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  • 1. Ethnography http://eth.sagepub.com/ Chinese consumers: The Romantic reappraisal Michael B Griffiths, Malcolm Chapman and Flemming Christiansen Ethnography 2010 11: 331 DOI: 10.1177/1466138110370412 The online version of this article can be found at: http://eth.sagepub.com/content/11/3/331 Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com Additional services and information for Ethnography can be found at: Email Alerts: http://eth.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Subscriptions: http://eth.sagepub.com/subscriptions Reprints: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Permissions: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Citations: http://eth.sagepub.com/content/11/3/331.refs.html Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 2. Article Ethnography 11(3) 331–357 Chinese consumers: ! The Author(s) 2010 Reprints and permissions: The Romantic reappraisal sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1466138110370412 eth.sagepub.com Michael B Griffiths, Malcolm Chapman and Flemming Christiansen University of Leeds, UK Abstract Drawing on evidence from Anshan City, Liaoning Province, the People’s Republic of China, we argue that the recent commodification and proliferation of idyllicized repre- sentations of rurality, a trend that runs directly counter to the symbolic infrastructure of China’s mass urbanization and industrialization, indicates a paradigm shift in Chinese consumer perceptions. We explore a theory of the ‘Romantic reappraisal of Chinese consumer values’, drawing upon the reappraisal of values ascribed to the ‘Romantic period’ which followed the industrial revolution in Britain and Western Europe in the late 18th century. Similarities and differences with this earlier shift are explored. One of the authors has spent several lengthy periods of ethnographic investigation in Anshan since 2005, drawing on networks from a wide range of social spheres. Keywords China, consumer, self, other, urban, rural, Romantic reappraisal, authenticity Most studies of consumption in contemporary China are of a quantitative nature, and are centred on Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent on other first-tier provincial cities (e.g. Cui and Liu, 2001; Paek and Pan, 2004; Zhou and Hui, 2003). Though qualitative work on the impact of urbanization on China’s ‘Consumer Revolution’ (Davis, 2000; Li, 1998) exists, the emerging transdisciplinary field of Urban China Studies reports very little research on the second- and third-tier cities of China (Ma, 2006). Excellent recent research ethno- graphic in style has come out of Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province (Hanser, 2008; Hsu, 2005) – part of what a previous generation called Manchuria and that became known as Manchukuo under de facto Japanese occu- pation between 1931 and the end of the Second World War. Our research is similar, but located in Anshan, the third city of Liaoning province in China’s North East, Corresponding author: Michael B. Griffiths, National Institute of Chinese Studies, White Rose East Asia Centre, University of Leeds, 14–20 Cromer Terrace, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK. Email: mbgriffiths@gmail.com Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 3. 332 Ethnography 11(3) thus extending research into one of those many hundreds of China’s smaller cities that commentators from the world of commerce suggest present the highest poten- tial for new growth in consumer-oriented business (Lane et al., 2006; Rein, 2008). China is of course a vast country/market characterized by immense diversity (Schmitt, 1997; Walters and Samiee, 2003), yet Anshan is likely to represent much of China’s rich internal dynamics. Anshan’s consumers are undoubtedly among those that social scientists and international marketers most urgently need to understand. The analysis presented here is based on data collected for a much larger work from more than 200 people over three years through participa- tion and in-depth interviews. Self/other, and the urban/rural contrast The theory underscoring our research is the anthropological confirmation that human societies have tended to define themselves as ‘orderly’ by reference to the natural (non-human) world as a source of metaphors concerning order and disor- der (see Ardener, 1989; Douglas, 1966; Durkheim and Mauss, 1963; Ellen and ´ Reason, 1979; Levi-Strauss, 1962; Turner, 1967). We build on the idea that people/s have opposed themselves to the perceived ‘disorder’ of the natural world, and also very commonly to the perceived ‘disorder’ of their social and geographical human neighbours, rather than making this case de novo (see the works already cited, and the extensive discussion in Chapman, 1992). We maintain that, in many cultures, the opposition ‘order/disorder’ is viewed as congruent with the opposition ‘culture/nature’; and that these oppositions are often used by a culture, or a society, to characterize ‘self’ in contrast to ‘other’, where ‘other’ can either be the natural world, or other cultures and societies which fail to measure up to the standards of orderliness that the ‘self’ imposes on its environment as a result of its own conceptual structures and preoccupations. We maintain (again in align- ment with a well-established anthropological tradition) that the ‘self/other’ oppo- sition is closely related to a list of congruent oppositions, as follows: Self/other – the basic oppositions: Self/Other Rule/Disrule (absence of rule) Order/Disorder Culture/Nature Human/Animal Controlled/Uncontrolled Lawful/Lawless Clean/Dirty We assume, for the moment, that the ‘self’ characterizes itself as good and virtuous while characterizing the ‘other’ as bad and lacking in virtue.1 Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 4. Griffiths et al. 333 Whether these oppositions are fundamental patterns inscribed in human evolu- tion or superficially similar functions of social development is not our concern here. Suffice to say that many of the major changes in human social conditions, over dramatically different time scales, can arguably be interpreted within a ‘nature/ culture’ opposition. The move from the ‘raw’ to the ‘cooked’, both literally and metaphorically, has famously been claimed to be an important, even universal, feature of the evolution of the human mind and body, with multiple consequences for how homo sapiens perceives the world.2 These changes can be lived and under- stood in terms of great economic and demographic shifts over millennia, and in terms of little things of the moment. We concentrate on the urban/rural recension of these oppositions. Our argu- ment holds that the urban/rural opposition, as it is lived by those involved, is often characterized using the ‘self/other’ oppositions listed above. We focus on what is perhaps the most important social, economic and demographic development of our age – China’s urbanization – arguing that the ‘self/other’ oppositions listed above resonate strongly in this context. Our primary contribution relates to the new and different modulation in the way city people talk about the rural which acute European observers of urban life in China will have recently picked up. The note is familiar, and resonates with cultural tenors of the European urbanization process. This research aims to explore the parallels and differences between the current Chinese dynamics and those in the European past, arguing that new forms of consumption in contemporary China can be usefully understood through the prism of the so-called ‘Romantic reapprai- sal of values’. In Europe, of course, before the industrial revolution, ‘town’ and ‘country’ tended to be contrasted to the credit of the former and the disdain of the latter: ‘town’ was where to find good taste and good manners; ‘country’ was where to find ignorance and simplicity. The ‘first’ industrial revolution in (parts of) England and (parts of) Scotland, through changes in land use and rural technology, coupled with new technologies and the rise of manufacturing in the towns, led to large population movements from country to town (Glass and Eversley, 1965; Mathias, 1983). Although conditions for the urban poor in the towns were meagre, the very fact that rural–urban migrations continued meant that the town was perceived to offer something – work, opportunity, possible wealth. As rural people came to the towns, with no or rather increasingly obsolete agricultural skills, the townspeople continued to operate the contrast of ‘town’ and ‘country’ as ‘urbane’ and ‘rustic’ (the etymologies of the adjectives resonate with the ideas). Simply put, as cities grew in importance, high fashion, high taste, and high manners found their focus and expression in the urban life of the privileged. Urban life also offered possibilities of social mobility that the older social structures of rural life did not. Dick Whittington went to London because, he had heard, ‘the streets were paved with gold’.3 This was all to change with the Romantic reappraisal of values. Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 5. 