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Tradition, Modernity, and Communism

May 1, 2010

Tradition, Modernity, and Communism: Two Studies on Chinese Peasant-State Relations During 1949-1952

Jiangsui He (2004)

In his study of the new China established by the Communists, Maurice Meisner (1986) insightfully finds that state power and social classes in the People’s Republic began with a profoundly ambiguous relationship. “The Communist party, which presided over the new state, had no real tie to the proletariat it claimed to represent; the peasantry was without formal political representation; and the bourgeois classes were represented only in a most formal and meaningless sense.” Nevertheless, the lack of solid relations with social classes did not ruin the party’s ambitious projects in social reforms. Instead, by 1952, the new state had consolidated its control nationwide and had extended it down to the village levels; agricultural and industrial production were also restored to the highest pre-war level. Therefore, the relationship established between state and society during this initial period (1949-1952) attracted great attentions from multiple generations of scholars.

Both C. K. Yang’s A Chinese Village in Early Communist Transition (1965) and Vivenne Shue’s Peasant China in Transition: The Dynamics of Development Toward Socialism, 1949-1956 (1980) showcased the changes that occurred in Chinese rural areas in 1949-1952, in order to shed light on peasant-state relations in the village. Their common concerns provide a lens to study state and society relations established during the transitional period. However, the pictures Yang and Shue present are noticeably different. While Shue praises the flexibility of the state in dealing with rural affairs, Yang demonstrates the fear and reluctance of peasants facing horrifying state power. This essay endeavors to explore the different representations of peasant-state relations in these two books, and then to scrutinize the changing views of the relationship between society and state in the scholarship on the Republic.

Yang and Shue are scholars belonging to two generations. Their divergence is primarily due to the different contexts these two generations were facing. Therefore, this paper will begin by situating Yang and Shue in their respective social and academic environments. Next it will examine how Yang and Shue depict the interactions between the state and the peasantry during land reform. Finally, it will review scholarly variations on the relationship between state and society by examining Yang and Shue’s dissimilarities.

Debates on Legitimacy: the Victory of Chinese Communists

C. K. Yang’s A Chinese Village is the outcome of his fieldwork in Nanjing village in South China, which documents the village situation from the pre-Communist era (1948-1949) to the early Communist transition up through the land reform. Yang’s grassroot research facilitates his investigating both the concrete processes of changes that have happened at the village level since the coming of Chinese Communists and the peasantry’s reaction to such revolutionary forces. Shue’s method is totally different from Yang’s. Heavily relying on the various provincial newspapers, the national press, and local publications, Shue focuses on the implementation of socialist development policies in the provinces of Hunan and Hubei in the southern central region of China. The 1949-1952 period is the first step of the transition Shue examines. Although Shue takes a top-down approach, her examination of the interaction between peasants and the state is on par with Yang’s. Both authors are concerned about the peasant-state relations that were gradually established after the advent of the Communists in the newly liberated rural areas.

The arrival of the Communists – or to put it another way, the victory of the Communist party – set the context for the newly established relationship between state and society. Different attitudes towards this victory link with disparate perceptions of the nature of the new state, and lead to diverging accounts of the peasant-state relations forged in the newly formed state. Yang and Shue’s version of peasant-state relations is deeply influenced by their respective scholarly and social milieus attitudes toward the takeover by the Chinese Communists.

Due to the US government’s consistent support Guomindang and ideological repulsion towards Communism in the 1950s and 1960s, the American public did not accept the success of the Communist party’s 1949 takeover. A. Doak Barnett’s important work on the Communist takeover (1963) reflects such unenthusiastic attitudes. The corruption and incompetence of the Guomindang led to a power vacuum, and the Communists grasped the chance to take over. However, at the same time, some scholars strove to highlight the efforts of Chinese Communists. In his diary written in Peking around 1949, Derk Bodde (1950) shows the party’s deliberate effort to take over the city and to restore order. Later on, when the antagonism toward China decreased, more and more studies focused on the strategies and tactics of the Communist party. Susan Pepper’s monograph Civil War in China (1978) is equally appreciative. Pepper gives great credit to the party, and argues that through adapting Marxist-Leninist thoughts to the Chinese environment, Chinese Communists won the competition with Guomindang.

