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Chapter Nine Conclusion Culture, Modernity and the Sources of National Identity
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Chapter Nine
Culture, Modernity and the Sources of National Identity

The exigencies of wartime relief efforts depleted the resources of native-place associations, which were also constrained by the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and the outflow of population from the city, reversing earlier immigration trends. The economic crises of the civil war period further limited the possible activities of native-place organizations. Although these associations survived past 1949 to be investigated by the new Communist government in 1951, the investigators faced greatly diminished associations.[1] Maoist policies of fixing rural and urban populations prevented the influx of new immigrants to the city. Nonetheless, the old huiguan —shells of their former selves—lived on (while their properties were nationalized and transformed into schools and housing units) as social clubs and as neighborhood religious temples. Their twilight ended with the Cultural Revolution, when huiguan gods were smashed and the habits of everyday life—at least temporarily—were radically restructured.[2]

In the post-Cultural Revolution era native-place associations have experienced a gradual and mild comeback, again in altered form and context. Although the tongxianghui were illegal within the People's Republic, the state encouraged them in overseas communities as a means


of promoting investment in the mainland.[3] Students were known to have informal tongxianghui when I studied in Shanghai from 1982 to 1985. As Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms loosened restrictions on travel from the countryside to the cities and as rural populations again began to swell urban areas, sojourner institutions of various sorts have reemerged. Informal regional bang -type associations and recruiting mechanisms organize the new immigrant "floating population" currently swelling Shanghai and other Chinese cities. At the other end of the social spectrum, with the opening of trade opportunities new native-place formations have developed in the shape of trade and study associations. In major commercial cities like Shanghai these function to protect and promote trade and technological development in specific areas. The new associations use new names, like the "Develop Wenzhou Friendly Association" (Zhenxing Wenzhou lianyihui ), because the name tongxianghui bears a "feudal," old-society connotation.[4]

Studying an idea over a long period of time through the institutional and social practices to which it gives rise (and which construct it) permits a reappraisal of our habits of viewing Chinese history. This study suggests that we need to interrogate two of the primary interpretive frameworks through which we look at China in the modern period. The first is "culture," which we should see as historically constructed—as a loose assembly of terms, habits, notions, and institutions which seem


fixed or familiar or "traditional" but which turn out in practice to be continually adaptable, changing and subject to new meanings and new ideologies. Recent controversies over the classical anthropological view of "culture" as a coherent and self-contained unity of ideas and practices have led to the gradual elaboration of a considerably more fluid and open notion of culture, as "a porous array of intersections where distinct processes crisscross from within and beyond its borders."[5] Although this idea of culture is considerably more difficult to envision abstractly than is the more fixed classical notion, it serves much better in approximating the "story" told in these pages.

The idea of the native place and the practice of sojourner organization in the city were two powerful, familiar and easily recognizable "cultural elements" in the urban landscape of nineteenth- and twentieth-century China. Although such ties and organizations have been increasingly recognized as a fundamental element in modern Chinese history, they have nonetheless borne "cultural" tags bearing an ahistorical meaning. Evidence of native-place ties has been taken as a sign of cultural continuity, as a marker of "particularism" and of a failure to evolve new conceptions of individual and social identity. That which bears the label of Chinese "culture" is commonly understood as "tradition," the static foil to "modernity." By considering changes in the meaning of native place over time, innovation and invention in the institutional context of native-place networks and differences between elite and non-elite perceptions of native-place community, it becomes possible to bridge the gulfs between "history" and "culture," and between "culture" and "modernity."[6]

As this study has shown, the idea of the native place was imbued with different meanings at different times and by different historical actors and therefore (though undeniably an element of Chinese culture) cannot be divorced from changing political and ideological contexts or be understood merely as a cultural "remnant." The dynamism of the native-place tie should be taken, instead, as a testament to the protean character


of "culture." Native-place ties could be materialized in male religious fraternities or in secular political associations which came to admit women by the 1920s;[7] they could be inhabited by secret-society members and adventurers or reformers and industrialists. Native-place institutions (and their social meanings) changed radically as well, permitting young student radicals to reject "feudal and superstitious" huiguan while championing the cause of reformist, constitution-bearing tongxianghui .

