Sociology in China

Social investigation has a history in China that extends into the Ming-Qing dynasties and earlier, in the form of reports by scholar-officials on local conditions. Scholars undertook to provide descriptions of agricultural conditions, farming methods, famines, drought and flooding, the conditions of the poor, banditry, and many other topics of interest to the state or potentially of value to the people. These reports often show great attention to detail and concern for veracity, and they provide important sources of data for contemporary historians. They do not constitute “scientific sociology,” any more than the writings of Mayhew or the findings of Parliamentary commissions constituted a British sociology in the 18th century. They fall in the category of careful fact-gathering, with some efforts at diagnosing causes of some of the phenomena identified. We may also refer to the tradition called “evidential research” (kaoju), which emphasized “empirically rigorous methods” by historians and linguists to gather evidence for reconstructing China’s early history.

Sociology as a science involves several more specific ideas over and above simple descriptive reportage of social behavior: the idea of empirically rigorous methods of data gathering and analysis, the idea of providing explanations of the phenomena that are discovered, the idea of formulating theories about unobservable social processes or mechanisms, and the idea of identifying some level of patterns or regularities among and across groups of phenomena.

So what were some of the main turning points in the development of modern sociology in Chinese academic institutions in the twentieth century? How did sociology first appear in China? What were the primary influences? What assumptions about social theory and social research methodology were important, at what periods in time? When did the institutions of academic sociology develop—departments, associations, and journals?

As a European intellectual development, sociology took its shape in the 19th century as a result of several important currents of thought: the development of empiricism or positivism as philosophical theories of human knowledge, the development of “classical sociological theories” of modern societies (Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Tocqueville, Simmel); and the refinement of the methods of social description and analysis associated with public policy and reform efforts. Durkheim’s theories of social solidarity and cohesion, Weber’s theory of rationality and norms as causes of large historical developments such as the emergence of capitalism, and Marx’s theory of class conflict as the historical cause of social change—these classical theories constituted a first generation of sociological theory that twentieth century sociologists worked with in their efforts to deal with complex sociological phenomena. New theories in the twentieth century acquired classical standing as well: Parsons’ structural-functionalism as a general theory of social organization, the anthropologists’ formulation of theories of culture and language, and the Chicago School’s blend of pragmatism and policy provided a reservoir of theoretical ideas in the context of which more specific sociological inquiries could be framed.

Early in the twentieth century there were several important early Chinese sociologists who studied these theories in the west and brought them back to Chinese universities. There was a “founding group” of sociologists who studied in the US, in Chicago, California, and other universities in the 1930s and who created significant pockets of social research in China. The primary fields were rural development, ethnic groups, labor issues, gender and family. These founders published in English and Chinese. Yan Fu (1853-1921) was one of China’s first scholars of sociology, and translated Herbert Spencer’s Study of Sociology into Chinese in 1903). Quite a few Chinese students received Wisconsin, Columbia, USC, Chicago PhDs in the 1920s and 30s, and one students received a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1936.

Following the Communist Revolution, sociology went through several serious periods of crisis. In the 1950s the “socialist” character of the revolution led officials in China to ideological objections to the science of sociology.  The view was that sociology had to do with addressing social problems.  But this is a socialist society, so how can we have social problems?  Therefore, we don’t need sociology.  Departments of sociology were disbanded in the universities.  A few went to the Labor Cadre School.  Others went to statistics departments.  Quantitative and statistical methods were acceptable; but sociological theory and applied research were not.  This was described as “bourgeois science.”

In 1956-57 there was an attempt by some professors to revive sociological research.  Prof. Ma Yinchu wrote an article addressed to Chairman Mao about population issues.  He advocated for research on this question, arguing that population increase could interfere with China’s economic future.  There was some openness to this research, and Chairman Mao invited open thinking and ideas.  There had been an important meeting of a group of social scientists to re-start sociological research.  All the participants in this meeting were identified as “rightist”.  Participants included Yuan, Chen, Ma, and Fei.  Yuan was identified as “ultra-rightist” because he had done some organizational work for this small informal group.  He was sent to Northeast China for “labor re-education” in 1957.

Some opinions that emerged during the apparent thaw in 1956 were critical of one-party rule. There was an elite of scholars and officials from pre-1949 who were critical of one-party system. An important turning point was Wang Shengquan’s “Big Character Paper” in 1956 or 1957. He criticized Leninism as contrary to Marxist theory. Marx believed that socialism could only occur when the world had developed to the point of socialism; not “socialism in one country. Lenin and Stalin deviated from this belief. Wang said that Lenin was untrue to Marxism. He was consequently labeled “rightist”.

The brief emergence of critical opinions among social scientists in 1956 led to a crackdown on “Rightist thinking” and the squelching of emerging social research.  The emerging sociology and social science, social reform, political reform thinkers were all identified as rightists. Even criticism from the left—e.g. “The Party is not doing enough for peasants” was identified as rightist and counter-revolutionary.  In the anti-Rightist campaign in 1957 about 100,000 people were labeled as “rightist”.  There were quotas for institutions to identify a certain number of rightists among them.  The anti-Rightist Movement by the CCP/Propaganda Department crushed the re-emergence of social science research at this time.  The fear was that social research would turn to criticism and lead to calls for changing the political system.

The period of the Cultural Revolution was also an unpropitious period for sociology as a discipline.  The universities were closed for much of the period of 1966-76, and when they reopened, sociology remained a suspect discipline.  It was only in the early 1980s that sociology began to regain its place in the university and in the field of social-science research in China.  “In 1980 the Institute of Sociology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was established with Fei Xiao-tong as director” (Zheng and Li, 461).