Yang and Shue clearly have allied themselves with opposing camps. As a scholar that left China in 1951, it seems that Yang feels more akin to Barnet. In his book, Yang does not express much admiration for the Communists. In his portrait of the pre-Communist village situation, Yang reveals the socio-economic crisis in Nanjing village, and argues that drastic changes were inevitable. The Communist revolution is one possibility, but not a necessary. Unsurprisingly, Yang is also consistent with Barnet (1964) in describing the new state as a coercive power. He highlights the violence used to initiate the transformation, and depicts the submissive role of the peasants.

In contrast, as a scholar in the generation after Yang, Shue is definitely a follower of Pepper. Shue’s work actually can be regarded as a continuity of Pepper’s. While Pepper shows that Chinese Communists gained the legitimacy during the civil war, Shue demonstrates that the Communist party was able to maintain this legitimacy by driving forward rural reforms for peasants. Moreover, Shue continues Pepper’s emphasis on the party’s flexibility and pragmatism. She shows how the new government strove to convince peasants that change might benefit them, and then drew peasants into cooperation with the next planned step, the village revolution.

Yang and Shue were doing their research within different circumstances and with disparate academic agendas. The result is that their accounts of peasant-state relations are far apart. In the following section, their dissimilarities will be analyzed in their studies on land reform: how the party made its first move and what the villagers’ reactions were.

The Land Reform: Persuasive versus Coercive

Yang’s village and Shue’s fields all belong to late-liberated areas. Land reform was the major project that the Communists carried at in these rural areas during 1949-1952. The two authors both treat land reform as a crucial stage to understanding the new-established relationship between the state and the peasantry. In this section, I will first focus on several factors these two authors highlight as the secrets of the success to land reform, and then discuss their different perceptions of the nature of the new administration. Finally, their different portraits of the people under Communism will be shown.

Economic Incentive or Political Control?

As Meisner explains, in the new state creed entitled “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship,” Mao set forth two overriding objectives that were to mold the nature of state and society during the transitional period: “establishing a strong state power and a strong economy” (58). Yang and Shue also notice that the reform was carried out along these two directions. However, they fundamentally differ on which of these two played a more prominent role. Yang believes that the newly established direct control of the state over the village was the key to land reform, while Shue regards material incentives as the secret to the success of the party’s policies.

When Shue phrases one aim of the party’s agrarian reform in the new territories as “buying immediate peasant support with land” (41), it reveals that in Shue’s view, material incentives were used by the party as its primary appeal to the peasants. Shue admits that the party’s basic strategy revolved around the management of village class struggle. However, the most effective way to do so is not through propaganda and education, but rather by “directly interven[ing] to manipulate the economic environment of peasants” (7). According to Shue, through a direct redistribution of property from the richest to the poorest in the villages during land reform, the party helped the villagers perceive that their own real interests coincided with their designated class interests. The new state relied heavily on “the natural, self-interested energies of peasants to make village class struggle a reality,” and to lead to the successful land reform (326). Therefore, it is clear that Shue believes that land reform was a transformation satisfying peasants’ self-interest.

Yang is also aware that during land reform the Nanjing peasants were mobilized initially with material enticements, which successfully “aroused hatred among the poor against the rich” (145). However, it is obvious that Yang does not think that the party really cares about peasants’ interests. While Shue praises the new government’s first reform, the proportional taxation, and believes it “won the early active support of many” (30), Yang shows that taxes levied by the Communists were “much heavier than those imposed by previous government” (155) causing the peasants excessive burden. To Yang, the state was primary an absolutely coercive and pervasive power, instead of the persuasive rational actor appealing to peasants’ interests that Shue depicts.