334 Ethnography 11(3) Self/other, the rural/urban contrast, and the Romantic reappraisal Short of defining romanticism, we will sketch the social, demographic and eco- nomic circumstances of its emergence. As urban life began to dominate the UK, from (say) the mid-18th century onwards, in senses at once political, economic, demographic and cultural, so we get the first expression of the idea that rural life was both at risk of disappearance and contained virtues which urban life did not. In industrializing Europe, these ideas are closely associated with the complex network of ideas and action that is usually called ‘romanticism’. Key to this was Macpherson’s Ossian, published between 1760 and 1763. Before Ossian, outsiders experienced the Highlands of Scotland as wild, undesirable and dangerous. Ossian established a place (the Highlands of Scotland), an ethnicity (the Scottish and Irish Gaels), a language (Gaelic), and a landscape (wild, mountainous), as quintessential locations of Romanticism and of its desires and aspirations. A literature around these themes arose across 18th- and 19th-century Europe, with Rousseau, Wordsworth, Goethe and Herder as great innovators seeking meaning in a wild, primitive world (see Wu, 1999). An important theme of romanticism was to reappraise the source of order and virtue. Generally speaking, in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, civility and manners were regarded as the result of education and discipline; their lack left only brutishness and ignorance. These metaphors applied to people, and to the societies and landscapes in which they lived. Against the cultured and stilted elegance and rational circumspection of culture rose a restless passion and natural urge for the real, primitive and wild, best expressed in Sturm und Drang (the German name for the early Romantic Movement). Romanticism thus provided a new, contrary, and enduringly influential view – that beauty and virtue emerged directly from wildness and naturality, and that education and discipline diminished, destroyed and enchained them. Rural and wild landscapes, rural people and fringe people, peripheral customs and marginal languages, all became subject to this reappraisal. We have argued that the basic ‘self/other’ oppositions listed above almost con- stitute ‘human universals’, in a structural anthropological sense. It has also been argued that these oppositions, refracted through the lens of romanticism, generated a new but related set of metaphors: Self/other – the Romantic reappraisal: Self/Other Constraint (rule)/Freedom (disrule, absence of rule) Predictable (order)/Unpredictable (disorder) Artificial (human)/Natural (animal) Urban (culture)/Rural (nature) Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 6. Griffiths et al. 335 Reserved (controlled)/Impulsive (uncontrolled) Formal (controlled)/Informal (uncontrolled) Conventional (lawful)/Creative (lawless) Sterile (clean)/Fertile (dirty) We term this the ‘Romantic reappraisal’ (after Chapman, 1992; see Gajewska-de Mattos et al., 2004), because the oppositions remain the same, but the ‘values’ (that is to say, whether the left and right hand columns are seen to be a virtue or not) change. The old oppositions, in parentheses, give way to the new glosses of the Romantic reappraisal before the parentheses. So whereas rule, order, law, control and cleanliness once characterized the ‘self’, the ‘self’ now emerges as constrained, predictable, artificial and sterile. Whereas before we had, as characteristics of the ‘other’, misrule, disorder, lack of control, and dirt, we now find freedom, creativity, impulsiveness and fertility. This article argues that the urban/rural aspects of these oppositions have appli- cation to the rural/urban meeting in China, situating Anshan as the main locus for our argument, a city of heavy industry currently undergoing intense urbaniza- tion, in many ways the last place one would expect to find a ‘Romantic reappraisal’ of consumer values. We show how the process of the ‘Romantic reappraisal’ is manifested in a range of specific, local and temporal contexts, contending in particular that new forms of food, leisure and clothing consumption conjure ` an image of the rural ‘Other’ in order to facilitate its internalization vis-a-vis the pursuit of authenticity and unity of self-definition as understood by the urbanized sphere. The new forms of consumption we present as evidence have barely been documented by professional literature. A range of Chinese scholars have charted the emergence of the highly relevant nongjiale (happy farmer) facilities on the outskirts of towns and cities around China, but these studies are limited to an economics and rural tourism development perspective; they do not examine these practices as situated within shifting, structured discourses driven by indi- vidual actors (Han, 2006; He, 2006). Some of these same scholars have also published in the English-language journal Mountain Research and Development, but with much the same macro-economic and policy inflection (He et al., 2004). The Chinese language ‘Survey of the Chinese Middle Classes’ edited by Zhou Xiaohong (2005: 287) briefly alludes to the sociology of the practices we observe, but only in passing. But enough can be garnered from contemporary newspaper articles to indicate that the phenomena we discuss are new and proliferating rapidly across China, and that wherever they are manifest they share a similar form; relevant articles in the Anshan area spiked from 2006 onwards. As far as we are aware, however, no extant literature has synthesized the trends we observe into an argument that addresses their structural tectonics or that makes sufficient allowance for the role of individual agency in their genesis. Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 7. 336 Ethnography 11(3) The rural/urban dichotomy in China China’s social history did differ significantly from Europe’s, and so did the great narratives of the rural, even if some examples of colonial projections of European rurality in the context of early 20th-century Shanghai have been documented (Gerth, 2004; Lee, 1999). In China’s traditional Confucian universe agriculture occupied a central posi- tion, with peasants ranking second after scholar-bureaucrats, followed by artisans and merchants. Agriculture was seen as a creator of nourishment, while the scholar-bureaucrats gave (moral) leadership. This thinking (pretty much compara- ble to European physiocratic thought) was sustained by bringing rural areas into the empire through lineages that controlled land, replicated imperial rites, and trained the brightest of their young for officialdom. Lineage structure, ancestor worship and Confucian teaching amalgamated into a structure of elite control and agricultural management. The arrival of modernity broke the link with the rural. The view of lineage as repressive for women (concubinage, bound feet, male inheritance) and the urban/ treaty port setting of modern life (Yeh, 1992) meant that new political elites regarded the lineage and rural power as dark forces, holding China back. Nationalists sought to undermine lineages through, for example, taxation and inheritance laws. The Communists later revolutionized rural areas through peasant organizations, land reform and collectivization, leading through the disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1957 to the rural people’s commune system, which was finally stabilized in 1962. When the Nationalists split with the Communists in 1927, the Communists retreated into rural base areas from where they conducted guer- rilla warfare. From the mid-1930s till 1949, the Communist leadership stayed in Yan’an, a northern semi-arid region with a poor agricultural economy. The relative hardship imposed a regime of frugality and egalitarianism, combined with infor- mality, on the Party leadership. Mao Zedong’s ‘Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan’ of 1927 (outlining the strategy for peasant revolution), and the exposure of the top leaders to a simple life, made the Communists credible allies of the poorest peasants, and gave them an edge over other forces in China at the time. Yan’an, accordingly, has entered public perception as the ‘golden age’ of Communism and remains the symbolic source of legitimacy for the contemporary Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Apter and Saich, 1994; Selden, 1971). This res- onated with a classical dichotomy of frugality and righteousness versus hedonism and transgression, evident in heroic narratives of the Three Kingdoms (San Guo Yanyi) and the Water Margin (Shuihu Zhuan), allowing rural deprivation to sig- nify Communist moral supremacy (Ci, 1994). In the 1950s the long-term task of the CCP was phrased as resolving the ‘Three Big Differences’ (between cities and countryside, industry and agriculture, and physical and mental labour). The economy was divided into two sectors that were differently organized: rural areas, with collective ownership of the means of production within the cellular, jurisdiction-based structure of the people’s Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 8. Griffiths et al. 337 communes (Chan et al., 1984; Potter and Potter, 1990; Shue, 1988); and urban areas, with (mainly) state ownership of the means of production, organized in work units (gongzuo danwei) (Lu and Perry, 1997; Walder, 1986). Public Security, ¨ Labour, and Personnel bureaux only allowed labourers needed in urban industry to live in cities. The hukou (household registration) system was invented to police this, explicitly registering individuals’ jurisdiction of legal abode and status of ‘agricultural’ or ‘urban resident’ (Christiansen, 1990; Wang, 2005). As a conse- quence, social contact declined, and the de facto apex of career aspiration of rural people ended in the people’s commune hierarchy. Rural–urban intermarriage became rare. The rural–urban boundary hardened to an extent never before seen in China. Expansion of cities halted in the 1960s and 1970s, and the rural/urban divide appeared permanent and absolute. The rural areas were poorer than the cities; movement from rural to urban was seen as positive, and movement in the other direction seen as negative. Sending cadres and intellectuals to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution often involved revoking urban resident status as a punishment. From the early 1960s, ‘young intellectuals’ (zhishi qingnian), meaning secondary school leavers, were ‘sent down’ to the countryside, to learn to withstand hardship (chiku, literally ‘eat bitterness’), and to learn the right revolutionary spirit from the peasant masses (for the huge literary heritage on this movement, see Cao, 2003). Post-1949, accordingly, the urban and rural populations have been idealized, planned and managed in very specific ways. In this, central state interventions in the ideology and enactment of the urban/rural contrast had profound influence. Urban and rural people, and the discourses on their place in the social order, did not grow organically but were centrally controlled and policed. Urban residents were undoubtedly privileged by the social and economic benefits of belonging to their work units. Peasants, however, were encouraged to think of themselves as equal partners with their urban comrades in the Communist enterprise. Their fru- gality and hard work were lauded as examples to all, and popular expressions such as ‘take pleasure in poverty’ (yiqiongweile) became mantras to live by. The iconic representations of the rural other by the CCP are closely linked with the political economy. Perhaps the greatest mythological representation is about Dazhai (a poor production brigade), which improved the land through terracing, led by its heroically determined head Chen Yonggui. Heavy torrents washed away the terraces, but the peasants rebuilt them, undeterred, following the spirit described in Mao’s ‘The Old Foolish Man Who Removed the Mountain’ (Yu Gong Yi Shan), achieving ‘bumper harvests’ (fengshou) happily ever after. The Dazhai yarn is based on real events, real people and a real place, but the narrative is woven into a colourful presentation of peasant virtue and revolutionary spirit, allowing it to be used as a model (see Landsberger, 1998; Sigurdson, 2004). The narrative and the hugely visual propaganda surrounding Dazhai had great effect, and the place itself became a centre for worship of revolutionary fervour, visited by people from all over China and abroad (Zhao and Woudstra, 2007). Its signifi- cance, politically, was that the accounting unit (collective proxy owner) was Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 9. 338 Ethnography 11(3) a production brigade rather than a production team. The larger scale of egalitarian, collective management in a brigade allowed, in the view of radicals in the CCP, a better and more revolutionary scale of operation. Dazhai thus became not only a model for emulation in its spirit, but also in terms of what was a policy dis- pute over the organization of the production structure. Chen Yonggui was ‘heli- copter’ promoted into the core leadership of China, serving as vice-premier of the State Council. Other similar examples include the ‘little sisters of the grasslands’ (Bulag, 1999) – the crassly caricatured, colourful, and innocent revolutionary counterpoint to the industrial/urban part of the dual political economy which was symbolized by Daqing’s proletarian oil fields, an icon of perfect industrial production. As a broader cultural (and less politicized) undercurrent regaining vigour in the 1980s, Chinese New Year posters tend to have strong, positive images of a boun- tiful rural happiness. They are cleansed of symbolic references to old-style lineage life, but depict rich harvests, fish (as a symbol of surplus), and smiling, fat baby boys (sometimes matched with baby girls, especially in recent years – but the whole point is of course about traditional prosperity) with traditionally cropped hair, and with the ‘god of wealth’ (caishen) and old-style coins referring to business wealth. These very widespread posters of rural wealth (or the rural as source of wealth) contradict in a way the frugality, deprivation and hard labour themes, but at the same time underpin the colourful, picturesque notions of simple rural life. The visual aspect of the New Year posters spills over into the ‘classical’ (i.e. 1950s–70s) Huxian (or Hu County) paintings which depict a highly structured, well-organized, simple yet mechanized and partly industrialized rural idyll, painted in bright poster-type colours (many were reproduced as posters), often in pano- ramas with narrative detail. As a general point, people’s lives are simple, and they always look industrially occupied with handiwork or political study. The message is that order, a simple life, harmony and naturalness reign. The pictures are man- aged in their detail and produced a powerful image of the countryside, which downplayed the agit-prop realism of propaganda heroism: the heroism lay in the plain living of ordinary people, well-organized, well-nourished, and selfless in an unaffected way. The stereotypical juxtaposition of rural idyll and urban industriousness in such agit-prop art was a powerful manifestation of the ‘Three Big Differences’ govern- ment policy aimed to erode but, de facto, consolidated and deepened. The predic- ament was one of social separation of the rural from the urban, of propagandistic suppression of the basic opposition that associates the rural ‘other’ with filth and disorder. It was not until the 1979 reforms that China began to turn into a society where individuals could manifest their preferences in action and consumption. As the reforms moved on, several things quickly became clear. One was that rural disad- vantage was widespread and keenly felt (Chen and Wu, 2004). Another was that official views of rural life were profoundly in conflict with reality (Wang, 2005). Yet another was that millions of rural inhabitants were anxious to get to the towns Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 10. Griffiths et al. 339 (Zhang, 2001). The hukou system remains formally in place, although millions of migrant workers choose to ignore it, and local governments enforce it only when politically expedient – moving ‘undesirables’ out of the cities and so on (Dutton, 1998). The accumulation of new capital in China’s cities partly depends on the exploitation of rural aspirations to the urban (Hanser, 2005; Pun, 2005), which is why the mass movement of rural people has been tolerated. Most international business with China depends on this too (Chan, 2001). But the point is made again and again in the literature that freeing individual consumer choice has given greater agency and political freedom to China (Davis, 2000, 2005). Although rural–urban relationships in China thus historically served central, state discourses of development, China has in the most recent years experienced a new Romantic reappraisal resting on three elements that also characterized the early industrializing countries of Europe: rapid growth of cities; rapid growth of manufacturing industry in these cities; and mass movement from the rural to the urban environment. These movements are now more spontaneous in China than they have been for decades, and in this respect also they resemble the more organic, less planned, development of Europe in an earlier period. The rural/urban metaphoric in China: The basic oppositions in Anshan If we compare China in 2008 with the UK and mainland European experience, it is a society where the pre-Romantic, urbanizing and industrializing current is at full voltage, driving internal migration, industrial production, consumption, social aspiration and so on (Chen and Sun, 2006; Smart and Zhang, 2006). In such an environment, we find that the rural is considered ‘natural’, in a generally dispar- aging way: the rural is dirty, ignorant, lacking in taste and manners, disorderly and threatening. The urban, by contrast, is considered ‘cultured’, in a generally praise- worthy way: the urban is clean, polished, rich in taste and manners, orderly and safe (Lei, 2003). With its state-owned steel and mineral mining industry structure, Anshan was slow to feel the benefits of China’s economic reforms, and has been hurt by massive layoffs since the mid-1990s (e.g. Solinger, 2001). It has, however, recently managed to cultivate a booming private sector and commercial centre. This is partly because Angang, the giant steel refinery at Anshan’s core, an icon of Soviet-style produc- tivity under Mao, is one of the few state-owned enterprises in China’s North East that managed reform effectively, achieving both real efficiency gains and local and regional economic growth through a painful transition involving high levels of redundancies. In Anshan in 2009, towering structures of steel and glass define the horizon. The tatty and monochrome greyness of 1980s concrete is being flattened to make way for the promise of new distinguished urban living. The largest shopping complex in all of Liaoning was built in the city centre in 2005; another was already under construction by 2007; yet another in 2008. Total consumer expenditure for the Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 11. 