Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Living in prosperity

Isabel Crook’s latest book, Prosperity’s Predicament (created with Christina Gilmartin and Yu Xiji, and edited by Gail Hershatter and Emily Honig) provides original ethnographic insight into life on and beyond the threshold of China’s modern transformation. The title may appear fortuitous—it takes its name from Prosperity Market (xinglongchang), the periodic market town not far from Chongqing where the fieldwork for the book was conducted—but is layered with nuance.  Prosperity, a conventionally propitious name for a market town in China, evokes a vision unrealizable for most in the community.  The book is at once a meticulous empirical study of structures of disparity and a careful portrayal of people living together in prosperity (a few) and austerity (most).  The study is far-reaching in its excavation of the means through which the local elite reworked a pre-existing secret society model to create a resilient social base for extraction on the porous edge of the modern state.  This account is an historical ethnography, based on fieldwork in 1940-42, and has a remarkable history of its own.

Click to enlargeIsabel Hilton (centre) and Yi Xiji (far right) with three local friends

Isabel Crook (centre) and Yi Xiji (far right) with three local friends


In 1940 Isabel Brown arrived in Prosperity Market as a recent University of Toronto graduate who already had anthropological field experience.  She was no new arrival as she had been born and spent her childhood in Sichuan, the daughter of Canadian missionaries at West China Union University (now Sichuan University).  Shortly after her return she was recruited to join a rural reconstruction team led by T. H. Sun and sponsored by the National Christian Council. This was one of a number of rural reconstruction teams in Republican China that had been working to reform life in rural China, as in the earlier eastern sites of Dingxian, Hebei (Gamble 1968[1954]) and Zouping, Shandong (Alitto 1979, Thogersen 2002).   Isabel Brown and another young graduate, sociologist and medical social worker Yu Xiji, who also had fieldwork experience, were asked to survey all of the township’s nearly 1500 households to establish an informed basis for local rural reconstruction work.  They also joined other members of their small team in expanding a school, setting up a clinic, creating cooperatives and generally participating in the rural reconstruction effort.  All in the team were urban intellectuals from elsewhere in China  (Isabel Brown was the only non-Chinese) who were attempting to bring change from outside the community and who were brought west with the Nationalist government’s forced retreat from the Japanese occupation of the east.  The idea of conducting a comprehensive social survey was a new departure in rural reconstruction, and it was being implemented in a time and place where the war had pushed rural initiatives of every political direction far inland.  The resulting account is the product both of a rich and broad survey and of direct engagement in the rural reconstruction effort in local rural society at every level.

The household survey itself, conducted together by Brown and Yu Xiji  in 1941, was systematic and detailed.  It was augmented by the energy and depth of cooperation the two brought to bear daily and in long evenings going over each day’s work.  Very fortunately this resulted in field notes typed up during those evenings that are an extensive record of the fieldwork beyond the survey itself.  The typed notes were stored through the decades, translated into Chinese and recently published in Beijing  (Yi, Yu et al.  2012).

After the project ended in Prosperity Market, Yu Xiji returned to medical social work and education and Isabel joined her fiancé, British Communist David Crook, in England, where they married. Isabel joined the Canadian Army and David joined the Royal Air Force for the duration of the war.  After the war ended, Isabel Crook became a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics on a veteran’s grant (one month of education for each month of service).  Her aim in enrolling—a plan that had been in her mind from the beginning of the survey in Prosperity Market—was to turn her research there into a doctoral dissertation.  She found a supportive advisor in Raymond Firth who shared and encouraged her own orientation toward an anthropology committed to addressing practical social problems.  Before long and with Firth’s approval, the proposed thesis project expanded to become a comparative study of change in the rural reconstruction site and in the rural border regions that were taking a different direction under the Chinese Communist Party.  In late 1947 David (as a journalist) and Isabel (as an anthropologist) arrived in Ten Mile Inn in north China to begin an eight month study of a village both before and during the work of the land reform team that arrived the following February.

