China Conversations

Guo Yuhua: China’s Suffering Class11 min read

An anthropologist of China’s underclasses talks to Jonathan Chatwin

Guo Yuhua is Professor of Anthropology at Tsinghua University in Beijing. She has spent the majority of her career researching and writing about the lives of rural Chinese people. Her work The Narration of the Peasant: How Can ‘Suffering’ Become History? is based on oral histories collected during her research in Ji village in northern Shaanxi province. She has written: “one of the ways to defeat the hegemony of official texts and official discourse is to write the history of ordinary people, the history of the ‘sufferers’.”

Professor Guo is currently undertaking research on food safety and peasant workers suffering from pneumoconiosis, a lung disease which affects workers in coal mines, quarries and foundries. Guo’s books are banned in China. As part of the China Conversations series, Guo Yuhua spoke from Beijing with writer Jonathan Chatwin.

What is your memory of studying history at school?

My college life was in the 1980s, the era of reform and opening up; we were all enthusiastic that China had embarked on the road of modernization. My graduate major was folklore and social anthropology – studying culture and folk custom – and the relationship between tradition and modernity. I hoped to discover which factors affected the habits and mores in Chinese society, and why China had lagged behind the world for many years. That was the reason for my interest in history.

When did you decide that you wanted to make China’s society and history your career?

History is not only found in documents or written texts, but in the way people live their daily lives. History runs through tradition, present reality and the future, and is reflected in people’s food, clothing, housing, transportation, thinking and speaking.

For example, traditional funeral customs and beliefs have been a singularly consistent element of Chinese culture; they still survive as before, and have long influenced Chinese people in their lifestyle and their way of thinking and behaving. Through researching traditional custom and thought, we can recognize the character of Chinese society and culture, understanding people’s outlook on life, their conception of the world, and their values, which create their cognitive and ethnical natures. People’s ideas and beliefs also affect the process of national development and modernization, because they involve people’s choices about their future.

As a student and a scholar, I have been fascinated by the diversity of people, lifestyle, opinions, landscapes, and so on; I hope to know their origin and development, their cause and effect. So I chose social anthropology and sociology as my major and profession.

History is not only found in documents or written texts, but in the way people live their daily lives”

Can you tell us about the research you did for your PhD at Beijing Normal University? 

My research area was folk culture, focusing on ritual and religion. My dissertation was titled Puzzled by Death and Stick to Life: Chinese Folk Funeral Ritual and Ideas of Life (published by Chinese People’s University Press in 1992). I received my doctorate in 1990.

This research on folk traditional funeral customs is an important subject in the study of Chinese culture, and in social and cultural anthropology. Folk customs and beliefs concerning burial and mourning have evolved with distinctive continuity over several thousands of years: a continuation rooted in both social and psychic functions. Probing into the internal structure and meanings of these phenomena is necessary to understand the Chinese ethos and cultural characteristics.

Folk funeral rites function to reunite lineage and community. They not only provide an occasion for bringing relatives together and consolidating a family’s relationship, but also affect people’s ideology through their emphasis on human relations and ethical teaching. These rites and actions have solidified Chinese traditional society as adaptive customs. Traditional funeral rites and customs have survived in China because of their social integrative function as well as the inherent sustenance gained through people’s ideas, beliefs and psychic structure. The kernel of these ideas is an image of two worlds (the world of human beings and the world of ghosts) between which communication and transformation are possible.

The Chinese traditional concept of life is circular without end. It has sustained some aspects of primitive beliefs, merging with Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, and resulting in a complex cultural synthesis. But the essential motif is identical: that is the endless, cyclical nature of life.

This research was based on fieldwork, carried out in the countryside of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hubei, Sichuan, Guizhou and so on. The main methods included participant observation (participating in funeral rites in different areas and examining the various forms of tombs); ethnographic interview (visiting many folk ritualistic experts and villagers); and bibliographic research, to obtain rich ethnographic data and documentary literature. To summarise: in China, traditional funeral rituals (and actions) embody the Chinese attitude towards life and death, which also constitutes the traditional Chinese world outlook and value system, amd which has become the foundation of Chinese social structure and institutional arrangement, and has also influenced the modern processes and characteristics of Chinese society.

You noted in a previous interview that ‘History needs different voices; a history with a single voice is clearly problematic and suspect.’ How difficult is it in China today to speak with a different voice about the country’s recent past?

Any ruler, especially one with unlimited power, will try to avoid people knowing the truth – so they fear history and try to make it appear the way they think it should be. They modify, forge, cover up, or glorify history, by preserving a single absolutely ‘correct’ voice to demonstrate their great achievements and to win the trust and praise of the people. As in George Orwell’s 1984, they also try control people’s memory, emotions, feelings and conceptions to gain legitimacy of rule. Today’s China is going through a great transformation, which is considered to be a move from totalitarian rule to authoritarian rule by some, or from totalitarian to a new totalitarian rule by others. It will be more difficult to hear different voices.

Anyway, it is precisely because history has the power to reveal the truth, enlighten thinking, and improve the mind that we must challenge the idea of the single existence of history and pursue truth through multiple voices, without giving up because of difficulties.

Any ruler, especially one with unlimited power, will try to avoid people knowing the truth”

You have spent many years undertaking oral history projects in rural China. How do you establish trust with the rural people whose stories you tell?

