Land Wars
The Story of China's Agrarian Revolution
Brian DeMare



The Story of Mao’s Revolution

In early 1927, Mao Zedong returned home in search of evidence. He found a story. At the age of thirty-four, Mao was an increasingly visible figure in the Chinese Communist Party, well known for his early advocacy of peasants as a revolutionary force.1 It was for this reason that he now found himself out of step with party leaders. Like many other concerned citizens, Mao understood that rural distress was one of the greatest challenges facing reformers and revolutionaries alike.2 Land, an existential commodity for the vast majority of the Chinese people, was distributed unevenly. Some farmers prospered. Most got by. Many others suffered bitterly with little or no land at all. The leaders of the Communist Party, founded in 1921, knew this all too well. But eager to emulate the example of the Soviet Union, they envisioned their revolution as a proper Marxist affair, led by the urban proletariat in pursuit of collective ownership. The party’s first leader, Chen Duxiu, emphatically argued that the Communists must rely on industrial workers: “In a country such as China, over half the farmers are petit bourgeois landed farmers who adhere firmly to notions of private property.”3 How, Chen wondered, could such farmers ever embrace the Communists? Mao had experimented with rural activism, only to run into conflict with his party leaders and their Soviet advisors. And so Mao returned home to Hunan, determined to arm himself with data that might force Communist leaders, perhaps even the great Joseph Stalin himself, to recognize the centrality of the peasantry to China’s revolution.

Mao’s journey home occurred during a critical moment in the course of modern Chinese history. In 1923, the Communists had established a United Front with the Nationalists, a rival party that was also committed to saving the Chinese nation through revolution, albeit a revolution that promised to serve all social classes, not just the laboring masses. The Nationalists, by a wide margin the more powerful of the two parties, was then headed by Sun Yat-sen, China’s most respected revolutionary. Educated in Hong Kong and Hawaii, Sun had long pursued help from foreign powers, only to find frustration. Comintern agents, dispatched by Stalin to foment worldwide revolution, brokered the alliance between the two parties. Offering financial and military aid in exchange for the United Front, they found in Sun a willing partner. Despite their mutual suspicion, both parties experienced spectacular growth during their United Front. The Communists, primarily urban intellectuals, focused their organizational efforts on workers in China’s largest cities. Most party members viewed peasants with disdain, but Mao Zedong and a handful of activists started the process of reform in villages scattered across several provinces, helping the Communists make their first inroads into the countryside.4

Their success, coupled with policy trends within the United Front, encouraged the Communists to recognize the peasantry as an important ally in their proletarian revolution. This rural turn developed rapidly, thriving on the synergy between the gains Mao and like-minded comrades were making in the countryside and Sun Yat-sen’s growing belief in the need for agrarian reform. Influenced by his new Russian advisors, Sun had radicalized his approach to the land question, calling for a policy of “land to the tiller” (gengzhe you qi tian). Sun’s vision, centered on the idea of transferring property to land-hungry farmers, posed a direct threat to wealthy landlords who relied on rental income.5 Meanwhile, the alliance with the much larger Nationalist Party provided new opportunities for Mao and the Communists to deepen their experiments in rural reform. The founding of the Peasant Movement Institute in 1924 allowed the training of hundreds of agitators and organizers, fueling the growth of what was now called a peasant movement. Observing the movement firsthand, Mao began to insist that the party’s path forward lay not in China’s urban factories but in the vast and impoverished countryside.

The untimely death in of Sun Yat-sen, today still revered as a revolutionary hero on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, threw the alliance between the two parties into turmoil in 1925. Chiang Kai-shek, a military officer whose intense nationalism easily matched his hatred of the Communists, quickly established himself as Sun’s successor. Emboldened by the growth of his military forces, Chiang launched the Northern Expedition in summer 1926, rapidly expanding the territory under Nationalist rule. Rural organizers, many of them Communists, moved in advance of Northern Expedition troops to organize revolts in support of Chiang’s forces. They also made sure to establish peasant associations, village organizations that promoted the interests of poor farmers. Some peasant association activists seized land and attacked rural elites, disturbing Nationalist Party members with ties to rural landholders. With the peasant movement showing no sign of abating, internal debates over rural policy assumed ever greater importance. Factional divisions within the Communist Party came into full relief during a December 1926 meeting in Wuhan: Mao Zedong pushed for further radicalism in the countryside, while party leader Chen Duxiu, under Comintern orders to save the tenuous United Front, attempted to appease potential allies within the Nationalist Party. As the Comintern spoke for Stalin, Chen’s call to dampen class struggle and ignore the land problem won the day.6

