Politics and Popular Culture in Contemporary Rural China
Scholars who observed the lack of color in rural social life in the Maoist era have also witnessed and marveled at the liberalizing energies released by the recent decade of reforms. Unprecedented movements of goods, capital, and people across the rural landscape have been accompanied by a flourishing of popular rituals. The phenomenon poses interesting questions about culture change. Has Maoist politics ironically preserved the popular culture of peasant communities to the extent that, once the party-state attempted to retreat from society, popular culture regained its former momentum to influence the process of modernization? Or, has peasant culture been so touched by the Maoist programs that what we observe today are new reconstitutions of tradition for coping with contemporary existence defined by the socialist state, rather than cultural remnants that survived the encounter with that state? On the basis of fieldwork carried out in 1986 in Nanxi zhen (a pseudonym), a market town in the heart of the Pearl River Delta known for the intensity of popular ritual activities in the past and the present, I will examine a set of rituals, especially those for funerals and weddings, and the meanings that practitioners attribute to them in order to address the issue of cultural continuity and change in rural China today.
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