HomeLandscape Space and Conflict

Social Conflict and its Spacial Dimension


HOUSE AND VILLAGE

Household space in Xiakou is symbolic of the domain of the family and many traditional practices associated with the house represent the assertion of the interest and identity of the family in contradistinction to the interest and identity of other families or outsiders. Household space is private in so far as its perimeters are demarcated and guarded and it is "owned." A typical house in Xiakou is single story and arranged in an "L" or "U" shape. The poorest houses are merely a single story rectangle. In the center is a courtyard for sitting, working, entertaining, and drying. The center room of the house structure, the altar room ( tangwu ), is reserved as a shrine to the family ancestors-- no one lives there and no living furniture is normally arranged there, although agricultural products and tools may be stored. While people are open and friendly to guests, and bedrooms are also entertaining rooms, there are also contrary tendencies. A cohabiting couple are not allowed to share a bed as guests in another's home, and this includes daughters who have married out and return home to visit. Such couples are viewed as dangerous or polluting (to use the anthropologist's terms) and their presence would bring misfortune on the household.

 

High thresholds define interior from exterior space and traditionally menstruating women or women who have just given birth who come from other households are not allowed to cross these thresholds. The doors to the house are always shut at night, and images of special "door spirits" face the exterior to keep out evil spirits. When spirit money is burned in front of the altar room in one annual ritual, special piles are arranged at the perimeter of the front porch, offerings to appease malcontent vagabond spirits without living descendants of their own. Dogs are chained to the sides of houses to guard the house from thieves. They are ready biters and so in a very realistic way help define the domain of the household.

 

Since the house, at its core, represents the assertion and protection of family interests, community conflict is most commonly seen expressed at the boundaries of household space, and with objects that move between the houses. Some things are defined as private or owned ( ziren ) but in physical fact exist at the borderline or move between borders, and therefore are particular targets for contest and conflict. Courtyards are part of the family space and yet they have paths that cross their edges; they adjoin public areas and are physically rather easily penetrated.

 

One evening during my stay, there was a loud explosion and the jaw bone of what had only a second before been a neighbor's dog landed in our courtyard. The dog had been fed a treat with an explosive concealed within and this was interpreted as an attempt by a thief to rid himself of a guardian of a main entrance to the village. Other times dogs are let off their chains and may wander around the village. The dog that transgresses borders, for example taking food from another family's dog, comes back with skin scalded by boiling water. Chickens wander relatively freely around the village but belong to individual households. Chickens were frequently stolen and there was a lot of discussion devoted to theories of who within the village was the thief.

 

Examples of sabotage of household space in the course of intra- and inter-family conflict are many and represent an important expression of the status of social relationships at a given time. While I resided in the village, Wu Guangjun was angry at his son and the terms of his independence. He took wire cutters and cut off the electricity to the new kitchen the son had built at the back of the family house. Volatile fights erupted over the shared but private water hoses that bring water to the houses, over stolen or damaged crops in the gardens, etc. After Wu Wennian had some plastic sheeting stolen from her vegetable garden (considered part of the domestic space) and could be heard cursing loudly, An Yiyu concluded with an ironic smile that such continual petty incidents was the nature of people and of life in the countryside. While it was sometimes sabotage, sometimes theft, these small incidents punctuated life in the village on an almost daily basis. This essay explores this theme of social conflict and its spatial dimensions which is given further development in the essays on soil, trees, and rivers and rocks.

 

Here I will explore the basic connections I see between historical memory, political ideals, and landscape in Xiakou. Beginning with a description of Chinese geomancy, I will attempt to show how a traditional set of beliefs highlights the connection between social relationships and physical geography. I will then consider how social relationships, seen as a product of historical circumstance, cause particular historical periods to have a characteristic pattern of resource management. Finally, I will again consider a traditional set of cosmological beliefs to demonstrate the sense in which some farmers in Xiakou see the connection between the land and its resources and their political system as a total and karmic relationship-- not fatalistic, but rather one based on continuity and flux, fate and freewill.

 

 

FENG-SHUI

 

By formal definition the art of Chinese geomancy or " feng-shui " is to place oneself spatially and temporally in an appropriate relation to the flow of natural processes (Feuchtwang 1974, p.6). The feng-shui practitioner seeks to understand the movement of energy ( qi ) through a landscape, and how that movement is effected by the attitude and placement of mountains, trees, and rivers, as well as man-made features, through time. Chinese believers in feng-shui seek to harmoniously situate houses, graves, temples, and other buildings in order to bring primarily worldly benefits to themselves and to improve their fate in this world. A well-placed house is believed to bring fortune to its inhabitants; a well-placed grave will benefit the immediate descendants of the deceased.

 

As practised by specialists, feng-shui is based on the interpretation of Chinese symbols and a philosophical understanding of natural processes of change-- the relations of yin and yang , water and mountains, chaos and order, and space and time (Feuchtwang 1974, p.109 and 144). In the feng-shui compass, each direction is correlated to a season of the year as well as to larger cycles of years, and, as Smith notes, "Timing remained crucial to all facets of feng-shui , since...the cosmos and all of its various microcosmic manifestations, including the earth, its subdivisions and human beings themselves, were in interacting states of perpetual flux (Feuchtwang 1974, p.138)." Thus, feng-shui beliefs emphasize connections between time and space--for example, in different years the same location might have a different ideal orientation. The landscape is thus seen to be subject to temporal cycles which I would assert make the connections between environmental change and history that much easier to apprehend. Since geomantic analysis requires not only that "one consider a vast array of cosmological and topographical variables, but also the relationships of myriad man-made structures to one another," (Smith 1991, p.144) the result is that geomantic analysis, as done by the specialist, is quite complex. The complexity of feng-shui analysis, however, has left ample room for interpretation (Smith 1991, p.148).

