absence of society, does not stem from natural human instincts, and does not depend on directions from heaven. (From the Soil, 99–100)

In the chapter “Society without Litigation,” Fei gives a vivid social account of the “rule of rituals”:

A system of control based on rituals means adherence to traditional rules. All aspects of life and human relationships are governed by specific rules. All the actors in this society have been familiar with the rules since childhood, and they take those rules for granted. Their long education since childhood has turned these exterior rules into interior habits. The force to maintain rituals comes not from the outside but from the inside, from one’s own conscience. Therefore, this social order pays a great deal of attention to self-cultivation and self-restraint. Ideally, in a society ruled through rituals, everyone will abide by the rules voluntarily, so that all exterior supervision is unnecessary. A person who surreptitiously breaks the rules for selfish reasons will be considered the scum of the earth. Understanding the rituals is everyone’s responsibility. This society assumes that everyone will understand them, and it is this society’s responsibility to make sure that everyone does understand them. Therefore, as we often say, “If the son is not taught, the fault lies with the father.” In rural society, that is why the relatives of an offender—and even his teachers—are also punished. The assumption is that if he were taught in a serious way, then, as a son or as a student, he would be unable to misbehave. Therefore, any litigation is shameful, because it indicates a lack of proper education. (103)

Although the teacher of someone who committed legal infractions was indeed sometimes persecuted in imperial China, especially if the cases involved high-ranking officials accused of serious crimes such as treason, the practice has long ceased to exist. (Harvard professors may here breathe a sigh of relief.) But the ideas behind the importance of moral education in the family and in the community continue to influence the way people think and act. Indeed, the emphasis on ritual traditions, both social and religious, continues to be an essential part of everyday life for ordinary people.

In my fieldwork on ritual activities in urban China today, I am repeatedly reminded how ritual tradition is sustained through the concrete actions of prayer, of offerings to the dead, and of the gathering of family members on significant dates in what I call the “Chinese ritual calendar,” an analogy to the Roman fasti. These continual actions maintain the strength of the bonds of family, clan, and community.

But, how to explain the enduring appeal of this book among scholars of Chinese society? This is a question I have had the pleasure of discussing with Roger Ames, a philosopher who has devoted his life to the study of Confucianism. We marveled together at the depth, beneath its graceful surface, of Fei’s work. Certainly Fei’s reflections about the working of a society bring to mind the works of other social theorists, from Durkheim to Foucault and Bourdieu. What is enduring about Fei’s insights, however, is that he came to them by distilling his extensive fieldwork experience and synthesizing it with his profound knowledge of Chinese culture and history. As a result, these insights have a luminosity and organic energy that most abstract theories about China do not.

There is always something more in Fei’s work beyond academic objectivity. When he speaks of the “concentric circles” of social relations that define the self for a Chinese person, or when he speaks of the different forms of power in Chinese village life, influenced by Confucian ideals, he is not speaking only as a social scientist. Instead of treating rural people as “ignorant,” “feudal,” and “superstitious,” in the style of the modernity-obsessed scholars of his own generation, he strove to understand them on their own terms, patiently and respectfully listening to their histories and seriously entertaining the thoughts that guided them in life and inspired them. What always comes through in his writing is the sense he had that it was a privilege to know the people in this way. It was this caring respect, so evident in the simple elegance of his prose, that allowed him to see better and farther than other scholars.

Anna Sun was a Berggruen Fellow at Harvard Divinity School in spring 2017. She is Associate Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kenyon College and author of Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities (winner of the 2014 Best First Book in the History of Religions Award, American Academy of Religion).

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.