Narration is an essential attribute of human beings; human beings cannot live their life without telling their life; they cannot act without explaining their actions. So even ordinary people, peasants, and the underclass have the same will and ability to speak. But for a long time, because of their lower historical status, almost no one cared about their existence and no one listened to their voices. Ethnographic and oral history researchers are good at listening to what they say and understanding what they do and think. Ordinary people also have the desire to be cared for and listened to; so long as the researchers treat them with sincerity, respect them, communicate with them in a friendly and equal manner, and help and interact with them in everyday life, trust and the same respect can be gained.

Have you found that people have become more reluctant to tell their stories over the years you have been doing fieldwork?

Usually in the initial interview, some of the interviewees will feel puzzled and worried about it because of their unfamiliarity with us. As we continue talking with them, mutual understanding and trust deepen, and that reluctance tends to go away. It is worth noting that, in more than half a century of communist governance, Chinese villagers have been disciplined and governed from above, and are afraid to answer inquiries from those in positions of power, to tell the truth, or to respond to the demands of the powerful. Yet the ethnographic interviews as academic studies are certainly not the same as the those governmental surveys. Respondents are the subject of the narration, not the object of governance. And there are also various ways of asking or answering questions, and there are ways of making the interviewees tell their own stories, or speaking of the daily life of a family; humour can also be useful to help ease discomfort or reluctance.

You have observed that very often rural people refer to themselves as “sufferers”, and that their common response to being asked what they are doing is “suffering at home”. Can you explain how rural workers have come to define their lives in this way?

“Suffering at home” (zai jia shouku 在家受苦) means farming in the countryside, a definition of occupation. Migrant workers do not call themselves “suffering people” (shoukuren 受苦人). Because of the low social position of peasants in China’s social structure and their lack of various rights, peasants working on land claim to be suffering people. Although migrant workers work in cities or towns, they are also at the bottom of society. However, because they are not engaged in agricultural production, and they identify with the urban lifestyle, they do not call themselves so.

What is the attitude of your university, and academia in general in China, towards your work?

In China’s specific institutional arrangements and academic environment, my research is certainly not supported or praised. Before the 2010s, there was still some space for research and expression, but the space for civil society and scholarship has constantly been compressed by the authorities. Sociology is a very theoretical, practical and public discipline, but after 2013, normal academic publication and public expression became very difficult. My research work, The Narration of the Peasant: How Can “Suffering” Become History? can only be published overseas.

While advocating shared responsibility, we also hope that readers can think further: what is true development?”

You grew up in Beijing, and have written about the recent campaign to get rid of the “low-end population” from the city. How do you feel the city’s character has changed in recent years?

At the end of 2017, the time of the campaign to get rid of the “low-end population” (diduanrenkou 低端人口) from Beijing, I wrote that this kind of controlling of the city is “campaign-style governance” (运动式治理). The philosophy behind it is that of the planned economy. It is obvious that the existence of the city is as complex a system as natural ecology; urban ecology is multi-faceted, interactive and symbiotic. People of different classes live in the city, engage in economic activities and social life, constitute the ecological chain of the city. No one can live alone in a city, no matter what part of the population they belong to. “Cleaning up” the “low-end population” must also affect the middle-end and high-end. In the end, the urban ecology deteriorates, and everyone’s life is worse.

In the face of complex urban ecology, the idea of the planned economy is not feasible. Just as with economic activity, it is impossible for any intelligent brain or any think-tank to understand, schedule, and control everything. The function of government is not to manage and control everything, but to protect the legitimate rights of enterprises and citizens with the rule of law, regulations and procedures, and to provide the public goods and services necessary for urban life. The decision makers must know that the world is the people’s world, the city is the inhabitants’ city. Urban governance must be people-oriented.

Can you tell us a little about your current research into pneumoconiosis, the lung disease which affects workers in coal mines, quarries and foundries?

In 2018, we conducted an oral history interview of pneumoconiosis patients in a high incidence county in southwest China. Studies have shown that the pain of pneumoconiosis is the pain of the whole of China. The personal experiences and difficulties of workers with pneumoconiosis reflect the symptoms of the whole society: a large number of migrant workers who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy because of the dual structure of urban and rural areas can only struggle in the death cycle of poverty and disease. They not only cannot share the economic achievements brought by reform and opening up: even the basic right to survival cannot be guaranteed, from which we can see the serious imbalance of social structure.

While advocating shared responsibility, we also hope that readers can think further: what is true development? The slogan “Development is the absolute principle” (发展是硬道理) has become a major policy within economic and political reform. It describes a “better” social formulation in which all problems and group suffering can be neglected on the way to the future. The natural legitimacy of the word “development” makes people lose their ability to reflect on this discourse. 

We hoped that this investigation will offer readers not only the individual stories of these pneumoconiosis workers and their pain, but also the idea of our symbiotic society and our common future. We breathe together with them: we share their destiny. ∎

Header: Guo Yuhua next to the Nujiang River (courtesy of the interviewee).
Reading List (English)
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973.
Bourdieu, Pierre. The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Polity Press, 1999.
Scott, James C.. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press, 1985.
Scott, James C.. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Yale University Press, 1990.
Shostak, Marjorie. Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Harvard University Press, 1981.
Reading List (Chinese)
R. 麦克法夸尔、费正清编(谢亮生等译):《剑桥中华人民共和国史:革命的中国的兴起1949—1965》。北京:中国社会科学出版社,1990
R. 麦克法夸尔、费正清编(俞金尧、时和兴等译):《剑桥中华人民共和国史:中国革命内部的革命1966—1982》。北京:中国社会科学出版社,1992