 

Although the feng-shui specialist is a master of esoteric knowledge, some aspects of feng-shui interpretation are more accessible to popular understanding. For example, if a house site is an old site, people will want to know the history of the people who have lived there--their wealth, how many sons they had, if bad things happened such as many people dying in a short period of time. If bad things happened, the site would be worthless. In addition, some of the symbols involved do not require esoteric knowledge to decode. A rock that resembles a buddha, for example, could be expected to exert a good influence on nearby houses.

 

At the outset of this essay, we outlined how the house, at its core, represents the assertion of family interests and how household space is symbolically and practically demarcated and protected. feng-shui beliefs play on this aspect of household space, highlighting symbolic interactions both within families and between them. Several stories can illustrate how this works in practice:

 

One hundred years ago, the Chuan Zhu temple was located in Xiakou village near where Wu Wennian's house sits today. Before Liberation there was a great rock opposite the temple housing the shrine of the local god ( tudi ), a low official in the other world who presided over a key entrance-way to the village. Wu Wenzhong used to live next to Wu Wennian. After his family suffered a series of mishaps--animals suddenly dying, a daughter who became crippled etc., he consulted a geomancy expert and found out his house sat on the old site of the Chuan Zhu temple. He moved his house and his affairs have since improved.

 

Next to Wu Wennian's house on the other side, the oldest house in Xiakou once sat. The carpenter who built that house for Wu Shizhang was not satisfied with how he was treated by his host, so he put a curse on the house that prevented the Wu family from going beyond 130 people. Some carpenters, like yin-yang xiansheng (geomancy experts), know how to manipulate the physical environment to bring about misfortune or luck. Before that house burned in 1965, the Wus never had more than four sons per family; after, they have had five. "Before, when their numbers reached 150 people, many people died" one villager told me, in an oblique reference to the famine of the early 1960s.

 

Behind that old house used to be the set of homes that belonged to the fourth "house" ( fang ) of the Wus. This house has dwindled to one man in the Guang generation, and he no longer resides in Xiakou. The house is said to be dying out because it was cursed by its Wu cousins in the Hong generation over some forgotten jealousy. These cousins constructed their own graves on a line with a household altar of the fourth house, putting a curse on its descendants. Their vindictiveness brought a congenital blindness into their own line of the family, but it also succeeded in all but extinguishing the targeted household.

 

Even without drawing on the expert knowledge of the yin-yang xiansheng , we can see that these stories have in common the symbolic intrusion of the outsider, the public, and the anti-social into family household space. The house is cursed by the blurring of boundaries of the domain of the household with outside forces best kept at a distance. In the first case, the house was built on a temple site that was once public/shared and sacred. In the second case, the problem was caused through the necessary but dangerous involvement of an outsider, the carpenter, in the intimate affair of house building where the relationship went sour. In the third case, the curse comes from the alignment of the grave of another family with the intensely personal altar room of a family. As with the pollution beliefs summarized above, asocial aspects of outside families are dangerous to the personalized space of the house, which in turn is central to the very fate of its inhabitants. The people of Xiakou understand symbolically what is also true physically--the intrusion of asocial outside forces into what is personal spells trouble.

Thus we can see that social factors have a strong influence on the geomantic potentiality of a plot of land and the ultimate fate of the people connected to it. People may carelessly or even selfishly destroy the good feng-shui of a location, as when one branch of the Wus, due to jealousy, attempted to `get' another branch by aligning their graves with the central room of their rivals' house. Or they may improve feng-shui by planting a tree or siting a house or grave correctly. The individual is subject to the social forces that are manifest in the landscape, but he/she can also take an active role in manipulating those forces. Ideas about feng-shui thus mark the landscape as a highly charged universe of significance which can be used to interpret the state of human social relationships.

 

The practice of feng-shui has a strong moral component. To say so is opposed to the treatment given feng-shui by Maurice Freedman, Stephan Feuchtwang or Rubie Watson. Freedman (1966 1971, p.127-8) and Feuchtwang (1974, p.190-95) both draw a contrast between the amoral, "impersonal", and natural realm of the "earth" ( di ) and the moral realm of gods and "heaven" ( tian ) and they locate feng-shui with the former. Feng-shui they see as utilitarian, a tool for promoting individual interests. Their conclusions follow from their starting points: both focus on the theory and esoteric practice of feng-shui geomancers ( fengshui xiansheng) , and both posit a nature-culture dichotomy which neatly separates feng-shui (natural cosmology) from popular religion (moral values). The former perspective naturally suggests a `technical,' utilitarian interpretation of feng-shui different from the 'popular' understanding; the latter point, in my view, speaks more to Western anthropological theory than to native Chinese categories, especially the concept of the inseparability of heaven-man-earth. Following Freedman and Feuchtwang, Watson (1988) analyzes feng-shui in the context of the creation of new power arrangements-- working from the assumption that feng-shui is an amoral tool of individual interest. While I agree that feng-shui is often `used' in this `political' sense, I believe that stopping at the utilitarian level of interpretation is reductionist. My own analysis, based on field observations, is closer to Weller, who writes that while Freedman "describes geomancy as an amoral system...the popular tradition thoroughly reinterprets geomancy, transforming it from a systematized, impersonal theory to a pragmatic personified set of beliefs" (Weller 1987, p.151-2)

The creation of a good grave for one's parents both improves the parents' position in the afterlife and the fate of the dead person's descendants. Since a good burial costs money, becoming wealthy and committing that wealth to a good grave site carries a moral imperative. People who give their parents a good burial are admired for that act. Smith notes that feng-shui experts emphasized the power of moral action in determining the quality of the burial. He quotes one feng-shui expert as having said a good heart/mind was more important than a good site as determined by other criteria (Smith 1991, p.154). In this way it might be said that a person who is moral can transfer their goodness to the land. Again we see that belief in feng-shui heightens the sense in which the landscape can be read as a text expressing the status of moral relationships within the community. If someone wished another ill, they sabotaged their house or their ancestors' grave. Alternatively, a good grave is the expression of a filial son, while the creation of a pagoda or the preservation of a tree could represent a common community spirit. Both positive and negative relationships are expressed in the arrangement of village space and its surroundings.

