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The Rural Modern

Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China

Discussions of China’s early twentieth-century modernization efforts tend to focus almost exclusively on cities, and the changes, both cultural and industrial, seen there. As a result, the communist peasant revolution appears as a decisive historical break. Kate Merkel-Hess corrects that misconception by demonstrating how crucial the countryside was for reformers in China long before the success of the communist revolution.
In The Rural Modern, Merkel-Hess shows that Chinese reformers and intellectuals created an idea of modernity that was not simply about what was foreign and new, as in Shanghai and other cities, but instead captured the Chinese people’s desire for social and political change rooted in rural traditions and institutions. She traces efforts to remake village education, economics, and politics, analyzing how these efforts contributed to a new, inclusive vision of rural Chinese life. Merkel-Hess argues that as China sought to redefine itself, such rural reform efforts played a major role, and tensions that emerged between rural and urban ways deeply informed social relations, government policies, and subsequent efforts to create a modern nation during the communist period.

264 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Asian Studies: East Asia, General Asian Studies

History: Asian History, General History


"This concise history is well written and draws on numerous archives, including those of the Rockefeller Foundation, a major donor for some of the projects. It provides valuable context for existing biographies of the key activists and firsthand accounts of those who carried out the work."


"The Rural Modern demonstrates that rural reconstruction was not a failure: the efforts that Merkel-Hess describes to generate a rural version of Chinese modernity established an important precedent that has reverberated through modern Chinese history. Along the way, it introduces some fascinating documents in the course of its analysis, including primers and pamphlets aimed at popular readers that promoted the vision that literacy was a basis for self-transformation, self-discipline, and modern citizenship. The conclusion of the book considers how the approaches and values of a late turn to developmentalism were picked up in the postwar period. Highly recommended!"

New Books Network

"Examines the rural reconstruction vision for the countryside of China during the 1920s and 1930s. Explores how reformers proposed to transform rural people into modern people, as national and international interest in the project grew, with the goal of creating a rural alternative to urban modernity that would mobilize rural people and strengthen the nation."

Journal of Economic Literature

"The Rural Modern investigates Chinese rural reform projects in the first half of the twentieth century—efforts that were part of broader elite attempts to create a modern Chinese nation. Rather than focus on the better-known mobilization by the Chinese Communist Part (CCP), Kate Merkel-Hess discusses the efforts of and the connections between loosely affiliated groups and individuals who initiated projects in the countryside from the 1920s to the 1940s."

History of Education Quarterly

"This is an elegant, accessible, and insightful offering on the Chinese rural reconstruction movement of the 1920s and 1930s. In spare, vivid prose, Merkel-Hess shows the dilemmas of that movement to be as relevant today as they were nearly a century ago."

Agricultural History

“Most studies of modernization in China focus on urban transformation, fueled in part by policies that permitted mass migration from its rural half. Yet today, the Party aims to reverse that flow; with cities over capacity, plans now promise to ‘Bring the city to the village’ and ‘Build a new socialist countryside.’ As Merkel-Hess expertly explains in her compelling book, The Rural Modern, these schemes are actually not new at all, nor did they originate from the current regime. In the 1920s, the Mass Education Movement aimed to modernize rural China the way Henry Ford modernized mass production. Refreshingly, The Rural Modern spotlights a time when China’s leaders viewed the countryside not as a wasteland with backward citizens but as a solution to the nation’s problems and a pathway to its future.”

Michael Meyer, author of In Manchuria

“Mao Zedong came to power in China after years of making revolution in rural villages. In the wake of that victory, it has been too easy to dismiss the more moderate rural projects of the 1930s as tepid reforms that failed to address rural misery. Merkel-Hess restores this network of experiments to visibility. Rural reformers were torn between competing imperatives: empower farmers to determine their own fates or enlist them in a centrally directed national modernity. Their unfinished agenda continues to attract attention from Chinese thinkers across the political spectrum. The Rural Modern brilliantly shows us why these rural reformers belong at the heart of how we investigate China’s history.”

Gail Hershatter, University of California, Santa Cruz

"Kate Merkel-Hess looks at a quite different 'modern,' the rural modern, embodied in projects in Republican China that aimed to transform the lives of 85 percent of China's population, the peasants... In her penetrating analysis in this excellent monograph, Merkel-Hess has written a detailed description of the projects—and an homage to the men who spearheaded them... This articulate, persuasive study leaves the reader with a feeling of sadness that so much talent, commitment, and idealism found in the Republican reformers came to so little."

American Historical Review

"In her fascinating examination of the Rural Reconstruction Movement in China in the 1920s and 1930s, Merkel-Hess shows us a vision of national modernization in which rural residents, through education, literacy, and self-improvement, would be able to achieve modernity and become citizens on an individual level... Merkel-Hess's excellent new book successfully helps shift the scholarly focus of modernization and development away from the state-led versions promoted in postwar American foreign policy and under Chinese Communist rule."

China Review

The Rural Modern is the first major English-language study of the Chinese Rural Reconstruction movement: previous scholars’ works focus on individual reformers but not on the wider movement. Focusing on a topic that is important from both contemporary and historical perspectives, Merkel-Hess bases her book on extensive research and makes use of numerous previously unknown or underutilized sources. Clearly and beautifully written, The Rural Modern will be an important addition to existing scholarship for historians of China.”

Jacob Eyferth, University of Chicago

The Rural Modern addresses a very important and neglected topic. Despite works focusing on the performance of rural economy, we still don’t have a full picture of the modernization movement in China’s rural hinterland. Merkel-Hess fills this glaring gap by contributing an extensive bird’s-eye narrative of a key aspect of China’s nation-building efforts, as well as creating a convincing panoramic view of the movement and highlighting both common themes and fundamental differences.”

Margherita Zanasi, Louisiana State University

Table of Contents

A Note on Romanization
List of Illustrations
1          Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside
2          To the Countryside
3          Organizing the Village
4          Village Contestations
5          A Movement Made and Lost
Glossary of Chinese Terms

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