The traditional image of Chinese society is of a rural one, based on the sort of ‘elastic links’ that the great sociologist Fei Xiaotong talked of in his classic and controversial study of Chinese society from 1947, translated as From the Soil (Fei, 1992). For Fei, Chinese social structure derived from a world in which everyone knew everyone else, a world in which contracts and legal niceties were unnecessary because people only did business with those they knew. Everyone in this world lived in an environment rich in trust. It was a world in which there were multiple layers of relationships in the centre of which each individual sat, practising a kind of sovereignty over his/her own realm, a society that was highly networked, but also very localized, and in which, according to Fei, people operated fundamentally selfishly. Gender relations were highly stratified, so that men hung out with men, and women with women, each working in their preserved domain, with the only contact between them being producing children. In many ways, Fei was describing a society with a highly defined structure, in which there was a rigid hierarchy: a patriarchal, and, to its critics, misogynistic society, where there was almost ‘caste-like’ rigidity over the class into which an individual was born and its impact on his/her later life choices.
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