Coming of age at a time of great
trial in China, FEI XIAOTONG abandoned his medical studies and turned to
sociology. It was not enough to cure individuals, he concluded. The ills of
China were rooted in its entire social and economic system. To cure them,
one must understand the body of China. To FEI, the emerging social sciences
of anthropology and sociology provided the key; yet these insightful new
disciplines were largely rooted in Western studies of colonized "natives."
FEI vowed to create a sociology that spoke to the practical needs of the
To complete his doctoral studies at the University of London, FEI in 1936
conducted fieldwork in Kaihsienkung, a village on the Yangtze delta. Here he
documented the travails of rice and silk-producing peasants beset by
economic forces that they were helpless to escape or control. When the price
of silk dropped on world markets, incomes dwindled in Kaihsienkung;
marriages were delayed and, worse, farmers fell into debt and forfeited
their lands to creditors. In Kaihsienkung, FEI glimpsed into the body of
China; in it he observed that the condition of the peasants was "getting
worse and worse."
By 1938, Japanese invaders had overrun Kaihsienkung and much of eastern
China. FEI retreated with fellow researchers to remote Yunnan and
"experienced the hard bare facts of human existence." Here, too, the land
was becoming concentrated in the hands of a few town-dwelling landlords.
FEI's wartime research led him to call for "an effective land policy" to
arrest this pernicious trend, but he also warned that land reform alone
would not improve peasant life. What was needed was rural industrialization,
organized to distribute the profits "as widely as possible."
After 1945, FEI wrote prolifically about his country's revolutionary crisis,
analyzing China's gentry-dominated class structure and the predatory
economic relationship of the city to the countryside. Although not a
communist himself, he greeted the 1949 victory of China's communist
revolution hopefully. As a social scientist and one who believed in seeking
"truth through facts," he sought a useful role for himself in the new China.
FEI was soon tapped to join a huge ethnographic research project to document
China's ethnic minorities. But China's new leaders were suspicious of the
social sciences. In 1952, they declared sociology illegitimate and banned it
from the schools. In 1957, when FEI complained that government policies in
Kaihsienkung neglected rural industries, he was declared a rightist and
forbidden to teach. The ensuing Cultural Revolution brought humiliation and
Twenty years passed. The storm clouds parted and both FEI and sociology were
rehabilitated. In 1978, the Chinese government adopted a development program
that followed FEI's precept of "leave the farm but not the village." It
favored small-town-based industrialization as a road to improved peasant
incomes and as an antidote to glutted mega-cities. Today, FEl's insight is
changing the face of China. Proliferating township and village enterprises
are enabling millions of Chinese to improve and diversify their livelihood
and providing a rural foundation for China's unprecedented economic growth.
Now a commanding figure in the scholarly world at home and abroad,
eighty-three-year-old FEI is cheered by the nascent prosperity of China's
countryside. Emerging amidst the quickening economic life is a wiser, more
broad-minded populace. This bodes well for China. So also does "the vigorous
blooming of hundreds of flowers in the garden of Chinese sociology."
In electing FEI XIAOTONG to receive the 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award for
Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his giving Chinese
substance to the modern social sciences and applying them rigorously to the
needs of China and its people.