This brings us to Mao in Hunan in early 1927, with the future of the revolution torn between city and countryside. Mao intended to investigate the peasant movement that had thrown the United Front into doubt. Evidence of farmers becoming political activists and transforming their village communities might convince Communist leaders that peasants, long derided as backward and self-interested, were in fact potential revolutionaries. Such a revolution had no historical precedent. Had not Karl Marx himself blamed the failure of France’s 1848 revolution on the passivity of the peasant class?7 Mao would have to draft a blueprint to explain not only how this grand experiment could possibly succeed, but why it must succeed. Investigating the peasant movement in five counties over the course of a month, Mao seized on a metaphor to capture his bold vision of rural revolution: the hurricane. This metaphor would become inexorably linked with what the party called land reform (tudi gaige), thanks in part to the talented author Zhou Libo, who decades later penned The Hurricane, a novel documenting the arrival of Communist power in a Northeast village. Zhou, however, was simply paying belated homage to Mao. According to Mao’s famous forecast, which Zhou would later use to preface his novel,

In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves.8

Formulated by Mao and enshrined by Zhou, the hurricane metaphor took flight, framing rural revolution as a destructive tempest: violent, unstoppable, and utterly transformative. If Mao’s comrades did not flock to the countryside to lead the peasantry, he warned, they would find themselves smashed underfoot.

Mao’s blueprint, immortalized in his “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” would eventually became the story of land reform: a tale that made sense of peasant revolution by casting landlords as evil men running roughshod over moral peasants in oppressive feudal strongholds.9 The arrival of the revolution, Mao’s vision promised, would unleash the vast powers of the peasantry, liberating and revitalizing the realm. As Mao forcefully argued in 1927, village revolution was not a dinner party but a violent act of class struggle. He detailed how farmers could be remade into political activists, providing a revolutionary road map that the party would follow for decades. As Mao outlined, peasants gained power by settling accounts (qingsuan) and leveling fines (fakuan) on landlords, punishments that would cause class enemies to completely lose face (timian saodi) as news of their crimes spread. The most powerful attacks on rural elites were violent public rituals designed to destroy feudal power. This included major demonstrations (da shiwei), during which peasants would rally together and march to the houses of class enemies, slaughtering pigs and feasting on grain. In another highly ritualistic political attack, activists forced a landlord to don a dunce cap (gao maozi) for a humiliating parade through the village. Mao, noting that “this sort of thing is very common” during the peasant movement, outlined the proper method of ritualized class struggle and its expected results:

A tall paper-hat is stuck on the head of one of the local tyrants or evil gentry, bearing the words “Local tyrant so-and-so” or “So-and-so of the evil gentry.” He is led by a rope and escorted with big crowds in front and behind. Sometimes brass gongs are beaten and flags waved to attract people’s attention. This form of punishment more than any other makes the local tyrants and evil gentry tremble. Anyone who has once been crowned with a tall paper-hat loses face altogether and can never again hold up his head.”10

As Mao emphasized in early 1927, violent and ritualistic struggle coupled with economic expropriation was the most effective method of striking against class enemies. Only the worst local tyrants and evil gentry, who “literally slaughtered peasants without batting an eyelid,” needed to be executed.11

In Mao’s “Hunan Report,” the Chinese village, insular and cleaved by class hatred, was controlled by landlords who ruthlessly oppressed moral peasants. Those with land were bullies, ruffians unafraid to use force to get what they wanted from the poor. And all gentry were by nature evil. In reality, rural China was an expansive and endlessly diverse place, and it stubbornly resisted any simple characterization. Village communities were typically not isolated but deeply engaged with larger market systems, especially when located in the orbit of towns or urban centers.12 Large landholders certainly existed, but the villains that Mao used to justify agrarian revolution were far from universal. Many villages lacked true examples of economic exploitation.13 Partible inheritance, the time-honored tradition of equally dividing property among male heirs, promoted social mobility both up and down the village hierarchy. As one activist in Heilongjiang later recalled, landlord wealth in his village was due to hard work and never lasted even three generations. There was no reason to care too much about a landlord: “His grandson would be poor.”14

Ideology, however, now trumped reality. Mao vilified the very idea of owning a surplus of land that could be rented out for additional income.15 To be sure, many Communists, including Chen Duxiu, were repulsed by Mao’s violent vision of rural revolution, which to them seemed to go too far and too fast.16 Li Weihan, then in party central, was particularly concerned with Mao’s insistence on relying on the poorest members of rural society. These men had revolutionary potential, he noted, but were also quite “destructive”: they gambled, took liberties with women, and tended toward violence.17 More important, Mao’s “Hunan Report” was an ill fit with the Comintern line. Stalin, then locked in an ideological battle with Leon Trotsky, had doubled down on the United Front. With the Nationalists reliant on landlord supporters, the Communists backed away from rural revolution in hopes of appeasing their allies.

