The Socialist Hearth: Domestic and Common Space in a Chinese Village, 1950-2000.

This paper provides a case study of home and commons in the socialist context, exploring the transformation of space in one Chinese village from the 1950s to the present. The paper argues that local actors accepted, subverted, resisted, and adapted state efforts to integrate their village into the "nation-home", in a complex struggle of interests and values constituting the grassroots heart of evolving socialist practice. In the 1950s, idealised representations of domestic space linked to labour and socialist construction paved the way for rural collectives, and for the emergence of new common space on the village level. Homelessness, in this context, became a qualification for leadership based on loyalty to the Party-state, a model applied in the re-placement of family hearth to communal kitchen in the Great Leap Forward. In the 1960s and 1970s, personal conflicts took political form in disputes over contested village space; this unraveling of the social fabric became concretised in the dis-integration and statist re-orientation of family dwellings. Under reform socialism, villagers continue to draw on their historical memory as both cautionary experience and precedent for cooperative efforts to protect local interests against the threat of state-sponsored privatisation. The paper concludes that contemporary adaptations of "living socialism" can be read through spatial texts, but these must be understood in the particularity of place: the fluid, inter-nesting boundaries between interior and exterior, private and public, home and village, memory and constructed space.

The socialist and postsocialist experiences in rural China over the last half century have left their lasting imprints in place. One way to chart and evaluate contemporary trajectories of socialism is to read the transformations of village space. This paper focuses on the family hearth in Xiakou village, Sichuan , tracing the changes in production, distribution, and local identity that radiate from the hearth through the fluid, inter-nesting boundaries of landscape, home, village, and nation. Prior to the socialist revolution, the hearth served as the flexible center of the traditional economy as encoded in the symbol and function of household space. "Family" ( jia ) was defined as the conflation of home and agriculture; graphically represented in the character jia , combining the roof radical over the pig radical. At the level of everyday practice, the socialist revolution was a re-placement of the hearth from the family home ( jia ) to the nation home ( guojia ). This process of re-placement reached its height in the People's Communes of the Great Leap Forward, but was shifted back to the village locus in the collective period during the 1960s and 1970s. Decollectivization in the 1980s moved production and distribution back to the family, but the hearth under reform socialism was fundamentally transformed. We argue that these historical re-placements of the hearth created expectations and patterns that lingered after reform, and that these precedents are essential for understanding the present trajectory of socialism as the "gathering" countervailing force to the "scattering" effect of market reforms.

The Flexible Hearth

When asked about the physical appearance of their village in the "old society," the older residents of Xiakou described a "one house village." A composite sketch drawn from their memories and verified by these informants shows the inter-connection of individual households and courtyards in two main compounds divided by patriline, but cleaving to common axes in the landscape.


The spatial cohesiveness in this representation of the "traditional village" stands in strong contrast to the village's appearance today, where individuated houses are loosely interlaced by paths, and spread along independent axes conforming to the curve of the road passing in front of the village.


These images are graphic representations of what some villagers called the "scattered" ( fensan ) state of social relations in the village compared to the past. Scattered village space, in this view, correlates to other losses of cohesion, such as the commodification of inter-family relationships, the abandonment of generational names, replaced by nationalist or revolutionary names, or the erosion of authority once held by village elders, who complain that young people don't listen to them anymore. Generational conflicts within the family culminate in fenjia or a division of the family hearth that sets up a new independent household (although not necessarily a new house) for the children (primarily sons), at the same time creating a crisis for the parents. House design allows sons to split off from the main household by opening a new fire without moving out of their rooms. Old rules ( lao guiju ), however, maintain that one son should always remain with the ageing parents, and the costs of their care should be divided among all sons. Increasingly sons are refusing to support their parents. Villagers explain the fissures of the hearth and the scattering of community as resulting from the rise of wage labor and the decline of agriculture as the primary mode of production in the village.

