Corresponding author: Majken Jul Sørensen

People living in systems of domination and exploitation resist in many different ways. Some modes of resistance build and experiment with alternatives to the present in various forms, from the small to the large, the hidden to the open. An overall term for these efforts is “constructive resistance,” which covers initiatives in which people start to build the society they desire independently of the dominant structures already in place. This is initiatives which not only criticise, protest, object, and undermine what is considered undesirable and wrong, but simultaneously acquire, create, built, cultivate and experiment with what people need in the present moment, or what they would like to see replacing dominant structures or power relations. Within peace and conflict studies, this has been approached through Gandhi’s concept of the constructive programme. In the anarchist and Marxists traditions and social movement literature, a related notion is prefigurative politics.

It is possible to study constructive resistance from many different perspectives, such as the level of organisation behind them or the areas they cover. Constructive resistance can be carried out by many actors, from individuals, small associations and local communities to national organisations or organised global networks. It covers areas regarding the fulfilment of basic needs, communication, economic concerns and decision making structures. Other possible approaches are whether the alternatives are legal or not, or to what degree people themselves frame their alternatives as resistance. However, I have settled on an approach that focuses on the two elements of “construction” and “resistance”.

I suggest a broad definition which says that constructive resistance occurs when people start to build the society they desire independently of structures of power. They can act alone, but usually constructive resistance is carried out by groups. In order to be considered “constructive resistance”, they necessarily have to be both constructive and provide a form of resistance, but there is a huge variety within both concepts. Resistance can be either an implicit or explicitly outspoken critique of structures of power upholding the status quo. These structures of power can be the state, corporate power or patriarchy, but is not limited to these. The constructive element can be either concrete or symbolic, and ranges from initiatives that aim to inspire others to actions that partly replace or lead to the collapse of the dominant way of behaving and thinking. Constructive resistance does not exclude conventional forms for protests, boycotts and civil disobedience, but focuses on creating, building, carrying out and experimenting with what is considered desirable.

In order to be open-minded towards the phenomenon of constructive resistance, this definition is deliberately rather generous towards what can be considered both resistance and construction. I embrace an inclusive definition of resistance and want to emphasise that constructive resistance happens along a continuum and can change significantly over time, making it difficult to judge when something has become “enough resistance” to be included. If one generally has a broad concept of resistance, then it also follows logically that the concept of constructive resistance should be broad. This said, not everything that can be included in the definition of constructive resistance is equally interesting for academics and practitioners focused on radical social change.

The definition suggested here does not include anything about “institutions” in the definition, making it possible to include unorganised and individual acts as constructive resistance. Secondly, I think it is an unnecessary limitation to speak about the construction as something that “facilitates” resistance as others have suggested. Creating alternatives can be resistance without having to facilitate anything that looks like more traditional or well known forms of resistance. This way, I also count as constructive resistance initiatives that remain small and do not advance beyond exemplifying an alternative or providing inspiration for others. There is no normative aspect of this definition; constructive resistance is not necessarily “good”, and what starts out as constructive resistance might itself result in new forms of domination and exploitation when it grows and expands. Normative criteria are relevant when we decide what types of resistance to support and which topics to spend our time researching, but it should not be applied when establishing an analytical definition of a phenomena.

Both “construction” and “resistance” can be operationalised in different ways. “Construction” can be conceptualised as the actual consequences for the system under attack at the time of evaluation. Such consequences can be more or less severe for the system. In cases where the constructive initiative does not go further than providing inspiration for others to follow or functions as a supplement to the dominant way of doing things it might not be perceived as threatening. However, when it comes to initiatives where part of what is undesired has been replaced, the situation is very different. Ultimately the constructive alternative might become the norm, thus resulting in a complete collapse of the previous dominant structure. When it comes to judging how much “resistance” there is in an example of constructive resistance, there are several ways of making this assessment. One option is to evaluate resistance in terms of how confrontational it is towards a particular dominant system. This continuum ranges from the hidden and secret, to the discrete, and finally to resistance that is openly declared. Another option is to consider how “forceful” the resistance is, but the challenge then becomes how to decide who is responsible for determining what constitutes force. One possibility is to look at the response from authorities and those who are being “attacked” or undermined in the situation. This creates a continuum ranging from initiatives that might be welcomed, tolerated or ignored, to those which are disrupted and repressed. Both construction and resistance can also be understood in relation to the size and scale of the initiatives, such as how many people are involved and how long it lasts. None of these options are inherently better than the others; it depends on what aspect of the constructive resistance one is interested in examining more closely. In the full version of this article, two different diagrams that each use two of the continuums suggested above are used to discuss eight different examples of constructive resistance which falls within the definition.

