After 50 Years, “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China” Remains a China Studies Classic

By Daniel Knorr

G. William Skinner (1925-2008) was an anthropologist of China who taught at Cornell, Columbia, Stanford, and the University of California, Davis during his long and impressive career. President of the AAS in 1983, among Skinner’s many contributions to the field is a trio of articles that appeared in the Journal of Asian Studies in 1964-65, in which he set out his analysis of the social and economic networks connecting marketing towns in rural China. Skinner’s insights attracted such attention among China specialists that in 1974 the AAS published his JAS articles in a single volume, Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China. The book proved so popular that the association reprinted it five times over the next three decades. As Daniel Knorr explains in the short essay below, Skinner’s work remains one of the foundational texts for China studies and should be read (and re-read) by all scholars in the field.

We are currently offering copies of the sixth reprint of Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China (2001) for the special price of $5 (plus shipping and handling) while supplies last. Visit the AAS Publications online store to place your order.

In the last half-century, the field of China studies has changed a great deal. Remarkably, though, the scholarship of G. William Skinner remains important not only for understanding how the field has developed but also as a touchstone for current research on late imperial and modern China. Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China, with its marriage of minute details and sweeping implications, offers both a foreshadowing of how China studies would develop in subsequent decades and a resource for scholars seeking new directions for future research.

The three essays in this book, originally published in The Journal of Asian Studies in 1964-65, already display ambivalence towards a Western-centered narrative of modernization. Twenty years before Paul Cohen would coin the term “China-centered history,” Skinner offers an account of social and economic life in China that embodies some of the best qualities of the scholarship that would follow in this vein. The first two essays describe the structure of marketing systems in late imperial China, how standard marketing communities shaped the contours of social life, and the intensification of rural marketing as a general trend during the imperial period. Partway through the second essay, Skinner introduces his understanding of modern change in marketing systems. While he juxtaposes “traditional” and “modern” change, he posits that the two are fundamentally linked: the modernization of markets “recapitulates” patterns of traditional marketing systems and even stimulates the latter’s growth in surrounding areas.

Skinner identifies modernization with an intensification in several aspects of marketing behavior that is associated with technological change but cannot be reduced to it. He treats the “traditional,” then, not as an intrinsic quality of China or elsewhere but a pattern of economic and social life adapted to a set of technological possibilities and constraints. In Skinner’s telling, traditional patterns neither stubbornly blocked nor inexorably gave way to economic modernization. His final essay drives this home, arguing that the post-1949 system continued to rely on traditional marketing systems, and that reforms that misaligned systems of extraction and redistribution with existing structures, such as the Great Leap Forward, resulted in inefficiency and failure.

The interdisciplinarity at the heart of Skinner’s scholarship is exemplary and instructive. His examination of marketing systems combines an economistic appreciation for patterns of human behavior, an anthropological concern for lived experience, and a historical attention to change over time. These all manifest in his approach to spatial analysis, one of his most important intellectual legacies in the field of China studies. Skinner’s use of central place theory to analyze regional subdivisions shaped highly influential scholarship on local and regional history in the 1980s.

The quantitative macro-level aspects of Skinner’s scholarship may bear more resemblance to the large-scale spatial analysis that is currently gaining popularity in the digital humanities than does the more qualitative scholarship that followed directly from his work. His approach to marketing systems as economic and social phenomena has renewed significance as the field of economic history grows and spills into other areas of research, like material culture. The third essay’s argument that marketing structures continued to play an important role after 1949 deserves attention given current inclinations to interpret the foundation of the communist state as one stage in the history of capitalism in China and not even a temporary endpoint.

Naturally, there are limitations to Skinner’s approach. In particular, his focus on contained, hierarchically organized marketing communities does not readily accommodate phenomena that cut across the boundaries of these communities. These include physiographic features, like the Yangzi River, that facilitated long-distance trade, civil and military government interventions, like the Qing conquests in the west and southwest, combinations of the two, like the Grand Canal, and China’s relationship with global markets. However, Skinner’s model of local communities still bears on studies that probe these questions, challenging us to consider how transregional linkages interacted with, appropriated, and disrupted local networks of exchange.

Fortunately for China specialists, then, these three essays left a great deal of ground to cover, and the field has been much the richer for scholars taking up this task in the intervening decades. Skinner’s studies of local economic and social life, which helped move the field towards emphasizing the dynamic and regionally inflected nature of China’s history, continue to be relevant as scholars have turned towards global connections and their relationship to local communities. Packaging these essays as a single volume makes them convenient to use as a reference or course material for students and researchers.

Daniel Knorr is a Ph.D. candidate in Chinese history at the University of Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @dknorrhistorian.

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