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Shaped by Paradigm

May 1, 2010

Shaped by Paradigm: The Effect of Disciplinary Lenses on Analysis of Early 1950s China

Miriam Gross (2003)

In this paper I will examine four books to discover how researchers’ disciplinary lenses have impacted on the questions they ask and the frameworks they employ to understand the remarkable developmental period 1949-1952. These scholars include: Yang, a sociologist; Lieberthal, a political scientist; Spence, a historian; and Meisner, a historian. In addition to exploring the impact of disciplinary requirements and theories, this paper will discuss two sets of related themes. First, some scholars chose to examine the events in China through the lens of revolution; others through modernization or the construction of bureaucratic organization. Second, some authors focused on the penetrative capacity of the new state (i.e. a top-down approach), others examined the empowerment of the masses (i.e. a bottom-up approach). These choices, some of which are also influenced by a scholar’s discipline, particularly impacted on the stories they tell. After examining each of the above scholars, I will conclude the paper by returning to these themes, discussing their advantages and problems, and suggesting possible directions for the much needed future historical scholarship on the early fifties.

C. K. Yang: Sociological Perspective

Yang applies a structural-functionalist approach to study changes in family and village structure during the early 1950’s. This sociological theory states that deep structures, such as unconscious cultural patterns and institutional norms, create functions within society. Similarly, functions help to determine deep structures. One of this theory’s problematic aspects is that it implies change is very hard, quite slow, and mainly below the level of human agency. Many proponents of this theory, such as Yang, believe that economic decision-making by the solo rational actor can jump start this slowly oscillating loop and cause alterations to the system. However, this theory causes Yang great difficulties since he has chosen to examine a period in which rapid social/structural change occurred. He compensates by emphasizing two ideas. First, most of the changes now taking place started during the Republican era and thus have had half a century to develop. Second, economic opportunities have dramatically altered allowing individual family members economic decisions to help fuel rapid change.

Unfortunately, even within Yang’s own examples it becomes clear that most individuals make decisions based on a wide variety of variables in addition to personal economic ones including: family needs, love, morality, ideology, religion, and external social pressure. Irritatingly, Yang not only ignores these possibilities perhaps because they would disrupt his theory, he also discounts structural elements, that would lead to individuals having more complicated decisions. For example, he does not explore marriage as a means of creating structural, as well as economic bonds between the husband and wife’s families. By focusing solely on the dynamics within the husband’s family, he simplifies his equation of family relationships dramatically.

A second problem with structural functionalism is that since it presupposes a slow underlying process, it allows the researcher to mostly ignore the surface historical events. A final difficulty, is that all such research is based on viewing individuals as having identical motives, needs, and most importantly, rational economic responses to problem solving. To achieve this aim, it is best to simplify ones’ subjects to the point of caricatures. In Yang’s study, there are only archetypes of traditional families and modern families; resistant, conservative old people, and flexible dynamic young people.

Like all sociological studies, Yang’s is fueled by statistics. Given that Yang was evicted from China sans research notes, he recaptures his statistics to the best of his ability. However, even granting this valiant attempt, Yang’s use of statistics is questionable. For example, he bases much of his assessment of women’s empowerment on the rapidly escalating divorce statistics. Later he explains that many peasants did not understand the concept of divorce as being final. Instead they viewed it as similar to the traditional safety valve of women returning to their parents when conflict was occurring in their husband’s household. Such misinterpretation makes it difficult to uncritically continue using divorce statistics.

In the end, when Yang assesses the era, he appears to be presenting several contradictory ideas. On the one hand, the most of the dramatic social changes long predated the Communists. On the other, the Communist party was entirely successful at penetrating down to the bottom level of society, rapidly changing cultural and social structures, and leaving the villagers caught betwixt and between. Further, previously disempowered villagers, such as women and youths, are simultaneously described as having gained agency, and as being powerlessly tumbled by the new Communist ethos. Finally, Yang, leaves unexplored the possible impact of revolution since it would require an acknowledgment both of rapid and of ideological forces of changes.

