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A Chinese Village in Early Communist Transition

January 29, 2010

C. K. Yang. A Chinese Village in Early Communist Transition. Cambridge: The M. I. T. Press. 1959.

Jiangsui He (2004)

Chinese people, a quarter of the world’s population, were involved in dramatic changes after 1949. However, western scholars only could study the new regime through the distorted data reflected by the party’s propaganda machine and interviews with refugee at that time. This situation explains well the excitement at the release of C. K. Yang’s book, which shows the changes of a village in this transitional period, based on the author’s field work.

The village in question, Nanjing, is located in the vicinity of Canton, and is treated as “a representative of southern suburban villages” (vi), an important local type that help us understand the whole rural area. Yang’s field work lasted from 1948 to 1951. Thus it began one year before the advent of Communist rule and continued after that. Therefore, this field work allows Yang to portray both the socio-economic situation of the village in the pre-Communist period and the transformation through the land reform under the communism. Unfortunately, Yang was deprived of his field notes when he left China. The data used here were reconstructed from memory in 1952, thus leaves the accuracy of the data questionable. In the last part of the book, Yang also provides an account of collectivization (1952-1958), which was mainly based on published data on the national level and data relating to Guangdong province and Pingan district to which Nanjing belongs. At this point, in his study, Yang wants to gain some insights based on his earlier investigation, but the effort is not very successful.

As a sociologist, Yang in fact put the transformation of Chinese society under the communist revolution in a bigger content – the process of modernization. Thus, the pre-communist village was highly “traditional,” within which the kinship relations were still prominent in its social structure. However, considerable changes related to modernization had already undermined the tradition. At this point, Yang argues that the communist revolution or some other form of drastic change appeared inevitable. In any case, the early phase of Communist rule broke the traditional framework in the village. In Yang’s view, the land redistribution was nothing new, and agricultural production was hardly improved. But a sweeping socio-political revolution was in process. Through the organized campaign of class struggle, the village was “methodically partitioned into class compartments, each set against the other (145), which, he claims, destroyed the solidarity of the clans and the village unit. Moreover, through a new and effective administration and propaganda, the former semi-autonomous village was integrated into the national system of political power. Yang points out that agricultural collectivization eventually curtailed the individual freedom of the peasants. In his account, every peasant seems to be submissive to the state politically and economically.

As a follower of Talcott Parsons, Yang insightfully finds that the cultural system did not change with the social system. In the new structural framework of the village community, there was lack of a “corresponding system of internalized values in the minds of the common people” (260). Confucian orthodoxy has been destroyed, but no new system replaced it. Instead, the moral vacuum in the rural area is still a problem in present-day China. Although Yang is aware of the apathy of the peasants toward the new ideology, he still finds that the state has absolute control. He is blind to resistance and the ways in which the tradition can undermine state power.

In sum, through describing events and process involved in the transition and providing a more generalized analysis of great current of changes, this book not only will be of “permanent value in the Western documentation on China,” but also gives “an academically solid and thorough assessment of the impact of communism on China” (E. Stuart Kriby, The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol. 27, No. 4).

© Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

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