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The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China

January 30, 2010

Philip C.C. Huang. The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985.

Jeremy Brown (2002)

Huang adeptly argues that changes in agricultural production and social stratification in rural North China had already taken hold by the eighteenth century, well before the arrival of Western imperialism. For Huang, imperialism was a peripheral factor that “did not fundamentally reshape the small-peasant economy, but only caused acceleration along the preexisting patterns of involution and commercialization” (p. 121).

The author combines detailed Mantetsu survery data on Hebei and Shandong villages with Qing Board of Punishment records and his own field interview data to show that beginning in the eighteenth century, population growth and commercialized cash-cropping, particularly of cotton, fundamentally altered the nature of China’s agricultural economy. Population pressures caused agricultural involution (a decrease in the marginal output of labor), and risky cotton farming offered financial gain for some families but also threatened the survival of others. Involution and commercialization resulted in the rise of managerial farming and the “semi-proletarianization” of the peasantry. In essence, peasants who would otherwise be idle or inefficient on their own small plots sold their labor to middle or rich “managerial” peasants who could hire laborers in order to farm larger plots more intensively.

With an eye toward the comparative value of his analysis, Huang utilizes classifications such as poor peasant, middle peasant, rich peasant, landlord, proletarianization, and capitalist sprouts. In Chapter 10, entitled, “The Underdevelopment of Managerial Farming,” he explores the “failure” of managerial farmers to “make innovative investments” and asks why the technological changes possible in the 1930s “were not made” (pp. 169, 179). The answer, Huang proposes, is that in China, real riches and upward mobility resided not in the agricultural sector, but in officialdom and bureaucratic positions. Once managerial farms grew to about 200 mu, their rate of marginal return diminished. Therefore ambitious farmers were better off using their profits to become absentee landlords – a position that offered much more time to study for the imperial examinations.

The value of following Marxist logic and of asking why technological changes and capital investments did not occur in China is undeniable: it sets up interesting comparisons with England and broadens the potential readership and import of the book. The potential problems of such a framework are just as clear: why not say that China developed in its own way instead of calling it “underdeveloped?” And how useful is the term “semi-proletarianization” when there is little evidence to suggest the genesis of a strong class mentality in rural China? To be fair, attributing underdevelopment to managerial farming is quite an improvement over previous scholarship that blamed imperialism or vague notions of Confucian ideology. And call it what you will, but Huang convincingly depicts the rapidity with which peasants could tumble down the social ladder and tenuously scrape out a living tilling their own small plot (made even smaller by the common practice of dividing inheritances among brothers), working as hired laborers, and engaging in handicraft work.

The book’s extensive tables (56 in all, ranging from “Agricultural Laborers Cited in Homicide Cases in Hebei and Shandong, 1796” to “Draft Animals on Managerial Farms in Five Hebei and Shandong villages, 1930s-1940s”) set a high standard for socio-economic studies of rural China. The author is on shakier ground, however, in his discussion of the changes brought to rural China by the Communist Revolution and the founding of the People’s Republic. Suddenly, tractors, fertilizers, and the collective spirit led to increased productivity – under the expert guidance of the state, underdevelopment gave way to rapid growth. Nonetheless, this oversimplification should not unduly blemish an otherwise excellent and important monograph.

Reviewers praised the book, which won the John K. Fairbank Prize of the American Historical Association, for its richness and complexity. Jonathan Spence called Huang’s work “the best sustained study of rural north China yet written,” but questioned whether officialdom and the bureaucracy were such a sure path to riches (“Turbulent Empire,” New York Review of Books, Jan 16, 1986: 41-43). Susan Mann also praised Huang’s “formidable talents” but noted that the implications of differences between the Mantetsu villages were “not systematically explored” (Journal of Asian Studies 45.3: 572-574).

© Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.

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