A young farmer directs a water buffalo. In the distance a factory is visible. Fei Xiaotong’s 1938 Ph.D. thesis, published as Peasant Life in China, argued that Chinese villagers needed revenue from rural industry to supplement their income from agriculture. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Fei Xiaotong, educated at the London School of Economics, was China’s most important anthropologist/sociologist and the author of a prodigious number of books and articles in Chinese. Although during the period of Maoist radicalism he was virulently attacked, in his later years he became one of China’s most popular and prominent intellectuals.

Fei Xiaotong was born to a cultivated family in the lower Yangzi (Chang) River region. After completing a B.A. in sociology and an M.A. in anthropology in Beijing, he earned a Ph.D. under Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. His 1938 Ph.D. thesis, published as Peasant Life in China, argued that Chinese villagers had too little land to subsist on agriculture alone; they needed supplemental income from rural industry. As an anthropologist, Fei always directed his work toward improving his subjects’ lives; he said he wanted to be a “plaintiff for the Chinese peasants.” Returning from England in 1938 to a China partly occupied by Japan, Fei went to the wartime intellectual center of Kunming in Yunnan in the far southwest, where he had a university post, students, and a rural research station. While in the United States for a year from 1943 to 1944, Margaret Park Redfield helped him translate three of these Yunnan studies into English as Earthbound China.

But in China Fei is not known for his ethnographies: Peasant Life in China appeared in Chinese only in 1986. Fei’s Chinese fame was as a master of lively and engaging articles, accessible to a broad public, on society and current affairs. Many series of articles were collected into books, of which he published at least sixteen in Chinese in the 1940s, with a readership reaching far beyond the profession to high school students and government clerks. His most popular book, the often reprinted Xiangtu Zhongguo (translated as From the Soil) generalized about rural culture, explaining to urban readers why old rustic patterns functioned. Other books and articles were more somber, stating that cities and towns were parasites bringing economic distress to villages left defenseless by twentieth-century social erosion of human talent from the countryside. Along the way he brought in a good deal of Western social science theory. A year in the United States in 1943-44 resulted in three books, and a later visit to England produced another. In the late 1940s, he wrote regular articles on international relations, thanks to weekly packets of news materials airmailed from friends in England.

The central tragedy of Fei’s life shows all too sadly the vulnerability of intellectual endeavors to political power. The “plaintiff for the Chinese peasants” could hardly avoid the Nationalist government’s failure to address rural poverty. In late 1945, while Fei spoke at a university rally in opposition to the civil war, government troops fired over his head, and he was rumored to be targeted for assassination. Still, Fei was never much interested in Communism, the Soviet Union, or Marxism; his political values were Anglo-American law and democracy. But the Nationalists had made an enemy of Fei, and when the Communists took over his university campus, he chose to stay on, thinking they would use his expertise in modernizing rural China.

For a while Fei’s famous name was useful in legitimizing Communist power, but soon his tone became constricted, and sociology as a subject was abolished. During the “Hundred Flowers” thaw of 1956 and 1957, he began to speak out again and worked to build a party for intellectuals. When the climate suddenly changed in late 1957, Fei was a major target. He stood with bowed head before the National People’s Congress and countless other assemblies to confess his “crimes against the people.” Hundreds of articles attacked him, not a few by colleagues, and many were viciously dishonest. Fei became an outcast, humiliated and isolated. Twenty-three years, which should have been his most productive, were wasted. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, physically attacked by Red Guards and forced to clean toilets, he contemplated suicide.

The next twenty-three years, in sharp contrast, were an astonishing whirlwind of activity. Following President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, Fei, by then internationally known, received foreign visitors. In 1979, after Mao’s death, he was asked to direct the restoration of Chinese sociology. He was highly visible as the public intellectual with important political posts and contact with policymakers. His name appeared in the newspapers and his round smiling face was seen on television virtually every week in the 1990s. He traveled all over China and wrote about it in a large book with the charming title Travel, Travel, and More Travel. He went abroad and was showered with international honors in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia.

Above all, it was as a writer that Fei flourished in his second life. Virtually all of his old books were republished, and he turned out new books and articles in even greater quantity. Of the fifteen volumes of his Works (1999–2001), over half were new writings from the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the themes were familiar. He repeatedly and forcefully set forth the case for sociology and anthropology if modernization were to succeed in China. He reminisced about his village fieldwork, his studies, and his teachers. He wrote on rural industrialization, small towns, national minorities, and developing frontier areas. He championed the cause of intellectuals. He discussed his trips abroad, and made some new translations from English to Chinese. He even wrote a small volume of poetry. What was different in all this new writing was political caution; there was no more pushing for democracy as he had done in the 1940s and mid-1950s. Fei had too little time and too much to do in these last decades to risk playing with fire again.

Fei died in Beijing on 24 April 2005; his body was cremated after a ceremony at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery.

Further Reading

Arkush, R. D. (1981). Fei Xiaotong and sociology in revolutionary China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Arkush, R. D. (2006). Fei Xiaotong [Hsiao–tung Fei] (1910–2005). American Anthropologist, 108, 452–461.

Fei Xiaotong. (1992). From the soil. (G. Hamilton & Wang Zheng, Trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press. (Original work published 1948. Shanghai: Guancha)

Fei Xiaotong. (1946). Minzhu, xianfa, renquan [Democracy, constitutionalism, and human rights]. Shanghai: Shenghuo.

Fei Xiaotong. (1999). Fei Xiaotong shi cun [Poems of Fei Xiaotong]. Beijing: Qunyan.

Source: Arkush, R. David. (2009). FEI Xiaotong. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 803–805. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

FEI Xiaotong (Fèi Xiàot?ng ???)|Fèi Xiàot?ng ??? (FEI Xiaotong)

Download the PDF of this article