Prelude: The Land Revolution

The Comintern’s ability to push the Chinese Communists away from rural radicalism did little to placate Chiang Kai-shek. While Northern Expedition troops under Chiang dallied outside Shanghai in April 1927, right-wing Nationalist Party leaders engineered the Shanghai Massacre, a brutal crackdown that left hundreds of Communists and workers murdered in the streets.18 After the Shanghai Massacre, Stalin backed away from his embrace of Chiang Kai-shek while still insisting on a United Front with leftist elements within the Nationalist Party. His thinking on the peasant movement, however, evolved: class struggle in the Chinese countryside was not to be feared after all.19 During the August 7 Conference of 1927, with Chen Duxiu no longer in control, the new Communist leader, Qu Qiubai, embraced the call to deepen rural radicalism while also preparing for military uprisings. Political power, Mao had explained, was obtained from the barrel of the gun. The Chinese revolution had now reached a new stage, that of the land revolution (tudi geming). A prelude to the story of agrarian revolution told in this book, the land revolution era cemented the role of violence in transforming village China.

This first attempt at property redistribution, designed to fund the newly formed Red Army and win over poor farmers, was carried out in the isolated base areas that had emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the United Front. Most famously, Mao Zedong fled to the Jinggang Mountains, lying between Jiangxi and Hunan provinces, in October 1927. Zhu De, the talented general who would eventually help lead Mao and the Communists to military victory, joined him there in April of the following year. Within this and other rural base areas, the Communists carried out their land revolution, a chaotic attempt at transforming village societies. During the opening salvo of the land revolution, party central issued vague guidelines, calling for the confiscation of the property of large and medium landlords for distribution to land-hungry peasants, while reducing rent paid to small landlords.20 Finally free to formulate his ideal land policies, Mao instead called for the confiscation and redistribution of all land, hurting wealthy farmers as well as landlords. Lineage organizations resisted redistribution, as did many farmers. At times, redistribution did not start until the Red Army opened fire on villagers.21 Tensions flared with the party’s allies among the local elite, leading to open attacks on military units carrying out the land revolution.22 Many farmers fled, sending the local economy into a spiral. Only after land had been redistributed and just weeks before the Red Army abandoned the base area were these policies formalized in law.23 This dynamic interplay between revolutionary experiments and legal frameworks established a precedent: action on the ground typically outpaced official party policies.

Despite the strategic location of his first base area, Mao abandoned the Jinggang Mountains in January 1929, moving to southern Jiangxi. The land revolution, which had done much to destabilize the Jinggang Mountains base, continued as the Red Army roamed the countryside. Mao’s next land law called only for the confiscation of landlord and public land; wealthy farmers were to be politically isolated but would keep their land.24 This proved a brief moment of leniency to wealthy farmers. Less than a year later, a third land policy once again targeted wealthy farmers. According to this law, largely opposed by local Jiangxi Communists, farmers would lose anything more than “what is needed for self-support.”25 In practice, confiscations were widespread, leading many farmers to flee in fear.26

Shortly before the declaration of his third land law, Mao had written that the revolution, which seemed in mortal danger, was in fact ready to explode. Using the old Chinese adage that “a single spark can start a prairie fire,” Mao predicted rapid growth for the Communists. The continued inability of the Red Army to take and hold cities, however, demonstrated that the party still needed to follow its rural path by forming new base areas in the countryside. Mao selected a strategically placed base in northwestern Jiangxi, from which the Red Army could strike at nearby wealthy settlements. Officially established in November 1931, the Jiangxi Provincial Soviet Government provided Mao with his largest and most secure base yet. A testament to the military strength Mao found in the countryside, in Jiangxi the Red Army would successfully repulse four attempts by Chiang Kai-shek to encircle and destroy the base area. It was an ideal place to experiment further with rural revolution.27 Mao, meanwhile, insisted more than ever before that the countryside offered the party its best chance for military and political success, especially after another round of rural investigation in 1930 had confirmed what Mao had learned on his trip home in 1927: villages were rife with class conflict. This time, Mao explained that wealthy peasants, who farmed their own land, had to be attacked because their prosperity had earned them the hatred of the rural poor. According to Mao, if the Communists attempted to shield rich peasants from activists, “those poor peasants could not but hate” the party. Attacking wealthy farmers was thus “the paramount policy of the rural struggle.”28

