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Danwei System & Collective Identity in China


According to Wikipedia, a work unit or Danwei 单位(dān wèi) is the name given to a place of employment in the People’s Republic of China. While the term Danwei remains in use today it is more properly used to refer to a place of employment during the period when the Chinese economy was still more heavily socialist or when used in the context of one of state-owned enterprises 

Richard Child Hill, the writer of the book review on Social Space and Governance in Urban China: The Dan Wei System From Origins to Urban Reform thinks that Danwei system is developed in socialist China. This system emphasizes the importance of collective behaviors and opinions while the traditional China put more attention to the familial hierarchy. 

Danwei space is designed to bolster the socialist order yet it also mimics the family compounds of traditional China. Confucian and socialist China are very different social orders yet the wall demarcates social space in both, and both endow space with political and moral significance. The Confucian compound is ruled by the family patriarch; the socialist production compound by the danwei. Confucian space sanctifies familial hierarchy; socialist space a collectivist and egalitarian concept of social relations.


Brief History of Danwei Society

Chinese scholars, Tian Yipeng and Liu Jie briefly introduce the history of Danwei Society in an article titled:Historical Position of”Unit-Society”Appraised Again 单位社会”历史地位的再评价

1) 1948 – 1953 Exploration Period

During the Chinese War of Liberation Period, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has already began to explore the new urban management system in the Northeast China. CCP’s efforts to establish the new management system in urban area were important basis of the Danwei System. In 1949, CCP began to establish the “Country – Danwei - Individual”, the Danwei System in the People’s Republic of China. 

2) 1953 – 1956 Finalized Period

CCP finished the First Five-Year Plan (一五计划) in 1956. This plan was crucial to the finalization and development of the Danwei System. Danwei began to play an important role in Chinese people’s daily life. The system includes the following content – Danwei is not only a workplace but also a place where people participate in political affairs; Danwei is responsible for people’s welfare system; Danwei represents the CCP and government to supervise people’s work and life, etc.   

3) 1957 – 1976 Peak Period

Chairman Mao promoted the development of People’s Commune (人民公社). Mao tried to extend Danwei System from urban area to rural area. Meanwhile, Danwei System kept developing Danwei System. Danwei System arrived its peak period during Cultural Revolution (文化大革命).

4) 1980 – now Decline and Transition Period

As Deng Xiaoping came up with policy of reform and openness in 1980s, planned economy in China gradually declined. Since Danwei System was connected to the planned economy, it also encounter the decline and transition period.

 At the same time the role of the work unit has changed as China has moved from a socialist ideology to “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. By 2000 much of the work unit’s power had been removed. In 2003, for example, it became possible to marry or divorce someone without needing authorization from ones’ work unit. (Wikipedia)


How Danwei System Works

In the book review on Social Space and Governance in Urban China: The Danwei System from Origins to Urban ReformRichard also mentions that the Danwei System is how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mobilized, integrated, and governed China’s exploding urban population after the 1949 revolution. 

The danwei was simultaneously the spatial building block, the locus of daily life, and the mainspring of social identity in the Chinese socialist city. Danwei is a generic term referring to the socialist workplace and the activities it encompasses. The CCP organized the city through the workplace. The grass roots production unit, be it factory, government bureau, school, or hospital, touched nearly every aspect of a Chinese worker’s life: it provided employment and housing, meal provision and bath houses, child care and early schooling, medical treatment and welfare services, political study and party membership, marriage and divorce, policing and security. Two decades of economic reform have considerably diminished the danwei’s significance in the Chinese city but the system’s legacy lives on in the institutions that are replacing it.


Influence of Danwei System

According to Wikipedia, “The influence of a work unit on the life of an individual was substantial and permission had to be obtained from the work units before undertaking everyday events such as travel, marriage, or having children. Amongst other things, the work unit assigned individuals living quarters and provided them with food, which was eaten in centralized canteens.” For example, 

The danwei system was crucial to the implementation of the one child policy as the reproductive behavior of workers could be monitored through the danwei system. Workers not complying with policy could have their pay docked, incentives withheld or living conditions downgraded.


A letter of introduction provided by Danwei defines a person’s identity before 1980s

介绍信Jie Shao Xin, a letter of introduction which is provided by Danwei. This letter used to be very important in Chinese people’s life because without this letter, you cannot prove “who you are” and you cannot travel to other places. The most important part of the letter is the official seal. 

A report about Chinese ID card shows the importance of Jie Shao Xin. Before government came up with the policy of ID card in 1984, Chinese people cannot go to other places to work or live without Jie Shao Xin. Below is a picture of a formal Jie Shao Xin.



“The Jie Shao Xin above has the formal format. It includes address, text, ending, signature, dates and etc. The most important part in this letter is the official seal.”


Ji Zhongxue, a famous brilliant person of his village comes from Huainan, Shanxi province. Village head used to ask him to contact with the forestry center in 1975. Every time leaving home, he had to take lots of Jie Shao Xin and supporting files because “who are you” was completely decided by the Jie Shao Xin.


“When we don’t have the ID cards, people have to take Jie Shao Xin whatever you do – on business or visiting relatives and wherever you go” Ji Zhongxue said. If you want to visit other places, no matter you have to work or you are on journey; no matter you want to take a train or live in a hotel; or even you go to other village to visit relatives, you need the Jie Shao Xin. Jie Shao Xin is a person’s identity. “Without Jie Shao Xin, you cannot go anywhere else.”


You can find more information about Danwei System in these two books

Danwei: The Changing Chinese Workplace in Historical and Comparative Perspectives

Social Space and Governance in Urban China: The Danwei System from Origins to Reform