Focusing on the Communist Party's agrarian policies, the Introduction highlights how Mao Zedong's vision of rural revolution, built around a narrative of peasant liberation through fierce class struggle, shaped the evolution of the party's approach to the countryside. After providing an overview of decades of experiments with altering village economies and cultures, this chapter sketches a rough outline of land reform and the other campaigns that composed the years of agrarian revolution under investigation. Significantly, novels claiming to realistically document the violent initial attempts at remaking rural society provided a narrative for future campaigns to follow. Land laws, meanwhile, attempted to make this tale a reality in villages under party control. While the story of land reform remained constant, these laws often changed how the party treated various classes, bringing much chaos to China's rural revolution.
This chapter begins the narrative of agrarian revolution by considering the formation, composition, and training of the many work teams that sought to remake village China. Teams were largely composed of urban intellectuals, who sought to use their participation in agrarian revolution as a means of acquiring revolutionary practice in order to draw themselves closer to the Communist Party. This process was hampered by the fact that the party, following Mao's lead, held intellectuals in suspicion: urban intellectuals often had ties to the newly created landlord class. Intellectuals, this chapter argues, were flawed but necessary revolutionaries. Poorly trained and unsure of rural realities, intellectuals were not always welcome in the countryside, and their mistakes caused many campaigns to go awry. Critically, many of these errors were the direct result of urban intellectuals' ignoring local realities and insisting on recreating Mao's revolutionary narrative.
Exploring the process of seeking out potential activists in the countryside, this chapter stresses the importance of "speaking bitterness": the ritualistic and public detailing of one's personal suffering at the hands of class enemies. The party instructed work teams to carry out ideological training with potential activists before attempting class struggle. Poor farmers were brought together by work teams to speak bitterness and receive a revolutionary education, learning the new language of Maoist revolution. During this early stage of agrarian revolution, work teams placed special emphasis on organizing women, whose public explication of bitterness was seen as particularly effective in inspiring hatred of village class enemies.
This chapter narrates the division of village China into Maoist classes. Because Maoist class labels were of foreign origin, villagers had to master a new rhetoric. Party leaders complicated this process by continually modifying their treatment of various classes as land policies evolved. Class division was by design a contentious affair, one that offered villagers a direct voice in their fates. All wished to avoid the landlord label; the party's insistence that landlords were sexual deviants, a common theme in revolutionary propaganda, made the label particularly odious. Some poor peasants, hoping for greater economic returns, sought ever greater numbers of landlords to publicly criticize and attack, a ritual the party called "struggle." Others, however, went out of their way to protect their wealthy neighbors from the party's work teams.
This chapter highlights the denouement of agrarian revolution: the struggle meeting. In this ritual of Maoist class struggle, peasants publicly shouted down landlords and other enemies of the people. But because the process of ritualistic struggle was developed during postwar attacks on traitors and local bullies, campaigns tended to be brutally violent. Peasants, furthermore, tended to view struggle as a means to acquire more property, ignoring the political and cultural aspects of Mao's rural revolution. After the Civil War ended in victory for the Communists, party leaders called for a limited and focused use of struggle during the massive final rounds of land reform. But because these same leaders insisted that class struggle remained essential to rural revolution, violence proved hard to control.
Bringing the narrative of agrarian revolution to a close, this chapter explores fanshen, the liberation and emancipation that the party promised would emerge from agrarian revolution. Following the downfall of the landlord class, work teams led local activists in dividing the "fruits of struggle" among the peasantry. According to Mao's vision, agrarian revolution fundamentally remade rural society, and official reports were effusive in their praise of the villages of New China. But the economic and social gains from land reform failed to justify the human costs of the campaigns. As the party privately admitted, there was not enough wealth in the countryside to truly satisfy poor peasants. As many as 2 million villagers died during the campaigns, and survivors remained locked in their class statuses for decades.
Agrarian revolution and the liberation of the peasant masses remains essential to the Communist Party's claims to legitimacy. But a true reassessment of the party's narrative of agrarian revolution must also recognize how the attempt to make Mao's vision a reality came at a monumental human cost. Many years later, Deng Xiaoping and other party leaders primarily concerned with economic growth moved to dismantle the class structure that had defined village China for decades, but the elimination of rural classes had an unexpected result.