In the subsistence ideal of family-based agricultural production, the hearth is vortex to the practical cycles of farming, placed at the center of the functional agricultural spaces in the home. Grain from the fields passes through drying and winnowing in the front courtyard on its way to the hearth. Shucked corn is hung under the eaves in a spectacle of abundance. Hulled rice is stored in a chest in the interior of the house before being cooked in the main family guo (wok). Garden vegetables enter the kitchen from the back; trimmings and corn meal are cooked together with dishwater in a separate guo and then mixed with cut grass to feed to the pigs. Salted pork and sausage are hung on the kitchen ceiling, where they are gradually preserved by smoke rising from the hearth. The toilet, located just off the kitchen, is connected to the adjacent pigpen to collect manure and nightsoil together in one pit, from which they are recycled as fertilizer for the fields and garden. A dog is placed at a strategic corner, from which he guards the courtyard-kitchen-pigpen.

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The hearth is also a gathering point of meaning in the home-second only to the central ancestral hall ( tangwu )-as the place for the social reproduction of identity. Cooking is an activity requiring generational cooperation; the oldest and youngest in the family feed the fire for those cooking and cleaning at the guo . After dinner, when the weather is cold and the nights long, the last embers of the fire are raked into a shallow pit behind the guo , and the family gathers around to kao huo leaning on the fire for warmth. In our experience, kao huo was the time to chat and gossip and tell stories, sometimes within the family, other times with neighbors stopping in to visit. Even with the advent of multi-channel television, in winter the hearth and the activities of kao huo , carried in a brazier, expanded to absorb the tv. The stories and news swapped around the hearth are a way in which the family remembers itself, and the village as a whole creates community.

The hearth as a place of communication is also suggested by the placement of the kitchen god, who reports the family's private behavior to the sacred bureaucracy. A symbol of authority and order, the kitchen god presides over the civilizing process of transforming the raw into the cooked, and his presence assures moral accountability in the heart of the home. At the same time, he is open to persuasion and cooptation into the sociability of the hearth. The family ritually subverts his authority by smearing his mouth with sugar to ensure a good report at the Spring Festival, gaining his patronage and thereby abundance in the coming year.

The hearth is flexible; its expandable design can accommodate fortune in a growing family, and it can gather shared prosperity, as much as it represents a shared fate. Just as in the cycle of production the courtyard leads to the hearth, in the cycle of distribution the hearth leads to the courtyard in jiudawan feasting that accompanies weddings, funerals, and sometimes birthday celebrations. These displays of hospitality confirm the family as part of a larger social whole, and the community judges the family on the production of its hearth. Public space in this remembered order is an extension of the functions and meanings of the home. Markets are macro-courtyards * ; temples parallel the home in the jiudawan of temple festivals held in the courtyard, and in their role as the community tangwu (ancestral hall). * Moreover, the establishment of new temples is carried out through networks of incense division-f enxiang here corresponds to fenjia household division, as each involves starting new fires from a central hearth.

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The Re-Placed Hearth

This idealized model of interleaving hearth, home, and community is qualified by the constant threat of fenjia and its division of family, income, and property. Historically, family solidarity itself gave rise to longstanding family feuds between patrilines. Families sharing the same surname were often unequal, and kin distant from the centers of family power tended to be ostracized from the distribution of wealth. The ideal of the hearth flexing to accommodate fortune was tempered by the realites of poverty, as some households were forced to sell off their pigs (a marker of economic calamity) or were reduced to homelessness and the insecurity of selling their labor as tea carriers. In the "old society" before Liberation in 1950, family wastrels ( bai jiazi ) addicted to opium were reduced to selling their children.

The social inversion of Land Reform carried out by workteam investigators in the early 1950s tapped into the most marginalized elements in the village-the homeless, distant relatives, opium orphans, families outside the Wu patriline-as the new leadership that would carry out the reorientation of the villagers' identity from jia to guojia / family to nation. Securing a sustainable hearth for each family was the foundation of the new regime's legitimacy. Detailed investigations over the 1950s transferred authority to-and gained the loyalty of-these previously marginalized families. At the same time this new local leadership presided over the gradual collectivization that first displaced the family hearth to village-level collectives, and finally replaced it altogether with the national hearth of the People's Commune.

