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Rice ears and cattle tails : a comparative study of rural economy and society in Yunnan, southwest China Guo, Xiaolin


This is an anthropological study of peasant economy and culture, derived from field research on patterns of social organization and production of two ethnically different rural communities (Han and Mosuo) in northwest Yunnan, China. Its aim is to explore the local contexts for understanding the changes that recent economic reforms have brought to peasant life, and the cultural as well as ecological factors that constrain peasant economic activities. Current economic reforms have been accompanied by institutional changes, of which the most important for this research is the change in political relations between local and central governments. The expansion of local autonomy has had significant implications for the management of resources. The study shows that the behavior of the two local governments has had remarkably different economic consequences. The most noteworthy policy change in the economic reforms affecting rural society has been the implementation of the household responsibility system which brought down the twenty-year old collective system and has since altered the economic landscape of the countryside. This study emphasizes how kinship systems affect the form of household organization in both Han and Mosuo communities, and how existing social relationships are manifest in economic activities. "Rice Ears" and "Cattle Tails" are images drawing attention to the culturally salient differences in the patterns of production of the two communities. Rice ears constitute a cultural image of subsistence security in the Han community; and cattle tails constitute a cultural image of prosperity and development in the Mosuo community. Apart from the ecological factors which give rise to the particular patterns of livelihood in each community, cultural values associated the particular pattern of production account for many of the economic choices of the peasants and the persistence of economic forms.

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