Violence was one of the main aspects in Yang’s portrait of coercive state power. In contrast, Meisner points out that when launching the land reform in late-liberated areas, the Communists were determined to avoid the violence that had spoiled land reform during the civil war. In Shue’s description, the land reform was carried on as modestly as the party hoped. She uses the phrase “peaceful land reform” to characterize the relatively little physical violence (82). In Shue’s account, she explains that violence was first used to provide public security, such as suppressing bandits after the liberation. Violence was not a topic for Shue during land reform,.

However, violence was a prominent aspect in Yang’s Nanjing village. Yang argues that when fully armed military soldiers entered Nanjing as the agents of the new government, their guns were “symbolic of the coercive nature of the new power” (169). During land reform, there were families that experienced pillaged by mobs aroused by the party. Nanjing villagers also witnessed tragedies in two other families, in which the victims were physical tortured by the government. Moreover, Yang provides an example showing people’s fear of the harsh dictatorship. During land redistribution, when members in one lineage received more land than another, traditional hostility was aroused, but villagers chose to give up organized conflict. To explain the reason, Yang directly points out that “villagers by this time had learned to appreciate the violent character of the new power” (148).

Shue summarizes the three possible means the party used to win peasant cooperation: normative appeals, material incentives, and coercive measures. From the discussion above, it is obvious that Shue and Yang are on two different wavelengths. While Shue emphasizes that the party cleverly induced peasants to join in rural reforms, Yang shows his antipathy for a government that was never chary of using violence to maintain strict governmental over the villagers. Although both of Yang and Shue’s studies are based on regional studies, in fact, neither of Yang and Shue leaves a possibility that the peaceful or violent land reform is specific in their fields due to the regional difference. Instead, these authors clearly expressed their appreciation or disfavor toward the new government.

Except for violence, Yang also focuses on the strict control of the state over the new local power structure. In her study, Shue shows that official organizations, such as the party branch, the peasant association, the youth league, and the women’s association, set the institutional foundations for the party to “mobilize and channel peasant into the drive for rural social revolution” (29). Yang shares Shue’s emphasis on the important role played by these grassroot organizations, but he uses them to underline the state’s penetrative power. According to Yang, the striking change in local power structure is not the shift from landlords and rich peasants to the lower middle and poor peasants, but “the much closer integration of the village into the national system of political power” (174). Now every peasant in Nanjing village experienced the national political power as a concrete reality that controlled every aspect of peasants’ lives from their social and economic status to their family life. The village not only lost the relative autonomy it had enjoyed before, but also became a part of the highly centralized state system, which in Yang’s view ensured coercive state to control over the countryside.

The New Administration

As to the new administration, Yang stresses the rigidity and arbitrariness of its land reform policy. Yang tells a story about a poor widow who owns twenty mou of land. After the death of her son, the widow rented out all her land. And then according to the official rigid class line, the widow was listed as a landlord, because all her income was from “exploitation.” Although both a senior official and a village head tried to help the widow, neither of them could break through the rigid regulation. Moreover, an arbitrary amount of surplus grain was named for each landlord to surrender, “according to his estimated ability to pay” (145). The widow was assigned an amount totally beyond her ability.

The Reactions from the People

Yang and Shue provide two wholly different portraits of the new state power. While Yang emphasizes the coercive power of the government and its irrationality, Shue sings high praises for a party which is not only flexible, but also deliberately includes peasants in reforms by appealing to their interests. These differences lead to the disparate views on the peasantry’s reactions toward revolutionary change in villages.