 

Furthermore, as I pointed out above, feng-shui incorporates a temporal dimension which makes clear that relationships between people and the land are the product of dynamic flux. On the one hand, land has a particular history which retains a relevance; on the other hand, values do change over time. The temporal aspect of feng-shui is rooted in inevitable calendrical flow, in natural changes in physical geography, and in the impact of particular human actions on the landscape. What is ideal at one moment in history may not be ideal at another moment, although it pays to study the past. What every villager understands about feng-shui is that each location has a particular history which is relevant to the fate of those who come to have a relationship with that location. If people who lived on a particular house-site did poorly, the feng-shui of that site is thought to be bad. If production in a particular section of paddy land is poor, again it said to have bad feng-shui , although it is possible to improve the feng-shui of that location by planting trees, etc. The emphasis on continuity and flux lends emphasis to a natural association of particular life histories and larger historical processes, with physical places.

 

Thus feng-shui is associated with both `fate' (continuity) and the exercise of free will (change). In villagers' thinking this is not a contradiction, but a common-sense tension between one's inherited life-situation and one's efforts to improve it. As one farmer explained the concept of "fate":

 

There's nothing superstitious about believing in fate; it's actually scientific and reasonable. Look, what is "fate" ( mingyun )? A person's ` ming ' is determined by heaven; it's a person's individual nature, the nature you are born with. ` Yun ' is the world you live in, the environment-- every person's life is determined by your individual nature and the environment you live in. But, no matter what, an individual must struggle ( fendou ); knowing your fate is a question of knowing when to do things and recognizing one's weaknesses.

 

In the same way, the feng-shui of a space is the synthesis of immutable principles and historical change within which the individual can exert effort to harmonize and maximize given potentials. Both these efforts and the space itself are understood as moral, and as intrinsically connected to social relations.

 

The physical arrangement of pre-revolution Xiakou is telling of the social structure of those times. In feng-shui practice the orientation of a house is critical-- to see far, for example, can mean you will achieve great things. The village as a whole was at a right angle to the river, squarely facing the mountain opposite. At that time, the mountain was the abode of power in the form of wealthy landlord families who lived in its pleasant upland vales. Inscriptions of Qing era graves in Xiakou describe the river as a "belt of green jade" and allude to the "crimson stone" of the cliffs still visible at the crest of Qian Jia mountain. By all accounts the area was beautiful then, with huge boulders in the river and forested mountain slopes, and the stability of the landscape was preserved by traditional custom and practice. Furthermore, the village was more of a whole, with the houses all on the same axis and literally connected together according to kinship ties. That the houses were all on the same grid, with the same orientation, reflected a kind of unity reinforced by the authority of the elders and the importance of the " fang ." The " fang- " means literally "house" and it is the term used to indicate descendants of a common ancestor, in this case of one of four brothers who first colonized Xiakou some 150 years ago. Members of a fang- cooperated (and still do to some extent) in economic activities, although it was not a corporate body per se since it owned no property in common. The fang- , in the Old Society, was embodied in the architecture of connected roofs and courtyards. Old people remember how, in the rain, one could walk around the village under these connected roofs and never get wet.


Text Box:

 

Figure 12 From memory: Xiakou in the Old Society. Chen Naxin drew this portrait by consulting with the old timers. This is the final draft that met with their enthusiastic approval. At the lower left, is one of two old stone mills that once sat along the riverbank. Along the path in front of the village is a boulder with the local god (tudi)
in residence


In the Old Society Qian Jia mountain was the seat of money and power; today houses face more or less down the river toward the township and toward Ya'an city. Unified orientations have given way to a scattered mixing of houses, each with a slightly different orientation. People say that the separation of houses is a fire-prevention precaution, but there is clearly more to it. The old orientation of the village involved a degree of unity and localism that reflected the sense in which they were closed to "outsiders." This localism came to be seen as "closed-ness" and for some, the stability came to be seen as stagnation. The new orientation reflects a new value placed on progress; a movement from authoritarian unity to scattered independence; from an east-west inner-looking axis to a north-south commercial axis; from a stable, sustaining, but oppressive practice to a free-wheeling exploitation of resources.

