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State and Society in Early Socialist Transition

May 5, 2010

State and Society in Early Socialist Transition

Ji Hee Jung (2004)

This essay will discuss how works of history written between the 1950s and recent decades represent the relationship between state and society during the early socialist transition in China. The relationship between state and society is one of the most important issues in modern Chinese history. The theme of state-society relations in the early socialist period is especially deserving of scholarly attention, given the Chinese Communist Party’s rise to state power.

The power relationship between state and society has been highlighted by Chinese governments as well as scholars. In particular the historical process of modern China since the late Qing shows us that how to strengthen state power was one of the primary concerns of Chinese leaders. Leaders continuously attempted to enhance state power. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gained power in 1949 after years of disorder and devastating civil war, these attempts seemed to bear fruit, although the quality of the harvest and whether Chinese at that time welcomed the Communist ideology remain open to interpretation. Therefore, how the emergence of a socialist state influenced the Chinese state-society relationship became an important theme in academia as early as the establishment of People’s Republic of China.

From our contemporary perspective, a strong state might be more of a threat to society or individuals than a blessing. But if we consider the process leading up to Communist victory in 1949, what underlay the common need of strong state was the pressure to rapidly modernize. A strong state was thought to be more effective than society for accelerating modernization in China. China’s sustained pursuit of a strong state left little room for giving society the attention it deserved. In Origin of the Modern Chinese State (2002) Philip A. Kuhn points out this trend in Chinese modern history.

All about the State

Beginning in the 1950s, scholars regarded the new strong state led by the CCP as an imposer of modernization and viewed Chinese society, which was predominantly agricultural and rural, as the object to be modernized. C.K. Yang’s thesis in The Chinese Family in the Communist Revolution (1959) and A Chinese Village in Early Communist Transition (1959) provides a good example of how scholars portrayed the state-society relationship as a contrast between a strong modern state and a traditional society which needed to change in the modern world. Yang mentions that for two millennia no major revolution had successfully altered the basic pattern of Chinese society before the Communist revolution. Even certain changes and social disintegration in the Republican period were not significant because they were not made by “the coordinated and conscious planning of an organized political power” (Yang b, 4). His assumption that only a strong political organization, or a strong state, was able to bring fundamental changes to Chinese society can be easily noticed. The reason Yang focuses on family and village also seems apparent. That is because the family was “an ancient, deeply rooted institution” and the village also “deeply rooted in traditional culture” (Yang b, 4; Yang a, 13). In other words, they are the most traditional and the most non-modern sectors in society. But the traditional elements of family and village were subjected to change “to better fit into the modern social order” because they were incompatible with modern social values and socio-economic structure (Yang b, 21). Therefore, Yang describes the early years of People’s Republic of China (PRC) is described as a struggle of a state trying to impose modernization onto a traditional society.

Yang’s main concern is not whether the state was communist or not because he accepts socialist revolution as an attempt to build a modern society on the socialist pattern. But Yang focuses on the possibility for the state to bring modern changes to Chinese society with a strong initiative. With an emphasis on the changes in institutional structure and framework of society, Yang indicates that communist regime had an “unprecedented revolutionary impact” on Chinese society (Yang a, 13). Yang concludes that in the early transitional period significant, or even revolutionary changes occurred in China, and traditional elements and relationships in Chinese society disintegrated. In a sense, Yang seems to suggest that revolution by a strong communist state achieved success in modernization to an unprecedented degree.

Yang’s work is one of the most famous first-hand on-the spot accounts in older works on the early PRC. When most Western scholars were unable to access mainland China and relied on official sources or interviews with refugees, the assumption that Yang’s books were reliable is understandable. Nevertheless, first-hand field research is not necessarily more authentic or closer to reality in a given society. Lack of long-term perspective of the consequences of a particular historical event is inevitable in this kind of research. Therefore criticizing a myopic perspective is also myopic because it is in many cases unavoidable in fist-hand accounts. A more meaningful way to read first-hand accounts is to abstract the vantage point of the time when the book was written. Sometimes people see what they want to see.

Derk Bodde’s Peking Diary (1950), which is another first-hand account in the early PRC but covers more a limited time span, provides a more general perspective to understand Yang’s viewpoint. Bodde positively evaluates the Communists’ success in ending the long disorder and devastation in modern China. Although Bodde points out that during the transitional period characterized by New Democracy, social changes were not radical and actually not “communist,” he suggests that more fundamental change of traditional China would be expected and possible. He concludes that China needs to escape from her age-old framework because “no modern society can be found” on the basis of conventional thinking (Bodde, 95). “Chinese Communists seem the only group” likely to achieve this change because they supply the “forces originally alien to Chinese traditional civilization” (38).

Even if the criteria by which Yang and Bodde judge the historical events are fairly different – the former is modernization in its structural aspect, the latter humanism with a focus on people’s minds – the two scholars show us the common viewpoints at that time of the state-society relationship in several respects: Chinese traditional social structure, relationships, and way of thinking need to be changed; to modernize China, only a strong initiative by an effective political organization – or state – would be able to bring profound change to the status quo, the state should be in charge of modernizing traditional Chinese society, and finally, tradition could be thoroughly destroyed by the changes that the state imposed on society.

