Local Property Strategies and New Moral Economies in South Fujian

Project Summary


I was educated at Heidelberg University and the Free University of Berlin, where I obtained my doctorate in 2000. I have always been interested in problems of social change and fascinated by China. My first fieldwork (1991-1992) brought me to Taiwan, one of the so-called "Tiger Economies" in East Asia, where I focussed on the impact of migration, wage labour and market production on gender and family relations in a small fishing village. The research for my PhD thesis (1994-1995, 1997) was based in both Taiwan and China. The thesis compared the impact of different types of state formation on the long-term development trajectory of gender and kinship on both sides, starting from a common "root" under the Late Imperial State. I argued that Chinese gender/kinship system combined two different types of relatedness, hierarchy and alliance, the first excluding women and the second centrally including them. This resulted in a "contradiction" which produced the systems inherent dynamic. To link this with the dynamics of the wider political and economic system, I used and further developed the concept of "moral economy", showing how hierarchy was tied to and reproduced in rights to "inclusive" ancestral property and alliance tied to and reproduced in lateral "gift" exchanges. I argued that processes of institutional "de-localisation" in 20th century Taiwan strengthened women's ties to their own parents and their role in producing relatedness both within and beyond the family, by decreasing the importance of ancestral property and thereby hierarchical, "male" relatedness. In the People's Republic of China, in contrast, I found that the persistence of local, territorial institutions and collective "male" property also furthered the principle of hierarchy in gender and kinship, despite socialist efforts to "bring women out of the house" and new opportunities for women to earn an independent income after the economic reforms.
My new project at the Max Planck has followed up this interest in social transformations, property relations, the production of social relatedness and moral economies I developed in my PhD thesis. Although in obvious ways different from other postsocialist states, given the communist party's continuous hold on power, Chinese experience since the late 1970s lends itself well to comparative investigations of postsocialist property systems. The encouragement of "socialist market economy" has posed a challenge to socialist ideals, particularly egalitarianism and social entitlements held by the collective. Using the concept of moral economy that I developed in my PhD, this new project investigates the increasing tension between the old collective order and the new market economy of recent decades. The area of fieldwork is Southern Fujian, familiar to me already from my previous fieldwork. This area illustrates these tensions in a specially acute form, in particular because of its "bubble economy" environment, its very intensive links to overseas Chinese communities and increasing transnational investments in rural areas. Partly as a result of "deliberate institutional ambiguity" maintained in state legislation (Ho), partly as a result of local strategies and development, property relations in South Fujian are notoriously "fuzzy" (Verdery). The project has used this "fuzziness" as a starting point, assuming that the most important characteristic of fuzzy property relations is flexibility. This flexibility leaves space for negotiations and power politics at the local level, but also for the formation of different moral communities or group identities around different notions of land rights. My first working paper at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, still largely based on my previous PhD fieldwork, discussed the moral, political and economic aspects of a revival of localised kinship groups in South Fujian in the tension between the state and the new socialist market economy.

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