340 Ethnography 11(3) 11 months of 2006 until November was 22.5bn rmb (US$3.1bn), up 14 percent on 2005 (Qianshan Wanbao, 12 December 2006). Retail giants Carrefour and Tesco, and a number of large Hong Kong and mainland firms, entered from 2007 onwards. The present and the future look like high-rise concrete, glossy magazines and consumer gratification. Unequivocally, the city is where the action is, and where people want to be. Those most moved by this vision, and arguably those most challenged by it, are the estimated 0.5 million migrants from rural areas in other jurisdictions who by 2004 had joined Anshan’s 1.7 million registered ‘urban’ inhabitants (Anshan’s registered ‘rural’ population counts another 1.7 million people, that is, the locally registered population was 3.4 million in 2004, while the de facto population was 3.9 million). The migrants have come for the dream – the dream of consumption, of social aspiration, of streets paved with gold. They are, however, disadvantaged in many ways; they are poor, they are not well-educated, they are obliged to accept jobs at the bottom of the scales of earning and prestige, a predicament recorded by Griffiths in his extensive field work among them (Griffiths, 2009a, 2009b), and by Hanser (2005) and Hsu (2005). Moreover, rural migrants still remain very much prevented by the hukou system (see above) from accessing the benefits of manda- tory health, education and child-care that registered ‘urban’ residents enjoy (Solinger, 1999) in spite of legislation in the most recent years to improve their conditions. We can look again at the basic oppositions of the ‘self/other’ distinction, and point out some of the small practicalities of this, as these are realized in the lives of those involved in the urban/rural meeting in Anshan. Society exerts its desire for orderliness upon many areas of material and mental life. Prominent among these are, for example: the presence, movement and dispersal of people; sexuality, and the prevalence and distribution of its practice and expression; food preparation and consumption; the construction and interpretation of cleanliness; and so on. Disorderliness in these areas is often attributed to those people and places that are beyond, or come from beyond, the bounds of urban civility. Looking at the contemporary Chinese example, we see that these areas are all vividly alive in the experience and interpretations of the society that is being reported. Take the presence, movement and dispersal of people. The urban dwellers of Anshan know the urban space: they have defined it; they know where they should be, and when; they know where to find one another. The new in-migrants from rural areas are often homeless, or in temporary, shifting and illegal accommoda- tion. They are conspicuously present on the streets, moving without anywhere obvious to go, searching and needy. They have scant means of cleaning themselves or their clothes. They are, from the perspective of the urban residents, manifestly ‘disorderly, uncontrolled, lawless and dirty’ (and all the other related adjectives and judgements that this metaphoric can generate). In these circumstances, visual metaphors, particularly ‘blindness’, may combine with a liquid metaphor such as ‘flow’, ‘tide’, ‘drift’, ‘float’ or ‘current’ to make constructions such as ‘blindly Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 12. Griffiths et al. 341 flowing with the tide’ (see also Lee, 1996). By the mid-1990s the expressions ‘liu- dong renkou’ (floating population) and ‘mangliu’ (blind floater) – a perversion of the earlier term ‘liumang’ which was used to describe all manner of persons from wayward criminal types to homosexuals as well as to an internally migrant popu- lation – were in popular usage (Dutton, 1998). The meeting of different classifica- tory systems frequently produces observations of this kind (Ardener, 1989; Chapman, 1992). Take sexuality, and the prevalence and distribution of its practice and expres- sion. Many of the recent migrants from rural areas are young. The presence of their sexuality can seem like both a threat and a temptation. Many young female migrants who often encounter discrimination on account of their gender and age, that is, where younger and more productive bodies are seen as more desirable than older and less productive ones, work in the sex industry and in its penumbra of semi-respectable occupations (Zheng, 2007). The coming together of perception (there seems to be a lot of youthful sexuality around) with reality (many young female migrants actually do work in the sex industry) is confirming (Hyde, 2001). There are also matters of dress. Young urban women have a range of dress pos- sibilities by which they make themselves look both trendy and sexually attractive. These fashions are copied by young women new to the city. They are, however, inexpertly adopted, either through lack of means or lack of relevant judgement (Lei, 2003). This inexpert copying can easily lead to what looks like flagrant sexual provocation, as too much naked flesh is displayed, or as the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate sexuality is inadvertently crossed. The following excerpt from an interview illustrates well how these distinctions can overlap. The speaker, a 23-year-old woman from a broadly ‘middle-class’ urban family, addresses ‘hairdressers’, who are often rural migrants and who often offer a range of services outside the scope of that usually provided by hair- dressers in the UK: Hairdressers look like whores with their blonde hair. They smoke, they have bad skin. They look like they’ve got an illness. They look like poor people who work in massage parlours. They all think that if they’ve got blonde hair they’re not only fashionable but also different from other people: they think they have a unique individuality. They don’t know how to use make-up; they put it on but don’t know how to make it look nice. They think make-up and blonde hair is a way to attract men. This is a way to hide their dark side: because they do this kind of work they are always feeling very guilty. Blonde hair shows that they’re confident and have nothing to hide; they think strong colours are attractive and confident. It’s like they’ve nothing to hide; it’s like a mask, it’s like they are living under a mask. They’re like a package: they’re dirty on the inside but they try to make themselves clean on the outside. Before they were all poor, but now they try to show as much as they can. This is because, deep down in their hearts, they don’t want other people to think they are poor again. Something they can’t change is that their inside is still poor; they can’t package, they can’t wrap up, their spirit. Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 13. 342 Ethnography 11(3) Take, now, the construction and interpretation of cleanliness. Rural life has soil and water, and consequent mud. Rural life has people and animals urinating and defecating. Urban life either does not have these things, or hides them. Rural migrants are accustomed to levels of ‘dirt’ (mud, say) on skin and clothes that may be unacceptable in the urban environment. They may feel themselves to be normally presentable, while in a state of apparent uncleanliness to their urban observers. They also live in conditions which make attention to the cleanliness of body and clothes difficult. Again, reality and perception compound one another. The character for ‘soil’ (tu) is variously applied to mean: ‘crude’, ‘lacking in sophis- tication’, ‘handmade’, or ‘rustic’, so implying proximity to the land, the past, the traditional and the local. The same expression is used to denigrate inappropriate or unrefined matching of clothes, colours, or unguardedly conspicuous forms of consumption. It can also indicate characteristically coarse, uncivil or obtrusive public behaviours. The perceived opposites of tu, less explicitly used in practice, are yang, which has a decidedly Western flavour meaning literally ‘foreign’ or ‘overseas’ (which in the China context means ‘the West’), and ya, which means ‘refined’ or ‘cultured’ (as in wenya, a term closely linked with urban intellectuals). Notwithstanding the resurgence of Chinese consumer nationalism (Hooper, 2000), the attendant successes of Chinese domestic brands in the elegant setting of con- temporary urban China (Ewing et al., 2002), and the ‘localization’ of Western tastes in China more generally (Eckhardt and Houston, 2002; Zhou and Belk, 2004), ‘the West’ remains where higher tastes are thought to derive from (Dirlik, 2001; Wei and Pan, 1999). The ‘flow’ (liu) of rural migrants into the cities contrasts with the rootedness of tu: peasants should know where they belong (Dutton, 1998). However, the movement from the fields to the cities in China is so recent and rapid that many urban people still have one foot in the countryside. The tu quality is about the purity and innocence of ignorant ‘peasants’, and everything that comes with that – rootedness, family, simplicity – and any scorn is paralleled by a certain affection; not least because of the political idealization of China’s peasants under Mao (see above), to overtly scorn peasants remains a social faux pas in urban China. Although urbanites do liberally condescend to the rural, the discourse is most often implicit, just beneath the surface of everyday life. Where it does become explicit, in the form of critical remarks or invective, there is usually also a certain caution, and an acute consciousness of shared recent experience of hardship. Those most given to scorn are likely those closest to the fields themselves. Consider the following statement from an elderly urban woman: Participant: Rural people haven’t studied; they’ve got no knowledge; they haven’t read anything; not even a newspaper . . . They’re really black; they’ve been burnt really black by the sun. They look old, and they dress unfashionably. They’re vulgar and dressed all in a mess (worse than a dog fart) . . . The younger rural people want to make themselves look like urban people, they learn from the city. Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 14. Griffiths et al. 343 Researcher: What do city people think about this? Participant: We look down on them; they’re dirty as hell! . . . They don’t even wash their fruit before they eat! When we say that urban residents perceive rural in-migrants as ‘disorderly, lawless, and dirty’, it should be clear by now that there are multiple arenas of fact and perception, thought and action, where these perceptions can be generated and sustained. Why should urban residents do anything other than disdain their rural counterparts? The Romantic reappraisal of Chinese consumer values We have seen how urban Anshan presents multiple confirmations of the ‘basic oppositions’ – a picture of urban taste, manners and sophistication, contrasted with rural squalor and backwardness. In thought and practice, this is overwhel- mingly the dominant discourse. However, there are the first whispers of change. The exhibition centre of Anshan’s Urban Planning Department strongly emphasizes nature in the plans for 2010: promoting urban afforestation and prioritizing the natural environment above other concerns. In the promotion of tourism, ‘natural’ attractions – natural spring health spas and rural or nature tourism – stand out. Of course, these reflect the Chinese government’s millennium goal of achieving a ‘harmonious society’ – balancing man and nature, rich and poor, China and the world, etc. Promoting rural tourism as a means to boost economic growth is part of this strategy (Sofield and Li, 1998). But we are arguing for something more fundamental, more auton- omous, more ‘grassroots’, than the mere meddling of the state. A will towards nature seems to underpin the conception around the year 2000 of ‘Green Wisdom Estate’ (lu zhihui cheng), a large area of high-quality housing ¨se sufficiently far away from the city centre to necessitate owning a car – a criterion that ensures that only the reasonably wealthy can move there. A similarly exclusive place has been carved out of the city centre called ‘Great Moral Verdurous Pagoda’ (Dade cuiyuan huating). The guarded gates prevent undesirables from entering (and particularly prevent peasants selling rural produce; there are some fine ironies in all this). The sign above the gates presents the name, as is the fashion, in English as well as Chinese, to show that the ideas embodied by the space are modern and desirable. In the interaction of the ‘basic oppositions’ and the ‘Romantic reappraisal’, it is worth looking at the ‘moral’ (de) of ‘Great Moral Verdurous Pagoda’ as part of a major theme of contemporary Chinese consumer culture. The state currently attempts to force about ‘civilization’ (wenming), a discourse which both replaces and extends an earlier discourse on ‘population quality’ (renkou suzhi) and ‘quality education’ (suzhi jiaoyu) which conflated the issues of procreation (high fertility), lack of education, manners and progress among rural people and the lower rungs Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 15. 344 Ethnography 11(3) of urban society, promoting educational solutions (Fong, 2007; Kipnis, 2007; Murphy, 2004; Yan, 2003). The central government is particularly keen to improve behaviour in the public environment – to decrease the prevalence of spitting, for example. This discourse juxtaposes national pride, sporting excellence and new civil norms in TV adverts promoting the 2008 Beijing Olympics. You should not spit in the ‘Great Moral Greenery Place’, or sell vegetables there. This is ‘greenery’ san- itized – a slice of the natural world without the dirt. This step towards a re-evalua- tion of the natural world is both tentative and highly qualified. It is, moreover, very clearly articulated and designed by wealthier urban dwellers. The rural peasants and their habits are not welcome. We are still very close to the basic oppositions. We already see in the literature that ‘green’ consumption is becoming a popular and distinctive theme in China (Chan, 1999) – signifying the need for harmony between environment, health and consumption: ‘good citizenship’ in short – but we have not yet seen the idea that rurality itself, ‘warts and all’, should be desirable. More interesting, however, and more dramatic, are some evidences of a re-evaluation of food and food consumption (see also Griffiths, 2009a). Since 2004, a number of restaurants and shops offering explicitly ‘rural’ produce have opened in Anshan’s central commercial district. Among the names given to these are: ‘nongcun caiguan’ (rural restaurant); ‘tucaiguan’ (rural/local food restaurant); ‘tujiacai’ (rural home food); ‘jiaxiang caiguan’ (hometown food restaurant); or ‘jiachangcai’ (home style cooking). These businesses are successfully selling rural and natural virtue to the wealthier urban classes. One important metaphor, reflected in the names of a number of restaurants, invokes the opposition between ‘culiang’ (coarse grain) and ‘xiliang’ (fine grain) cereals. ‘Coarse grain’ cereals are those which are whole and unhusked; ‘fine grain’ cereals are those which have had the husks removed. In the industrialized world, technologies for milling grain were employed to remove the husks, so that the grain was ‘polished’. The consumption of white flour, white bread and white rice became the norm. Whole grain was old- fashioned. The terms ‘fine’ and ‘coarse’, and ‘polished’ and ‘unpolished’, implied a distribution of virtue towards the former. In the second half of the 20th century, however, changes in evaluation that were a complex and interesting mix of dietary and moral issues, led to a concern for ‘whole grain’ foods – breakfast cereals, breads and so on. The new terminology, with the emphasis on the natural virtue of ‘wholeness’, indicates the nature of the re-evaluation. White bread has become, in many contexts in the UK, a ‘lower class’ food. Something like the same sequence of changes seems to be happening in China, but a generation or so behind. Before the economic reforms of the late 1970s, food in general was scarce, and common people ate only culiang, the coarse grain: xiliang was rare. After the reforms, xiliang became much more readily available, and coarse grains went almost entirely out of fashion in urban circles. Xiliang was refined, in both a physical and a moral sense, while the coarse culiang was the food of poor peasants. Since 2004, however, ‘coarse grain’ has re-entered city life in Anshan. A restau- rant called Xiandai Culiang (‘Modern Coarse Grain’) opened in Anshan city centre in October 2006, to join three others also with ‘coarse grain’ names. ‘Modern Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 16. Griffiths et al. 345 Coarse Grain’ is exceptionally clean both inside and out, and yet the manager, chefs and clients all call the food ‘nongjiacai’ (peasant family food). The food is attractively presented, the tables have table cloths, the chefs (migrant workers from rural regions) wear clean whites. Only a small proportion of Anshan’s population can afford to eat in such a place, and probably a smaller number still would see the point of doing so. Staff in ‘Modern Coarse Grain’ argued that ‘urban people are used to fine grains of the city’ (chengshideren yijing xiguanle chengshide de xiliang), and ‘want to change to peasant tastes’ (xiang huanhuan nongmin de kouwei). The manager was careful to point out that this was not just ‘coarse grain’ (culiang), but ‘modern coarse grain’, and as such a new sophistication: ‘modern people already have high tastes’ (xiandairen de kouwei yijing hen gaole). According to one chef, it was the range of healthy ‘green food’ dishes (lu¨se shipin) that distinguished ‘modern’ culiang from plain-old ordinary culiang. Consumers in this restaurant explained their liking for it with phrases and adjectives like: ‘have no pollution’ (meiyou wuran), ‘no chemicals’ (meiyou huaxue), ‘healthy’ (jiankang), ‘natural’ (ziran), and ‘pure’ (chun). Some referred to a ‘return to the simple and plain’ (fanpu guizhen), and to ‘going back to nature’ (huigui ziran). A shop called the ‘Local Products Shop’ (Tutechan shangdian) opened in 2006, and became an instant success. It sells a variety of rural, ‘homemade’, ‘handmade’, and even ‘wild’ (ye) produce. The bulk of its products come from the small nearby city of Benxi. In conversation with the shopkeeper here we are told: When seen from the perspective of science, ‘local products’ are ‘original/primeval’ (yuanshi) and ‘have not suffered