The people performing constructive resistance are not (just) criticising, demanding change or tearing down established structures. While they might be involved in such types of resistance as well, what is highlighted through this concept is the way they create, build or simply acquire something they consider better than the status quo. They imagine that things can be different, they experiment through trial and error, they change practices and norms, and they share their experiences with others. The motivation for creating an alternative varies considerably. Some people engage in constructive resistance out of an immediate necessity. They start to grow food on occupied land because they don’t have enough to eat or see no other option of earning an income. Some are responses to changing circumstances, such as civil war. Out of these new situations grew a need for creating alternatives. Some forms of constructive resistance combine the alternative they create with critique of conventional society. Other examples are not as necessary for immediate survival or explicitly critical, but arrive at constructive resistance out of a desire to create a better alternative rather than criticising or obstructing what one considers problematic.

An issue for discussion is the question of intentions vs. consequences. In the suggested definition, considering an activity to be constructive resistance can both depend on the intentions and the result of what is done. If the intent is to do constructive resistance and can be reasonably argued to fit within the definition, then I consider it constructive resistance even when the results are limited. Likewise, if the result of activities is the construction of alternative practices, I consider it constructive resistance no matter what the intentions were. Not everyone is likely to agree with this definition, and I welcome debates about other ways of defining the concept. The definition used here is much wider than what has previously been included in the discussions about prefigurative politics and constructive programme. I think it is important to also include all those who are not interested in criticising or confronting (whether because of fear, ignorance or because they don’t think it will make a difference), when we talk about constructive resistance. No matter if they think it or not, people are still contributing to resistance as long as they are performing activities that create alternatives to or implicitly undermine established structures of power. Constructive resistance might become more effective if it is designed to confront the status quo and not just bypass it. On the other hand, it is easier to continue working undisturbed when you are involved in a small-scale non-confrontational supplement rather than openly confronting and explicitly aiming for total collapse of the status quo. The definition of constructive resistance suggested here provide starting points for mapping the terrain of a phenomenon with little theoretical exploration. Hopefully this aspect of resistance studies will be developed further with investigations of even more interesting questions than how to define them. A particularly important aspect will be to look at the relationship between constructive and nonconstructive forms of resistance, and how these can work together to undermine systems of domination.

Three Untold Stories of Resistance

Liu Xia-hui, The Astute Apprentice Tailor: Agency Through Deferment

Liu Xia-hui’s story begins when had just left his family siheyuan aged only sixteen. Born in 1933, he was one of thousands of young men who became apprentice tailors in Beijing’s (then Peking) to Qianmen, China’s renowned epicentre for merchants and traders. In lieu of remuneration, the apprentices were provided with food and shelter by their apprentice masters. As Liu Xia-hui recalls, accommodation was minimalist and closely monitored: “All the apprentices were staying under one roof…It was the workshop of the capitalists.”

The apprentices were ruthlessly exploited by their employers. Daily factory life reinforced the strict hierarchies which existed between servant and master. Liu Xia-hui married in 1956 (aged 23) and had four children (two boys and two girls). Motivated by a desire to safeguard his family’s welfare, he began to gather local intelligence regarding housing availability. By adopting the combined tactics of invisibility, assimilation and observation, he calculated that he would be offered accommodation in a new guild housing development he observed being built. His patience was finally rewarded. He was given first refusal on not just one but two offers of guild housing. Having protected his family’s housing interests, he felt comfortable in rejecting an offer of state housing with impunity. The two properties went some way, albeit modestly, to restore some symbolic and financial capital which had become eroded during his many years as an apprentice tailor.

The research characterises the approach used by Liu Xia-hui and others who opted to bide their time during Maoist driven housing reforms as devising a strategy of resistance as using “agency through deferment.”

Qing Hong, The Fearless Mother: Agency Through Protest

Qing Hong was born in 1931, the year Japan invaded Manchuria. Upon marriage aged 15, she left the siheyuan where she lived with her extended family to take up occupation of a privately rented property in the Chaoyangmen district. Qing Hong recalls how, seven years after the revolution, the new ruling elite tried to force her to her move with her husband and children more than 1,000 kms west:

“In 1956, the private housing was made into public housing by the authorities. We were told to move to the Ningxia province.”