Lieberthal: Political Perspective

Like Yang, Lieberthal believes that there are underlying structures and cultural patterns, such as guanxi networks, that are unlikely to be swept away by any revolution. However, as someone from the political economic perspective of political science, Lieberthal does not make fundamental structures the center of his study. Instead, he objectively tries to discover how both traditional patterns and fluctuations between phases of Communist revolutionary change and organizational consolidation help or hinder modernization. Modernization’s main component appears to be a rationalized liberal economic system.

Lieberthal discovers that the personal relationships in traditional systems increase the flow of business during troubled times, but compete with and hinder economic regulation, rationalization and transparency. In general, Communist consolidative phases were very effective at slowly penetrating industries and gleaning crucial manufacturing methods, while allowing continued economic functioning. Unfortunately, by working through existing skilled personnel, particularly those who were previously bosses, prior power abuses, hierarchies, and secret societies were imported into the new system. In contrast, the three-anti and five-anti revolutionary campaigns disrupted business and allowed those not the object of campaigns to revert to traditional business practices. Yet at the same time, utilizing knowledge gleaned during the organizational phases, the Communists could disrupt ingrained bureaucracy and vested interests, and take over private businesses in order to add them to the increasingly rationalized Communist planning system. Lieberthal concludes his book by pointing out that Tientsin provides an excellent counter example to a current political science theory, namely that economic rationalization tends to lead towards liberal democracy. In fact, the more rationalized the system became, the more thoroughly the Communist party could penetrate businesses and carry out its authoritarian mission.

By focusing on economic modernization, backed by such typical political science themes as organizational and social path dependency and assessment of state penetration, Lieberthal turns his work into a case study of one developing nation readily comparable to any other. Although excellent in what it does, Lieberthal’s approach leads to several crucial missed opportunities. First, the structural, organizational, and economic modernization approach lead to Lieberthal dismissing ideology or new ideas as a means of motivating change. Second, individuals, such as migrants, women, and youth, who choose to act within the interstices, manipulating traditional and Communist systems and ideologies, are not addressed. Third, because Lieberthal is focused on achieving a rational, modern system, he acknowledges the traditional system mainly as a barrier to change. Thus the many individuals that purposely stayed within it in order to retain their agency outside of state control, also drop out of the study. By way of contrast, James Scott has explored similar processes of modern state building and the need for rationalized information systems. Yet, he examines how peasants resist through the careful manipulation of traditional practices. It seems likely that these issues did not become part of Lieberthal’s study because his primarily top-down approach tries to assess the state’s accomplishments, rather than individual agency. Finally, Myers and Metzger question social scientists’ continued use of the terms “primitive,” “developing,” and “developed” countries (2). Although such labels facilitate easy comparison, they are likely misleading when applied to complex societies such as China that have long conceived of themselves as unified empire/states.

Spence and Meisner: Historical Perspectives

Spence and Meisner have advanced vastly different approaches to exploring the early fifties. Their disparate conclusions seem to be strongly influenced by their initial questions. Spence would like to know how the Communists built up organizational structures in order to establish a functioning government. Meisner would like to assess the potential sustainability of China’s revolution.

Spence’s pragmatic approach bears many similarities to Lieberthal. Although he is not interested in economic modernization, he is fascinated by the impact of institutional path-dependency, i.e. what structures developed in Yan’an were carried over into the fifties. Like Lieberthal, Spence frequently assesses the Communists’ efficacy by seeing if their system penetrates to the bottom level. In general, Spence too, is wary of Communist claims that they achieved universal political awareness. For example, he points out that many prostitutes reverted to prostitution after thought reform. Although Spence’s main focus is institutional, he is particularly interested in the aspects of Communist reform that make people’s lives better. At the same time, Spence is careful to document the horrors that occurred during various Communist campaigns. Like Lieberthal, Spence’s concentration on the efficacy of Communist government seems to cause him to exclude issues surrounding people’s agency. His structural focus appears to preclude a discussion of how ideological issues impacted on state formation.