The People's Commune of the Great Leap Forward was the ultimate expression of the re-placed hearth, and the move from jia to guojia . Mass collectivization was achieved through the forced "investment" of stored grain, smoked pork, and the family guo itself. Free from the family, labor could be used in massive development projects that would transform the landscape and turn peasants into workers-a promise of a new community centered around the new, industrialized "hearth" of commune furnaces. Propoganda of the Great Leap drew on peasant iconograph and grafted it to this scientistic vision of modernization.


In recalling their experiences of the Great Leap Forward, villagers most vividly remember the heshituan , the commune's dining hall, with its huge fires for the guo and for meetings. Eating in the heshituan was likened to " jiudawan every day" as the hordes of workers ate their way through the invested hearths of each family. Bonfires at political meetings fulfilled the kao huo function of the family hearth, communicating directives and replacing gossip with class struggle. Whereas villagers had up till this time burnt crop residues and wild grasses in their hearth fires, now they were cutting and burning trees. The waste of the Great Leap Forward was a stark contrast to the economic recycling of the family hearth. As the Great Leap stumbled into famine, people were beaten for kindling clandestine cooking fires in the hills; there could be no fenjia from the new totalistic national hearth.

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Politicization of the Family Hearth and the Familization of Politics

State planners blamed the failure of the GLF on the persistence of a "peasant consciousness" that placed private interests and parochial identity above the collective good. In the early 1960s a "socialist education campaign" aimed to reform peasant consciousness at the level of the home and village. The aim of the campaign was to replace the family hearth not by destroying it, but by politicizing it. Propoganda of this period and the ensuing Cultural Revolution represent the hearth as the site of political study. In the same vein, there is evidence that images of Mao replaced the kitchen god in the 1950s but now was more often seen in the tangwu as the higher authority of moral accountability in the heart of the home. Ironically perhaps, two fires during the collective period burned nearly all the houses in the village (now production team 2). In rebuilding the orientation to the state was affirmed in the new arrangement of houses, now separated and conforming to the axis of the road. This new spatial arrangement reflected the intra-village rivalry over access to official patronage.

Just as the kitchen god could be drawn into the hearth's circle of sociability, village families during the Cultural Revolution tried to subvert officials for their own interests. One family was particularly well known for their excellent cooking, and their courtyard became a standard gathering place for visiting officials. Through their hearth, they were able to gain the coveted post of team accountant, as well as the village store franchise and its access to consumer goods. In the new spatial arrangement of the village, the visiting officials had to snake their way past a neighboring family to reach this favored courtyard, a situation that led to resentment and bitter contestation of village space: footpaths and courtyards here represent and provide access to official patronage in the effort to absorb state power into the family hearth-what we might term the familization of politics. It is worth noting that after decollectivization drastically reduced the visits of officials to the village, the head of this household was particularly outraged that these new officials called him lao xiang ( a generic term, "old peasant") rather than his name, the failure to name being a denial of any special relationship, a rejection of political kinship.

Political cooptation of the family hearth in the collective period was accompanied by the creation of new public space, part of the project to inculcate a sense of "thinking like a village." Basketball opened not only new village common space, but also new forms of cooperation and village solidarity in competition with other village teams. * The "Learn from Dazhai" campaign was designed to represent a new "hearth" in the form of an ideal village, organized by production team and mimicking the home in function, shape, and structure. * In fact, representations of domestic space virtually disappear from state propoganda in this campaign.

The production team became the locus of production, distribution, and especially of infrastructure development. The "Learn from Dazhai" campaign brought improved roads, irrigation canals, and rural electrification. Local men learned stone quarrying and masonry through their work on these projects; this emphasis on infrastructure was the beginning of construction as a labor practice in the village. Overall, the collective period set in place a mixed bag of memories and associations: On one hand, free-rider malingering and cut-throat denunciation in the intra-village struggle for resources through official patronage were divisive. On the other, the collective period established the precedent of positive collective action, the lingering expectations of state coordination and management of common betterment, as well as recognition of the need for cooperation in the context of inter-village competition.

