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Chinese Village, Socialist State

March 19, 2010

Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden, with Kay Ann Johnson. Chinese Village, Socialist State. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Ji Hee Jung (2004)

Chinese Village, Socialist State portrays the dynamic interaction between state and society in China with the focus on how families, villagers and local leaders wrestled with an emerging socialism. Through a decade-long research on Raoyang villages on the North China plain, the authors tried to “look for the invisible” and “fill in the picture obscured by official categories” (xviii). Consequently, the authors challenged the existing common wisdom that the socialist state has remained secure because of rural support based on simple complacency.

With bottom-up and long-term perspectives (since the late Qing until 1961), what this book illuminates is the vicissitudes of state-society linkages. We can see a contrast between early years of popular reforms and voluntary cooperation, and the era of fundamentalist commitment to socialism. By the early 1950s, the Chinese state permitted individual households to “develop household fortune” and social changes occurred without breaking customary ways of thinking, life and relationships. But the “honeymoon” was destined to be short-lived because the ultimate goal of the state was the fundamental transition of China to a socialist system. The authors shed light on how collectivization and the attack on peasant culture, household farming, and commerce alienated rural population. By inspecting the process of fundamental socialization, this book shows us the irony that the peasant-supported revolution made peasants the very victims of revolution.

Contrary to our general assumption of revolutionary change after the fundamentalist turn, the authors of this book argue that continuity rather than rupture defined this period. Continuity in peasant culture, new nationalism, personal bonds of loyalty, and persistent historical problems existed in all the periods that this research focused upon. In particular, the state’s war on village culture and the peasant household economy, contrary to common expectation, strengthened the tie among villagers and patriarchal ways in many rural families enabling them to survive this attack. The authors indicates that “surprisingly little had changed” after the attempt at socialist transition. (268) Ironically, this phenomenon constitutes the main reason why villagers did not actively resist the state despite the unhappy results caused by the state. The authors’ argument is that villagers facilitated patriarchal authority and supported the state with anti-intellectual and anti-urban anger because of their patriarchal strains of culture. The state actually acted on “Feudal-like criteria” in spite of the policies of fundamental changes. (285)

Finally, key to this book is the authors’ perspectives on society vis-à-vis the state. Although the authors do not deny the existence of a strong state, what this book highlights is the strength of a society that had their own agenda and maintained their own culture despite radical changes in social surface. For this reason, this book conveys the dynamics of the relationship between society and state more than older historiographies that stressed the active role of a strong state.

This book can be read as a powerful criticism of the Chinese socialist state and Chinese Communist Party based on the direct contact with insiders, including the losers and the excluded for a decade by the authors’ numerous visits and thousands of hours of interviews and discussions, as well as the use of archival sources. Whether Marxism was a merely “foreign economic dogma,” which the authors conclude, may be questioned, as one of the reviewers points out. (Arif Dirlik, The American Historical Review, 97.5) Nevertheless, the rich narratives of how fundamentalist commitment to socialism, contrary to its slogan, brought out political inequality and economic devastation even in the “model villages” offers a strongly convincing argument for the failure of the socialist state in China.

Contemporary reviewers paid fairly high attention to this work and their response was favorable in general by defining this book as “a landmark event” (Prasenjit Duara, JAS 51.1) and as “one of the most important works on Chinese rural trends.” (Martin King Whyte, China Quarterly, 129)

© Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

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