Important Chinese sociologists

A particular leader in Chinese sociology was Prof. Fei Xiaotong.  He was educated in the 1930s and did field research in Jiangsu and Yunnan in the 1930s-1940s.  He was the first president of the Sociological Society of China, and he was a leading figure in re-establishing sociology after 1979.  He became a party official in a “democratic party”.  He died in 2005. Prof. Fei was a major influence after the Cultural Revolution in reviving sociology in China. An important book in English translation is Peasant Life in China: a Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley, based on his field survey in a village in Jiangsu province in 1930s (Google Books link).  Later he did field research in Yunnan.  After 1979 his best work was field research on the rise and roles of small market towns after the collapse of the people’s communes, focusing on Jiangsu Province.  (See David Arkush, Fei Xiaotong and Sociology in Revolutionary China.)  Fei became the first President of the Sociological Society after the CR in 1979. Yuan became the second president. (Here are obituaries from the New York Times (link) and ChinaDaily (link).)

Chen Da took a PhD at Columbia and became a specialist on Chinese labor.  He was a prominent sociologist in the 30s and 40s.  He became a key influence on the development of sociology at Tsinghua University, becoming founding director of the General Census Center there in 1939.  After the revolution he was prohibited from research and teaching and was eventually assigned to the Labor Cadre School.  His areas of research included survey methodology and surveys of workers’ households.  (Here is a brief history of sociology at Tsinghua University; link.)

Another important figure is Yuan Fang. He was educated at Kumming at Southwest Union University, a university that was relocated during the anti-Japanese War. He was a student of Chen Da.  He taught quantitative methods at a time that this was dangerous; “bourgeois science”.  Some professors disapproved of the workshops he organized.  People who participated were told to “be critical from a Marx-Mao-Lenin point of view.” After the anti-Japanese War, he went to Tsinghua as professor. He then went to Peking University as chair of sociology in 1984.

Lei Jieqiong.  USC 1932.  She advocated for the five-city survey. Family and marriage.  After the Cultural Revolution she became Vice Mayor of Beijing, representing a “showcase democratic party.”  She was also a Peking University professor.  Here is a ChinaDaily article on the occasion of her 105th birthday.

Pan Guangdan.  Sociology/anthropology.  He studied ethnic groups.  He was a professor of Fei.  He was the first translator of Darwin into Chinese and became China’s leading promoter of eugenics.

Yan Yangchu [James Yen].  Another renowned sociologist in the 1930s.  See Charles W. Hayford, To the People: James Yen and Village China (Google Books link).

Li Jinghan. Ph.D. from Chicago (?) in the late 1920s. Social survey methods.  Statistical study of household surveys.  Both rural and urban. Major report of fieldwork: Dingxian shehui gaikuang diaocha (a general social survey of Ding county); first published in 1934 and recently reprinted.

Wang Shengquan.  Chen and Yuan educated him.  His “Big Character Paper” in 1956 or 1957 was a precipitating incident leading to the Anti-Rightist Campaign.  He was sent to the Cadre School.

A chronology

A History of Chinese Sociology, by Zheng Hang-sheng and Li Ying-sheng (China Renmin University Press) includes a fairly detailed appendix listing “Major Events in Chinese Sociology.” Here are a few significant events from the early twentieth century:

  • 1921 Xiamen University established the department of history and sociology — first department of sociology in universities run by the Chinese
  • 1922 Yu Tian-xiu set up “Association of Chinese Sociology” and started Journal of Sociology
  • 1923 Shanghai started the department of sociology; stipulated that the teaching took the theoretical basis of Marxism and Leninism, i.e. historical materialism as its guide.
  • 1924 The Fund Board of Chinese Education and Culture was established in Beijing and the Department of Social Survey was led by Tao Meng-he and Li Jing-han.  Published a large number of findings reports, including Rural Families in the Suburbs of Beiping.
  • 1926 Li Da published Modern Sociology.
  • 1928 Chen Han-sheng conducted three large-scale surveys of rural areas in Hebei, Jiangsu and Guangdong Provinces through the early 1930s.
  • 1930 The department of sociology in Yanjing University established an experimental base at Qinghe Town, where Xu Shi-lian and Yang Kai-dao directed students to survey the population trend, families, bazars, organizations of village and town in Qinghe Town (Google Books link)

The entry for 1957 is laconic:

1957   Inspired by the principle, “let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend” set forth by the Central Committee of the CPC led by Mao Ze-dong, Fei Xiao-tong published an article A Couple of Words about Sociology in Wenhuibao.  Chen Da, Wu Jing-chao and other distinguished sociologists also expressed their opinions about the restoration and reconstruction of Chinese sociology at Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conferences and in influential newspapers or journals in Beijing and Shanghai.  The opinions of the former sociologists evoked big repercussions and attracted the attention of the leaders in departments responsible for the work.  However, when the Anti-Rightist Campaign began, the opinions about restoring and reconstruction of sociology were criticized as part of the plot to restore capitalism, and a number of former sociologists were mistaken for rightists and were persecuted.  From then on, sociology became a restricted academic zone.

The next entry is 1979, 22 years later.

One Reply to “Sociology in China”

  1. When we talk about sociology of China in the 20th century, we should not forget Ch'ien Mu, who represents traditional perspective of Chinese sociology. His books on Chinese societies were recommended by Fei Xiaotong to all of his graduate students from 1980s. Ch'ien Mu (錢穆, pinyin Qian Mu; courtesy name 錢賓四 pinyin Qian Binsi; 30 July 1895— 30 August 1990), was a Chinese historian, educator, philosopher and Confucian, considered one of the greatest historians and philosophers in 20th-century China.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: