Yanjie BIAN

The discipline of sociology emerged in China in the early twentieth century, but was officially banned from classroom instruction and scholarly research shortly after 1949. In the post-Mao era the Chinese government recognized sociology for its role in China’s modernization and globalization, and it has re-emerged as a respected field of study over the past thirty years.

Sociology is known in Chinese as “the study of society” (she hui xue 社会学). Being introduced into China from the West around the end of the nineteenth century, sociology’s broad implications for building a better society inspired pioneer social-thinkers of modern China. Under Mao Zedong’s (1893–1976) regime that began in 1949, however, sociology was considered a stream of knowledge for the bourgeoisie and was banned from classroom instruction and scholarly research for nearly thirty years. In the post-Mao era, the rebirth of sociology was part of the nation’s new reform-and-openness policy to modernize China. For the most recent thirty years, Chinese sociologists have laid the foundation of the discipline in their country, upgraded their teaching and research to international standards, and made sociology a social science discipline of growing scholarly significance and national impact.

Birth and Early Development

Sociology emerged as a new subject of social science in France and England, through the contributions of Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), in the mid-1800s, a century that witnessed rapid industrialization, great social changes, and the flowering of social thoughts throughout the European continent. Meanwhile, China was an agricultural society under a corrupted Qing dynasty (1644–1912); it lost wars to Britain, France, Japan, and an eight-country joint-military force within a sixty-year span on Chinese waters and lands and was forced to open its port cities along the Pacific coast to international trade under unequal treaties. A sense of urgency elevated Chinese intellectuals who, for the first time in a 2,000-year Confucian tradition of great self-respect and self-preservation, voiced out loud a fresh message that China must learn from the West. Introducing sociology into China was a result of the learning-from-the-West movement.

Yan Fu 严复(1854–1921), while sent to study in England’s Navy Academy from 1877 to 1879, became much more interested in social-political thoughts than naval ones. Returning home, he began translating some of the great Western books of the time, including Thomas Huxley‘s Evolution and Ethics, Adam Smith‘s The Wealth of Nations, and John Stuart Mill‘s On Liberty, into Chinese. Yan’s sociology favorite was The Study of Sociology by Herbert Spencer; after two chapters appeared in the State News Letter (Guo wen bao 国文报) in 1898, the whole book’s translation was published, with the Chinese title of 群学肄言(Qun xue yi yan), by the Shanghai Civilization Publishing House in 1903. This translated work, combined with Yan’s own interpretations of Spencer’s social Darwinism, marked the birth of sociology in China.

While Chinese translations of other works by American, European, and Japanese sociologists followed Yan’s pioneering effort, sociological teaching and research grew quickly in the first half of the twentieth century. The first sociology course was taught in 1908 at St. John’s University in Shanghai; the first department of sociology was set up in 1921 at Xiamen University; and in 1934 China had forty-one universities that offered sociology courses, seventeen departments of sociology, and nearly 500 registered sociology students. This period witnessed a good number of foreign sociologists arriving to teach in China and a much greater number of Chinese students going abroad to learn sociology. Built on an expanding sociology faculty and students, the All-China Sociological Association was funded in 1930, and continued to function as a public forum even during the period of China’s War of Resistance Against Japan (1937–1945, known outside China as the Second Sino-Japanese War, fought in the context of World War II). Meanwhile, theoretical and empirical research flourished. In the spirit of “making sociology Chinese,” scholars and students were oriented toward offering ingenious explanations of social problems, as exemplified in Fei Xiaotong’s (1910–2005) series of original research of peasant life, the family, and social structure. By 1949, sociology had been a lively and rigorous degree program in more than twenty leading universities, and teaching and research activities had contributed greatly to the spread of sociological knowledge throughout China.

Banishment and Political Tortures

Sociology met an unprecedented challenge under the new People’s Republic of China in 1949. Influenced by Vladimir Lenin’s characterization of Auguste Comte’s sociology as bourgeois, Mao Zedong’s new government terminated all sociology programs during the 1952–1953 educational reform, and sociological teaching and research were banned officially. At the time, these brutal actions against sociology followed the model of the former Soviet Union, which abolished the discipline. To Chinese leadership, Karl Marx’s historical materialism should and must take the place of sociology as the only theoretical guidance for building a new society, and, secondarily, there was no need for a discipline that dealt primarily with social problems that would never occur in a socialist China. As a consequence, sociologists were brainwashed and reallocated to the teaching or research of other subjects under the guidance of orthodox Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism.

The termination of sociology was extremely unpopular among Chinese sociologists, whose resistance was, after all, confined only to their minds. Their hope to legitimize and resume the discipline to normalcy was sparked (yet limited to a matter of months between 1956 and 1957, as it turned out), by Mao’s April 1956 speech of “letting one hundred flowers blossom and one hundred schools of thought contend.” The implication of this speech was to permit any form of culture, art, and thought to exist in their own rights, including the possibility of reviving sociology. Such an implication was taken seriously by leading Chinese sociologists, who cheerfully voiced their wishes of making sociology a legitimate and useful social science discipline for a socialist China. But these voices were mixed with other voices that demanded political democracy, a signal Mao considered a rightist attack on the Communist rule. When Mao reacted politically, the atmosphere turned around 180 degrees, and sociologists, joined by 300,000 other so-called rightists, became targets of the political torture of intellectuals during the anti-rightist movement of 1957 and 1958. Subsequently, many sociologists were removed from academic or leadership positions and sent to labor camps; during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976, many were physically attacked by the Red Guards. Fei Xiaotong, China’s most influential and respectable sociologist, for instance, lost his personal freedom, was forced to clean toilets, and contemplated suicide.

Rebirth and Rebuilding

The death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 was followed, after more than a year’s power struggles within top leadership, by a series of new directives made to rectify the ultraleft forces within the Communist Party that were also responsible for the banishment of sociology. Deng Xiaoping and his new leadership began to re-recognize sociology, along with other social sciences, for the role it could play in education during the country’s modernization under a reform-and-openness policy. The re-establishment of the Chinese Sociological Association in March 1979 marked the rebirth of sociology in China.

The association assembled a good score of living Chinese sociologists, who elected a board of fifty distinguished members and Fei their first president, to lead a collective effort of rebuilding Chinese sociology. Having survived political torture and personal persecution since 1957, Fei, at the age of sixty-nine, still had the scholarly spirit to seek truth through science and was determined to devote his life to the revival and reconstruction of Chinese sociology. In the short term, Fei’s urgent task was to train a new generation of sociologists; with twenty-seven years of inactivity, China did not have sociologists to resume classroom instruction or scholarly research of professional quality. Fei and his colleagues invited established professors from America and elsewhere to teach short-term training programs in China during the 1980s. Two of these programs were of historical significance and had lasting impacts on sociological reconstruction.

The first of these was a two-year summer program in Beijing in 1980 and 1981. Students included nearly 100 middle-aged social scientists from China’s major universities and research academies. This program trained the first post-Mao cohort of sociology lecturers, who subsequently helped set up sociology departments and sociology institutes throughout the country. The instructors of this program were invited from the University of Pittsburgh, where C. K. Yang (1911–1999), Fei’s college classmate and lifetime friend, was a professor of sociology. Yang also mobilized, through his former students, a handful of sociologists of Chinese origin from the Chinese University of Hong Kong to join the teaching faculty in the Beijing summer program. Lecture notes from this program were considered valuable and were quickly circulated among colleagues.

The second was a year-long program, set up at Nankai University in 1981, and offered to a group of forty-three college seniors selected from China’s leading universities. Among other instructors, Peter Blau and Nan Lin, both then on the faculty of the State University of New York at Albany, were invited to teach the summer section of the program. With their first-class instruction in theory and methodology, Blau and Lin together laid a solid sociological foundation within this group, the first cohort of post-Mao sociology students. A significant number of career sociologists emerged from this program, many of whom eventually assumed department-chair positions in sociology programs within the country. Others went abroad for doctoral studies and are currently active in research and teaching around the globe.

Chinese Sociology Today

After a nearly thirty-year rebuilding effort, Chinese sociology now has gained new stature. As of 2008, seventy-four universities are authorized by the Ministry of Education, an organ of China’s central government, to offer bachelor’s degrees in sociology, and eighty-seven offer master’s degrees in sociology. Under tight scrutiny, PhD programs are so far limited to only eleven top institutions whose faculty quality and academic caliber meet a higher standard; in a sequential order of receiving state approval, these are: Peking, Renmin, Nankai, Nanjing, Zhongshan, and Shanghai universities; the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Tsinghua, Wuhan, Jilin, Huazhong Normal, and Fudan universities. Graduates from these and other sociology programs have taken a wide range of job positions, but most career sociologists work in universities or research academies.

The central government allocates significant funding to programs of academic excellence and national recognition. The “211 Project” identifies 100 national top academic programs, which included the sociology programs of Peking and Renmin universities. The “985 Project” identifies the best universities nationally to which funds are allocated to finance programs of national and international standing; all sociology departments with PhD programs are viable competitors for funds allocated through this directive. Finally, a competitive social science funding scheme has been established to sponsor social science research on an annual basis.

Living in an era of reform, Chinese sociologists have focused on empirical studies of emerging social problems. One research direction of national impact is about China’s path to modernization. Fei led a group of sociologists in studying developmental patterns, and their research findings have had a direct impact on the directives behind the growth of China’s township-village and private enterprises and the population migration from rural to urban areas. A more contested area of research is about the changing system of social stratification; based on a national survey, Lu Xueyi and his colleagues observed a ten-stratum hierarchy in today’s China, which is significantly different from the image of a working-class led hierarchy under Mao’s regime. The research of state-society relations has been developed largely in the area of rural sociology; Sun Liping pioneered a “practical sociology” approach by looking into village communities in which state laws and power are limited by local social structures. Finally, a new area of national attention is economic sociology; creative scholarship in this area has focused on issues of trust, social capital, and social networks in China’s transition economy.

Influenced by a Confucian tradition, older generations of Chinese sociologists have always had the vision of using sociological knowledge to help construct a better society. This is exemplified in Fei’s work on townships and migration. Following this tradition, the reform-era generation has stressed the notion of “problem consciousness” in teaching and research, which has generated a significant number of problem-solving and policy-evaluation studies. Chinese sociologists have made policy and legislative contributions to birth control, social security system, rural taxation reforms, unemployment problems, community building, environmental protection, and sustainable development. The role of critical sociology is, however, significantly underdeveloped, as China’s public space has effectively been under the control of a Communist party-state. Only recently has public sociology had a role in creating environmental movements.

Sociology Publications

China has two sociology journals, Journal of Sociological Research (Shehuixue Yanjiu 社会学研究, since 1986) and Society (Shehui 社会, since 1982), and eight first-rate social science journals (consult Zhou and Pei [1997] and Bian and Zhang [2008] for names of these journals), which make the top-ten outlets for nearly 200 article-length publications on sociological topics each year. A review of these publications suggests that sociological research quality, measured by authors’ using theoretical frameworks, methodological justifications, and extended references, significantly increased around 1995. Since then, a trend toward adopting peer review and tightening scholarly standards in the screening of submissions has been observed. This trend was consistent with a central directive that scholarly research must meet international standards. Chinese researchers who received rigorous training, domestic or overseas, and gained research experiences in collaboration with international scholars have been the driving force behind improvements in scholarly publications.

