THE FIRST CHINESE INTELLECTUAL I knew of was named Fei Xiaotong. The year was 1980, and I was beginning a doctoral degree in sociology in Kolkata. The city was hostile to my discipline, largely because its intellectual culture was Marxist-dominated and Maoist-infested. Those who read Marxism mechanically allowed that the disciplines of history, economics, and political science had a place in scholarly enquiry. For Marx had spoken often of the practice of “political economy”, while his acolyte Engels had defined Marx’s method as “the materialist conception of history”. On the other hand, Marx had never spoken, so far as anyone in Kolkata knew, of “sociology” or “anthropology”. Meanwhile, Mao Zedong (a figure much admired among intellectuals in Kolkata) had condemned both sociology and anthropology as reactionary bourgeois disciplines.
My teacher at the time, a lovely and gentle man named Anjan Ghosh, was both a sociologist and a Marxist. Seeking to reconcile his profession with his politics, he lit upon the figure of Fei Xiaotong. Back in the 1930s, Fei had been a student in London of the great Bronislaw Malinowski, the founder of modern social anthropology. After completing his PhD, Fei had returned to China, where he taught and wrote during the turbulent decades of the 1930s and 1940s. He was his country’s most influential sociologist and social anthropologist, writing scholarly books and papers, guiding and mentoring students, and publishing prolifically in the press.
In 1949, the Communist Party came to power in China, and set about consolidating the territorial unity of a fragmented nation-state. Fei Xiaotong now realised that the time for pure research was over. Always a Chinese patriot, he sought to orient his scholarship towards the needs of the new nation. So he began fieldwork among the country’s minority communities, with a view to aiding their integration within the dominant Han culture.