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.

Dikötter, Frank (2015). The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. Description and Critique

Dikötter, F. (2015). The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. Ch 11 “High Tide” pp. 226-242.


Chapter 11 of Frank Dikötter’s “The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957” focuses on the transition of the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC) into “high tide” socialism in the 1950s (p.236). This transition entailed collectivization of agriculture in rural communes and nationalization of industry and enterprise across the country. In Dikötter’s analysis, special attention is given to Chairman Mao Zedong’s personal role in shaping the regime politics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through this period. Despite his ignorance of economics and state administration, Mao exercised megalomaniacal control over the internal affairs of the Party as the country’s leadership grappled with forming and instituting nationwide socialist policies. Mao displayed acute political skill in manipulating his subordinates, regularly using the rhetoric of dualistic arguments about the “right” and “correct” (or conversely, “wrong”) way of building the socialist project (p.236). He was a master at engineering a climate of fear through public shaming, struggle sessions, and party purges of persons critical of his ideas or uncooperative with his directives in bringing about his vision of China’s future (p.230, 235). By 1956, as Dikötter writes, “most of industry and commerce were nationalised” and Mao Zedong’s grip on power was stronger than ever (p. 238).


Overall, I find Dikötter’s presentation of the history compelling but narrow. Dikötter presents Mao as egoistic, manipulative, conniving, even ignorant, but above all a master politician who shifts the political game in his favor time and again. Mao’s forte resides in his ability to execute campaigns of terror designed to root out adversaries and ideological opposition. His singular power can be attributed to masterful politicking and the obsequious cult of personality which coalesced around him (alluded to on p.239-240). In view of Mao’s spectral shadow over this period of history, it makes sense for Dikötter to organize his narrative of the road to socialism around the activities of this imposing figure. However, Dikötter’s analysis falls short in fleshing out the multifaceted social and historical context within which Mao’s operated. How could Mao rise up to spearhead the ambitious campaign of restructuring an entire nation? What was unique about the post-war political milieu that allowed for a foreign-born Marxist-Leninist political ideology to take over? It is within that milieu where we find the right conditions for the rise of a new regime, and within it the rise of a dictator. This contextual analysis is missing from Dikötter .

Furthermore, Dikötter’s almost exclusive focus on Mao’s role in crafting the destructive policies of high socialism skips over the role of all those people who widely supported him. Who were these people? What excesses or vulnerabilities were they susceptible to within the new political regime? While the picture Dikötter paints of Mao’s unsavory attributes may be accurate, he was certainly not alone in manipulating the inner workings of the CCP power structures to his advantage. The collective, internal dynamics of the Party facilitated decisions and policy-making that drove the socialist enterprise forward—not merely the conniving of one man.

Dikötter also excludes a broader analysis of the existential condition of the nation after decades of devastating conflict. After WW2 and the subsequent Chinese Civil War, what remained of China’s legal and institutional structures which would have been needed to rebuild the nation? The importance of the question is demonstrated in the fact that Western European countries were able to rebuild after WW2 with aid from the Marshall Plan, largely because their legal and institutional infrastructures remained intact despite mass destruction of their cityscapes. China’s situation, on the other hand, did not mirror the European circumstance. Whatever political or social structures remained after the Communist takeover were apparently inadequate in regulating the forces at work in the post-war power vacuum that allowed the Communists to seize absolute control. This could be a crucial area of research that would illuminate the chaotic struggle of the Maoist period, if only Dikötter had embarked on that journey in chapter 11.

Dikötter’s presentation of the rise of high socialism through the commandeering ambition of the dictator fails to grapple with the multifaceted political, historical, and cultural circumstances within which the socialist project unfolded. Whether my critique holds or not, Dikötter did not provide adequate context to situate the socialist project in a broader historical stream; nor did he illuminate the unique conditions which allowed Mao to rise. All that said, Dikötter nevertheless provides an insightful, instructive view into the internal workings of a political regime that saw the rise of a tyrant with its devastating consequences for the nation.

Research Suggestions:

The main research suggestions I have focus on positioning the narrative in a broader historical context. The main areas I would research are twofold: 1.) The state of China’s development, including its institutions and the economic situation, after WW2 and the Communist Revolution. 2.) The internal organization of the CCP after the Revolution, including its administrative structures and the preparedness of professionals to take on the immense administrative and nation-building task before them.

After researching these areas and laying out a background that positions a figure like Mao in his historical moment, I would explore why the socialist project was seen as an appropriate response to rebuilding the nation given the circumstances. In other words, was Chinese Communism under Mao an inevitability or an eventuality stemming from decades of war? Perhaps the best explanation for the subsequent history lies in the surrounding post-war circumstances rather than in the CCP regime’s fitness to lead. These areas of further research would expand the historical narrative in a more holistic manner.

Connection and Contemplation

So much flash and glamour peppers me everyday, through the internet and around the city, that my interior life has become a floating mat of debris choking out the soulish organism within. It’s little wonder my thoughts circulate in repetitive undulations leading me nowhere. Intentionality is lost. Purpose is clouded over. Vision is blanketed in darkness, and I hardly know how to love. My ego craves attention, validation; it searches for all the small satisfactions feverishly licked up by desires that ground me in nothing. What can I stand on when all I have is information running through my mind and desires flowing in chaotic swarms through my body, weaving their crude fantasies? It takes time I don’t seem to possess to unravel the tangled lot.

Meditation is a practice. Time out for contemplation is lost. And I’ve frequently wondered why I always end up back in the same place as before, unprepared for the next wave of life, stunned by its untimely salvos, wishing something would finally break me open into epiphany. Well, I’ve lost the practice; usually only engaging in meditative thought up to the point I feel better about myself, while missing the chance to dive deeper into an extended process. Depth always sold itself as a foregone conclusion of life but I’m finding how easily it hides away, leaving me on the surface grasping for connection, top to roots. Doesn’t seem worth the bother half the time, though.

Alas, the thin margin between practice and complacency yields an order of magnitude greater of quality of life. The lazy, drone-minded thing to do is to allow myself to get saturated with everything the outside world offers by way of entertainment. Get swept up and away. Just carry on. The effort to fight it hardly seems worth the struggle. That’s lack of vision.

Even writing, though, feels pointless. As long as I think things through enough to get me over the next hump, what’s the point in keeping up with all the energy-intensive intentionality? The end result is the same. I die. The world goes on in endless pulses of life, death, violence, winning, and losing. Depth gets buried under the alluvial flow of circumstances. Survival doesn’t yield much space for depth. Connection. That’s the key point that would put all these feelings into alignment. At least I would be centered and believing I had embarked on something grand. I can’t let the darkness win. The fact I’m here, alive and well despite the dwarfing expanse of spacetime engulfing, says something of the trend which brought me here.


Not a piece of me–

not a part nor larger portion

Nay, but all of me belongs

to not but one or two or a

bit of some but all within

and with and through the

whole of everyone and thing.

A Crass Prayer

When you say grace at mealtime…

Thank God for the sacrifices

of plant and animal life

the exploited migrant labor

and the mountain of excess

piling up in the landfills

represented in this meal

that keep our ungrateful asses

momentarily satisfied.