HIGHLIGHTS

  • 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.”
  • To complete his doctoral studies at the University of London, FEI in 1936 conducted fieldwork in Kaihsienkung, a village on the Yangtze delta.
  • 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.
  • The RMAF 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.”

 CITATION

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 Chinese people.

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 obscurity.

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.

 RESPONSE

I feel deeply grateful to receive the 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my sincere respect for the late president of the Philippines. We cherish the purpose of this award in building a society in which all people are free and live in honor and peace with one another.

We Asian people suffered a lot from humiliation and oppression in the twentieth century. What we feel proud of is that it is also in this century that we have all emancipated ourselves and become the masters of our own lands. People of my age will never forget this part of history, bitter first, then sweet. It should be a cohesive and driving force for the people of Asia to unite and march toward a more prosperous and beautiful twenty-first century.

We in Asia have ancient civilizations. Brave and industrious and great in number, we Asians ought to cherish a firm confidence in making greater contributions to world peace and prosperity in the years to come.

I have already stepped into my old age. Over the past eighty years and more, I was brought up and supported by my parents and fellow villagers, who made it possible for me to receive a modern education. Yet, I feel uneasy that I have not done enough for the Asian people, so I feel reluctant to accept this prestigious award today. However, I will not fail to live up to the encouragement and expectations of our friendly neighbors. However little time there may be in my disposition, I shall conscientiously make the best of it to do whatever is beneficial to the people of Asia and the world at large, especially by placing accumulated human knowledge in the service of our society.

 BIOGRAPHY

Wujiang County of Jiangsu Province, where Fei Xiaotong was born on 2 November 1910 and spent his first ten years, lies south of the fabled Changjiang (Yangtze River) city of Suzhou (Soochow) and only fifty miles or so from the treaty-port metropolis of Shanghai. He was born into a time of turmoil, less than a year before the national revolution that toppled the Qing, China’s final imperial dynasty-a revolution in which his father, Fei Pu’an, played an active local role. Indeed, Fei Pu’an was a man very much abreast of the times. A man of the gentry, although apparently not wealthy, he had been educated in the Chinese classics and earned a shengyuan civil service degree. He was also among the thousands of young Chinese students of his day who flocked to Japan to study Western learning in schools that catered to Chinese students. Not knowing Japanese, Fei’s father made his way in Japan “with a pen,” that is, by communicating through the classical Chinese characters that educated Chinese and Japanese people knew in common. Back home in Wujiang, Fei Pu’an founded a school based on modern Japanese models, the first of its kind in the province. Fei’s mother, Yang Renlan, a highly educated woman for her time, followed her husband’s lead and established a pioneering nursery school in Wujiang, which the young Fei himself attended.

The family lived well and occupied a large house with servants and gardens within the walled county seat of Wujiang. As an inspector of schools with the provincial bureau of education, Fei Pu’an was a man of status and of sufficient means to educate all five of his children at a time when such education was still a privilege of the few. Xiaotong was the youngest child in the family and, in a sense, an urban child. Even so, the countryside nestled close to Wujiang and he remembers open fields even within the city walls.

Fei began primary school in Wujiang but in 1920, when he was ten, his father moved the family to Suzhou. Here Fei finished primary school at Zhenhao Girls’ School, which was run by friends of his mother and, despite its name, also accepted a handful of boys. Then, he shifted to a middle school affiliated with Suzhou University. The university had been founded in the late nineteenth century by American missionaries. Although Chinese language was emphasized in the middle school, instruction in English was also rigorous and, overall, Western subjects prevailed. Indeed, the middle school was run more or less as an American high school even though the teachers were Chinese. The studious type, Fei excelled in his classes.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)