Communist leaders continued to view Mao’s successes in the countryside as a sideshow to the main event: urban revolution. But things were not going well in the cities, especially after the April 1931 arrest of Gu Shunzhang, who had overseen the Communists’ assassination squads. Information provided by Gu, who had been recognized while passing himself off as a mime in a Shanghai park, allowed the Nationalists to arrest thousands of underground party members.29 Communist leaders, mainly either escaping from Shanghai or returning from study in Moscow, streamed to the Jiangxi Soviet throughout 1931. Their attempts to discredit and push Mao aside had an immediate influence on the land revolution; one of the main charges levied at Mao was his supposed leniency to wealthy farmers.30 Under prodding from Wang Ming and other newly arrived leaders, the Jiangxi Soviet passed what would prove to be the party’s most radical land law.31 With the Comintern mindful of Stalin’s own war against the kulaks, the December 1931 land law demanded the confiscation and distribution of all land owned by wealthy peasants and landlords. Rich peasants were to be given the poorest-quality land available. Even more extreme, the law denied landlords a share of land, leaving them utterly destitute. As was to be the case throughout the party’s decades of agrarian revolution, the fates of individuals targeted as class enemies were to be shared by their families.

In 1933 Mao Zedong penned two articles that provided his first analysis of rural classes. Declaring the landlord class the “principal enemy of the land revolution,” Mao announced the party’s intention to “annihilate the landlord class” by confiscating all their lands and properties.32 The subsequent “land investigation” (tiancha) campaigns proved particularly effective in realizing the party’s most radical vision of agrarian reform. Gong Chu, then a Communist military leader in the Guangdong-Jiangxi region, would later recall that “settling accounts led to more settling accounts, killings led to more killings.” Even locals serving in the Red Army saw their family members attacked and left with nothing. According to Gong, activists used extreme torture to extort cash from landlords. Under the slogan of “cutting the weeds to eliminate the roots,” they put entire families to death.33 As one PRC study of the land revolution admitted, while “land investigation” campaigns did mobilize the masses and attack some forms of feudal power, they also “severely encroached on the interests of the middle peasants, excessively attacked landlords and rich peasants, injured a good number of cadres, and ruined agriculture production.”34


1. Mao was not the first to propose the idea that peasants could be true revolutionaries. The idea of peasant revolution has been traced back to 1907 with the work of Liu Shipei, a Chinese anarchist then writing in Tokyo. His views, however, were far from mainstream. Day, The Peasant in Postsocialist China, 18–19.

2. For views on the land problem during the 1930s, see Tawney, Agrarian China. For an early discussion of the land problem by a Western scholar, see Buck, Land Utilization in China.

3. Quoted in Harrison, The Long March to Power, 72.

4. Equally important to Mao at this early date was Peng Pai, active in the Guangdong countryside. Peng, like Mao, was a May Fourth intellectual drawn to both Marxism and the countryside. For more on Peng Pai, see Hofheinz, The Broken Wave; Marks, Rural Revolution in South China; and Galbiati, Peng Pai and the Hai-Lu-Feng Soviet. For Mao’s early work in Hunan, see McDonald, The Urban Origins of Rural Revolution.

5. Harrison, The Long March to Power, 73. The Nationalists eventually turned away from land redistribution, instead promoting agricultural development as the key to solving the country’s rural problems. Not until the Nationalists fled to Taiwan did they seriously address land reform. For more on Nationalist Party views on land reform, see Pepper, Civil War in China, 230–231. For a look at land reform in Taiwan, see Strauss, “Regimes and Repertoires of State Building.”

6. Pantsov with Levine, Mao, 165–166.

7. See, for example, Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, 176–177.

8. Mao Zedong, “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” 23–24.

9. Ibid., 27.

10. Ibid., 37.

11. Ibid., 38.

12. For more on Chinese villages and their relationships to the outside world, see P. Huang, The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China, 23–32.

