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Revolution and Tradition

May 5, 2010

Revolution and Tradition: The State-Society Relationship in Chinese Industries, 1949-1952

Xiaowei Zheng (2003)

By the late 1950s, a decade after the Communist Party came into power, it seems that the party had succeeded in holding millions of Chinese people together and in achieving social stability; moreover, a foundation had been laid out for future economic and social development. Communist China was a mystery for Western sociologists. Given the chaotic and violent social revolution, how did the Chinese Communists achieve this? Particularly, what did the Communists do during the crucial first three years of the regime so that the takeover was stabilized?

Among these inquiries, the state-society relationship has always been the main focus for political scientists, sociologists and historians in the China field ever since the field of contemporary Chinese studies started during the Cold War period (Madsen 36-37). Scholars asked: what was the relationship between the Party, the leader, and the people, the led? For the transitional period of 1949 to 1952, this question has been more finely honed to determine the relationship between the “revolutionary” party-state and “traditional” society. Did the state successfully influence traditional practice and remold it? What was the interaction between the revolutionary organization and the old social sectors and institutions? Finally, what were the results of such interactions? In this paper, I shall examine the answers of three generations of sociologists by using industry as a case study. I will begin with Franz Schurmann writing the 1950s, then Lieberthal writing in the 1970s, and conclude with Mark Frazier whose work was published in 2002. From their divergent answers, one can see not only how much the China field has changed, but also how much intellectual trends and general convictions have changed.

The Impact of Organization on Building Revolutionary Society

Franz Schurmann’s Ideology and Organization in Communist China is the first thorough study of the state-society relationship in Communist China. Schurmann started his writing in the 1950s, when the Communist Revolution was still fresh and exciting in his mind: “The Chinese Revolution is for the latter half of the twentieth century what the Russian Revolution was for the first half. By transforming Chinese society, it has brought a great power into being which proclaims itself the revolutionary and developmental model for the poor countries of the world” (xxxv). At that time, the only primary sources he could use were published official documents and the central and provincial newspapers.

Schurmann believes that the Communist revolution had destroyed the three core elements of the traditional stable Chinese social system: Confucianism, the values and norms that have a compelling effect on human behavior; the gentry, the elite from which authority flows; and the pater familias, the “modal personalities” that bring the ideal individuals to high status and made them able to exercise authority. When this trinity of structures disappeared after the revolution, the old society became dysfunctional. Obsessed with the world-wide post-revolutionary transformation, Schurmann believes that China would also follow their developmental patterns, namely, the new revolutionary regime reintegrates society back together through organizations, for otherwise “the society would disintegrate into chaos” (xxxix).

Empirically, Schurmann believes that the new state had successfully put society back together through powerful organization networks. He compares Communist China to a vast building made of different kinds of bricks and stones, and argues that ideology is what holds the building together (1). Organizations formed the basic means for the Chinese Communists to achieve their many different goals: to rebuild a great country, to discipline their people, to improve the foundations of life, and lay the foundations for growth. In building such an organization, ideology provides the moral cement that not only arouses commitment but also creates the cohesive forces that prevent struggles from turning into disintegration (xlviii). Schurmann believes that the Chinese Communists had already begun to build these new structures of military and civil organizations and to recruit and train new leaders as early as the Yan’an period (1935-1946). The organizational network with its well-trained cadres became the basis for the Communists to win the war and rule over China after the victory in 1949; because of this successful organization, the party had been able to smoothly replace the collapsed older social system.

Schurmann provides a close look at the relationship between revolution and tradition in the industrial sphere in the early 1950s. First, the regime wanted to transform and modernize the factories to improve their productivity. It adopted the soviet model of the responsibility system and one-man system, placing workers based on their skills and simultaneously trying to cut off traditional personal relations in the factories. However, at the same time, the regime needed to take absolute control of managerially-run industry and concentrate all decision-making power in the hands of the party. The abandonment of one-man management after 1953, Schurmann believes, is because of this overriding goal. For Schurmann, early 1950’s factory management was an attempt by the revolutionary party to modernize old factories. Schurmann believes that such a process must be accomplished through the party organization because the party committee, unlike sector-based management, had the unique ability to cooperate with different sectors and individuals of different interests. He believes that revolutionary expansion in the factories used these methods and resulted in a smooth and successful transition.

