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Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village

January 29, 2010

William Hinton. Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966.

Gerald Iguchi (2000)

This book is, unsurprisingly, about “fanshen.” The word had a talismanic quality for Hinton, as indicated by the fact that though he (mis)translated the name of the village he documented during the spring and summer of 1948, calling Changchuang “Long Bow,” he leaves us with the purity of the Chinese word when it comes to fanshen. He defines this magic word before his preface (vii) as literally, “to turn the body” or “to turn over,” less literally as “to throw off the landlord yoke, to gain stock, implements, and houses,” and ultimately as “to throw off superstition and study science, to abolish ‘word blindness’ and learn to read, to cease considering women as chattels, and establish equality of the sexes, to do away with village magistrates and replace them with elected councils. It meant to enter a new world.”

On a more nuts and bolts level, the book is about the implementation of land reform, following liberation, in a small village in northern China. Hinton, while teaching English at a University run by the Communists, was allowed to accompany the team from the university that was assigned to Changchuang and which was engaged in overseeing these reforms and evaluating their progress. Hinton was interested in documenting the process whereby Chinese peasants and intellectuals mediated the abstract ideals of Marxist-Leninism-Maosim, embodied in the words of Mao, Liu Shao-ch’i, Marx, Lenin, and others, with the concrete, complicated conditions of rural China. Hinton the Maoist was trying to construct blueprints for a world peasant revolution grounded in the redistribution of land as the primal means of production.

An abstract/concrete, or theory/practice dialectic is embodied in the structure of the book. The words of Mao, etc., appear in epigraphs which inaugurate each chapter. For example there are these words of Liu: “Some comrades have committed mistakes of commandism, adventurism, and closed-door-ism . . .” (222). Following the epigraph including these words, Hinton went on to tell us how in “Long Bow” “[s]ome comrades . . . committed mistakes of commandism, adventurism, and closed-door-ism . . .” and ultimately, by the end of the book, how such problems could be overcome, through careful attention to the words of Mao, Liu, etc., through an arduous process of confession and self-criticism on the part of all, and with the guidance of the Communist Party as a proxy for Marx’s dictatorial proletariat.

The problem, evident in the “fit” between Hinton’s epigraphs and his text, was that Hinton accepted the words of the great Marxist thinkers as scripture, holy words. Hinton’s ends were noble, but his blind belief is frightening. I am tempted to offer some words on the problem of post-bourgeois (or extra-bourgeois) revolutionary problems arising as a result of limitations we can witness in Hinton’s thought, but this brings up too many problems for which I have no answer myself.

At any rate, in the context of Fanshen‘s original publication: practically, the book was valuable because of the information on everyday life in China during the revolution which it provided (well before “everyday” life became a buzz-word). Politically, it had to be considered dangerous by conservatives, valuable but dangerous by liberals, and as something of a “bible” for the burgeoning number of young Americans who considered themselves to be on the revolutionary Left. Theoretically, it is interesting that whereas for the liberal China scholars of the day and earlier, the unorthodoxy or heterodoxy of Mao’s version of Marxist-Leninism remained something of a problem (c.f., Benjamin Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao, 1951 and Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-tung, 1966), for Hinton it was no problem at all: peasants could be transformed with the aid of the “proletarian” CCP. Such is the magic of faith perhaps, but the ability to overcome contradictions, within one’s mind (only?), is perhaps also the obverse of allowing or contributing to much tragedy. See attached book review: Martin Bernal, “The New Boss,” in The New Statesman 73: 298, March 3, 1967.

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