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Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945

January 29, 2010

Elizabeth J. Perry. Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980.

Christian Hess (2002)

In her first major publication Elizabeth Perry sets out to answer one of the important questions of modern Chinese history: “Why do some peasants rebel” (p. 1)? To illuminate answers to such a deceptively simple question, Perry crafts a powerful, nuanced analysis of the causal factors of peasant rebellions as they occurred in a single part of China. Focusing on the rebellion prone Huai Bei region, the study investigates three major peasant uprisings that occurred there, spanning a century. Central to her analysis is the pioneering two-pronged position that to understand peasant revolution in China, one must first understand a region’s history of rebellion. Perry finds the role of the local environment a major factor for reaching such an understanding (p. 249). Gone from her preconceptions is a notion, prevalent in previous studies, of an evolutionary link between rebellion and revolution. Rebellion, she argues, is not an irrational, crude act, to be replaced by “modern” revolution. It is on the contrary, a “sustained, structured, and sensible form of collective action” (p. 2).” The book breaks much ground in that it successfully challenges previous understandings of both rebellion and revolution in rural China.

The structure of the book and its argument is a model of clarity. Chapters one and two introduce the framework through which Perry views the Nien, Red Spear, and finally CCP actions. Environmental factors are a major component of her analysis. She finds that peasant actors in the region were compelled to pursue activities conducive to rebellious behavior, due in large part to severe environmental restraints. However, Perry is careful not to assign a total role to the environment in shaping history. She admits that social and political factors were also important causal factors, and she includes them in a more complicated definition of the local environment (p. 249). Rural violence as a response to environmental uncertainty, she argues, can only be translated into sustained action by social forces.

In the core chapters of the book Perry presents a framework placing rebellions into two categories based on peasant’s strategies for survival. One strategy she labels predatory and the other protective. While she uses this model to describe the Nien as largely predatory and the Red Spears as protective, her characterization is not rigid. Rather, for Perry the crucial point is that in any sustained rebellion both strategies come into play within a given movement. It is this synthesis, she concludes, that allowed for sustained action (p.122, 167). In an illuminating final chapter on the CCP’s revolution in the region, Perry compellingly demonstrates that the CCP, in its quest to transform rural China, was confronted with groups characterizing these strategies. Who the Party chose to align itself with, or tried to control, varied through changing historical circumstances, with varying degrees of success and failure.

What Perry clearly argues is that the CCP could not simply take advantage of some prior peasant unrest to further its goals. Rebellions did not stack on top of one another, like blocks, with the final piece being a modern revolution. By freeing herself from standard historical periodizations, her analysis both traces continuities in human responses to environmental factors, and illuminates the impact of historical change on that response. This study shows that a collective action repertoire existed among peasants, and it was indeed exploited by the CCP. She takes rebellion seriously precisely because of the power of this repertoire to ward off or attack perceived outside threats. Her final picture is a view of revolutionary process that was difficult, changing, and local as it confronted such repertoires. Perry thus demonstrates how the CCP’s victory in the countryside clearly rested on its abilities to “overcome” rather than reflect previous (environmental) conditions. Philip Kuhn praised the work as outstanding social history, but was critical of Perry’s overly rational, functional approach to local culture. He wanted more attention to cultural factors like the Red Spears’ belief systems apart from any functional roles those systems played (Pacific Affairs, 54.3: 513-515). It has been twenty years since the book’s publication and students today may find its assumptions and conclusions about the environment, rebellion, and revolutionary process somewhat obvious. That the points she makes are commonplace today is a testament to the foresight of such a pioneering scholar.

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