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The Splintered Hearth

Decollectivization in the reform period-known locally as"land back to the family"-seemed to many villagers like a return to the status quo ante , in terms of both the economy and local society. As one man put it, "look around; all the landlord and rich peasant families are getting rich again, and all the poor and lower middle peasant families are poor again." Still, the return of production to the family was widely approved, even demanded. The selling-off of collective assets, however, was widely resented. In one particularly brazen case, the local party branch secretary simply dismantled the village electric station and sold it for parts to another village, keeping the money for himself. Above all, in the reform period of the 1980s and early 1990s, the agricultural economy was fundamentally transformed by the advent of wage labor. All of these forces combined to change the hearth and the corresponding village structure once again.

After decollectivization, individuated production, an ethic of consumerism, and state propoganda campaigns promoting acquisition rather than production all reinforced the fensan, scattered spatial rearrangement of the village that began during the collective period. Agriculture provided a subsistence base, but new opportunities for wage labor and construction contracting-made possible by skills learned in socialist infrastructure development-brought economic and social stratification, as well as competition within families. As young men left agriculture for wage labor outside the village, they began to see more advantage in setting up independent households; the generational shift in economic power thus led to more fenjia divisions of the family hearth.

The market economy ushered in a constellation of changes that further transformed hearth and home, changes emblemized by the arrival of stoves burning fengoumei ("honeycomb coal"). The practice of burning firewood initiated in the Great Leap Forward had continued apace, but now firewood was becoming a scare resource requiring increasing investments of time and labor to retrieve it from ever further locations. Th e new technology of honeycomb coal dovetailed with the lifestyle of itinerant wage labor: fuel was now purchased rather than gathered, and cooking could be done quickly and efficiently by one person, both of which helped enable the new nuclear families of fenjia . The use of f engoumei marks a new valuation of time, leisure, and convenience, as well as a new overall architecture of domestic space where the old hearth is replaced by the new national hearth of television, and the courtyard is a site of entertainment rather than production. The sociability of the hearth has now been displaced to the playing of majiang in courtyards and tangwu (a phenomenon that began in the village in 1997). Majiang works with wage labor, the cash economy, convenience and leisure, but it also reflects the new practice of "killing time" ( hun shijian ) in the vagaries of the labor market, and the image of uncertainty, the testing of fate.

These lifestyle changes brought about unintended consequences that in turn suggest the messy, incomplete transitions splintering the village. Burning fengoumei did not provide smoke to cure the narou salted pork, which rotted in place, turning a symbol of abundance into a symbol of corrosion. Another problem was the accumulation of manure and nightsoil that was no longer being used to fertilize the fields; the smell was overpowering . Because of the overuse of rat poison the whole vilage population of cats and dogs and even large numbers of wild predators had been killed off and as a result rats became a real problem in the village and in the gardens . To some (especially older) villagers, these practical problems seemed to underscore the social rot of "every man for himself."

The undependability of wage labor in general, and the collapse of the stone market in particular, led many young men to return to the village in the late 1990s. At the same time, the opening of a nature park near the village opened up the possibility of tapping into the tourist trade by starting nongjiale , a kind of "peasant restaurant" playing on city folk's nostalgic romanticization of the countryside. An important part of this commodification of peasant identity was providing narou on the menu, and plenty of "fresh country air"-both expectations that were difficult to fulfill under prevailing circumstances. An even bigger problem was that the village had nowhere for vehicles to park, but creating a parking area, like cleaning up the village, would require cooperation as a village if they were to take advantage of the emerging opportunities of a tourist economy. Some people in the village felt that the township government needed to be involved in coordinating the collective effort of the village, but that officials simply didn't care.

While state agents may have lacked the interest or resources to help set up nongjiale , a local contractor ( baogongtou ) did invest in the village. In this case, the market collapse brought a return of wealth parallel to the return of labor. The contractor was an orphan adopted into a village family who made his fortune in the granite sawing business. On returning to the village, before he built his own new house he paid for the construction of a village water system. A similar situation held in the building of the village's satellite television network by another relatively wealthy contractor who provided his receiver and link-ups to the whole community. While these acts were partly motivated out of self-interest, and partly out of noblesse oblige, they were also understood as the practice of reciprocal relations of labor and as recognition of the common good.