Native-place associations and native-place identities were created at specific times, not simply as a reflexive "traditional" cultural response to demographic shifts but because the creation of such organizations and identifies served specific and changing economic and political purposes. As a cultural form, native-place associations cannot be divorced from their material basis, as is evident in the contrast between the strength of Ningbo and Guangdong ties and institutions and the weakness of native-place institutions and identifies among people from Hubei and northern Jiangsu. The emergence of native-place associations must also be seen as having a political basis. Li Pingshu's establishment of the Pudong Tongren Hui in 1905 needs to be understood not as the contradictory and anachronistic act of a cosmopolitan, westernizing social reformer but as of a piece with his larger municipal reform and nationalist projects. The meaning of the activist U.S.-returned physician Tang Jiezhi's effort to reformulate and lead the Guang-Zhao Gongsuo needs to be integrated with his leadership of the radical Shanghai Federation of Street Unions, his battles for Chinese representation in the International Settlement in Shanghai and his efforts to create a National Constitutional Assembly. The result is a more complex view of the meanings of the cultural iconoclasm which underlay the May Fourth era. Simi-


larly, despite some continuity in personnel, the newly established Pudong Tongxianghui of the 1930s evoked new social projects and projected entirely different social meanings. In the course of Nanjing-era transformations, native-place associations acquired new social connotations, becoming imprinted by the gang connections which often sustained them during this difficult period. It was not coincidental that when I arrived in Shanghai in 1982 and asked elderly residents what they remembered about huiguan and tongxianghui , most of them initially thought that I was asking about huidang and banghui (gangs), from which they seemed indistinguishable.

A final problem with the utility of Chinese culture as an interpretive framework has to do with assumptions about the "pure Chineseness" of Chinese culture. In the modern period it should not be possible to ignore the permeability of cultural boundaries. This kind of cultural labeling, and antithetical notions of cultural difference, are rendered highly problematic by the easy ability of native-place associations to take on aspects of "western" ideologies and institutions which might have seemed antithetical to their cultural basis, by the role of western authorities in the city in shaping the meaning of native-place associations when they treated huiguan as organs representing the Chinese community, by the way native-place networks flowed through new "western" institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and by the fluency with which the same individuals worked through both "Chinese" and "western" institutions.

The second interpretive framework, "modernity," is also highly contested but has nonetheless enduringly tended—through our standards for "modernity" and the signs by which we recognize it—too often to look like something western.[8] Although we have long been trying to understand Chinese modernity, it has been difficult to see the ways in which "China" and "modern" fit together. Insofar as we model modernity after ourselves, "modern China" will remain an oxymoron with which we interact but to which we refuse admission into our modern pantheon. The notion of modernity as something with fixed standards, as a recognizable threshold, is troublesome, moreover, because it has


displaced efforts to understand the process of change with measurements and markers of change, which cannot provide historical explanations.

"Modernity" should not be a remote abstraction, an elusive goal deprived from western experience, against which we measure China and (seeing Chinese difference) find it continually wanting. This study provides, I hope, some paths toward a clearer understanding of several specific processes of change we associate with "modernity," even as it warns against overemphasizing understandings of modernity that presume a radical break with "tradition." The shifting forms of native-place association, changing institutional structures over time and the changing ideological justifications for these forms should make us realize that the elements of "culture" are not inherently "traditional" or "modern" but the necessary, often useful and always constraining paths of change. To express this notion more dynamically, the "cultural elements" that make up the practices of everyday life are the conduits through which change is interpreted and made real and through which it may penetrate society.

Among the processes associated with "modernization" which have been themes in this study are technological and institutional innovation, democratization, "westernization," the growth of nationalism and the broadening political mobilization of society. Rather than focus on abstract or presumed meanings for these processes, the ideas themselves (or the understandings we have about them) have been contested in order that we may reshape our understandings in accordance with the Chinese context. Rather than simply celebrating the introduction of new (western) technologies, we need to look carefully at the Chinese social arrangements through which new technologies were pioneered (as in the case of print lithography, steam shipping, and newspapers) and the ways in which technology was not autonomously socially transformative but susceptible to colonization by native-place networks. Rather than focusing exclusively on the emergence of new institutions like the Chamber of Commerce or the 1905 Shanghai City Council (presuming that we understand the meaning of these changes for society), we need to consider the ways in which apparently new organizational forms interacted with "older" organizations or were invested with similar social purposes. The point is not to deny the importance of these changes or to relabel them as "traditional" or incomplete. The result in each case should be a shift from a preoccupation with a signpost of a "resemblance" to our modernity toward a concretization of actual processes of change in Chinese society and a redefinition and reconceptual-


ization of our terms and presuppositions. This shift should also permit us to rediscover the dynamism of Chinese culture even as we note cultural continuity.

During the Cultural Revolution native-place associations died out not because they were useless in modern times but, rather, because they were drained of resources and suppressed by the mechanisms of a new political culture. Similarly, they have reemerged today not because Deng's reforms have returned China to its traditions or because native-place ties have themselves become modern. In altered form, native-place associations are back because immigration has resumed, because they provide useful services and because the demographic, economic and political restraints which obstructed their formation have loosened. It is not that China is now returning to its past but rather that native-place tics have once again been reinvented.