 

Belief in feng-shui is, therefore, a significant factor in the construction and expression of local identity. Feng-shui draws attention to the specific features of a landscape, natural and constructed, which are inevitably unique. Chinese architecture itself, by following the principles of feng-shui , accentuates the unique features of a landscape. (Feuchtwang 1974, p.1-2) Feng-shui thus incorporates an aesthetic appreciation for locality which ties people together in view of their common connection with it. As a set of aesthetic beliefs, feng-shui provides a grounding on which people may demand that the integrity of a local landscape be respected in any plans to alter the landscape. Based on numerous accounts from pre-Liberation China and from modern Hong Kong where belief in feng-shui is open and active, plans for infrastructure or resource development are inevitably subject to community discussions which assess their value in terms of the anticipated effect on local feng-shui . Plans which have not adequately considered their impact on the local landscape may meet with strong objection phrased in the vocabulary of feng-shui beliefs. Many examples have been documented where such opposition became a potent force against development projects in the pre-Liberation era. For example, the straight lines inherent in railroad tracks were a cause for great concern since, in feng-shui cosmology, straight lines are the pathways of evil forces, and, in fact, that concern hindered the development of railroads in China . What could be more symbolic of the penetration of outside forces into a local community than a straight line such as is embodied in the building of a new road or railroad? An interesting parallel can be made to the stories above that seem to emphasize the sanctity and privacy of household space. Since Liberation, many important positive feng-shui features around Xiakou have been destroyed, which I would interpret as a reflection of the increased centralization of state power. When the road was built past Xiakou, the good feng-shui of the most important remaining village temple was ruined, as were several important rock outcrops. While I doubt that local residents would have wished that the road not have been built because of these losses, nevertheless I also think that were local networks a stronger counterpart to state power, feng-shui considerations would be a stronger factor in the design of projects that effect local resources. Because belief in feng-shui has been branded as "feudal superstition" in official rhetoric, any current opposition to development projects on the grounds of anticipated impact on feng-shui continues to be muted.

 

Smith concludes that feng-shui

 

provided all Chinese with a heightened awareness of their place in the cosmic, social, and ecological order, as well as a concrete sense of their community obligations... It provided, in other words, a way not only of perceiving reality, but of dealing with it. (Smith 1991, p.170).

 

Following on his insights, I maintain that the practice of feng-shui is a key element in the creation of a personalized and moral landscape. Feng-shui ascribes to physical space great value, and belief in that value provides a standpoint from which people's actions can be measured and judged. For people who live directly on the land and make a living from its produce and even for those who do not, it is not strange that land should be valued. But, as much of the remainder of this thesis will elaborate, relationships to the land are profoundly affected by the nature of one's social relations. Belief in feng-shui mixes an abstract valuation of land for its own intrinsic qualities with an appreciation for the social factors that bear upon it. Feuchtwang writes,

 

an anthropological study of feng-shui offers the exciting prospect of being able to see how ideas hitherto described by sinologist as entirely literary, as the speculations and theories of Neo-Confucian philosophers, are embodied in social practice. Conversely, feng-shui most conveniently obliges us to relate social practice to the ideas and values of the community studied (Feuchtwang 1974, p.6) .

 

While I believe conflict in any society will have a spatial dimension to its expression, belief in feng-shui adds to the sense in which Chinese see their landscape as imbued with a social, moral, and even historical significance. Village space is highly charged with meaning. Houses and graves are critical to family fortunes and are symbolically manipulated in the course of family struggles. The history of social relationships is embedded in the layout of houses, graves, trees, courtyards, and pathways, and for one who knows the history, verbal social discourse has a very tangible counterpart in the physical environment.

SOCIAL CONFLICT IN THE VILLAGE HISTORICIZED

 

In the chapter on history we tried to show how villagers portray the form and intensity of local conflicts as strongly influenced by state policies typical of particular political periods. In Xiakou, many of the stories and comments that reflect on the spatial expression of social conflict contain elements which make them clearly identified with particular historical periods. In this way, we can see that it is not just local social relationships that are embodied in the village landscape, but larger historical processes, too.

 

Wu Guangxing once told me that in his view continual fights over property were the unhappiest aspect of life in the Old Society, making it clear that conflict and competition were prevalent even before the policies of centralization. In particular, people fought fiercely over the small plots that were house sites. At that time, house sites in Xiakou were more valuable than paddy land. In the Old Society, and even today, people who had money would invite a geomancy expert to look at a piece of land before they considered building on it. If they found a site that was good, they would keep it a secret and ask a friend or kinsmen to try to buy it for them. If the secret got out, the price would go very high. Fights over good house sites and village space may continue in the present period, although the curtailment of the individual's rights to buy and sell land has certainly curbed this form of conflict. Furthermore, during production team times, believers in "feudal superstition" were criticized and punished, and even today people are not comfortable drawing attention to their beliefs. It may even be the case that today less people believe in feng-shui .

 

One story of a rock courtyard, dating from the Old Society, could not likely have taken place in the egalitarian climate of production team times because it is predicated on perceived cycles of accumulating wealth and then squandering it. This story's interest lies not only in showing how wealth in the Old Society was perceived, but also in its demonstration of how intense people's feelings of competition can be, as here it is extended to the relationships an individual has with his own descendants. One of the wealthy men who used to live on Qian Jia mountain used his money to build a large house. In the center of this house he had a fine stone courtyard laid out. When the courtyard was done and all the flat paving stones were firmly in their places, he took a hammer and cracked each one so his descendants would not be able to sell them off if and when they became poor.

 

Since `superstitious belief' was illegal during production team times, people took advantage of this fact to make personal affronts that they would not have dared to do in the Old Society or even today. Smith points out that during the Qing dynasty breaking good feng-shui was treated as a serious offence (Smith 1991, p.168), and the sabotage of a grave site was punished severely under the law (Smith 1991, p.157). During the collective period, the new official attitude toward feng-shui was used by the villagers to further their individual causes: During the Cultural Revolution, Wu Guangjun, a sophisticated soldier in the spatial wars, told an urban youth "sent down" to the village to take the gravestone of Wu Guangxing's father to build a fertilizer-mixing pit. The sent-down youth proceeded reluctantly, no doubt realizing that the point was to "get" Wu Guangjun's enemies, the descendants of the man in the grave. The youth was discovered by some of the dead man's grandchildren, village "bad elements" who could ill afford to raise an objection--but they did alert Wu Guangxing, who convinced the youth to stop while he took the issue to the township government for arbitration. There could be no argument based on superstitious beliefs concerning the welfare of ancestral graves, but since the grave only dated from the late forties, there were other grounds to justify preserving its integrity and so the grave stayed. Afterwards, Wu Guangjun planted trees on top of it, while the dead man's descendants did their best to prune them back. In a nearby village, I saw a round hole drilled into the top of a grave; the grave had been converted into a fertilizer mixing pit during the 1960s and I am certain a similar story is told there.