pollution’ (meishouguo wuran). ‘Yuanshi’ here is as opposed to ‘refined’ and shares semantic proximity with ‘pristine’, ‘untouched’ and ‘uncooked’. Mentions are made of ‘pure wild ginseng, the best known to man, not like the transplanted stuff’, and several rural locations are referred to as the sources of these kinds of purity. The shopkeeper waxes lyrical about rough cloth and candles ‘from places where the wind of reform has never blown’ working a myth of the pure, exotic and remote rural ‘Other’. Among the most popular products at the ‘Local Products Shop’ are packets of pancakes (jianbing) with a ‘chiku’ (eating bitterness) theme. The pancakes, made from coarse grain, are sold as ‘Zhiqing jianbing’, the ‘young intellectual pancake’, looking back to the ‘purification’ of young and educated urban souls during the Cultural Revolution (Davies, 2005). This theme of rural nostalgia (Gao, 2008) is not one which has any obvious parallel in the UK experience. The front-side pack- aging of the pancakes features a simple sketch drawing of three peasants sitting on the ground happily eating these jianbing, having laid their wheat sheaves and sickles (liandao) to the side. The rear-side packaging of the pancakes invites consumers to ‘feel the era of the sent down intellectual youth, taste the charm of the rural’ (ganshou zhiqing shidai, pinwei xiangcun fengyun), ‘exercise body and spirit’ (lianxi ziji de shenxin), ‘experience rural life’ (tixian nongcun shenghuo) and ‘support the development of rural areas’ (zhichi nongcun fazhan). It is in many ways extraor- dinary that the Cultural Revolution and its events could be used to promote Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 17. 346 Ethnography 11(3) anything at all, given the damage caused by the period. This nostalgic and some- what leisurely re-interpretation, somewhat at odds with the political ardour por- trayed in the Huxian paintings discussed above, was mentioned in passing recently in the Journal of International Business Studies (Hung et al., 2006). We see this element as symptomatic of a much broader, profound and current shift in con- sumer desires/behaviours. Romancing the rural Other – further evidence The experiences of sent-down youths (zhishi qingnian; or shangshan xiaxiang qingnian) have left strong traces in China. Basically around 17 million school leavers are believed to have been deprived of their urban resident status and sent to the countryside between 1962 and 1979. The policy was stopped in 1979, when the last five million were invited back into the urban economy. A large contingent of them were admitted to higher education through highly competitive entrance examinations in 1979 and 1980 to make up for their lost opportunities; they formed a highly life-experienced group of ‘adult’ students, and many made a career in the 1980s and 1990s. Their shared experience trans- lated into networks and ‘subcultures’ like restaurants in major cities styled on hardship and local food from the far-flung destinations of their banishment. These included Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia (major destination of people from Beijing) and Yunnan (major destination of people from Shanghai). Television melodramas and literature picked up core themes of adolescent love in rural poverty in beautiful settings; betrayal of youth friendships during urban adulthood, when mandated by greed and new opportunities; existential searches of the ‘fruits of love’ of sent-down youths with peasants going to the cities to find their parents (involving themes of unrecognized and almost consummated incest); or old lovers from the rural youth finding themselves entangled in intractable quandrangles of passion, doubtful parenthood of children, etc. Themes in the cultural representation of this span opposite like: repression, deprivation, love, loyalty, and simplicity (rural), versus freedom, material wealth, opportunist liai- sons, betrayal, and complexity (urban). We argue that the value reversals/Romantic reappraisals we are looking at today incorporate and are informed by these issues. These opposites are not straightfor- ward, but we can explore some instances of their occurrence that will allow us to trace inflections over the theme, understanding them in their discursive context. In particular, some of them are strong political images that are tying poverty and backwardness into a perception of order and low-level prosperity, identifying her- oism in selflessness (and self-sacrifice) or in plain living, weakness versus collective strength, and reliance on the state versus self-sufficiency (see the cultural represen- tations of the rural under Mao – Dazhai, etc. – discussed above). Others are glossing over the rural as a traditional source of wealth, or as exotic patterns (as in the calendars discussed above). Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 18. Griffiths et al. 347 In the 1970s, the Huxian paintings, although rather naı¨ vist in style, were in essence realist, avoiding distortions of forms. In the 1990s a new generation of peasant paintings, some even capitalizing on the Huxian ‘brand’, has introduced new types of motifs, borrowing and adopting naı¨ vist and cubist traits from generic Chinese and national minority folk patterns used in traditional paper cuts and batik.4 This new peasant art downplays or even avoids ‘real life’ simplicity, asso- ciating rurality with abstract forms and crudely colourful motifs. The stylized and exoto-eroticized representation of the rural has thus become less ‘down-to-earth’ (tu) and more ‘Othered’ – more (genuinely) romanticized (see Schein, 1994). Since 2005, we have observed the emergence of women’s clothes stores in various Chinese cities at both middling and higher ends of the market, selling clothes with rural/ethnic minority themes as far apart as Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing. Situated in an undercover market area at Jing’an in one of the most upmarket areas of downtown Shanghai, Zhou, a small-scale independent trader, owns three small shops selling clothes styled similarly to those worn by peasants living in mountainous regions of China’s far-away interior provinces. The garments, made of coarse, roughly cut fabrics, many with elaborate patterns or fringes, are clearly designed to evoke an ‘ethnic’, ‘peripheral’, ‘minority’, as well as ‘rural’, response. This kind of style is unprecedented in urban China: why would anyone want to look like a peasant? The ideograph above Zhou’s shop-front itself speaks of the blurring of boundaries and reversal of signifiers we are arguing for: it is far from clear whether the shop-name reads ‘yishang’ (clothing fashion) or ‘nongshang’ (short for ‘rural fashion’), a most extraordinary juxtaposition of characters. Zhou says the style has come over from Japan; she seems to feel that this fact has much to do with the desirability of her product – ‘China’s fashion is always following Japan’ – indicating that she is perhaps not entirely aware of the significance of what she is selling herself. Regardless, Zhou’s clothes have been very successful with youngfemale consumers seeking something out-of-the-ordinary, and since Zhou knows that she is the only trader in the area exploiting this theme at present, she plans to open still more stores. On the streets outside the market area where Zhou’s stores are located, beneath the vast concrete flyovers and towering malls selling Chanel and Dior, a family of homeless ethnic minority migrants from Xinjiang Province try to sell handmade beads and trinkets to whoever will give them the time of day, a reminder that acting rural as a consumer is not at all the same as actually being rural. A related phenomenon, with perhaps even more far-reaching consequences, involves urban consumers from Anshan going to rural areas (nongcun) to experi- ence and consume (see Griffiths, 2009a). This phenomenon is distinctly different to the state-sponsored or large industrial-scale countryside tourism complexes that employ a rural veneer but remain nevertheless urban and contrived in their feel. Many of these outlets in the borderlands between the city outskirt and countryside are natural health spas by day that become pumping karaoke bars and dens of licentiousness, prostitution and general waywardness after dark – distinctly urban trappings that prey off the eroticization of the rural ‘Other’ by night, offering up Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 19. 