Obviously, Schurmann emphasizes the sharp rupture between tradition and the new society that revolution brought about. He overemphasizes the disappearance of traditional society and believes that revolutionary organization is the best way to achieve modernity. For Schurmann, the newly created organizations of the Chinese Communist state had revamped the society as a whole and totally replaced the functions of the traditional social system, without being influenced much by them. Actually, he almost completely ignores the power of society.

Schurmann’s claim should be traced to the general conviction of his era that modernization was destiny. Moreover, it also links to his political agenda, a complete faith in revolution. He believes that revolution, just like evolution, could push China toward modernity. Schurmann’s conclusions were also constrained by his source base. The emphasis on organization and the effects of revolution reflected official documents and newspaper of 1950s China. Further, it prevents him from seeing the real impact of these new state devices. As a result, his belief in the effects of new organizations is only speculative. Just as John Fairbank says, “It represents the revolutionary leaders’ efforts in the central apparatus rather than the results they may eventually achieve in the daily life of the people in their localities. It is less a record of what has happened in the Chinese revolution than of what the revolutionaries have tried to do” (Fairbank 668-669). One must ask what the reality was and what people’s actual response was. These deficiencies were addressed by later scholars.

State Penetration and Its Less Revolutionary Results: the Persistence of Tradition

Looking at how the people of the society act and trying to represent the operational reality, Kenneth Lieberthal’s Revolution and Tradition in Tientsin, 1949-1952 uses both newspapers and interviews to explain how the state-society relationship worked. Starting his research in 1970, Lieberthal was able to gain accounts of participants and the informative pre and post 1949 documents and newspapers. These permit a more intimate glimpse of the process of change in urban China.

Though he also examines the relationship of revolution to tradition, Lieberthal is very different from Schurmann in believing that the power of revolution was limited. He argues that organizational capabilities of the Communists remained finite. One of their most vexing problems has been how much traditional socioeconomic units could be counted on to accomplish their tasks (2). For him, tradition had not vanished since 1949; for many years to come, urban China would strike a complex and shifting balance between modern and traditional elements. The traditional personal connections (guanxi) had an especially crucial role.

Lieberthal treats both the traditional society and the measures taken by the revolutionary leaders with great subtlety. For Lieberthal, the old order in Tianjin was not a coherent “social system” in the sense that Schurmann has explained; on the contrary, the old order had its various sectors and a far more complicated pattern of social division since people were divided according to their work in the traditional, modern and transport sectors of the economy. Moreover, the traditional notions of guanxi had shaped and constrained fundamental perspectives; they also defined people’s social boundaries. The persistence of traditional modes of thoughts which segregated people presented an insuperable obstacle to the Communist party which sought to penetrate, transform and unify people.

The measures taken by the revolutionary state to penetrate, gain leverage over, and transform the major socioeconomic units of Tianjin were also treated with great care. Lieberthal offers us a detailed systematic account of how the Communists expanded their power. In order to maintain the economy, the party had switched its ambitious plan to a more refined policy that reduced the scope and pacing of the state’s engagement with Tianjin society and brought the revolution to different sectors over time. Later on, the growth of the party sponsored-organizations and the dimensions of their involvement in campaigns expanded. Lieberthal reveals that it was not until the Three Anti and Five Anti campaigns in early 1952 that the party established themselves as a truly revolutionary force for the majority of the city’s population.
Importantly, Lieberthal also examines the results of these measures. In the Five Anti movement, using a participant’s voice, he examines people’s acceptance of these policies and finds out that though it had great social and economic consequences, the traditional guanxi networks remained powerful. Though guanxi was attacked through propaganda and new organizations were created to fulfill many its functions, to an unknown degree, guanxi continued to define the limits of people’s interests and concerns.

