Xinjiang Project (with Ildikó Bellér-Hann, 2006-)

This project was launched in 2006, as an empirical contribution to the Department's Focus Group "Social Support and Kinship in China and Vietnam". The main fieldwork was undertaken in 2006-7, which is when the details below were drafted. Further short visits were made to the main field sites in 2009 and 2013, but as of 2017 it is no longer possible for foreign researchers to access this region. For a Report on the main results to date see: Socialism with Neoliberal Characteristics.

Feudalism, Socialism and the Present Mixed Economy in Rural Eastern Xinjiang

(Chris Hann and Ildikó Bellér-Hann, in cooperation with Minzu University of China and Xinjiang University)

This project builds on the researchers’ long familiarity with the Xinjang Uyhgur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which dates back to 1986. Later fieldwork in the 1990s was based in Kucha and Kashgar, in the (south-)western zone of the province. This time the location is the prefecture of Hami (Uyghur: Qumul) in eastern Xinjiang. Although the Han are now the largest group in the city, the project focuses on two communities that are almost exclusively Uyghur. One is an upland village of 70 households in Tianshan township, some 50 km from the oasis centre. The other is a larger village in the oasis centre, adjacent to the modern city. Fieldwork was carried out in both locations between September 2006 and August 2007, and a further visit is planned for 2009.

The general contours of the modern social, economic and demographic history of Eastern Xinjiang resemble those found elsewhere in the XUAR and indeed the whole of China. Villagers recall the Maoist era as a time of dislocation and suffering. They were obliged to cooperate in various ways, but coercive koperatsiye made it impossible to continue some traditional forms of working together and mutual aid. Some of these have re-emerged with the efflorescence of subsistence-oriented farming since the 1980s. Some households in the oasis also cooperate extensively in producing cash crops, notably cotton. Older forms of sociality have been revived, e.g. weddings, very modest affairs in the Maoist years, are now occasions for considerable material outlay, It is customary to invite the neighborhood or even the entire village to the major life cycle rituals. At the same time, however, the differentiation associated with the free market is creating tensions, and money is increasingly mediating relationships that, formerly, were based on loyalties to kin and neighbors. This sometimes leads, here as elsewhere in China, to existential dilemmas, e.g. in the case of elderly people who lack sons to care for them.

A household survey was carried out in the upland village; particular attention was paid to labour cooperation. The supplementary field site in the oasis has a more varied economic profile but here too small-scale farming is dominant; whereas animals provide the main source of cash in Tienshan township, in the oasis cotton and fruit are the main sources of cash for most households. In addition to questions of cooperation, both within and between households, we are also interested in local constructions of oasis history. Our oasis field site, now just outside the boundary of the modern city, was until the 1930s the residence of the local power holders (Wang), represented by cultural officials today as an ‘Uyghur royal family’ but depicted by official scholarship as an exploitative, ‘feudal’ dynasty.

The project contributes to the Focus Group in Department II investigating social support issues in contemporary East Asian societies that are seeking to reconcile the basic tensions of economic efficiency and social security within a framework that remains in some sense socialist. It complements the studies of Eli and Pawan in the western zone of the XUAR. It also engages with the historical literature on ‘peasant’ society in Central Asia and with the comparative literature on rural ‘modernization’.

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