The comparative project has ultimately produced a wealth of ethnography of alternative paths taken in the transformations of rural China in its pivotal mid-twentieth century years.  It has not taken the form of the original dissertation, although Raymond Firth remained positive and encouraging through to the revival of the Prosperity project in the 1980s and 1990s, much to Isabel Crook’s pleasure.  Instead, the work in the north became a stand-alone project written and published over many years—in Revolution in a Chinese Village (Crook & Crook 1959), The First Years of Yangyi Commune (Crook & Crook 1966) and Ten Mile Inn (Crook & Crook 1979).  During the same years, both Isabel and David Crook were teaching full-time, initially in a small school designed to prepare China’s future diplomats and then in that school’s successor that grew to become the present Beijing Foreign Studies University.  The Prosperity Market materials remained stored until Isabel Crook retired in the 1980s after thirty years of teaching, and was finally able to return to this never forgotten work.  Yu Xiji had also retired and moved to Beijing and the two were working together again in Beijing and in revisits to Prosperity, and with Yu Xiji researching new archival material to add to their field records.

By the 1990s there were three volumes of ethnographic manuscript on Prosperity Market (Crook with Yu 1994) and these, together with her entire set of Prosperity materials, will eventually be available at   Isabel was persuaded that the manuscript was too long for conventional publication and also, as time passed, that the historical dimension required more attention and an historian as collaborator.  The new direction became a close and multi-year collaboration with Christina Gilmartin, that included sustained joint working sessions, a series of revisits to Prosperity Market and the creation of a scholarship for students in Prosperity Market.  Christina Gilmartin’s grave illness ultimately became terminal and a tragic premature loss.  Gail Hershatter and Emily Honig then stepped forward, forming a trio of leading feminist historians of China, and they expertly and generously brought together diverse components of the extensive manuscript and edited it as Prosperity’s Predicament:  Identity, Reform and Resistance in Rural Wartime China.

Click to enlargeChristina Gilmartin, Yu Xiji and Isabel Hilton

Christina Gilmartin, Yu Xiji and Isabel Crook


Prosperity Market in 1940 was a desperately poor community in the heart of rural Sichuan, about forty hard miles from the war-time capital of Chongqing: close enough for occasional airstrikes and for political connections, but decidedly rural.  The community consisted not only of the small market town but also the larger settlement area G. William Skinner (1964-65), working also in Sichuan in the 1940s, termed a standard marketing community.  These were present elsewhere in China with encapsulated villages, but in Sichuan the pattern of rural settlement was that of a scattering of clustered farmhouses reached only by pathways between the fields. The community was given its contour and its social, economic and political base through the periodic market that met on a fixed schedule every few days in the town.  Apart from the marketing activity itself, this was the location for most other non-agricultural activity—temples and a church, teahouses, tax-collectors, and providers of all manner of services and political connections—so long as a periodic market was adequate for the commercial needs of its surrounding area.

The community Brown and Yu surveyed was spread through a catchment area of roughly twenty square kilometers, with virtually all the 1,497 households living outside the town, which itself had a mere handful of residences and no farmsteads.  Land and working the land was fundamental to livelihood, and also key to the sharp stratification in Prosperity Market, in both immediate economic terms and in social status.  The very top of the local hierarchy was occupied by a dozen families (1%)  that owned paddy land capable of producing 6,100 to 30,000 kilograms of rice yearly.  None of these owners worked the land themselves, and some were actually former military men who had acquired it during the post-1911 warlord era.  Intermediate strata owned or were tenants on combinations of paddy and the much inferior dry land, with large-scale tenants sometimes being in a better position than holders of small amounts of land, although with rents at 60-70% of the rice crop and tenure insecure, tenancy had limitations.  Brown and Yu found 136 households (9%) in the market community managing a livelihood they described as prosperous.  Smallholding households without enough land to feed their families, but able to get by with supplementary work, comprised 35% of the survey and the landless, mini-tenants and destitute were the remaining 55%.  The overall pattern was one of downward mobility where many had precarious and shortened lives.  A family was easily thrown into disintegration by the loss of an able worker, and its members were then unable to survive on their own.  Brown and Yu found 105 households that had taken in one or two relatives to be a partial indicator of the prevalence of disintegration and the need for a household cooperative unit, where it could be found.  At the same time the generally impoverished households of Prosperity Market could not lightly support those unable to contribute—adopted children (especially adopted girls taken in as future daughters-in-law) and the elderly were especially vulnerable.

