Place, Memory, and Peasant Persistence in a Chinese Agricultural Modernization Pilot Demonstration Area

Authors: Ross Doll*, University of Washington - Seattle, WA
Topics: Cultural Geography, China, Development
Keywords: China, culture, agriculture, land, development, rural
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Regency Ballroom, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Premised on concerns about food safety and security, China’s central government initiated policy reforms in the mid-2000s intended to expedite a transition from peasant-based grain farming to large-scale, mechanized, “modernized” production. Ruilin, a rice-growing township in Anhui Province, was one of the first sites targeted for agricultural modernization reform. Since reform began there in 2007, over 70% of peasant households have leased their land to large-scale producers. Yet lease rates across villages vary from 100% to 20%. Based on 10 months of ethnographic research and over 200 interviews in Ruilin, I find that peasants in high and low lease rate villages draw on a common memory – the Great Leap Forward famine – to articulate contrasting notions of the value of land: as a source of either irreplaceable security or hopeless insecurity. I argue that these values and leasing outcomes are co-constitutive. In the context of intense material and discursive pressure to lease their land, peasants in demographically larger and spatially consolidated villages have organized collectively to retain their land, including through demonstrations. The sense of self-determination engendered by these actions shapes and is shaped by a historical narrative of land-as-security during a time of state collapse. By contrast, the sense of insecurity felt by peasants in smaller, spatially scattered villages perceiving themselves as unable to effectively organize shapes and was shaped by their memories to produce a narrative of land-as-insecurity. This research suggests the need for a relational, place-based approach to the study of the persistence of China’s peasantry.

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