 

In Xiakou, resentments over the distribution of official privileges have led to a series of incidents concerning the sabotage of shared village pathways, with any public good they served sacrificed in order to further private vendettas. The family of Wu Guangxing, as was discussed in the last chapter, is seen by many in the village to receive unfair and exaggerated patronage of outside higher-up officials. In the sixties and seventies Wu Guangjun, it may be remembered, ran the village store, a powerful privilege when scarce resources characterized the production team times. In the seventies, the privilege was taken from Wu Guangjun and given to Wu Guangxing. Wu Guangjun was so angered by this usurpation of his position that he closed the public path that used to pass beside his house. This was the most direct path from the road to Wu Guangxing's house, and now, to this day, officials have to either pass through Wu Guangjun's kitchen or use one of the side entrances to the village.

 

Even after reform and the disbandment of the production team, conflict over the dispensing of official privilege has continued. These conflicts still focus largely around the perceived favoritism shown by officials toward Wu Guangxing, who has been selected as a model farmer and been intensely involved with the Bureau of Animal Husbandry's international dairy goat projects, from which he receives some advantages. When Wang Hong built her new house the roof-line extended over the courtyard of Wu Guangxing and his wife, An Yiyu. An Yiyu complained and yelled at the carpenters, saying the sunshine in her courtyard would be blocked. She made them cut off the roof-line with no overhang whatsoever. The next step in this feud, whose beginnings reach into the obscure past, was that Wang Hong extended the front line of her house to block the left-hand path connecting Wu Guangxing's courtyard to the road. It was reported that she had done this to force the official delegations from the county government to choose between An Yiyu's side of the village and the larger half of the village on Wang Hong's side. It seemed to me that the intention was to highlight to the officials the select and prejudiced nature of their visits, and it was an attempt to make clear that they had chosen for their model farmer a family widely disliked. Wu Guangxing and An Yiyu appealed to the officials to make her tear down the wall on similar grounds-- arguing that the wall would prevent officials from having convenient access to the whole village on their visits. Wu Guangxing and An Yiyu won, and the officials ruled that Wang Hong would have to tear down the wall.

 

Even before that, the Bureau of Animal Husbandry had paid to build a good wide staircase at the right-hand entrance to the village to honor and impress an international delegation who came and spent a night in Xiakou in 1989. One of the officials offended the families of Xiakou by giving them a speech on how their courtyards should all look as neat and clean as Wu Guangxing's and An Yiyu's; not sloppy. In the villagers' view An Yiyu's courtyard was so clean because she, the recipient of excessive privileges and of a lazy nature, never left the house to do field work. The official pointed to Yang Yong, An Yiyu's greatest enemy, and drawing attention to her hair which is long and beautiful and well kept, he said that she ought to put the same effort she put into her hair into keeping her courtyard neat. After the event, the man whose house sided on the new stairs piled stones on half that stairway, returning it to its narrow former aspect as an expression of his dissatisfaction with the official attitude.

 

VILLAGE CONFLICT AND THE MANAGEMENT OF RESOURCES

 

If competition and conflict over access to official privilege is a cause for village pathways to be destroyed, it is not hard to imagine that other things have been destroyed over this issue as well. And it is not just the issue of official privilege, but a whole range of issues connected with official policy which, from the villagers' perspective, largely determines how people will manage resources.

 

The historical chapters in this thesis have tried to convey how farmers describe the impact of government policies and actions on their lives. In the introduction, I asserted that there were several key variables by which the different periods could be measured-- order versus chaos, a strong versus weak government, upright versus corrupt officialdom, economic improvement versus economic stagnation, and social harmony versus social conflict-- and that these variables are significant factors impacting on the management of resources. The history tells of leadership and the failure of it. It tells of farmers' aspirations and it tells of some of their measures of a good society. It has also been the story of social conflict and the impact of government policies in channelling, subduing, or abating it. Now I will draw the connections, as I see them, between the details of their narratives and larger themes at the core of political life in this part of rural Sichuan . Furthermore, I would like to give here a preliminary outline of the critical connections between these issues and patterns of resource management. Developing a deeper understanding for the connections between the question of leadership and the lay of the land will be my main task for the remainder of this thesis. While this will certainly be my own analysis, I think it is one in which many villagers would recognize their own views.

 

A main theme in the stories the farmers tell is that of order versus chaos, with certain periods having stood out as particularly chaotic: the banditry and corruption of 1947-1949, the Cultural Revolution when leadership gave way to the confusion of warring factions, and, to a lesser degree, the current period when people see crime, disease, and corruption again on the rise. People fear and dislike such chaos, and today the spectre of becoming like the Soviet Union is a sobering check on enthusiasm for reform. One way in which chaos can be measured, and indeed one reason it is disliked, is its impact on the management of resources. In the next chapter, I will explore how tree cutting and failures in the maintenance of irrigation works and flood control have been a damaging counterpart to social chaos.