Survival for most depended on non-agricultural activity which, where not for immediate and direct subsistence, was mediated through the marketplace.  Non-agricultural work has been an enduring mainstay of China’s agrarian economy and its fragility in the twentieth century a major cause of rural impoverishment.  This study extensively charts the wide range of such work and adds to this line of scholarship in two important ways.  One is the ethnographic contribution it makes to seeing the place and the resourcefulness of micro-niche marketing in the survival strategies of the very poor, sometimes in such small undertakings as to be virtually imperceptible, e.g. the collecting and drying of a few herbs to powder the outside of  incense sticks.  Brown and Yu found that the interactions on market day and the interlocking but dispersed and largely separate work of the marketing community made it a public world of sociality and shared knowledge, but not necessarily one of emotional closeness or horizontal cooperation.  They observed that the market itself was structurally stable and provided a platform for diverse commercial activity and more, enabling both the survival and the disposability of individual people.

A second and distinctive feature of this study is its mould-breaking view of women’s roles in standard marketing communities.  The classic view of this followed the adage of women’s place being the inner sphere while men’s place was the outer sphere, and noted the limits placed on women’s presence in the markets.  Brown, Yu and their co-authors also noted that unmarried women were excluded from visiting the market and married women were expected to keep their appearances brief and functional, and further agreed that the market town was primarily a male sphere.  But they distinctively saw a number of women in the market who were there not as customers, but as small business owners themselves—running wine shops, an inn, a restaurant, a money-lending enterprise and dealing opium.  There were at least four middle-aged independent women merchants in this small market town, one of whom also owned some land.  All were independently in control of their own businesses, without father-in-law, husband or adult son.  Each was a widow who had been able to maintain economic independence and a public marketing presence, despite the usual rural pressures for a rural widow without an adult son to remarry quickly (regardless of the elite model of widows never remarrying).  Their roles were enabled by their economic means to be in business, and their presence in such number marked the acceptability of the place they occupied.  This somewhat alters at least Western understanding of the roles of women in rural commerce.  It adds this important element to women’s economic role in rural economic life and facilitates a view of women’s orientation toward the market in rural China that has been noted in more recent decades (M. Wolf  1985,  Judd 1994 ) as being more long-standing and deeply rooted in Chinese rural life than had previously been appreciated.  I might add from contemporary fieldwork that it also suggests seeing current apparently exceptional initiatives by women as updates of an existing repertoire of market alternatives, using these as a known avenue to economic independence and, where occasion indicates, separation or divorce.

The second half of the book turns toward the presence of outsiders entering and affecting life in Prosperity Market. Efforts that either the Nationalist government or the Christian churches in China were already making elsewhere were intensified by the Japanese occupation of eastern China and the aerial bombardment of Chongqing.  The rural corridor in Sichuan between Chengdu and Chongqing briefly became a site of experiments in both modern state building and rural reform, as described here. The Nationalist government’s program of state building generated an increased presence in rural life.  Part of this consisted of measures classically unwelcome in local communities and especially intense in this time—taxation and conscription. Local elites added the burden of both to the most vulnerable, as Liang Shuming found in his work in Sichuan from 1938.  Liang also found that conscription at that time in Sichuan was resulting in the deaths of one-quarter of the conscripts from illness and privation before they even reaching their destinations (cited, p. 247).  Beyond this massive loss of young men, this could render their families too lacking in labourers to be able survive intact.  Another part of Nationalist planning was a modernizing agenda of social programs, including expansion of education and health, reform of administration and marriage, and efforts to suppress the opium trade and prohibit gambling in the militia.