It is apparent that Yang and Bodde pay little attention to society vis-à-vis the state. In their framework, Chinese society is traditional, and therefore an impediment to Chinese modernization. At best society is not important, passive, and plays little role, whether positive or negative, in the Chinese historical process. The gap between state and society, which had been a highly critical problem among the Chinese and scholars in China field since the late Qing, does not matter from the state-centered perspectives of Yang and Bodde because the state seemed to successfully penetrate into society.

The crucial question that Yang and Bodde, with their fairly optimistic view of social change in early PRC history, fail to ask is “what is left of tradition under the surface, and how much the old is intermixed with the new” (Barnett, 121). A. Doak Barnett in Communist China: The Early Years, 1949-55 (1964), provides a clue to understand why Yang and Bodde overlook the question of continuity. Barnett suggests that the changes taking place at that time were “so rapid” that it was easy for an observer of the Chinese scene “to be impressed only by innovation and lose sight of what was permanent and enduring” (116). Even if Barnett raises this important matter properly, he does not deal with this matter in a critical way as later scholars do. Barnett’s answer to the question is that for the first five years under the Communist regime, tremendous and real changes took place in China and the changes were more rapid and greater than ever before. But the refugees who Barnett interviewed make him uncertain of this answer. This is because his interviewees, who believed that new ideas must supplant traditional Chinese one, still remained traditional about family obligations.

Nevertheless, the persistence of tradition does not constitute Barnett’s main concern. Barnett’s framework is limited to politics, narrowly defined. He examines government structure, social and political controls and indoctrination, all of which center on the policies and practice of the state. Chinese society is still characterized as unimportant, passive and having little role in its own fate. As Barnett writes that the majority of Chinese “have not directly caused the political change; they have merely accepted it” (9). This passive nature of the majority of society is pointed out as one of the primary reasons for the state’s success in political indoctrination. And another reason Barnett pays little attention to the continuity of tradition is his idea that there was a “vacuum created by the disintegration of old Chinese society and the disintegration of traditional Chinese thought” when the Communists gained power. The Communists just “filled the vacuum” with their new ideas. (6)

In brief, scholars who published their works based on the research done in the 1950s distinguished between strong / active / modern state and weak / passive / traditional society in social changes. While the authors emphasized state policy and practice, society remained little-known. The framework that the state initiates change and society is susceptible to it tends to conclude that revolutionary rapid change is possible, whether or not an individual scholar has a positive attitude toward Chinese Communists. However, we can discern a split in perspectives between older scholars and those who accessed China since the 1970s. New scholars convey a significantly different scene of the state-society relationship in the transitional period of PRC.

Bring Society into the Picture

Kenneth G. Lieberthal in Revolution and Tradition in Tientsin, 1949-1952 (1980), examines the question that Barnett raised more seriously. Lieberthal argues that there was no “vacuum.” Rather, traditional perspectives have not vanished and modern and traditional elements have coexisted in urban China since 1949. Lieberthal defines the relationship between the modern and the traditional in the transitional period differently from the older scholars. His main premise is that people and their social perspectives do not change fundamentally in a short time. He admits that significant social developments do occur and can affect the way people view society, but their result is always “a mixture of new and old,” not a thoroughly new concept of human relationships (Lieberthal, 181). While pointing out that the Chinese media has overemphasized what is new, Lieberthal draws our attention to the fact that there are equally important legacies from the past.

A crucial point of Lieberthal’s argument is that Chinese Communist leaders did not merely try to dismantle all tradition at once but that the process of transformation in Tianjin required a highly selective strategy that gave sufficient priority to economic reconstruction. To reconcile transformation and economic recovery successfully, the Chinese Communist leaders relied on or left intact traditional sectors while trying to penetrate and control them. Consequently, large portions of nonessential segments of the populace remained outside of state penetration. Furthermore, people turned to old private relationships more eagerly at the absence of authority caused by political campaigns.

In short, Lieberthal suggests that the changes were not necessarily easy to bring about even if the state undertook strong efforts to transform Tianjin. The resilience of old social relationships and ways of thinking intensified the difficulty. Lieberthal uses the same frame of a strong state in charge of social changes and society remaining in tradition as the older scholars did. However, the difference is also clear. By shedding light on what remained unchanged after seemingly sweeping transformation in the society, Lieberthal makes visible the society and the interaction between the society and the state that remained unseen in the earlier works. Society is not considered as a merely passive object even if it was not especially active.

If old elements of society remained strong in Tianjin, the second largest city in China at the time, an important question should be raised. How should we understand the same matter in rural areas which are generally assumed to be more traditional? Chinese Village, Socialist State by Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden is an attempt to answer this question. The state-society relationship is reconsidered from the perspectives of rural areas and villagers. There is no change in the premise that society remained traditional and state took the initiative to transform society. However, what differentiates this work from older research is the question that it raises: to what extent changes occurred and what did changes mean to Chinese villagers? To answer the question we should understand more about the society.