Meisner is excited by the possibility of a true revolution that can make people’s lives better. He explains that three years after the Communists took power, “China was better governed than at any time in her long past” (84). Meisner’s valorization continues by repeatedly stressing the unique qualities of China’s revolution and the successful empowerment it has created among peasants by responding to and encouraging their repeated demand for change. He emphasizes that many of the changes in the early fifties were in fact a bourgeois revolution that created a Capitalist class of peasant proprietors. Meisner does report some evils, such as the reign of terror in 1951, but generally explains that they were necessitated by threat of outside (U.S.) foreign invasion (80). He is concerned that the Communists have been much more successful at responding to and including peasants, than workers, the supposed aim of their entire revolutionary project. His largest lament is that the more bureaucratic and institutionalized the revolution becomes, the less likely it is to maintain momentum for true social change.

Meisner’s revolutionary lens allows him to explore China in ways unavailable to those that take modernization, structural, or organizational approaches. First, he can emphasize China’s uniqueness, something no social scientist, intent on creating comparative frameworks, would be willing to do. Second, he can focus on the impact of ideology and ideas on societal change. Third, unlike all the other scholars, this focus allows him to argue that revolution and modernization/economic development are mutually supportive, in fact catalytic. Although revolution might have short term negative effects on economic development, in the long term, the changes it makes in people’s social relations and in their ideas can only lead to economic development in a more substantive way. Fourth, he believes revolution achieves the most important fundamental goal: increasing people’s agency through revolutionary participation. Thus Meisner’s revolutionary focus brings to the fore many issues never touched upon by other scholars.

However, Meisner’s encomium to revolution also leads to some significant problems. The revolution’s less savory aspects are given short shrift or explained away. Since Meisner believes ideas alone are enough to transform people’s behavior patterns, he never questions the actual impact of Communist rhetoric on people’s actions. While he states that peasants wanted and were fulfilled by the revolution, he ignores his own quotation from Yang, which implied that many peasants were distrustful of its outcomes and therefore quietly tried to wait out the storm. Evidence from Bernstein also tends to disprove wholehearted ongoing popular support of revolution. Bernstein examined peasant cadres, i.e. those individuals one would expect to be most dedicated to the revolution. He discovers that after 1949 most of them were tired of their revolutionary endeavors, and wanted to take advantage of the new capitalist environment and land reform to pursue their own economic gain. In fact, at this time, the reviled rich peasants became their model. Bernstein documents that it took unremitting effort from above to keep the cadre revolutionary. Thus not only has Meisner assumed enthusiastic empowerment without actually testing it out, his exclusive focus on ideology has led him to ignore material economic concerns. Myers and Metzger also point out that Meisner’s work contains an internal contradiction (6). Meisner is delighted by the revolution because the new state of mind and socio-cultural patterns it fosters will solve China’s problem of social, cultural, and economic backwardness (67). Yet he simultaneously claims that Chinese Communists were “influenced profoundly by preexisting predispositions” (11). If even the cadre were still employing ideas rooted primarily in traditional thought, it seems unlikely they will be able to promote the radically differentiated ideas necessary for societal transformation. Myers and Metzger believe Meisner has fallen into this trap because he has bought into the Communists own “vision of ‘progress’ and ‘backwardness'” (7).

The lens provided by Spence and Meisner’s initial questions lead them to radically different, often mutually exclusive assessments of the early 1950’s. Below I will explore how the social science and historical approaches to the fifties have impacted on the themes they examine. In particular, I will analyze modernization and organization versus revolutionary frameworks; state penetration versus agency; village versus urban studies; and tradition versus change.