Another significant improvement is in public-data archiving. Bucking the tradition of not sharing data, sociologists from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Renmin University of China collaborated to start the Chinese General Social Survey in 2003. Its datasets, along with related documents, have since been disseminated internationally through the Internet (www.chinagss.org). This development has earned China membership in the East Asian and International Social Survey programs. Another project of similar nature is the Chinese version of American Family Income Dynamics project, a collaboration of the University of Michigan and Peking University. Still in preparation in 2009, this project has a panel design to establish a public data archive to satisfy domestic and international users.

International exchanges have been instrumental to the rebuilding of Chinese sociology from the very start, but more still needs to be done. Wider and deeper scholarly dialogues with the world are expected to be mutually beneficial. On the one hand, there is a growing interest in China, and more and more foreign sociologists from around the world want to do research in the country. Chinese sociologists, on the other hand, still have much to learn from their foreign counterparts about how to enhance and institutionalize sociology as a discipline of theoretical and methodological rigor in their homeland. While they share sociological terminologies, methodological principles, and theoretical goals, the Chinese and their foreign colleagues have worked rather separately in areas of common interest, such as economic sociology, social networks, social stratification, and institutional change. Together they can develop joint research projects through which to achieve new sociological explanations of issues and problems in a world of increasing globalization.

Further Reading

Bian, Yanjie. (2003). Sociological research on reform-era China. Issues & Studies, 38/39, 139–174.

Bian, Yanjie, & Lei Zhang. (2008). Sociology in China. Contexts, 7(3), 20–25.

Cheng, Lucie, & So Alvin. (1983, August). The reestablishing of sociology in the PRC: Toward the signification of Marxian sociology. Annual Review of Sociology, 9, 471–498.

Fei Xiaotong. (2001). Fei Xiaotong Wenji [Fei Xiaotong’s Works] (Vols. 1–14). Beijing: Tuanjie chubanshe [Unity Press].

Jing Tiankui (Ed). (1989–2008). Zhongguo shehuixue nianjian, 1989-2008 [China Year Book of Sociology, 1989–2008]. Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe [Social Science Academic Press].

Lenin, V. I. (1972). Materialism and empiro-criticism: Critical comments on a reactionary philosophy. In Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 14, 17–362). Moscow: Progress Publishers. (Original work published in 1908)

Li Hanlin, Fang Ming, Wang Ying, Sun Bingyan, & Qi Wang. (1987). Chinese sociology, 1898–1986. Social Forces, 65, 612–640.

Li Peilin, Li Qiang, & Ma Rong (Eds). (2008). Shehuixue yu zhongguo shehui [Sociology and Chinese Society], Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe [Social Sciences Academic Press].

Li Qiang & Zheng Lu. (2000). Zhongguo shehuixue ershi nian: Huigu yu qianzhan [Sociology of twenty years in China: Review and forecast]. Zhongguo renmin daxue xuebao [Journal of Renmin University of China], 1, 19–25.

Lin, Nan, Nee, V., Parish, W. & Yu Elena. (1993). The development of sociology in China: A delegation report. Beijing: Ford Foundation.

Lu Xueyi (Ed.) (2002). Dangdai Zhongguo shehui jieceng yanjiu baogao [Report on social strata in contemporary China]. Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe [Social Science Academic Press].

Rossi, A. S. (Ed.). (1985). Sociology and anthropology in the People’s Republic of China: Report of a delegation visit, February-March 1984. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Sun Liping. (2002). Shijian shehuixue yu shichang zhuanxing guocheng fenxi [Practical sociology and a process-analysis of market transition]. Zhongguo shehui kexue [Chinese Social Sciences], 5, 83–96.

Whyte, M. K. (2000). China studies. In E. F. Borgatta & R. J. V. Montgomery (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Sociology, Vol. 1. (2nd ed., pp. 297–304). New York: Macmillan.

Zhou, Xueguang & Pei, Xiaomei. (1997). Chinese sociology in a transitional society. Contemporary Sociology, 26, 569–572.

Source: Bian, Yanjie. (2009). Sociology. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2031–2035. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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