Lieberthal’s emphasis on actual reality and his claim that the result of revolution was not as grand as the party asserted must be understood in conjunction with the new source he used, namely, the refugee accounts available in Hong Kong in the early 1970s. This source helped him point out that Chinese media tended to make revolution seem more sudden and widespread in their impact than was actually the case. Moreover, Lieberthal’s theoretical training and his own political attitudes also influenced his argument. Politically, the Vietnam War had caused intellectuals to doubt any kind of ideological propaganda that was put in the newspaper. Theoretically, the demise of Parsons’ structural-functionalist view about a coherent social system in sociology had led to the notion that society as a much more diverse and flexible entity.

As we have seen, Lieberthal brought a very important addition to the previous generation of scholarship in analyzing tradition and revolution. However, by focusing on political campaigns, which are the major measures of state imposition on the society, he still ends up portraying the state as the dynamic force of change and society as passively responding to it. Also, he still employs to the simplified dichotomy in which the pre-1949 period equals tradition and the post-1949 means modernity. It is the next generation of scholars that debunks this 1949 watershed and gives a greater emphasis to the agency of society.

The Making of the Chinese Industrial Workplace: State, Revolution, and Labor Management, Mark Frazier writes about institutional change in revolutionary contexts. He examines how officials, workers and managers created institutions of labor management to cope with the transformation of China’s industrial sectors from the early stages of industrial development to the imposition of a centrally planned economy in the 1950s. In this book, Frazier differs greatly from previous scholars in his understanding the relations between revolution and tradition. First, Frazier questions the conventional understanding of revolution. He does not portray revolution as an abrupt grand event; on the contrary, he believes that both the revolution and post-revolutionary changes should be placed in a long process of modernization, which had been under way prior to the change in regimes in 1949. Second, Frazier refuses to use the vague word “tradition,” for a powerful notion in new academic studies is that “tradition did not exist, but was invented.” By debunking the basic categories of tradition and revolution, the rupture between them diminished and the year 1949 becomes disqualified as a yardstick for understanding contemporary China. By drawing on a wide range of new sources, including the detailed historical documents of two textile mills and two shipping factories in Shanghai and Guangzhou, personal correspondence and interviews, labor unions and municipal archival sources, Frazier is able to gain a much deeper, subtler, and more accurate understanding of the divergent situation in Chinese industries.

Frazier mainly explores the relationship between tradition and revolution in his examination of both the formal and the informal industrial institutions. For the formal institution, the work unit (danwei), Frazier argues convincingly that while the danwei is often called a single institution created after the Communist takeover, it was actually formed through a process of conflict and coalitions among workers, managers, and state officials over several decades before 1949. The continuities across the Nationalist and Communist regimes can be seen from the following institutional features which first appeared in 1930s: factories as welfare institutions, the penetration and mobilization by political parties, the powerful foremen on the shop floors, and the compressed seniority wages. In fact, in the transitional period from 1949 to 1952, these preexisting institutions actually facilitated the party’s control of the labor force and its expansion into industries. Likewise, Frazier also examines the informal institution of society, which he specifically terms as culture. Frazier believes that people adopted cultural symbols and referents when involved in creating the institutions. He also uses culture to explain the continuities of the contractor and foremen systems in the Communist factories (9). For him, both formal and informal preexisting institutions continued working after 1949.

Though it is true that the evolution of the Chinese industrial workplace unfolded in a long process which was all well under way prior to 1949, it is also true that these processes accelerated dramatically during the 1950s. Frazier traces the interaction between the state and industry of 1949-1952 in detail. At the beginning of the takeover, the party retained private enterprises but made publicly owned industries transfer to state control under the party authority. Cooperation was established between private enterprises and government. However, the party’s failure to control workers, unions, factory owners, and managers in that cooperation forced the party to turn to mass mobilization, investigation, and punishment to remove personnel that hindered the party’s effort to expand into industry. In early 1952 the party launched campaigns in urban areas that Lieberthal aptly termed “the second revolution.” These campaigns had important social and economic consequences. Labor relations, especially the relations between managers and workers became tense and factory authority had to be under the close supervision of the party. In addition, the state sector grew bigger and state industry became the major tax payers to the state. However, even after these campaigns, many institutions, such as the welfare and wage systems, remained intact and old cultural notions were still at work.

