Research project leader: Professor Harriet Evans

The pilot project for this research was supported by the Universities’ China Committee in London (2003) (or pilot fieldwork project on 'Social marginalization and urban transformation in 'old Beijing' (2003)

After an early initial pilot project, this research project began on a collaborative basis in early 2007, with the Beijing photographer, Zhao Tielin, and the historian Zhou Xun. It explores revolution and urban life in twentieth century China through the personal narratives of ordinary residents of Dashilanr, a neighbourhood in southern central Beijing commonly referred to as the heart of 'old Beijing.' Over decades of military conflict, political campaigns, social turmoil and dislocation, the people of Dashilanr have seen their neighbourhood transformed from a thriving commercial district to one of poverty, cramped housing, minimal sanitation and public services, destined for total demolition.

Histories of these decades have largely drawn on political and professional documents—of policy makers, urban planners, demographers and public health personnel—and autobiographical accounts of the intellectual and political elites. By introducing new evidence from below, by shifting the focus and opening new areas of inquiry, by challenging some of the assumptions and accepted judgements of historians of twentieth century China, and by bringing recognition to substantial groups of people who have been largely ignored in the historical record, this project turns from politicians and bureaucrats to those at the bottom of the social hierarchy—the down-and-outs outside the 'work unit' system, and living hand to mouth picking up work whenever and wherever they can find it.

In focussing on everyday life in Dashilanr, the project uses life stories of ordinary people to explore the changing forms, experiences and meanings of family, home and neighbourhood in conditions of social and political disadvantage and poverty. In this, it addresses the range of issues that constitute the preoccupations of daily life: employment, occupation and education, generational and gender relationships, sexual behaviour, childhood, food and health, popular religion and crime. It approaches from the inside the history of certain groups, including petty criminals, who are mainly documented as social problems, and seeks to analyse the range of popular practices that can be conceptualised as emerging strategies to respond to a ‘new’ socialist regime, for instance scapegoating, denouncing, dissimulating, sabotaging, and slacking. It asks what were effects of the government’s various political campaigns on everyday life of ordinary people in poor urban area, such as Dashilanr, and how they altered the existing culture of the poor? What have been the effects of successive stages of spatial and physical change of local residence, and neighbourhood on local sense of home, belonging and community? What happened to popular beliefs and traditional practices in the time of forced collectivization, indoctrination and resource stripping?

This study is not only a study of intrinsic human interests, but one which looks at urban culture, politics and community at the everyday level. By focusing on the ‘culture and subculture of hardship’, it provides reconstruction of the past that challenges the established elitist accounts of the ‘socialist transition', the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’. It also examines social and psychological consequences of the ‘culture of hardship’ on its members, as well as the recent urban ‘transformation’, and shows how little life has actually changed or improved for a huge number of poor people in China since the time of Communist Revolution and more recently the country’s economic reform.