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Private Life under Socialism, Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999.

Private Life under Socialism, Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999. By Yunxiang Yan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. xvi plus 289 pp. $19.95).

In the long and cold winter nights of Xiajia Village in the very north of China in Heilongjiang province, family life revolved around the stove-heated beds known as the kang. The room housing two kang also housed the whole family, visitors, lodgers and domestic animals. In this environment, privacy was restricted to the contact between the body and the beddings. The shortage of space permitted only one centre of attention: the father. Into this setting, came the Chinese family revolution of the 1950s.

The revolution spelled out at least three changes, as this excellent ethnography makes clear. The Marriage Law of 1950 said that women were equal to men; the land reform by the early 1950s said that all land was held in common; and the socialist state built more houses with the same structure for more families. It took a generation for these changes to unfold. By the 1980s, the new family fostered by this revolution had arrived, and no sooner, the next stage was to begin.

The oral reports on which much of this book is based led the author to believe that a pivot for change was autonomy given to young people in the 1950s. To be sure, parents continued to hold the key to marriage, but the younger generation had the right of veto. Stories of the exercise of such veto testify to the author's surmise that the attitude change was real even if the impact on marriage pattern was delayed.

The change in attitude notwithstanding, it was socialism dismantled that paved the way ahead. By the 1980s, the Marriage Law made no more impact, commonly held land was once again allotted to individual cultivators and increasing private wealth drove a wave of private house-building which allowed variations in designs. Add to that the emigration of young people from the village looking for work, women taking over farming, the on-set of the age of television--no longer owned by the collective and viewed in common, but bought by the family for the family and lording over every house and home, easy transport into the city, and, to supplement the author's list, higher literacy, and one would find the symbolic turning point probably in the new village dancing hall (should one also read "disco"?) founded by a shop-keeper as a means to enhance his business. To begin with, men danced with men and women with women, but that changed quickly. Almost as quickly, the custom set in where the newly betrothed would take off for their engagement "photo-sessions" in the city, the permit given by the village cadre for the purpose being sufficiently effective to allow them into a single hotel room in which young men and women did what young men and women did. Parents approved, and if there is any doubt that pre-marital sex resulted, that was confirmed by the birth records which the author went through.

Autonomy for the younger generation posed changes for family property and the treatment of elderly parents, understandably. Family division, including farm land, now comes when sons marry and move out of the family. Newly weds keep the wedding presents and are known even to bargain on their own behalf for customary gifts from the family. Married children living with parents calculate their due respect in terms of perceived parental care given.

So far all a very interesting read, but the author also says he is inspired by Philippe Aries and George Duby. What, then, about the longer range?

Not a great deal in the book answers that question. Nevertheless, let us go back to the long dark winter nights around the kang, where hired labourers and lodgers shared the same room and kang with the householders, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and all. When the author did that as a young man in 1971 (probably as a "sent-down" student from the city), he realised, under the restriction of shared accommodation, that "most people are not curious to watch or peep at another individual's 'private business.'" (116) No-one needs doubt the author's integrity, but why was he so certain? The mores might have changed, but do we really know, from the reports of the informants, that pre-marital sex was less common and parents less often abused, not only in the 1950s, but also in the 1930s and earlier? The evolution of family life is fascinating, but perhaps along with it, there is another story that needs to be told, of the Manchus and the landlords who used to be in the village before 1949, and the recent migrants into villages of this part of China, the festivities and their settling into homesteads and families, the banditry and war of the bygone age, and the mores of the distant frontier. Let us not jump from a history of the post-1949 family in a village of north China to the rise of the individual under socialism as seems implied in many parts of this book.

David Faure

Oxford University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong
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Author:Faure, David
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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