To find an answer, Chinese Village, Socialist State traces how villagers in North China wrestle with an emerging socialist state. What the authors encountered in Chinese villages were “deeper continuities of culture in relation to rapid changes in other realms” (Friedman, xiv). The authors stress that Chinese villagers kept to their own culture and agenda although the Communist Party both tried to adapt to and transform peasant values and social relations. If we follow this interpretation, revolutionary transformation would be impossible. That is the authors’ answer. Their argument is that “surprisingly little had changed in human relations and understanding” in spite of the attempts at social transformation by the state (268).

On the other hand, in Chinese Village, Socialist State the society is not depicted merely as a passive side of the relationship with the state. Villagers were able to choose if they would support the state’s agenda or not, whether or not to express their voices explicitly or not. This means the state-society relationship is a mutual interaction, not a one-sided imposition. Therefore, the keyword characterizing the state-society linkages described in Chinese Village, Socialist State is “vicissitudes” (xix).

The Chinese socialist state was relatively successful in gaining popularity and voluntary cooperation among villagers by the early 1950s. The main key to this success is that the state permitted and encouraged individual households to “develop household fortunes.” Social changes were compatible with customary ways of thinking, life and relationships among villagers. Referring to what Susan Pepper revealed about land reform in North China during the Civil War makes this interpretation more valid. It was not the elimination of the tenant-landlord relationship but adjustment of the “inequality of wealth” that created a base of mass support for the communists (Pepper, 243-244). Yet Chinese Village, Socialist State shows that after the fundamentalist turn to socialism, the consequences were miserable. In the authors’ view, being “modern” or taking an active role in social changes does not provide any automatic guarantee for the state’s legitimacy. They even imply that the socialist state was rather feudal-like.

By highlighting the agency of society and its internal persistency, Chinese Village, Socialist State creates a binary divide between state and society. But unlike earlier works, there is no cleavage between a modern state in charge of social changes and a traditional society irreconcilable with modern society.

Lieberthal and the authors of Chinese Village, Socialist State reflect the changed perspectives toward the relationship between state and society, or modernity and tradition. The society that was previously obscured when authors stressed a strong state became considered a vital factor in understanding history and social changes. Various sectors of society were highlighted and became important historiographical topic. Incompatibility between modern and traditional elements was challenged by proof of strong continuities in old relationships and ways of thinking in Chinese society even after the attempts at radical social transformation. However, Lieberthal and the authors of Chinese Village, Socialist State share the premise of older scholars who hold that Chinese traditional elements are unsusceptible to social changes and that the Communist state had a strong initiative, whether it was successful or not.

Neil J. Diamant argues against these notions in Revolutionizing the Family (2000) […] Despite Diamant’s hope that studying divorce will “open a wide window” onto the interaction between state and society, divorce is indeed a very narrow topic for a full explanation of the state-society relationship (Diamant, 14). The lack of attempts to connect rapid changes in divorce with the general pace of the revolution makes it difficult to use the case for generalizing about revolutionary changes.

Nevertheless, the idea that traditional elements can facilitate social changes is more radical than previous scholars’ discovery of coexisting traditional and modern elements. It breaks the binary opposition between modern and traditional in the state-society relationship. Diamant argues against the “strong state” thesis not only by juxtaposing it with a strong society but also by challenging assumptions that the state was effective and rational. Revolutionizing the Family is a revisionist work. Its fresh ideas are thought-provoking. But Diamant’s attempt to defend his own thesis by attacking almost every previous work makes it difficult to understand the history of this topic in academia.

The perspective on the state-society relationship that stressed the contrast between a modern/active state and traditional/passive society on Chinese early 1950s, and which later scholars properly challenged, reminds us that how powerful the concerns the modernization were in the 1950s, regardless of individual scholars’ different political view. However, later scholars provided critical questions about what the framework of modernization had failed to raise. Is modernization necessarily positive? Is tradition always negative? Cannot tradition be compatible with modern change? The legitimacy of the strong state was also questioned because of its violence and negligence of the real situation of Chinese people. At the same time, more emphasis was placed on society, the persistency of traditional culture, and ordinary people’s agency. In other words, more nuanced perspectives have been added to the topic.

This change was probably possible because long term perspectives became more viable as time passed and modernization itself came under serious examination and criticism. Disillusionment with socialist practice and the human consequences of the revolution are also crucial reasons. In addition, improved access to Chinese society through newly available sources, interviews, and first-hand observation also were reflected in the works mentioned. However, for the development of this topic, the contribution of older works by Yang. Bodde, Lieberthal and others is no less important. No academic contribution can be created in a vacuum, especially on a topic like state-society relations that has received sustained attention from scholars of multiple generations.


Barnett, A. Doak. Communist China: The Early Years, 1945-55. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964.

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

Diamant, Neil J. Revolutionizing the Family: Politics, Love, and Divorce in Urban and rural China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Friedman, Edward et al. Chinese Village, Socialist State. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Kuhn, Philip A. Origins of the Modern Chinese State. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

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

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

Yang, C.K. A Chinese Village in Early Communist Transition. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. and Harvard University Press, 1959. (Yang a)

Yang, C.K. The Chinese Family in the Communist Revolution. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. and Harvard University Press, 1959. (Yang b)

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