 

Since corruption, crime and factionalism are defining features of social chaos, a strong and upright government is an ideal with great appeal, but the ideal of a strong government has limitations. As I discussed in the section on obedience and resistance in Chapter Four, obedience, in the Confucian tradition, is ideally something that follows naturally from moral leadership and not from force. During the Great Leap Forward the government was too strong and lost the hearts of the people. The deep rift between the official leadership and the common people was manifest in unwise production practices and great waste of resources and life. Again, the policies of the production team period aimed at social harmony, one big pot, roundness and unity through a strong centralizing policy. According to the local view the economic structure did not work, because the balance between individual initiative and collective leadership was too much on the side of the latter. The leadership was undermined as individual initiative was channelled into more disruptive spheres-- courting official favor and a persistent pattern of justifiable stealing of common resources.

 

The historical narratives also revealed that some aspects of the collective period are widely appreciated. The collective period featured a consistent emphasis on themes that farmers do think are basic to the creation of a good society. The emphasis on infrastructure was the right idea, although of course it needs to be balanced with respect for other aspects of production. The emphasis on high standards of moral rectitude for government officials was good and resulted in a relatively egalitarian situation which is also prized, although space for fair competition was too limited. A strong government that keeps the economy stable and which can control crime and corruption is good, and its absence is now reflected in increased petty thievery and poor infrastructure maintenance and development.

 

The people appreciate the overall economic gains made since Liberation, and they want these gains to continue. Herein lies the central question I think they are asking of their future. On the one hand, development has continued visibly: cities are modernizing, clothes are nicer, scientific technologies are more abundant, and new entertainment technologies have become increasingly available. On the other hand, trends hint at a turning of the tide for the farmers; that is, a cyclical return to a stage of decay. Economic stagnation for agriculture and rising cost of production inputs have made the younger generation less interested in pursuing the path of the agriculturalist. Market instability, the increasing gap between rich and poor, crime and corruption, the lack of filial piety and respect, and resource depletion are all areas of concern for rural people in the 1990s. If development is to be sustained, good leadership is considered a prerequisite. To understand what is implied by a process of decay and its connection to the question of leadership, we can again turn to traditional Chinese philosophy for elucidation.

 

NATURAL AND POLITICAL DISASTER

 

Much of Chinese philosophy focuses on the question of change and the cyclical process of development and its counterpoint decay, with the I Ching or Book of Changes as the most famous example. A recurring theme in these central philosophical texts is the notion that Harmony gives way to Chaos and then again to Harmony in nature and in the rhythmic rise and fall of dynasties through time. A cyclical conception of time is basic to the Buddhist tradition which emphasized the reincarnation of individuals through time. Prophetic texts that today illegally circulate in the area where we worked describe cycles of natural disaster and political upheaval founded on the study of Chinese numerology.

 

These cycles have been explicitly connected to the political fortunes of individual leaders of the Chinese Empire. In the early Han dynasty, the philosopher Dong Zhongshu developed out of earlier ideas concerning the "Mandate of Heaven" ( tian ming ), the assertion that it is by virtue of the Emperor's favor with the heavens, that harmony and balance are maintained on earth (see frontispiece page iii). In what has emerged as an enduring Chinese tradition, it is the Emperor who is seen to be central to the maintenance of Harmony. If the Emperor, through unpropitious action, loses the Mandate, Chaos overcomes Harmony and his dynasty will fall after which a new one rises to take its place.

 

That this notion of a heavenly mandate, with its associated beliefs about political and natural disaster, is rooted in local popular belief today is demonstrated by the story of the Empress of Yunjingg told to us by people in Ya'an. (see page 107) By the end of 1958, for farmers in Yunjingg county the situation was clear: whereas production had been stable and secure, now all was in turmoil; Harmony had changed to Chaos. In a local township near the Yunjingg mine, a young woman of 17 was declared the leader of a small peasant rebellion. I was told by people in Xiakou that "she used feudal superstition to appeal to her followers." The superstition she used was "to proclaim the current dynasty about to fall ( xia tai ), and assert herself the new Empress." In other words, she was asserting that Mao had lost his mandate of heaven. When officials are corrupt or self-interested or unjust the world is Chaotic, not Harmonious, and it indicates the need for new leadership or Emperor.

 

There is a further sense in which the political events of the Great Leap Forward can be connected to a specific casting of nature. Officially the devastating famine of the Great Leap Forward was said to be the result of "natural disaster." Some people in the towns still refer to it as that. In the past, referring to it as other than a natural disaster or even just mentioning it at all could have brought severe consequences. Farmers admit that weather conditions were bad in the years of the famine, but this is not seen as in any way accounting for the scope of the disaster. Thus a profoundly political disaster was covered up as a natural disaster. Such examples of the conflation of political and natural disaster in modern times are numerous. Just before I left the field I saw the dramatic decrease in the number of goats in Ya'an blamed on "natural disaster" when in fact it was simply due to falling real prices, in turn the result of a constellation of political changes transforming China .

 

Nor is this a new phenomenon. The central point was stated with a far greater elegance by Mencius writing in 300 BC:

 

If you do not interfere with the busy season in the fields, then there will be more grain than the people can eat; if you do not allow nets with too fine a mesh to be used in large ponds, then there will be more fish and turtles than they can eat; if hatchets and axes are permitted in the forests on the hills only in the proper seasons, then there will be more timber than they can use. When the people have more grain, more fish, and turtles than they can eat, and more timber than they can use, then in support of their parents when alive and in the mourning of them when dead, they will be able to have no regrets over anything left undone. This is the first step along the Kingly way.

