Peking has allowed our American social scientists to make an unprecedented house-to-house survey of a small peasant community, indicating a new Chinese interest in using Western academic techniques to better understand its past population.
The four American college professors spent three weeks in the southern Hopei Province village of Wukung in late May and early June. They completed detailed questionnaires on about 600 villages with the help of 11 young Chinese assistants assigned by the government.
The questionnaires, which will be analyzed by computer in the United States, asked for information ranging from people's ages, education and social class to the amount of their spare time earnings and the size of their bank accounts.
As far as is known, no foreigners have ever before allowed to make such a rigorous and personal survey of a community of the Chinese mainland.
One member of the survey team, assistant history professor Paul Pickowicz of tlhe University of California at San Diego, said he senses the Chinese see the project as an experiment to test the usefulness of doing such studies themselves. For the last 30 years Peking has rejected or ignored all requests to do such personal and detailed studies of Chinese citizens. Western methods of social research apparently have struck the Chinese as too intrusive or too prone to distortion by scholars unsympathetic to Marxist goals.
Particularly since the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, the few social scientist that China has produced have been under heavy criticism for wanting to place too much emphasis on data that does not strictly conform to Marxist and Maoist views of society.
The recent reopening of China's Academy of Social Sciences and the new, officially sanctioned call to "seek truth from facts" suggests a more friendly, though still cautious attitude toward basic research by political and social scientists.
Some Chinese acadimics were clearly excited about the decision to allow the American team to go to Wukung, Pickowicz said.
"It is still too early for them to step forward, but not too early to get some outsiders come in and to see what comes of this kind of activity."
Other members of the research team were: assistant political science professor Kay Johnson of Hampshire College, political science professor Edward Friedman of the University of Wisconsin and history professor Mark Selden of Washington University of St. Louis.
Pickowicz, interviewed here where he and Johnson, his wife, have been conducting some research, said it took more than five years of regular letters and personal approaches to Chinese authorities to win permission for the village study.
The Chinese authorities emphasized to the group the unique nature of their project. Only two other foreigh researchers. American writer William Hinton and Swedish writer Jan Myrdal, have apparently been granted anything approaching this much cooperation by the Chinese.
The Minton and Myrdel works, published in 1960s, were historical and biographic studies that shied away from detailed statistics. The new survey team tried to collect as much specific data as possible.
"We know that American scholars have an insatiable appetite for statistics," one official told the group. "We hope you won't be disappointed with the village."
In fact, the village selected by the Chinese had a record of Communist involvement going back well before the party's victory in the civil war in 1949 and the group was allowed to see accountants' records dating from 1943.
Each of the four team members speaks Chinese and conducted personal, extensive interviews with villagers in addition to helping collect questionnaire responses during 12-hour days. Pickowicz said the villagers were happy to answer questions, although on the bank account question a brigade leader said "People will answerthat, but don't be surprised if they have more than they tell you."
The team plans to produce a book from the survey and the interviews. They may be able to provide some of the most specific answers to date about how sex, social class and age affect the incomes of Chinese peasants and how well villagers in what appears to be a prosperous, though not wealthy, area of rural China actually live.
Pickowicz said Wukung village was located on a drought-stricken plain, a five-hour train and automobile trip from Peking. Dust storms en route were frequent, and many villages in the area used camels for heavy pulling, heaving bred the beasts from stock brough down from Mongolia.
Wukung appeared to be one of the best-organized and highest wheat-producing villages in the area. The researchers focused on a 207-family production team that made up about one-third of the village population.
Most of the people they talked to lived in one-story brike houses with high-walled courtyards. Villagers were continually inviting the Americans in for meals and long chats. "It got to be a problem, what with the ground we had to cover," Pickowicz said.
VIllagers said they could remember only three previous visits by foreigners - a Soviet group in the 1950s, a Laotian-Arab group and then a Vietnamese group in the 1960s.