13. For an example of the difficulty of finding class enemies, see P. Huang, “Rural Class Struggle in the Chinese Revolution,” 114–116. Recently, Frank Dikötter has implied that landlords were a Communist fiction. In his study of the early PRC, Dikötter, describing the countryside before the party’s arrival, wrote, “Nowhere in this profusion of social diversity could anybody called a “landlord” (dizhu) be found.” Due to Dikötter’s choice of phrasing, many readers believe that he is arguing that there were no landlords in China. His citation, however, refers to my UCLA dissertation, where I discuss how the term landlord (dizhu) was an alien word in the countryside. See Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation, 70. There were, to be sure, many landlords in China. See Esherick, “Number Games.”

14. Quoted in Gao Wangling and Liu Yang, “On a Slippery Roof,” 20–21.

15. Xiaojia Hou has further argued that the unruly peasants Mao had observed were in fact attacking quasi-government officials over market concerns, not feudal landlords. See Hou, Negotiating Socialism in Rural China, 37.

16. In 1927, party central released a flurry of directives in an attempt to halt rural violence. In 1928, Mao himself doubted the use of terror in the revolution. Perry, “Reclaiming the Chinese Revolution,” 1157.

17. Ding Shu, Yangmou, 8.

18. In later years, the Nationalists, unwilling and unable to return to rural reform, squandered the advances the two parties had made in the countryside during their brief alliance. Nationalist land policies, primarily concerned with tapping rural revenue streams, typically increased landlord power at the local level. Reformers working with the Nationalists attempted to implement “rural reconstruction” and offer a true alternative to Mao’s path to modernity through class struggle. For a recent look at rural reconstruction, see Merkel-Hess, The Rural Modern. Many intellectuals affiliated with the Nationalist Party, meanwhile, put their faith in the historical process of modernization, to be carried out not through revolution but a strong centralized state led by enlightened elites. See Huaiyin Li, Reinventing Modern China, 46–47.

19. Stalin hoped that rural radicalism might push left-wing Nationalists closer to the Communists. In actuality, however, violence in the peasant movement helped finally sever ties between the Communists and their Nationalist Party sympathizers.

20. For an analysis of land laws during this era, see Hsiao, The Land Revolution in China, 1930–1934, chaps. 1 and 2.

21. Pantsov with Levine, Mao, 212.

22. The early success of the party’s rural turn owed much to the efforts of rural elites. But some local party members attempted to sabotage or subvert the effort to redistribute land. Averill, “Party, Society, and Local Elite in the Jiangxi Communist Movement,” 294.

23. The December 1928 Jinggang Mountains Land Law.

24. The Xingguo Land Law of April 1929 still forbade the purchase or sale of land. In a concession to the demands of party central, however, the law did reduce the number of targets for expropriation. For more on land laws during the Jiangxi Soviet, see Ling Buji and Shu Long, Zhonghua suweiai gongheguo shi, 274–278.

25. Quoted in Pantsov with Levine, Mao, 223. This third land law, the February Seventh Land Law of 1930, was inspired by Stalin’s criticism of the Chinese Communists for their supposed leniency toward rich peasants. The law did, however, repeal the ban on buying and selling land.

26. Hou, Negotiating Socialism in Rural China, 41.

27. For an overview of Western scholarship on this era, see P. Huang, “The Jiangxi Period.”

28. Mao Zedong, Report from Xunwu, 157.

29. Pantsov with Levine, Mao, 247.

30. Bo Yibo, Ruogan zhongda juece yu shijian de huigu, 114.

31. The Land Law of the Chinese Soviet Republic (Zhonghua suweiai gongheguo tudi fa), passed on December 1, 1931, at the First All-China Soviet Congress. These policies resulted in a clear decline in production, a problem compounded by impractical experiments in collectivization. But with the party desperate for funds due to the ongoing military encirclement campaigns launched by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, the hope that wider confiscation would stream wealth to the party and its poor supporters trumped concerns over agricultural productivity. See Hsiao, The Land Revolution in China, chap. 3.

32. Quoted in Hsiao, The Land Revolution in China, 105. The two articles, “How to Analyze the Classes” and “Decisions Regarding Some Issues Arising from Agrarian Reform,” were reissued during later land reform campaigns. The reprinted articles were moderated in line with later land policies.

33. Ding Shu, Yangmou, 9.

34. Liu Mianyu, Tudi geming zhanzheng shi, 191. For a recent look at the end of the Jiangxi Soviet, see Huang Daoxuan, Zhangli yu xianjie: zhongyang suqu de geming, 1933–1934. According to Huang, the fall of the Jiangxi Soviet cannot be solely explained by “leftist” deviations.