Campus & Community

Grassroots China: Sociologist Whyte thinks locally to understand change in China

5 min read

Martin Whyte remembers vividly that day in 1973, during his first trip to mainland China, when he and a small group of fellow scholars climbed atop the bell tower in the central city of Xi’an, attracting wondering glances from below. First there were dozens, then hundreds, of town residents assembled at the base of the tower staring up, awed by the sight of the Americans.

Much has happened since those early days of United States-Chinese engagement during the Nixon administration. New political leaders have taken power, many cultural controls have been eased, and international influences have become more pervasive in the Communist state. For those living in the People’s Republic, it has been a time of tremendous economic and social upheaval and resurgence, and for Whyte, who joins the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as professor of sociology this fall, it makes for fascinating research.

Whyte’s passion is clearly evident to anyone who peers inside his office on the fourth floor of William James Hall. Its shelves are adorned with hundreds of books on the history and culture of China and a multitude of photographs, maps, and mementos from his trips there. A pair of elegant ceramic horses serve as bookends. A porcelain bust of Chairman Mao stares imposingly at visitors, its demeanor only slightly impaired by the addition of a colorful sombrero taped to its head.

Whyte, who reads and speaks several other languages as well as Chinese, talks eloquently of his frequent travels to the world’s most populous nation and what he’s learned about its people, its culture, and its mystique.

“As a sociologist, I’m mainly interested in what’s happening to the grassroots, what’s happening to family life, to work organizations, schools, neighborhoods, villages, kinship relations, religious activity, and how those things are changing,” he says.

His research actually began in 1968, when, as a Harvard doctoral student, Whyte visited Hong Kong to speak with Chinese nationals who had managed to escape their homeland. “I’d get them to describe their school, their factory, their neighborhood, the weddings they attended,” he explains. “By interviewing dozens of such people I could put their pictures together and see what kind of image I got of the nature of the society that they’d left… Ethnography at a distance was the nature of the enterprise, but it was made problematic by the fact that people who got to Hong Kong were not representative of the people that remained.”

It wasn’t until five years later that Whyte, along with a small contingent of fellow academics, was allowed to visit the mainland in one of the first scholarly exchange visits. “In those days, you had to take a train to go into China from Hong Kong,” Whyte recalls. “When you got across the border, it was a completely different feel, a completely different atmosphere — the buildings, the streets — especially compared to Hong Kong… It was a very Spartan and drab society.

“China was much more sealed off and monochromatic in terms of the styles of life and there were very tight political controls,” he says. “Every place had Mao quotations, Mao statues, Mao pictures, and so forth….The People’s Daily newspaper every day would have a chosen Mao quote up above, and then in the stories they would repeatedly quote him, and every time they quoted him every Mao utterance was in boldface. It was very bizarre.”

Whyte spent three weeks in China in 1973, timely enough to catch a glimpse of the nation during the closing days of the Cultural Revolution, and long enough to whet his appetite for more. He has since returned more than a dozen times to study in detail the daily lives of its citizens. Whyte’s most recent trip came in May when he visited Beijing, a city home to more than 12 million people that is just now growing more dependent on cars than bicycles.

“Life has changed extraordinarily as a result of the post-Mao changes, the reforms, the opening up,” he says. “For most people [life] is materially much better [than it used to be] and it’s also much more varied…. There’s much more of an awareness of the outside world, culture from all over the place. The style of dress is much more varied and much more trendy and fashionable.”

Visitors to China will also notice fewer pictures of Chairman Mao adorning billboards and public plazas. Instead, they may see new factories sprouting up from former agricultural fields, new highways linking once-distant cities, and new Internet startups flapping their wings on the economic horizon. Members of the younger generation are driving most of these changes, according to Whyte, against the wishes of many of their elders.

“Some are more resentful of the recent trends. [They] don’t like to see foreign tourists and businessmen riding around in limousines, and are resentful of officials who travel abroad on fancy trips. [They also] look around and see prostitutes and know about the resurgence of drug problems, the growing threat of AIDS, and the increasing fear of crime,” he says. “[Many people] feel that however politically chaotic things were under Mao, that in certain respects it was a better, more pure, more just society then.”

The social evolution occurring in contemporary China forms the basis of Whyte’s graduate seminar course this fall. He’ll add two undergraduate sociology courses to his schedule in the spring. After teaching for more than 20 years at the University of Michigan and six years at George Washington University, Whyte says he’s pleased to return to Harvard where his research began, calling it a “stimulating atmosphere to be able to start work in.”

And he certainly won’t have to worry about hundreds of people standing at the base of the bell tower staring up at him as he begins his work.