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Book Review: Chinese Village Life Today

Book review of Gonçalo Santos's Chinese Village Life Today: Building Families in an Age of Transition (2021)

Published onFeb 28, 2023
Book Review: Chinese Village Life Today

Chinese Village Life Today: Building Families in an Age of Transition, by Gonçalo Santos (2021). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

In Chinese Village Life Today, anthropologist Gonçalo Santos offers an exhaustive twenty-year account of social change in Harmony First, a hamlet in the Yellow Flower division of Yingde city, Guangdong Province (South China). The book covers the time from 1999 – when the author began his fieldwork and when his presence as a foreigner in this remote village stoked the imaginations of the locals, who initially saw him as a spy – until recently, during COVID-19, when the author was only able to interview his respondents using social-media platforms. The author’s journey in overcoming barriers to trust is remarkable and, thus, gives rise to this rich and intimate ethnography. For his research, Santos explores themes of love and marriage, modes of childbirth and childcare, and popular religion – all in the context of rural-urban migration and shifts in workplace relations. With an eye to understanding the “intimate choices” that villagers make, the author helps the reader appreciate how administrative decisions, technocratic developments, familial obligations, and neoliberal economic dynamics interact to shape outcomes in their daily lives.

Throughout the text, Santos makes a compelling case for situating the “rural” within the anthropology of work – which was a topic of great analytical interest in the 1970s, but has been largely absent from more recent debates in the literature. Shifting the analytical purview from urban to rural as regards China’s great migration, the author provides an understanding of the changes in livelihoods due to globalizing forces as well as the reciprocal negotiations of locals in resisting or adapting to these changes. As such, the monograph examines the processes, institutions, and associated factors that influence the villagers’ choices within a rural milieu that follows what he calls “collective norms.” In this regard, the author occupies a middle ground that is reluctant to favor either the macro-level administrative shifts taking place in China or the local adaptations to these changes. Instead, Santos focuses on the negotiations between these two scales – such as in the instance of the villager Candy and her in-laws negotiating the policies surrounding birth control and childcare in light of their individual needs and collective family expectations. By scrutinizing these and other “intimate choices” that the residents of Harmony First make on a daily basis, the author reveals the multiple tensions and adaptive negotiations that take place through what he calls “sociotechnical assemblages.”

For the unversed, the first chapter provides a succinct administrative and spatial history of the development of Harmony First, which was Santos’s field site. Additionally, the chapter provides detailed notes on linguistic differences and translation for other Sinologists. The second chapter delves into the themes of love and marriage in order to probe how intimate choices, such as the decision to have a child, are structured by familial obligations, women’s individual preferences, and processes of globalization. Candy, a young married woman, chooses to have another child (despite the country’s one-child policy) as a compromise between keeping her in-laws happy (who have a strong preference for a male child) and avoiding an eventual abortion if the fetus is female.

The third chapter offers a fascinating ethnographic account of women’s childbirth preferences, as modern medicine becomes entangled with local folk wisdom. In this light, women experience stress over whether to have a “natural” vaginal birth or a cesarian-section, a procedure that has become increasingly common in China since the 1980s. Through a fascinating and intimate account of the maternity-ward emergencies that force families to choose the mode of childbirth, Santos details how cesarian-sections have become a collective decision for rural Chinese families instead of being a choice of the woman alone. In the fourth chapter, the author elaborates on the status of China’s “left-behind” children following the post-1978 “great migration” to the country’s burgeoning cities. By conceptualizing childcare as a process of “multiple mothering,” whereby grandparents serve as caregivers alongside the mother, Santos offers insight into the strategies adopted by migrating families. He does so in the context of urban childcare norms being transmitted to rural China, which often creates tension between the elderly grandparents and their young migrant parents.

In the fifth chapter, the author discusses the shifts in agriculture in light of the emergence of flush toilets by examining the complex interaction between government sanitation programs, global efforts for more hygienic waste-disposal systems, and changing attitudes due to migration and rising education and income levels. From his experiences starting in 1999 – when human waste was seen as valuable and was regularly collected for use as fertilizer – to the contemporary use of flush toilets, Santos details how the value of waste has lessened and, with this shift, local agriculture practices have also changed. In such a context, the use of chemical fertilizers dovetails with modern housing arrangements and private bathrooms, which dispose of waste rather than making it available for farming. However, the author notes a connection to the past whereby emerging biogas generation from waste material shows continuities with traditional conceptions of waste as valuable.

In the sixth chapter, Santos discusses changes in popular religion and its relationship to the moral economy of the village. These discussions in the book employ the concept of “sociotechnical assemblages” (Bjiker, 2010) – namely, the people, processes, artifacts, and materials that are negotiating the profound changes currently taking place in rural Chinese society – in which inhabitants must cope with both administrative vicissitudes and collective family pressures. To develop a framework to describe these phenomena, the author draws on the work of a number of STS scholars and extends their critique of technology as a sign of material progress (see, for example, Pfaffenberger,1992; cf. Mauss, 2016 [1925]).

Throughout the text, Santos situates the rural as a focal point in understanding social changes that have transformed China since the 1980s. Global shifts in workplace relations also have an impact on relations in villages like Harmony First, as seen in the current forms of childcare or childbirth on offer. In this light, Chinese Village Life Today will be helpful for scholars and students of anthropology, sociology, and international development as the text offers an exhaustive account of how individuals respond when faced with external factors outside of their control. Accordingly, Santos finds that the villagers’ resulting choices allow them to regain agency. The book is also intellectually stimulating as it offers new ways to think about work and migration, especially for those interested in exploring rural-urban trajectories, rural development, and urban change – not only in China, but also in analogous countries elsewhere in the Global South. Additionally, the text’s longitudinal and multi-sited methodology will help scholars of post-transition societies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia understand how ostensibly intimate choices emerge in the context of larger technocratic developments that currently characterize such societies.

Chinese Village Life Today is a concise and persuasive read, and the author effectively conveys his findings from nearly 20 years of fieldwork. Among the book’s many interventions, three innovative aspects of it stand out: first, its analytical shift to the “rural” for studying migration and the world of work; second, its focus on the negotiation of “intimate choices” and how changing economic and political relations shape this process; and third, its longitudinal and multi-sited methodology that offers a template for other scholars researching social change in developing countries. Santos’s insightful analysis of the tensions between macro-level globalizing forces and the micro-level intimate choices made by rural Chinese provides inspiration for others to study similar societies caught in the transition between the “backward” and the modern.


Bjiker, Weibe E. 2010. “How is Technology Made? That Is the Question!”  Cambridge Journal of Economics 34(1): 63-76.

Mauss, Marcel. 2016(1925). The Gift. Chicago: Hau Books.

Pfaffenberger, Bryan. 1992. “Social Anthropology of Technology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 491-516.


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