 

If the mulberry is planted in every homestead of five mu of land, then those who are fifty can wear silk; if chickens, pigs and dogs do not miss their breeding season, then those who are seventy can eat meat; if each lot of a hundred mu is not deprived of labor during the busy seasons, then families with several mouths to feed will not go hungry. Exercise due care over the education provided by the village schools, and discipline the people by teaching them the duties proper to sons and younger brothers, and those whose heads have turned grey will not be carrying loads on the roads. When those who are seventy wear silk and eat meat and the masses are neither cold nor hungry, it is impossible for their prince not to be a true King.

 

Now when food meant for human beings is so plentiful as to be thrown to the dogs and pigs, you fail to realize that it is time for garnering, and when men drop dead from starvation by the way-side, you fail to realize that it is time for distribution. When people die, you simply say, "it is none of my doing. It is the fault of the weather." Stop putting the blame on the harvest and the people of the whole Empire will come to you.

--Mencius

quoted in Food China (Simoons 1991, p.50)

 

It is nothing less than eerie that the events of the Great Leap Forward could have been described with such accuracy of detail over 2000 years ago. In 1959 axes were set loose on the hills in all seasons; labor was called away in the busy season; people felt the leadership was the problem-- there was a falling away from the "Kingly Way"-- but the leaders put the blame for the starvation on the harvest.

 

In that text, it may seem strange that Mencius relates chickens, pigs, and dogs missing their breeding season to the responsibilities of a "true king," but in Ya'an County, for example, the government is today responsible for the goat breeding program for the entire county. All breeding dairy goat bucks are under direct government control, and, in fact, people explicitly blamed low rates of conception in 1992 on changing government policies. It is no wonder that Chinese cosmology emphasizes the sense in which the realm of nature and the realm of humanity are part of a single unified system (Way) or that prognostic texts still current in China today seek to establish rhythms of both political upheaval and natural disaster-- they indeed appear to be closely associated phenomena.

 

If, in a Chinese perspective, natural and political phenomena are part of a single encompassing order, then from our view it is not just political disasters that are scapegoated onto nature, but natural events are also explained by reference to political phenomena. This idea explains the significance of the fact that in Ya'an they tell of a huge Red-Bean tree ( hong dou shu ) which can forecast national political events. Just before Mao died, they say, it uncharacteristically dropped all its leaves. The year Mao died was the year that people say they truly began to engage in private economic exchanges, and so it was a year of important political and economic change. 1976 was the year of the dragon, a year when momentous things in nature and politics are believed likely to happen. In that year, besides Mao dying, two other of the greatest leaders of the communist party also died, Zhu De and Zhou Enlai. There was a severe food shortage that year which had, as has been discussed, both "political" and "natural" causes. 1976 is also a year that the bamboo flowered, and a massive earthquake killed 250,000 people in Tangshan. The flowering of bamboo is an infrequent event which may, according to one theory, have been triggered by the massive deforestation which began during the Great Leap Forward and continued under the production team system. Accepting that the bamboo flowered as a result of the extensive deforestation, was it a political or natural phenomenon? As for whether the earthquake was due to political or natural causes, I can only quote one highly educated farmer's assessment of the value of traditional cosmology:

 

 

"I believe there are many things outside our ability to understand, so it's hard to say what beliefs are correct and what are not. Take the long view-- ... Maybe there is something higher than us that can understand things that it takes us humans hundreds of generations to understand. It's like comparing our lives and knowledge to the life and knowledge of ants: a human can live 100 years, but an ant can only live one year-- it takes 100 generations of ants to equal the life span of one human. I think there are things that we will only understand after 100 generations."

 

 

Thus, even today city people as well as rural people commonly connect the so-called natural to the political: At a moment of great ambivalence, in the wake of Deng's tour south as the critical "second wave of reforms" began to rock the foundations of the post-reform order, there was a veritable rash of earthquake predictions. So much so that an article in the China Daily reported that it was now illegal for anyone but state officials to predict the weather and like phenomena. This mode of connecting politics and nature came to my attention for the first time when, in the village, a farmer looked out on the corn crop and exclaimed, "look at these crops and how poorly they are doing; Jiang Zemin is no leader." One can begin to see in descriptions of natural events a whole sub-text on current politics. It even happened that after I, a "foreigner," visited a remote "closed" area on behalf of a livestock development group for whom I worked, an article appeared in an internal paper pronouncing a record abundance of goat kid births for that year, connecting it to my visit. They were happy about the prospects of further foreign investments!

 

It should be clear by now that it is not simply the case that farmers feel a strong government is harmonious and a weak one chaotic. In Chinese there is an expression about political control " fang er bu luan; shou er bu si " which roughly translated means "relax control, but not to the point of chaos; tighten control, but not to the point of death." It describes two extremes through which government should guide its policy, "totalitarianism" and "anarchy", if you will. There is a joke that plays on this saying, "loosened control is chaos; tightened control is death" indicating that people in China feel a certain familiarity with both these extremes. This can be seen in the modern period where the Great Leap Forward represents an extreme in the tightening of control which led to death, and the post-reform 1990s or the period 1947-49 represent a pronounced relaxing of control which is described as "chaotic." After December of 1991, when the "second wave of reforms" took hold in China, loosening control has once again effected the management of local building stone and water resources, and traditional religious beliefs have experienced a significant revival. The relationship between loosened control, religious revitalization, and the landscape will be taken up in the final chapter on "Rivers and Rocks."