Some of this coincided with non-governmental work being done through the rural reconstruction movement, in this case through the National Council of Churches project that brought Brown and Yu to do their rural survey.  The project’s leader, T.H. Sun, had years of experience in Dingxian to bring to the project of modernizing the countryside and also a commitment to a non-Communist route.  This contributed to the placing of the project site closer to the Nationalist capital of Chongqing than to the missionary centre of Chengdu.  Project work was designed to meet local people’s practical and felt needs, notably in education and health, and also to create a signature project in poverty alleviation through a salt cooperative.  Salt was a necessity for both direct human consumption and for making a wide range of products, and it had long been subject to state control and taxation.  The area had a tradition of local craft salt extraction that, combined with the loss of access to coastal salt during the war, created market conditions for high profits.   This book provides an ethnographic account of each of these reform initiatives, enriched by an internal perspective and knowledge of the people involved and the project dynamics as they unfolded.  The authors found elements of success in the education and health areas, where the work lay outside the commercial or political interests of  Prosperity Market’s elites, but in other areas either no change (as in marriage) or effective resistance (as in salt).

A major contribution of Prosperity’s Predicament is its close study of the complexities of local resistance to change, and especially of the role of the Robed Brotherhood (Paoge) secret society. Secret societies have deep roots in China and are known to have been important in social transformations and political conflicts in the mid-twentieth century, as well as comparatively elsewhere (E. Wolf 1969).  The Robed Brotherhood had an earlier complex history of being anti-Manchu in the late Qing, providing a protective network for banditry and underground activities (and collector of protection money), and serving as a fraternal mutual aid society of the oppressed and exploited.  By the time of this study it had reached into all corners of the community and had established itself through a combination of power derived from its economic base, its absorption of former military officers from the warlord era, and public practices of benevolence.  It had become the most cohesive patron-client network in the community, and functioned with a degree of legitimacy, partly based on its (selective)  resistance to external intrusions.  Virtually all men in Prosperity Township belonged to one of the Robed Brotherhood’s six lodges, separately organized and coordinated for different social strata.  The authors describe it as “powerful structure of solidarity for men” (p. 133)  and as an organizational mode that effectively drew both egalitarian and hierarchical modes of cooperation into a framework for localized and resistant community.  This was well established before the arrival of the rural reconstruction moment and can be seen as a means through which underlying structures of inequality succeeded in moving beyond externalities of property, class and violence to appropriate even sociality itself.

The conclusion of the book comes with the unexpected and public collapse of the salt cooperative, just at the moment it had seemed successfully established.  The veiled power of the Robed Brotherhood and its  ability to block this effort and publicly disband the salt cooperative was an open statement of its  ability to stop reform.  In the face of this blockage, the rural reconstruction project was dissolved and its staff departed, with the exception of the separately funded nurse who continued the clinic for a time.  The others dispersed, and the work might seem to have come to an end.  There was no provision for Brown and Yu to conclude or write up their study.  As the history has unfolded, each continued to be engaged for decades to come, albeit in somewhat different ways, and to come together again with added partners in a continuation of the work on a continuously cooperative basis.

In assessing the history of Prosperity Market’s rural reconstruction, the authors have offered a few conclusions.  One is a recognition that it was the Robed Brotherhood that was the greatest obstacle and that to have known more about its  multi-faceted control in the market community would have made the reformers more successful. Linked with this was the observation that the rural reconstruction project had emphasized economic issues without enough attention to local political realities.  A parallel is drawn with development projects more widely in failing to identify and address power structures adequately and a matching failure to identify allies to address the realities of changing complex rural societies.  The present volume is a book that endeavours to do this as much as now possible, with the baseline knowledge arising from the survey in its opening chapters and the account of the rural reconstruction process itself in the following chapters.

