Accepted Paper:

The permanence of fields and skills in a Chinese rural-urban farming community of practice  


Lena Kaufmann (University of Zurich)

Paper short abstract:

I investigate rice fields in Chinese rural-urban migration. Focusing on this permanent resource and the related embodied skills, which migrants conserve as 'tactile memory' and which connect them with their left-behind family members, sheds light on migration patterns and migrant-home relationships.

Paper long abstract:

This paper speaks to the field of 'materialities of migration' from a skill perspective through the example a particular resource which stays behind in Chinese rural-urban migration: paddy fields and related knowledge and skills. Chinese rice farmers are confronted with a particular predicament: the pressure to migrate to the cities, and the simultaneous need to continuously cultivate their paddy fields in order to preserve them as a safety net resource. I argue that looking at this permanent material resource and related skills tells us a great deal about farmers' decision making, migration patterns and migrant-home relationships.

I show that in order to preserve their fields despite the lacking the skilled labour that has migrated, staying and migrating farmers draw on a whole repertoire of knowledge, which comprises not only new technologies such as mechanisation, but notably also older techniques that have survived transgenerationally, despite never having been practiced by current farmers.

Drawing on Lave and Wenger's 'community of practice' (1991), I propose to rethink Basu and Coleman's 'migrant worlds' (2008) as a 'community of practice worlds' that comprises both the people who migrate and those who stay. In the quest of preserving their fields, they stay connected through their farming skills which continue to reside in peoples' bodies as 'tactile memory' (Harries 2017) even after they have migrated.

Panel P114
Permanence: anthropologies of what stays