These stories suggest that cooperation and commitment to the village are enduring moral values with roots in both traditional and socialist experience. The water system allowed the orphan contractor and his outside capital to be re-embedded in local social relations, and the potentially splintering effect of establishing a new hearth was tempered by linking that private prosperity to the public good. These relationships are growing outside the continuing involvement of the state in local affairs, but in an interesting development, the contractor was recruited to join the party. Party recruitment of emerging local elites can be understood as part of a new negotiation of the state's role under reform socialism.

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This study of the hearth, like Feuchtwang's analysis of contemporary temples, sees place as a gathering point of the ideals of both the pre-socialist and socialist period. Feuchtwang draws our attention to the concept of "remnants" in thinking about how past ways of doing things are encoded in place. While he defines the "home place of moral authority" as a "space beyond the domestic spaces where expectations of reciprocity and fairness are maintained," we might also see remnants of this morality recorded in the nexus of hearth, courtyard, and village space. The hearth place offers more than a metaphor of social relations; rather than merely reflecting change, the hearth-with its direct connection to production, consumption and reproduction-embodies change and gathers within itself the moral remnants of historical experience.

In the Old Society the hearth manifested the tight integration between agricultural production and family structure-a cyclical pattern of reproduction based on the competition between families. The moral failing of this competitive system lay in the dire poverty of its losers, who were left without hearth or home, land or resources. In the 1950s the state redistributed the means of production and reinvented traditional structures of cooperation, an intervention that guaranteed every family a hearth, but one that progressively displaced the cycle of reproduction away from that hearth into ever-distant community spaces. By the end of the 1950s, however, the state had gone too far, erasing the family hearth entirely and replacing it with the national hearth of the People's Commune- a leap that landed in famine . The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a correction to the leap, where production and consumption were centered at the level of the production team. Family structures were once again reinforced and the family hearth was re-validated but with a new emphasis on the courtyard. The courtyard as a symbol of community interactions became the location of team meetings, and the place where officials and villagers negotiated lines of patronage and re/distribution . While the competition over this patronage created fissures within the village, and the communalized methods of production resulted in a generalized poverty, villagers felt the ensuing reform period also went too far; in essence throwing out the cooperative baby with the collective bathwater. The new market economy enabled divisions of the family hearth that further exacerbated the scattering of the village, whereas most people wanted to hold onto the moral achievements of the collective period-a guarantee of subsistence and the more general promise of economic progress. Contemporary developments aim at addressing the new problems reflected in the dis-integrations of the modern hearth.

Today the hearth is a site for the negotiation of opposing impulses: What constitutes an appropriate balance between the individual and collective, the family and the state? Villagers know that access to the land guarantees their subsistence and security. Their experience with socialism taught them, however, to hope for something more; it left a lingering expectation of progress. This teleology of progress, moreover, demands the cooperation of villagers, and coordination by the state . Yet the teleology of progress also brings with it a distinct set of risks to which villagers are sensitive; they know that the old system of self-reliant agriculture sustainably recycled and re-used resources, whereas modern progressive methods run the risk of dependency, waste, and exhaustion of resources.

Policies now in progress have brought a return to state coordination of development, in the form of a large reforestation project that encourages farmers to plant trees and bamboo in place of grain crops, and that enables the transition away from agriculture with subsidies of grain and cash. Thus the state is once again present at the family hearth. By keeping people on the land, the reforestation project in many ways constitutes a mutual accomodation of interests between the nation-state (seeking social order) and villagers (seeking economic security). That accomodation is being negotiated in recognition of the "fuzzy" interpenetration of public and private that evolved historically through adaptations in the relationship between family hearth and village space.

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About This Essay

The Socialist Hearth: Domestic and Common Space in a Chinese Village 1950-2000

This essay is a grassroots look at how socialism and its aftermath have impacted the everyday organization of lived space in the village and in the home. An earlier version of the essay was presented at a panel on "Trajectories of Socialism in Contemporary Asia" at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in November 2003.