Although this study does not attempt to comprehensively redefine "Chinese modernity," through a more open notion of culture, through a deemphasis on boundaries or thresholds of "modernity" and through a concretization of processes of social and ideological change (observed through the functioning of social institutions), it has made a preliminary foray in this direction. It has also suggested ways in which our understandings of two key, if highly contested, concepts associated with "modernity" drawn from western experiences need to be rethought in the Chinese context: the idea of a "public sphere," and the idea of Chinese nationalism. Recent debates over the emergence of a "public sphere" in late traditional and early Republican China, though excessively preoccupied with whether Chinese culture is capable of producing a "public sphere" along even loosely interpreted Habermasian lines, have been highly productive in delineating state-society relations and possibilities for action in a public realm. By stressing both the consistent overlap between state and society and the possibility (nonetheless) for public activity which is not under state control, this study has suggested ways in which we may refine our notions of a developing public realm, one which may be specific to China, rather than an imperfect Chinese reflection of a superior European "public sphere." This involves a shift from a search for absolute social autonomy toward an understanding of the kinds of social maneuvering which may take place in a situation of limited social autonomy and even overlap with the state. It also involves a shift from an analytic insistence on individual rights toward an understanding of other grounds (like nationalism or dedication to local self-government) which may legitimize certain forms of resistance to the


state. Although the use of concepts from western historical experience has enabled us to fruitfully interrogate China's experience, we need to relinquish both our insistence on strict western markers for historical development and our search for comparable Chinese "equivalents." The idea is to abandon the historically dubious idea of "equivalence" and to understand more precisely the nature of Chinese difference, not as a foil to us, but as its own entity.

This study of native-place associations and their role in social mobilization and developing Chinese nationalism contributes, finally, to our understanding of the broad phenomenon of nationalism. Benedict Anderson's recent study of "the origin and spread of nationalism" has been influential in part because, through his apt term "imagined communities," Anderson expressed and explored the socially constructed nature of national communities and highlighted processes by which national entities and national identifies become imaginable.[9] Although Anderson's study and other recent theoretical literature on nationalism has suggested that nationalist movements could mobilize "certain variants of feelings of collective belonging which already existed" in society, consideration of the conscious integration of preexisting ties (preexisting imagined communities) into a larger national imagined community has been minimal.[10] Prasenjit Duara's study of modern Chinese nationalism calls into question the utility of Anderson's and other modernist frameworks for understanding developing ideas of the Chinese polity. By tracing the role of older cultural elements in the imagining of the nation, this study of native-place sentiment and organization in the era of developing nationalism contributes to this developing discussion by providing a counterweight to excessive emphasis on the contribution of new historical elements.[11]

Subethnic native-place networks institutionalized in sojourner associations played a formative role in the anti-imperialist and state-building nationalisms and in popular social mobilization in these causes in late Qing and Republican Shanghai. It is important, therefore, to recognize


the ways in which national sentiment was fueled by native-place loyalties and to understand the position of local identities in the developing idea of the Chinese nation.

The distinctiveness of native-place identity, as an intermediate group identity which might be integrated into a construction of a broader national identity, is twofold. First, in contrast to family, clan or village communities, in which feelings of common identity could be based on a familiar and known community of people, sojourners' native-place communities (which could involve hundreds of thousands of people in a large city like Shanghai) exceeded the boundaries of finite, familiar and knowable groups of people and were based on imaginary as well as institutionalized reconstructions of the native place in the city of so-journing residence. Second, in contrast to newer types of urban associations (merchant, student and worker associations), native-place identity incorporated feelings for territory, ancestors and cultural and linguistic ties, all of which have tended to play important roles in the formation of modern nationalisms.

As the evidence in the preceding chapters indicates, I am not suggesting that native-place networks were not motivated by self-interest or that they entirely transcended "particularistic" sentiments. Native-place associations, as this study has shown, encompassed a range of loyalties and political stances. The point here is that the label of "particularism," applied simplistically to such associations, fails to provide an explanation of their evident historical role in the construction of urban nationalism. If the presence of native-place sentiments and networks in the development of Chinese nationalism is not recognized, we will fail to understand component contradictions and tensions which make up the character of what we refer to as "nationalism."

As we have seen, native-place ties and institutions were involved in nationalist social mobilization not simply because "they were there" and could be useful, though certainly their utility was important. Also important was the process by which the sojourning condition and sojourning networks enabled the transcendence of "localisms" and the manner in which the imagined link to the native place and native-place community, through the operation of synecdoche, permitted the imagining of national community. In this exploration of the "place" of native-place identity in national identity, in this probing of the complex relationship of national interests and native-place interests, we may both modify our general understanding of nationalism and more precisely describe the ways in which nationalism developed and worked in a Chi-


nese context. We can also see the importance of the state for structuring institutions at the local level. The institutional forms of native-place associations changed in accordance with changing conceptions of the broader political polity, with tongxianghui adopting constitutions and assemblies while politicians remodeled the state along similar lines. This process of mirroring, of aligned social and political transformation at the state and local levels, in "traditional" as well as more "modern" local institutions, is surely a critical element in the creation of national citizens.

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