348 Ethnography 11(3) almost invariably rural women for consumption by urban clients. The ‘Otherness’ of the women may be deliberately exploited to enhance this appeal, as in the case of Teresa Hyde’s work on Yunnan where Han Chinese women disguise themselves as minority Dai (Hyde, 2001). Around the towns and cities of Liaoning, independent peasant-family entrepre- neurs have transformed their homes and lifestyles to cater to urbanites who have begun to seek out ‘home-cooked’ food and clean air in their newly acquired cars. The converted home restaurants are known as ‘nongjiayuan’ – (farmers’ courtyard); the general phenomenon goes by the name ‘nongjiale’ (literally ‘happy farmer’). Consumers eat, sleep, drink heartily, and play cards alongside peasants in an envi- ronment that affords them the luxury of not having to abide by the urban ‘rules’ for behaviour. Here the behaviourisms regarded as ‘tu’ are celebrated in an orgy as consumers stick their hands in the soil, metaphorically speaking. Some may fish using ‘primitive’ methods; some may pick their own grapes and vegetables; others will select their game for slaughter, but perhaps leave the job itself to the propri- etor; still others will use these businesses as platforms for hill-walking and camping. In many cases, apart from the presence of urban consumers and cash, the only difference between the ‘nongjiayuan’ and plain-old ordinary peasant homes is the shop-front sign itself, which may be no more than a few hand-scrawled characters – ‘rural accommodation’ (nongshe), ‘rural snack food’ (nongcun xiaochi), ‘peasant family farmhouse food’ (nongjia fanzhuang), or ‘farmhouse courtyard food’ (zhuangjiayuan fanzhuang). The iron cooking-pans, the smoke filled kitchens, and the ‘firebeds’ (huokang) where guests will warm themselves alongside the resident family in the winter, are identical to the neighbours’. The experience sought is much more than just the food itself: it is explicitly about the rediscovery of the familial, the naı¨ ve, and the innocent – a world pre-dating the complexities, social competi- tion and judgement of the contemporary urban era, fast vanishing under deserts of steel and glass. Customers at the nongjiyuan speak about consuming the re-enacted rural in the same way as the consumers in the urban ‘coarse grain’ restaurants (‘healthy’; ‘no pollution’; ‘back to nature’; ‘back to the pure and simple’, etc.). Here, though, they explicitly add a little ‘eating bitterness’ (chiku) to their palate. This reveals a certain demographic trend: though their families may accompany them, it is quite often the generation who actually experienced the Cultural Revolution who are the prime movers of these behaviours. But this is not just nostalgia: this is self-cultivation; a kind of moral training – a new kind of moral training, significantly different from the era of egalitarianism and shared hardship, though this is what is ostensibly invoked. Many parents explain that this kind of consumption is ‘good for educat- ing’ their pampered urban children, who have never known the idea that the rural could be desirable, and who remain largely unimpressed. But by no means all urbanites of this age are jumping at the chance to eat up bitterness; life for most of the urban poor in China’s cities is still quite bitter enough already. And the last thing urbanites who have just recently come into new money will want to do is to consume alongside peasants. The shift in values we are describing is distinctly the Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 20. Griffiths et al. 349 province of those urban consumers possessed anew of ‘middle-class’ dispositions as well as a surplus of time and money. The pursuit of authenticity: A discourse of individuality In an article from Renmin Ribao (Haiwaiban) (22 September 2007, Tourism, p. 3) the reader is encouraged to follow a group of youths as they embark on the new craze of ‘self-driving’ (zijia) into the distant mountains to the north of Beijing. ‘I just want to escape the city’s showiness and clamour (fuhua), let my moods have unbridled (ziyi) relaxation in the blue hills and green water, and find a long lost stimulation and pulse in an easy and comfortable life’, plays the popular song that the protagonists listen to as they drive their Mazda 6. The explorers are headed for a holiday village known as ‘Mountain Bar’ set in an idyllic rural location. On the face of things, the trip is about the pursuit of the nongjiayuan cooking and expe- rience. The journalist romanticizes the scene: ‘With a gentle breeze stroking the face and the babbling sound of the brook filling the ears, it really feels like one is in paradise.’ It is clear that the urbanites consuming the rural in the nongcun are engaging in a Romantic reappraisal of the kind described above. Various points need to be stressed here. First, given the immense power of the drive towards urbanization and economic development in China, this reappraisal of the rural is an extraordi- nary and possibly extremely important phenomenon. Second, it is a phenomenon in the very early stages of its realization. Third, the reappraisal is entirely in the hands of ‘middle-class’ urbanites; it is a variation on the dominant discourse, and they are still in charge of it. The rural is packaged and made available for the ‘arbiter elegantium’ (Bourdieu, 2005: 255), when, how, and where they want it. The rural is not experienced in its entirety, but only as a series of virtues arising from the romantic re-evaluation – dirt, disease, poverty, parasites and starvation are not part of the desired experience, except perhaps as a marginal and imaginary thrill. The re-evaluation of the rural is an urban re-evaluation of the rural; it is not a re-evaluation of the rural by itself. This is supported by the secondary literature cited, and the chronological pattern of its emergence: the ‘nongjiale’ phenomenon emerged first in the outskirts of China’s larger metropolitan cities before only later appearing around provincial and county towns – it is urban driven. Importantly, the urbanites do not passively engage with the countryside; they are not merely nostalgic or eco-conscious about it. The expression is about the assertion of the self: they desire to consume the very best nature has to offer even as they drive around at top speed polluting it. The ‘self-drive’ article (see above) describes how middle-aged working adults from Beijing find liberation in pushing the limits of control: ‘Never mind the straight and narrow path of her daily job, and the fact that she’s driving on windy old roads’, nurse Meng ‘drives at speeds of up to 100 km per hour, earning her increased respect from the younger people sat in the back’. Similarly, dog trainer Yin, ‘who dared to ride the whirlwind with nurse Meng’, says: ‘The more precipitous the road is, the more those who Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 21. 350 Ethnography 11(3) love self-drive touring are tempted by it.’ Thus, the race is on to be the first to rupture nature’s hymen, the first to be identified with the new symbolic order, the first to drive a stake into the unspoilt, and make it subject. We have already made the point about this being a consumer-driven movement rather than a mechanism of the state: a romantic ‘breaking free’ and self-realization clearly relates to the argument in the literature about consumption being a vehicle to greater agency and political freedoms in China, an argument that until now has proved ‘seductive but unconvincing’ (Dutton, 1998: 273; see Pun, 2003). But lest we create the impression that there is something in this for everyone, let us remember that this phenomenon is highly exclusive: though poorer urbanites may occasionally find a way to enjoy the fruits of the nongjiayuan too, this is less likely, and perhaps they do not appre- ciate it in the same way. There is a freedom of sorts here, and there might be something in it for everyone in time, but the phenomenon is perhaps better con- ceptualized in terms of competing for social power: for distinction from one’s past or that of one’s family – one only re-invokes it in order to consume it and thus master it utterly, to sever the root that makes one still tu – and for distinction from the vast majority of China’s population as they struggle to establish themselves in the cities. Now that the cities are ‘flooded’ with migrating peasants in search of work, what more tasteful than to aspire to make of what the commonest and lowliest of peasants regard as the most common and lowly objects of consumption objects of desire, luxury, beauty, and even art. Return to the source: Profiting from the new hyperrurality The peasant entrepreneurs, who have profited from the reappraisal, are not com- plaining, however. They are offered a means of self-validation and a means of earning, and it perhaps does not matter that they are dependent on the dominant urban discourse for their livelihood. Consider this fieldnote narrative from a nongjiayuan set up two years ago beside the main road leading up towards the Qianshan mountains. The owners say this is a brand new trend. Previously it was just a peasant home. They believe their road- side location gives them an edge over the nongjiayuan further up into the mountains because consumers have to pay a 50 rmb surcharge to enter the area of scenic reserve, whereas here they can pull in right off the road. Consumers here can rent a room for 50 rmb for as many people as one cares to fit in. Wood collected during the winter is burnt for fuel, which keeps the costs down. There is a natural well used for washing dishes. There are big(ish) spiders and the smell of chickens in the run, animal excrement of various varieties on the floor, dust in the air and smoke from the wood fires. ‘This place is really sincere/honest (shizai), just like home’, says the host. ‘The city is formal (zhenggui) but out here you can do as you please (suibian)’, says another. ‘In the city you have to sit like this . . . but here it’s relaxing (fangsong): in the city one can’t relax when eating, one has to ‘‘behave’’.’ Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 22. Griffiths et al. 351 The host goes on: Here, waitresses don’t follow the customers; in the city, they wait and serve, making people feel uncomfortable. Here, they won’t even come over to you if you don’t ask. In the city you need to listen to the staff and sit when they say so, but here you can sit whenever you want. This gives you a ‘home-feeling’, relaxed; you can do whatever you want to do, not like in the city. All persons present say there is no pollution in the water. ‘Here’, the host says, ‘we have the big iron pan (datieguo); this kind of feeling can’t be found in the city.’ It is argued that the foods sold here have a better, more genuine taste than in the city. They guarantee the fish and vegetables are fresh: customers can pick or choose them themselves. Customers can also pick their own fruit from the trees in the garden and eat as much as they like for free. Fresh dates and sunflower seeds are picked from the garden. ‘Try these dates’, we are urged. ‘They’re a completely different taste from the ones you’ll find in the city.’ ‘Even the 5-star professional chefs in the city can’t cook the real rural food that we cook; they may add luxury sauces etc., but we get real chickens from the hillside. We fry caterpillars out here, and little fairy insects that no-one in the city has ever even heard of. This is specialized/special character food (tese cai). You can experience what you can’t experience in the city. Goose, duck, chicken, pigeon, fish, natural, natural, all the animals that fly in the sky and all the animals that swim in the river, we have them all here to eat . . . The pork in the city can’t even compare to the pork here. Here the pig grows 1–2 years naturally; in the city it grows 1–2 months and is fed by chemicals. So they’re no competition; you can’t even talk about us competing with them . . . We only eat/use in-season vegetables; we never buy food from the greenhouse (artificially raised).’ ‘What is the fundamental feeling offered by the places like this?’, we ask. ‘It gives the urban people the feeling of being ‘‘sent down’’ in ’66 (the Cultural Revolution)’, comes the reply. ‘Who comes here to eat?’, we ask. ‘City people mostly, with cars. They come from Shenyang too. Students from Anshan Science and Technology University (back down the long road towards Anshan City) too, in big parties. The customers are not necessarily rich since a table is only 1–200 kuai [i.e. rmb], but with spare time and money. They are the luxury class (xiuxian dengji).’ Some of these peasant entrepreneurs have become considerably wealthy. Their offering is, we might say, at the very beginning of its product life cycle, and we do not know what the end will be. The irony of peasants getting rich by Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 23. 352 Ethnography 11(3) offering an idyllicized version of themselves up to urban consumers for con- sumption is doubly thick: the peasants’ uprisings in the Communist revolution were directed against the rich landlords, leading us to ask whether this Romantic reversal has completed the ideological shift from Communism to capitalism. It is worth further stressing that the nongjiayuan compete fiercely, and one of the most important dimensions of their competition concerns authenticity. In a way, the most authentic are the dirtiest, most diseased and most poverty- stricken. For the consumers, however, the demands of comfort and pleasure are in conflict with the extremes of authenticity. There then arise interesting comparative matters which will be the arena of contestation in coming years. How rough-hewn and humble do you need to be? What is the optimum com- bination of pain and pleasure? Even in the same nongjiayuan, consumers will behave very differently: those slightly older consumers who forfeited an educa- tion in return for a truly authentic experience of eating rural bitterness in the Cultural Revolution, now recently laid off early from reforming state-owned- enterprises, easily slip back into those ‘authentic’ behaviours increasingly inap- propriate in the cities – spitting, shirts off, shouting, public drunkenness and competitive displays of comradeship, for example. But younger professional con- sumers who were educated during the early years of reform, though they seek the authentically rural on the face of things, nevertheless continue to conduct themselves in accordance with the ‘civil’ norms of the city: they do not spit, they remain fully clothed, they do not forcefully compel each other to drink more, their voices cannot be heard from other tables, they leave their empty beer bottles on the table between them, that is, together, rather than piling them up in individual piles on the floor behind their own seats as if to say ‘mine’s bigger than yours’, as the formerly mentioned people can often be observed to do. Where, then, is the real nongcun? How far does one have to go into the hills and ‘wild’ country in its pursuit? How far up the long road into the Qianshan moun- tains does one have to go before one gets to the real rural? Certainly past what usually passes for nongjiale – the pumping karaoke bars and morally ambiguous spas, etc. Certainly past the ‘tourist’ district, an area of Buddhist shrines, where all but local peasants have to pay an entrance fee. The mountains roll on and on for hours, ever further away from the city; but even here, we still find astute peasants who, although they have not altered their homes at all, not even posted a sign, yet stand by the roadside calling: ‘Come here to eat rural food, come here to stay’ (lai dao zher chi nongcun cai, lai dao zher zhu). Customers at the nongjiyuan speak wistfully of the ‘real’ nongcun, referring to ever more distant regions elsewhere in the northeast – Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, places ever more bitter, ever more poor. But, of course, the further one goes in pursuit of the authentic rural, the closer one gets to the real old-style dangers of rural life. The call of the romanticized rural gets ever fainter the closer one gets to the source of its purity. But the boundary is always being pushed back: the fainter the call, the more refined is its pursuit. Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
  • 24. Griffiths et al. 353 Consumption, the environment, and the Chinese individual China has some of the most polluted cities in the world. It has traffic jams and air pollution. It has water pollution on an epic scale. It has massive urban populations, growing all the time as the rural poor flee rural poverty. For the urban dwellers with the means, the weekend trip out to the nongjiayuan to breathe clean, fresh air and eat natural homegrown food is highly appealing. Where the consumer pioneers are going today, all of China may go tomorrow. In Anshan, the journey from industrialization to the beginnings of whole grain has taken only about 25 years. Current indications are that China cannot sustain the urbanization of the remainder of its non-urban population (approximately 800 million people), especially at the current rate of change. We expect too, then, that aspiring urbanites will quickly realize that owning a car and sitting in traffic on the smog-filled roads of the world’s most polluted cities is not the vision of the urban sphere they had imagined, and will reject urbanism as the paradigm of desire. Environmental management and economic policy may be altered to capitalize upon and best manage this zeitgeist. Slowing the rush to the cities will take time, but certainly economic development in rural areas has an important part to play: if the rural economy can be improved, perhaps by initially offering urbanites access to a ‘hyperrealist’ version of the rural, complete with bare chests and muddy hands but stripped of the disease, crushing poverty, and violence which has characterized the ‘real’ recent rural past, perhaps the ‘real’ can be eclipsed altogether – a change that will benefit the entire world, not just local Chinese peasants. Retailers, too, stand to benefit from this reappraisal of values: international marketers should be on red alert. For out of what are, on the face of it, minor metaphorical shifts, great changes can grow. The original romantic passion for the real, recklessly pursuing nature and origin, went hand in hand with the rise of individualism in European culture (see Balet and Gerhard, 1936), defying tyrants and deities in pursuit of self. The Romantic reappraisal in Anshan reflects the fact that for the first time whole cohorts have the liberty and means to grasp for a reality beyond their own lives and at the same time to assert their individuality, thus posing new challenges for the retail sector. Acknowledgements Thanks are due to Adam Cross (Centre for International Business, University of Leeds) for assistance in the early stages of Michael Griffiths’ doctoral research. Thanks are also due to the Sino-British Fellowship Trust, the Universities’ China Committee London, and the Worldwide Universities Network for contributing towards funding this research. Delegates at the 1st Biennial Conference of Fudan University International Urban Forum (Shanghai, 3–5 November 2006), the ‘China in the World’ Summer School 2007 (University of Leeds, 24–27 July) and the Euro-Asia Management Studies Annual Conference 2007 (University of Leeds, 28–30 November), as well as anonymous reviewers of Ethnography, offered valuable comments on earlier versions of this work. A shorter version of the article Downloaded from eth.sagepub.com at University of Leeds on August 31, 2010
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