Prosperity (and its accompanying austerity) has not ceased to be a predicament in intervening years, nor did the cooperative work cease, as seen in Isabel Crook’s continuing work with the cooperative movement and in the scholarship and engagement of all the co-authors.  They do not write in this text about subsequent years in Prosperity Market, although research was done and an afterword may one day be written.  During the intervening decades, Crook (1979) and Hershatter  (2011) have been among those as close as international scholars can be to the experiences and memories of Chinese women and men living through the transformations of rural society.  I assume that this broader body of work has entered into the writing and editing of this volume, although they leave the reading open.

Amidst an abundant ethnographic contribution, I read a specific contribution to historical ethnography and analysis to note and to pursue.  This is characterized first by a sense of how economics and politics are embodied and gendered in everyday relations, and then by the complexities of cooperation in the midst of profoundly unequal sociality and community.  The multi-faceted and conflicted lines of relations and changes presented invites a reversal of the usual feminist observation, to say (or add) that the political is personal.  The making of both resistance and change can be ethnographically seen as done by women and men positioned in fields where knowledge and choices are personally challenging.  They require difficult resolutions of socially embedded demands of family and community with contrasting and often conflicting demands of forging new relations and different patterns of living.  The accounts of the concurrent and following revolutionary periods in the work of Crook and Hershatter are full of the remaking of sociality, cooperation and conflict during times of sharp transition and in the long days after when these become realized (or not) in everyday life.  Ethnography such as this brings into close view the actual processes of transforming power structures and makes choices and dynamics legible.

Prosperity’s Predicament was published in  2013.  Yu Xiji had passed away in 2007 and Christina Gilmartin in 2012, but family members were present together with Isabel Crook, Gail Hershatter and Emily Honig as this book was launched and key passages of the research were shared by Gail Hershatter and Emily Honig. Isabel Crook spoke gently and firmly, then and to the international press, of markets and of the importance of China’s rural people in the new era of urbanization.


Alitto, Guy S.  1979.  The Last Confucian:  Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Crook,  Isabel and David Crook  1959.  Revolution in a Chinese Village.  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

——  1966. The First Years of Yangyi Commune.  London:  Routledge and Kegan Paul.

—— 1979.  Ten Mile Inn:  Mass Movement in a Chinese Village. New York:  Pantheon.

Crook, Isabel with Yu Xiji  1994. A Community Called Prosperity.  Unpublished manuscript.

Crook, Isabel Brown and Christina Kelley Gilmartin with Yu Xiji.  Compiled and edited by Gail Hershatter and Emily Honig 2013. Prosperity’s Predicament:  Identity, Reform and Resistance in Rural Wartime China.  Lanham:  Rowman and Littlefield.

Gamble, Sidney  1968 [1954]. Ting Hsien:  A North China Rural Community.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press.

Hershatter, Gail  2011.  The Gender of Memory:  Rural Women and China’s Collective Past.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Judd, Ellen R.  1994.  Gender and Power in Rural North China.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Skinner, G. William  1964-65. Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China. Reprinted from The Journal of Asian Studies.  Ann Arbor:  Association for Asian Studies.

Thogersen, Stig  2002. A County of Culture: Twentieth Century China Seen from the Village Schools of Zouping, Shandong. Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press.

Wolf, Eric. R 1969.  Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century.  New York:  Harper & Row.

Wolf, Margery  1985.  Revolution Postponed:  Women in Contemporary China.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press.

Yi Shabai [Isabel Crook] & Yu Xiji 2012.  Xinglongchang: Kangzhan shiqi sichuan nongmin shenghuo diaocha (1940-42) [Xinglongchang: Field Notes of a Village Called Prosperity 1940-1942].  Beijing:  Zhonghua Shuju.

Please join our mailing list to receive notification of new issues