Urging her to adopt a discourse of rightful resistance to challenge the state eviction, Qing Hong’s landlady advised she fought the imposed state move. Significantly, Qing Hong’s resistance would also have benefited the landlady by protecting the landlady’s property from falling into the hands of the government.

When it was clear she was resisting eviction, Party officials escalated their campaign to oust Qing Hong and her family. It was then that the state driven public humiliation campaign began. She recalls how she, her husband and children were “treated badly after a public meeting with authorities – they insisted we moved away.” Public or “mass struggle” meetings, convened to humiliate those who resisted state policy, were commonplace during the early years of Communist rule. Those who opposed the Party line were verbally and physically abused in full view of family members and neighbours. Many died at the hands of officials or plummeted to such depths of despair that they committed suicide. Despite the potential fatal consequences, Qing Hong maintained her resolve to protect the family home. State officials finally left her alone. “…we were threatened with eviction from the house on three occasions but we fought to stay. I told them we would never give in and please don’t come anymore. They didn’t come again.”

The realisation that her landlady was not intending to undertake essential housing repairs proved a critical juncture for Qing Hong. She secured a job with the housing authority. This strategic move enabled her to lobby for state housing on behalf of herself and her dependants. Eventually, after several years, Qing Hong was offered state housing. But she rejected the offer. Instead, she negotiated a mutual exchange with a household in nearby Honglou, a move from which both families greatly benefited in the longer term.

The research describes Qing Hong’s form resistance as “agency through protest.” Successful direct challenges to the ruling elite were rare during the Mao period, least of all initiated by a lower class woman. Qing Hong’s account shows how agency may become apparent in the most adverse of circumstances.

Fan Zhang, The Impression Manager: Agency Through Acquiescence

For Fan Zhang, mother of seven children, was born in 1929. Her Beijing siheyuan which accommodated twenty people, had been in her family for generations. But during the Cultural Revolution, the family’s hutong haven was seized by the government. She reveals how her parents were required to surrender both the property’s deeds and blueprints to the state. Party officials then issued them with a new agreement which diminished their security of tenure from owner occupier to bare licensee in one fell swoop. Fan Zhang recalls: “During the Cultural Revolution…you needed to have a housing contract. The original ownership certificate of the property, it needed to be handed over to the housing authority.”

Fan Zhang’s account reveals the power of the prevailing Communist narrative of the time in minimising personal agency: “By the end of the 1950s, the government called for more rooms because of the growth in population…we gave away our rooms in the east and west.” All three rooms in the south and east of the siheyuan were then allocated by the state to workers in a nearby pharmaceutical factory, consigning the entire family of twenty to the east courtyard.

But Fan Zhang’s spirit of resistance was not entirely eclipsed by the new ruling regime’s stamp of authority. The provision of food and shelter were her strategic priorities. Her focus shifted to safeguarding those basic needs. Moreover, the realisation that local Communist officials seemed equally bemused about the rationale for the “Four Olds” fuelled her resistance and resilience capabilities. Significantly, local Party confided in Fan Zhang and her family that they felt far removed from the epicentre of Communist senior leadership. Discussions between Fan Zhang and local officials created latent communities of discourse underpinned by a shared sense of solidarity and powerlessness. Ultimately, these discussions away from the ruling elite’s gaze generated further layers of resistance in their own right. When negotiating Maoism, she gave was therefore able to give the impression of both resistance and compliance.

Fan Zhang’s distinct resistance approach has been characterised by the research as “agency through acquiescence.” This distinct form of resistance is far from passive. Rather, by drawing on available resources, agency through acquiescence enhances the resistor’s resistance capabilities allowing him/her to focus on basic essentials of life.

These three unique accounts reveal the realities, complexities and nuanced nature of resistance during an unprecedented period of political upheaval in the years immediately following the Communist revolution in 1949. The need to provide family members gave all three resistors featured here the courage and tenacity to question, in different ways, the claims made by the new Communist order. Even in the most adverse of circumstances, the human spirit rises to the fore. Resistance fuelled by agency in the form of deferment, protest and acquiescence provides a continuum through which the negotiation of oppression may be viewed. The three accounts featured here are a salutary reminder of the importance of documenting verbatim accounts regarding the realities of resistance, specifically its power, potential and potency. As the Chinese proverb says, “Even the faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.” The extracts from the accounts presented here serve to preserve a vital window in China’s history for generations to come.