Shue does portray peasants’ initial anxieties about land reform. Shue also notices that the party faced peasants who were unwilling or apathetic about land reform. However, Shue believes that “peasants clearly responded well to the economic benefits of the reform” (p. 45), and they were driven into reforms by the material incentives provided by the party’s policies. In contrast, the villagers in Yang’s Nanjing village were not cooperative with the party as their counterparts in Shue’s areas. Yang shows that some families benefited from land reform came to feel that the Communist government served their interests. But the new structural framework of the village lacked “a congruent and stabilized ‘moral climate’ or corresponding system of internalized values in the minds of the common people” (260). The great majority of the villagers were left “apathetic, skeptical, and submissive rather than showing any genuine enthusiasm and conviction toward Communism” (199).

The Fate of Traditional Society: State-Society Relations

Focusing on the countryside under Communist control, Yang portrays a picture in which traditional society was conquered. The kinship system and the semi-autonomous leadership of local gentry that characterized the traditional village life had been destroyed. Yang is clear that such destruction is necessary to solve the crisis in rural areas, but he is distressed that the inevitable modernization must be carried out by the Communists. In his version of state-society relations during the early fifties, Yang entirely accepts a totalitarian portrayal of Communist society that absolute state power conquered and tightly controlled society.

Shue definitely disagrees with Yang’s pessimistic description of the relationship between peasants and the state. To Shue, the new state is a constructive modern force. With the assumption that both the state and peasants are rational actors, Shue holds that the party endeavors to use material incentives to gain cooperation from the peasants. In Shue’s view, the state does not conquer the society, but negotiates and compromises with society. Meeting the needs of society is one of the state’s interests.

Yang was strongly influenced by the structuralism theory prevalent in his time, which states that the social system determines a person’s behavior. Yang’s opinion that coercive state power overwhelms society was in fact typical among scholars in his generation. As a scholar writing when the structuralism was being challenged, Shue finds it possible to bring agency back to the peasantry under Communism. Shue points out that because the party’s policies appealed to peasants’ self-interests, land reform was a compromise between the party and peasant society.

However, while Yang believes that tradition has been destroyed, Shue only portrays the peasantry as rational actors without any moral concerns. Late on, new scholars overcome these deficiencies, and featured a new picture of state-society relations. Both Richard Madsen’s Morality and Power in a Chinese Village (1984) and Chinese Village, Socialist State (1991) coauthored by Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden demonstrate the continuity of tradition in China through the Communist revolution. They show that the peasants’ reinterpretation and tampering with the state policies happened at the same time as government’s penetration into villages.

Shue’s book is well written. She analyzes the official documents very carefully and insightfully, and she pays attention to the agency of both state and society. However, her sources limit her discussion to an ideal situation of party’s policy-making and implementation, instead of actual practices. Therefore, in her depiction, complex practices have been lost to rational calculation, while the moral concerns are missing entirely.

In contrast, Yang’s fieldwork helps him access villagers’ actual experience under Communism. His story demonstrates peasants’ complicated reactions toward revolutionary force. As a matter of fact, Yang shows peasants’ loyalty to their clans, which were under the Communists’ attack. But his structuralistic framework makes him ignore the data he collects.

Based on these two studies, when studying Chinese state-society relations, on the one hand, we should retain balanced focus attentions between the party and the common people. Shue is better at this than Yang. On the other hand, we should put actual practice and people’s lives at the center of our inquiry, just as Yang did in his fieldwork. Analysis that is divorced from the common people will only turn out to be idle theorizing. In present China the party still tries to maintain its control over some areas of people’s lives, the painstaking study of state-society relationships since the Communist takeover would remain crucial to understand China’s past, present, and even future directions.


A. Doak Barnett. China on the Eve of Communist Takeover. New York: Praeger, 1963.

A. Doak Barnett. Communist China: The Early Years 1949-55. New York: Praeger, 1965.

Derk Bodde. Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution. New York: Henry Schuman, 1950.

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

Richard Madsen. Morality and Power in A Chinese Village. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

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

Jonathan D. Spence. The Search for Modern China. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1990.

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

Suzanne Pepper. Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

C. K. Yang. Chinese Communist Society: The Family and the Village. Cambridge: The M. I. T. Press. 1965.

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