 

CONCLUSION

 

It may seem a long way from sabotage of graves as a spatial expression of social conflict to earthquake predictions as an expression of uncertain leadership, but they are both indicative of the deep way in which people feel that the state of their social relationships is expressed in the landscape. Belief in feng-shui and traditional ideas about chaos and harmony, while not universal beliefs, do play a strong role in how people in Xiakou interpret the land around them. Of course there is, in addition, a practical and somewhat universal sense in which poor leadership can lead to poor resource management, and much of the next few chapters will be concerned with elaborating on these rather common-sense connections as they have been played out in the village. Nevertheless, the dynamism and richness of these people's historical experience has led them to an elaboration of their understanding of the connection between landscape and politics that is worth our taking note of. Belief in feng-shui , the connection between leadership and resource management, and the cosmological significance of chaos and harmony are what make the landscape a political metaphor in Xiakou, and the political landscape a moral metaphor. In the same way, social relations can be said to be a metaphor for the moral status of people's interactions with the land.

 

 

The word "private" is problematic in this context. For example, a Chinese house is not private in the way a house in England might be considered private, since, for example, there is a much higher degree of fluidity in the extent to which non-family members can enter the house without formal invitation and what they may expect as guests. Thus the categories of private family space between say rural England and China are not coterminous although similarities do exist.

see Ahern for further discussion of the 'power' of things which cross borders in the Chinese context (1978).

For example, in one case villagers told of a discontented carpenter who placed the main house beam upside down to bring his host misfortune. (See Huang (1989, p. 38)) for a modern example of the cursed house beam.) Furthermore, it is interesting to note that carpenters are not hired but rather "invited" ( qing ) to build houses for clients. The same has been reported by Smith to be true of geomancers (1991, p.155). To "invite" someone to work for you implies a relationship of equals and treating the worker as a guest; feeding him well and providing for his incidental needs is considered an important moral obligation (see also story of Wu Guangleng in chapter on the Old Society). Thus to have someone work for you in such a capacity implies a social relationship, not simply a buying of labor alienated from the person, adding to the sense in which social relationships are connected to the physical world via a moral/social obligation. Similarly Smith also tells of a geomancer who insisted on working only for those who were morally upright (1991, p.154). In the examples from Huang (1989, p.35-38), victims of bad feng-shui all had faults that made them morally suspect.

Recent allegations that the placement of the (mainland) Bank of China building threatens to ruin the feng-shui of Hong Kong provide a good example of feng-shui as the expression of local identity. Objections to the building (the pre-eminent symbol of communist China's power in Hong Kong) are clearly related to anxiety surrounding reunification with the mainland in 1997, and to moral outrage at the Beijing regime's brutal suppression of the 1989 protest movement. Here feng-shui is clearly an avenue of expressing political interests, but it is more than a battleground or proxy; it is also a moral statement.

Richard J. Smith quotes a Qing source, Chen Que, as having made a similar observation: "people fight for land, making enemies of local communities; (they) fight for material profit, making enemies (even) in clans. Men are imprisoned; others are implicated. There are even families which are broken and destroyed...Nothing causes more heartbreak (than geomancy)" (Smith, 1991, p.163). Such observations have caused both Smith and Feuchtwang to consider the proposition that belief in feng-shui produced social conflict. Feuchtwang (1974, p.219-220) concludes that it would be false to say so, while Smith seems more inclined to accept that it does. While this is a proposition that can never be tested, from the case studies I have examined, I would assert that conflict and competition have deep roots and feng-shui, in this sense, represents but a mode of expression.

see page 83

\Shaw asserts that the opposition of 'nature and culture' underlies western thinking about hazards, although, as she points out, their very nature as hazards is constituted by social categories (1992). Following Richards (1975) and Turton (1979), Shaw suggests that "social or political disaster" is, therefore, a more appropriate term (1992, p.202).

In this regard it is worth noting that when people describe the agricultural practices of the Great Leap Forward, they speak of "chaotic sowing" ( luan sa ) where excessive amounts of seed were thrown down without adequate preparation of the ground. In a similar way, people today talk about a tendency of police to "chaotically fine" ( luan fa ) citizens in order to line their pockets. Chaos is, in this sense, associated with unfair or unjust behavior. For an analysis of the Chinese concept of chaos see, Solomon (1971)

Commenting on banditry in the Republican period, Billlingsley (1988) has also drawn the connection between the doctrine of the mandate of heaven and the proclivity of peasants in Southwest China to rebel against the central state. Elizabeth Perry (1980) has examined environmental antecedents to rebellion. Su Xiao Kang and Wang Lu Shang in their famous "River Eligy" television series make poetic use of this connection between natural and political disaster (Su and Wang 1991).

For more examples, see Dong Zhongshu (--see frontispiece) who asserted that the monarchical order is justified by resonance with the order of Nature. In addition, Michael Nylan and Nathan Sivin (1987) have underlined the importance of the "Canon of Supreme Mystery" in Chinese intellectual history, a writing which offered a scheme of cyclical change in the realms of heaven, earth and man.

Bird-David (1993) elucidates the metaphorization of nature-human relations in four tribal cases, arguing that in opposition to western subject-object formulations, their conceptions imply a subject-subject framework. She concludes that we should learn from their experience and ourselves adopt a pluralistic view.

 

 

About This Essay


Physical Space and Social Conflict

For villagers in Xiakou, physical space is a highly charged reflection and inscription of social relations. Social conflict-and its inverse, moral rectitude-are seen to be manifest in the arrangement of trees, stones, houses, paths and other elements of the physical environment. Amplified by the influence of fengshui , or Chinese geomancy, the physical environment is interpreted and acted upon as a symbolic field expressing relationships among groups and individuals. Because different historical periods had characteristic influemces on social relationships, they also affected the physical world in particular ways. This essay first appeared in the middle of Pam Leonard's 1994 thesis, "The Political Landscape of a Sichuan Village " where it demonstrated the critical connection between the historical chapters and the chapters focused on elements of the landscape.