Noticeably, individual agendas of the workers were so strong that they created unanticipated results in the campaigns. Workers quickly learned that they could use the party’s own rhetoric to elevate their status and to ask for increased wages by claiming to have suffered from entrepreneurs. Well aware that they could defy orders from their superiors in the movement, some workers freely took leaves of absences because they knew that they would not be punished (127). Such examples, force Frazier to give society precedence when interpreting state-society relations. Instead of looking at society’s response to the state’s challenge, he emphasizes the role of society and argues that often, the consequences of the interaction between state and society, was that the society distorted the original agenda of the state and negotiated with it, leading to a far less revolutionary equilibrium.

Once again, Frazier’s new arguments appear to derive from his sources, his theoretical orientation, and the general convictions of the current scholarship. His argument is influenced by the new ideas in the history field that 1949 is not the major watershed of the contemporarily Chinese history and that revolution was not that inevitable. His theoretical basis as a neo-institutionalist makes him take institutional change as the major indicator to explain relationship between state and society, revolution and tradition. The post 1980’s hot discussion on civil society perhaps also increased his focus on society. Finally, his access to both interviewees and factory archival sources enables him to reconstruct history by carefully examining what happened on earth to each factory and individual, which also greatly enhances the representation of society’s agency.


As Richard Madsen states in his review article on America’s five generations of sociological work on China, any good sociological work is the result of the triangular dialogue among the social theories, the objects they study, and the general convictions of the time period (35). And it is obvious that the arguments examined in this paper accord with Madsen’s generalization on two counts.

First, researchers are bound by their theoretical knowledge of the social world and their own constructions of reality, which corresponds to the social theories and general convictions of their time. Consequently, Schurmann’s overemphasis on the disappearance of traditional society and his labeling of Communist organizations as a modern structure could be traced to his era. In the 1960s, people had strong convictions about Western modernization and the then prevailing theory by Parsons which argued that society is a self-balancing social system. In contrast, Lieberthal’s increased focus on tradition is a result of the mid-1980’s demise of Parsons’ theory and an abandonment of the conviction of the universality of Western modernization. Likewise, Frazier’s emphasis on the power of society seems to respond to theories about civil society and the failure of the world-wide socialist revolution. Second, researchers’ conclusions are also limited by their techniques of their research. Limited source materials make Schurmann’s argument speculative; while the availability of a group of interviewees make Lieberthal argue for the actual reality. As for Frazier, greater access to sources provides him with a much subtler, diverse and comprehensive picture about Chinese workers.

As we have seen from the above discussion on the state-society relationship in contemporary China, one trend is that scholars are giving more emphasis to the power of society, as I have mentioned above. A second trend is the downplay of revolution and its impact. Schurmann believes in revolution and finds it had great power to change society. Lieberthal, however, denies the absolute power of revolution. Frazier argues that revolution is only one stage of modernization and further that for factory life, “revolution” hardly impacted at all.

Mark Frazier has provided a valuable new emphasis in the state-society relationship studies. Now, we are still in the same generation with Frazier in which individual’s agency is emphasized and the actual situation, with or without revolution, is highly valued. However, new things can still be done to improve our understanding of the field. First, one finds that an important omission is classification of the class background in the cities. This was an important event in deciding a city dweller’s identity under the Communist regime and is crucial for our understanding of the Cultural Revolution. Showing how workers interacted with this classification would provide a good lens through which to explore the state-society relationship.

Second, when discussing people’s agency, scholars mainly focused on workers’ economic self-interest, while their beliefs and changes they underwent under the new regime were not discussed. Ideology was simply regarded as rhetoric which had no real affect on each person’s life choices. Such a notion is an understandable reaction to the previous overemphasis on ideology. However, ideals and ideology greatly impacted on people’s choices, complicating decision-making beyond simple self-interest. Now, as the revolution gradually becomes a part of the tranquil past, we can more easily retain our personal detachment. Given that the increased access to China enables the examination of each individual’s ideas and beliefs through oral history, the time is now ripe for us to go back and reexamine ideology. Finally, using the more refined analytical tools of scholars, such as Pierre Bourdieu, who treats ideas in the habitus of real practice, we are prepared to examine this very important part of an individual’s agency again.


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Fairbank, John K. “The State that Mao Built.” World Politics, Vol. 19, No. 4. (Jul., 1967), pp. 664-677.

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

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