The choice of revolutionary, organizational, modernization, or structural functionalist frameworks has deeply influenced scholars’ conclusions about the early fifties. Revolutionary frameworks have led to an overtly positive assessment that focuses on ideological forces of change and peasant agency. Given their need for events and actions to be reducible to comparable variables, and their tendency to exclude ideological forces, it is unlikely that many social scientists will choose a revolutionary lens. In contrast, modernization theories are perfect for social scientists because they highlight structural, organizational, and economic issues and are highly comparable. However, modernization and revolutionary theories share a central problem: they are both fascinated by the future and view traditional ideas, behaviors, and structures, as either a barrier, or as a mute playing field upon which to build one’s study. A strictly organizational lens, such as Spence’s avoids this problem, but almost entirely excludes any societal response to the new governance structures as they are being created. Although structural functionalist studies give primacy to traditional structures, their perceived static character makes it impossible for them to be included as an active element in times of change. Thus all of these studies find it difficult to highlight traditional ideas and structures. This is problematic because traditional ideas likely formed the way most Chinese evaluated the new Communist agendas.

Assessing levels the government is also not explored. Hindered by his utilization of government sources, Yang’s structural functionalist study assumes both agency and state penetration without addressing their inevitable conflicts. Thus I believe that none of these studies have convincingly explored issues surrounding urban and rural empowerment and resistance during this era.

Another important issue is where to focus one’s study in terms of spatial arena. Both organizational and revolutionary approaches facilitate macro-history that is unencumbered by a specific locale. Specific urban or village studies help the social scientist create a comparable case study. One issue that became clear in both Yang and Lieberthals’ works is that future research on the early fifties will have to reconsider strict center versus periphery or urban versus rural studies. According to Cheng and Selden, the hukou system had not yet been instituted during this period. In addition, peace, economic opportunity, and the new class labels were driving inordinate numbers of migrants to the city. As Yang shows, modern, urban notions as well as money from migrants were already profoundly influencing rural life. Equally, according to Lieberthal, migrants participation in traditionally structured industry had a large impact on urban development. Thus future studies should view the early fifties as an opportunity to discuss initial village and urban integration.

Finally, all of these studies seem to be fundamentally asking what allows societies to change. There are many possible answers: shifts in social, cultural and governmental structures, ideology and new ideas, economic transformation, and exogenous intrusions. Each of these scholar’s disciplinary lenses and organizing frameworks tended to highlight some possibilities at the expense of others. Revolutionary theories focused on ideas; organizational theories on governmental structure; modernization theories on economic and governmental structure; and structural functionalist theories on economic transformation. I believe that all of these variables are necessary to explain the rapid changes that occurred during this era. Cultural norms and traditional morality have been particularly excluded from previous studies.

There is clearly a great need for new studies on the early fifties. Historians are an ideal group to study this exciting transitional period. They uniquely have the ability to bypass some of the more stringent theoretical and comparative requirements of social scientists. Further, they are interested in including cultural, economic, political, social, and structural variables that cross disciplinary divides. Finally, they have the ability to use methodologies based equally on written, oral, and even quantitative sources. For these reasons, historians are perfectly placed to accurately assess the profound societal transformation occurring during the fifties.


Thomas P. Bernstein, “Problems of Village Leadership after Land Reform,” China Quarterly, No. 36, Oct.-Dec. 1968.

Tiejun Cheng and Mark Selden, “The Origins and Social Consequences of China’s Hukou System,” China Quarterly, No. 139, Sep. 1994.

Kenneth G. Lieberthal, Revolution & Tradition in Tientsin, 1949-1952, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.

Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic of China, New York: The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan, Inc., 1986.

Ramon H. Myers and Thomas A. Metzger, “Sinological Shadows: The State of Modern China Studies in the U.S.” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 4, July 1980.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Jonathan Spence, The Search For Modern China, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

C. K. Yang, Chinese Communist Society: The Family and the Village, Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 1959.

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