Murphy, Rachel (2004). Turning peasants into modern Chinese citizens: “Population quality” discourse, demographic transition and primary education. Description and Critique

Murphy, R. (2004). Turning peasants into modern Chinese citizens: “Population quality” discourse, demographic transition and primary education. The China Quarterly, 177, 1-20.


Rachel Murphy, the author of “Turning Peasants into Modern Chinese Citizens: ‘Population Quality’ Discourse, Demographic Transition and Primary Education,” highlights the role of the traditional Confucian concept of suzhi in modernizing Chinese society. Suzhi carries the idea of self-cultivation for the purpose of improving society, or raising “population quality” (p.1). Murphy positions the notion of suzhi as the axis around which national development takes shape. Under the guidance of the “party state”, suzhi has been co-opted into a nationalistic social improvement campaign with two primary objectives (p.4). The first objective is to raise economic competitiveness by raising suzhi primarily through public education. Communities or groups seen as “backward” or possessing a low level of suzhi, such as rural farmers, are given particular attention in social development programs. The second objective is to gradually shift the onus of responsibility in achieving social welfare and economic stability from the state onto individuals in the post reform period. Murphy uses Rivercountry, Jiangxi province as a case study in explaining how suzhi improvement campaigns unfold in the countryside and the effects they have on the mentality of rural people, from primary school children to parents and teachers. She concludes that the “ongoing self-improvement ethos of suzhi overlaps with identity formation as a process of becoming, and is a metonym for the continual modernizing and “coming into being” of the nation” (p.20).


Rachel Murphy’s main objective in explaining suzhi as a key mechanism of modernization appears to be well founded, especially in light of the examples she gives citing the cultural discourse around suzhi, demonstrated in the Rivercountry case study. She opens a window on the complex world of cultural tradition, personal ambition, unequal class relations or opportunities, and economic dreams which are manipulated by state propaganda. While Murphy’s overall case for the central role of suzhi improvement campaigns in China’s modernization explains the country’s developmental trajectory, two main research opportunities stand out: namely, a lack of explicit defense of the term modernization, and lack of commentary on suzhi improvement as a form of ideologically monopolizing propaganda.

Murphy cites on page one that modernization is about “school modernization, state retreat from welfare provisioning, and the promotion of economic competition,” among other things (p.1). However, in positioning suzhi in the modernization universe, Murphy leaves out explicit government rhetoric (i.e. slogans, policy statements) pertaining to its “modernization teleology” (p.4). For example, Murphy fails to outline why the central government has chosen the particular objectives of national improvement that it has. Nor does she explain how much of the modernization project owes its characteristics to Chinese traditions versus how much to the government’s political craftwork. Providing explicit background on modernization as a state-directed project would lend greater clarity and rationale to putting suzhi improvement at its center.

Secondly, Murphy does not explicitly touch on how suzhi improvement campaigns act as a mechanism of monopolistic state control over how the population develops (economically, socially, ideologically), as evidenced through wide ranging propaganda. Monopolistic state control is continually exercised by placing pressure on communities to expend immense amounts of time and resources on their children’s academic study as a way to raise population quality under the guidance of curriculum built around strong nationalistic motifs (p.17). Intrusion into personal life via “regulating fertility, encouraging good parenthood, removing children from the village and socializing them to be the citizens of a modernizing nation” reinforces the role of suzhi propaganda for the purpose of driving the nation in the prescribed direction (19). In generating deep concern over the status of the nation’s suzhi, the Communist Party has achieved great success in co-opting the term from its traditional base in Confucian thought and placing it into the state controlled “modernization teleology.”

Propaganda serves as the chief vehicle for popularizing suzhi ideology and framing it in nationalistic terms as a way for the state to obtain greater control over the populace. How does the state-controlled propaganda apparatus influence the creation of dreams and the conception of personal or national destiny? Murphy alludes to this effect without pinpointing it as a major force in shaping the nation’s conscience on matters of personal (or national) success and failure. The primacy of suzhi ideology serves to displace alternative notions of personal value and identity which otherwise (might) exist independently of the state. This ideological hegemony creates a tremendous advantage for the state in exercising monopolistic control. However, discontinuities presumably abound. What forms of subversion exist in which people defy the state-sponsored ideological narrative and opt for alternative ways of being and thinking? While Murphy provides an insightful, well-grounded exposition on her topic, greater attention to the aspects of suzhi improvement that I’ve mentioned could elicit broader and more critical discussion on its role in China’s modernization.

Research Suggestions

The main research suggestions I have for Murphy’s article pertain to the points I highlighted in my critique. First, I would provide more political context for the notion of modernization; what it means to government leaders and how they talk about it publicly. The way the state frames modernization explains a lot in terms of how the notion of suzhi influences people’s decisions and perceptions of themselves in time and place in China. Second, I would emphasize the role of propaganda in shaping the national discourse on population quality and its apparent relevance to certain forms of self-improvement in modernizing the nation. The “modernization teleology” which Murphy speaks of could not take root without wide ranging propaganda campaigns to shape the national discourse.

I would further research what alternative ideologies of self- or national improvement compete for the minds of the average Chinese apart from the official propagandistic narrative? This raises questions about the status of civil society in China and reveals insights into which sectors exist autonomously from the state and which sectors might be in danger of disintegration under pressure from the state’s ideological hegemony. Murphy did not necessarily fail to mention these aspects but there is room for broader discussion on them.


Comments are closed.