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Peasant China in Transition

January 30, 2010

Vivienne Shue. Peasant China in Transition: The Dynamics of Development Toward Socialism, 1949-1956. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Christian Hess (2002)

In this comprehensive work Vivienne Shue successfully challenges several assumptions regarding the CCP’s efforts at building socialism during its early years in power. The core of her approach involves viewing the major political events of the period under examination not as isolated programs rapidly appearing from Beijing’s drawing boards. Shue focuses instead on the changes in the Chinese countryside “not as discrete convulsions but as process” (p. 3). For Shue, simply focusing on the “high tide” of collectivization itself, as previous studies often have, denies the evolutionary aspects of this period of rapid social and political change. The book aims to illuminate these aspects in the “later liberated” areas of Hunan and Hubei, an area chosen by Shue as reflecting “the most mature approach of the CCP to problems of early village revolution” (p. 9). Importantly, her approach gives credit both to central authorities and to local cadres and village leaders in terms of their successes and failures during the 1950s (p. 328-330).

Examining the policies leading up to collectivization enables Shue to make broader conclusions about how the CCP accomplished such a transformation so rapidly. The result is a detailed analysis of rural policy, illuminating a process in which gradual limitations and barriers were placed on the traditional avenues to wealth exploited by rich peasants and landlords in the village. The CCP then consciously enacted policies designed to merge middle and poor peasant economic interests with the increasing efforts to transform the village into a more socialist system. These included rent reduction, tax reforms, the development of mutual aid teams, supply and marketing cooperatives, semi-socialist agricultural producers cooperatives, and ultimately, collectivization. Such efforts were the core of CCP rural program and, as Shue points out, represented “the numerous, deliberate appeals to peasants, on the grounds of their own self interest, to abandon petty-capitalist enterprise and to enter presocialist and then fully socialist institutions” (p. 334). Gone is the view that the “high tide” represented the totalitarian wishes of Mao carried out in a singular explosive event (p. 332). Rather, as Shue convincingly argues, the speed up was embraced by many local cadres “as an answer, if only a temporary one, to their most vexing problems” (p. 332).

A major theme running through Shue’s analysis is anxiety. The programs and policies implemented during these years caused considerable anxieties for both cadres and peasants alike. Illuminating these tensions adds greatly to her overall picture of the collectivization process. Time and time again one sees the difficulties faced by cadres as they attempted to implement central policies while maintaining local order. Shue’s analysis is full of examples of this tension. Moreover, while her major point is that the policies under analysis often merged the interests of farmers with the process of socialist institution building in the countryside, Shue is also quick to point out the anxieties faced by the farmers as well. Rumors of impending policies led many rich peasants to hide belongings and surpluses normally available for poor peasants, moreover if land reform took too long to develop it led to slowdowns in production, as no farmers wanted to labor on land that would be taken from them (p. 72, 92). Here and elsewhere, Shue dramatically demonstrates why speed became such an important issue for some central planners and local cadres alike. Anxieties mounted to dangerous levels if rumor and stalled implementation became the norm.

Contemporary reviewers praised Shue’s contribution for its depth of research and for many of its assumptions. Edwin Moise hailed her rejection of the dichotomy between ideology and pragmatism in her analysis (The American Historical Review, 89.1:186). Shue indeed concludes that the CCP at this time consciously locked pragmatism with its ideological goals (p. 334). The book also received a fair share of criticism. Tsou Tang’s review takes issue with a number of points. Interestingly, he finds that her picture of CCP success would have been more effective had she concluded with Mao’s 1955 collectivization speech, rather then carrying through into 1956, when the mistakes of the speed up become apparent (Journal of Asian Studies, 41.4:823). What is also missing from the work is the voice of peasants themselves. Without research access to China, Shue is forced to utilize official sources. The result is a skewed picture of CCP policy “success” with no mention of peasant resistance to forced collectivization. Despite this key omission, the work is still valuable for providing a policy narrative of the complicated early years of CCP rule.

© Copyright 2002. All Rights Reserved.

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