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Fei Xiaotong exemplified fusion of basic and applied research

ZHANG HAO | 2021-11-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Professor Fei Xiaotong (2nd Right) gives a lecture to a class of sociology at Fudan University in December 1981. Photo: PROVIDED BY INSTITUTE OF SOCIOLOGY, CASS

Basic research and applied research are two interrelated components of philosophy and social sciences studies. The former provides academic support for the latter while the latter offers practical paths for the former. Promoting the organic integration of the two can facilitate the development of each. In this regard, Fei Xiaotong (Fei Hsiao-Tung, 1910-2005), who spearheaded the restoration of sociology in China after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), set a very good example for later generations within academia. 


In the late 1970s, when he regained the opportunity to conduct scholarly research, Fei, who was approaching the age of 70, said metaphorically that he wanted to use the last 10 yuan left in his pocket to buy one thing he truly loved. In other words, he intended to devote the rest of his life, which might be 10 years, to finish the “two papers” that he didn’t finish in the past. One of the two papers referred to studies of ethnic areas and border regions, which he started during his 1935 survey at Dayaoshan Mountain in today’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The other was rural development research he initiated in a 1936 survey in Jiangcun, a collective term for villages in the Yangtze Valley in southern Jiangsu Province.
Fei not only completed the two papers with “10 yuan,” but also finished a third one with an extra “dozen yuan,” proposing and advocating for “cultural consciousness.” That was also the “last paper” in his late years. 
Each of the “three papers” exemplifies the integration of basic and applied research. Due to limited space, this article will focus on Fei’s rural development studies to discuss how he organically fused basic and applied research. 
Extracting theory from practice
In summer 1936, Fei went to Kaixiangong (Kaishienkung) Village, the prototype of Jiangcun, in Wujiang County, Jiangsu Province, where his elder sister Fei Dasheng worked as an extension specialist for the local sericulture school. He carried out a one-month investigation into the village. The living condition of local villagers “standing on the verge of starvation” impressed him so deeply that he drew the conclusion “it is the hunger of the people that is the real issue in China” in his book Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley, which was based on his doctoral treatise. 
Why were villages in regions south of the Yangtze River (Jiangnan), a place of abundance known as the cradle of fish, rice, and silk, reduced to such poverty? Fei started from a special institutional arrangement for land ownership at that time, seeking answers in more depth, step by step. “According to the native theory of land tenure, land is divided into two layers, namely the surface and the subsoil.” This policy resulted in large numbers of absentee landlords who had “no right to use the land directly for cultivation.”
Moreover, in the village, the domestic silk industry had been carried on by the people for more than a thousand years. Sericulture was the second main source of income for the villagers after agriculture. However, during Fei’s survey, the export and price of native silk plummeted, turning the traditional domestic weaving industry to shambles. Facing a steep falloff in income, the peasants had no alternative but to trade their title over the land, limited to the subsoil, for government funds. As such, the peasants were relegated from landholders to tenants, shouldering a heavy rent burden.
Exchanging land ownership for government funds was like quenching thirst with poison. It made the peasants’ livelihoods even worse and accelerated the external transfer of land ownership. Consequently, up to 70% of the households became landless tenants. “A vicious cycle saps the life of the peasants,” Fei said. Therefore, the root of problems in the villages lied in the decline of the domestic weaving industry, concretely embodied by peasants’ financial bankruptcy and eventually reflected in the issue of land ownership. 
Through the surveys on Jiangcun, and on three villages in southwest China’s Yunnan Province later, Fei formed his logic to explain the decline of rural China at that time: the traditional Chinese economic structure was a rural economy mixing agriculture and industry. Peasants relied on agriculture and the domestic weaving industry at the same time to make ends meet. In the preceding decades, the expansion of Western industry led to the waning of rural industry, shaking the traditional economic structure and affecting peasants’ subsistence. The original underlying land issues became prominently serious, while the conflict between tenants and landlords escalated. 
Fei was in favor of land reform launched by the Communist Party of China, regarding it as a necessary and urgent step to relieve peasants of suffering. Meanwhile, he held that resuming and modernizing rural industry was the fundamental solution to the problem. “The eventual solution of China’s land problems is closely related to the country’s industrialization,” he said. 
Fei’s Peasant Life in China was acknowledged by his doctoral supervisor Bronislaw Malinowski as “a landmark in the development of anthropological fieldwork and theory.” Cast aside the book’s significance to anthropology, Chinese scholar Gan Yang noted after examining its theoretical innovation that Peasant Life in China grasped the central link of rural industry in analyzing problems facing China, and pinpointed its far-reaching implications for social changes in the nation. With high research originality, it represented the first step forward in Chinese sociology.
Testing theory in practice
Developing rural industry was one of Fei’s major propositions. He not only made important theoretical contributions to rural industrialization research, but also played a significant role in bolstering the development of township enterprises and industrialization in China. 
In his third visit to Jiangcun in 1981, Fei was glad to see that industry had evidently increased in the collective economy of the villages and peasants’ income had risen substantially, due to the villages’ effort to turn from lopsided grain development to household sideline production. “I feel particularly excited to see the goals I envisioned decades ago have surfaced in reality and shown signals of characteristics of future Chinese economy,” he said. 
During the following 20-odd years, Fei continued follow-up surveys on the development of rural industry across China and successively put forward the famous Sunan (Southern Jiangsu) Model, Wenzhou Model, and Zhujiang Model, applauding and inspiring the development of township enterprises. 
Thanks partly to Fei, township enterprises sprung up and developed rapidly in China. For a time, they were the most vigorous element in the Chinese economy, accounting for roughly one third of the national industrial output. 
Advocating for rural industry and a new type of industrialization based on China’s actual conditions is probably the biggest contribution Fei has made to Chinese sociology and social development in the country. When it comes to the fusion of basic and applied research, Fei discovered problems from practice, proposed theories, and then tested theories back in practice. The cycle advanced academic theories and social progress simultaneously, and is a great example of integrating basic and applied research. 
In fact, Fei continuously followed up and extended the “paper” on rural development, making achievements in multiple facets. For example, when championing rural industrialization, he shrewdly realized the importance of urbanization and adjusting to coordinate the urban-rural relationship, raising the major proposition of “small towns, big problems” and the strategic move to develop small towns to serve as “population reservoirs” for urbanization in China. His ideas generated extensive impact in academia and society, and constituted a vital component of China’s later urbanization strategies. 
Along the thread of Jiangcun—small towns—small and medium-sized cities—economic regions with big cities as the center—and the whole nation, a course he jokingly described as “going to town from the countryside,” Fei persistently expanded his research and brought forth a series of key proposals on regional economic development, producing profound influence. 
When observing and studying economic and social phenomena in many parts of China, he noticed economic growth in some regions beyond administrative division, so his concepts of regional economy and coordinated regional development were in the making. 
In the early 1990s, Fei proposed building an economic development zone for the Yangtze River Delta with Shanghai as the lead, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces as the two wings, and the Yangtze Valley as the hinterland, to drive national economic growth. 
After the integrated development of the Yangtze River Delta was instituted as a national strategy, Fei grasped the opportunity and led his team to actively study the issue of farmers amid the development and opening up of Pudong in Shanghai, which in return facilitated basic theoretical research about farmers and social transformation. 
Now the Yangtze River Delta has become the most vibrant and developed region in China’s socioeconomic development. Zhejiang Province in the region has been appointed by the central government to build a demonstration zone for achieving common prosperity through high-quality development. 
Fei stated that social sciences research should serve society, and intellectuals should assume social responsibilities. In his view, the practicality of social sciences research has two orientations: arguing for decisions that have been made and providing guidance, or “pointing out a general direction.” He adamantly chose the latter. Guiding scholarly research necessitates much time and energy to learn about and grasp rich social facts. Seeking knowledge from practice was Fei’s consistent pursuit and the salient feature of his academic career, which is a vivid epitome of “researching for the people” and “writing papers on the vast motherland.”
Zhang Hao is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.