Throughout decades of tumultuous revolutionary fervor, China remained a deeply rural nation, home to hundreds of millions of villagers dispersed within a staggeringly diverse countryside. Between 1945 and 1952, these villagers underwent agrarian revolution: Mao Zedong’s attempt to bring his vision of rural China, at once egalitarian and confrontational, to life. Mao and his comrades in the Communist Party, declaring the countryside to be under feudal control, dispatched work teams to the countryside to totally transform village China. First came campaigns targeting feared strongmen, the cruelest of China’s rural exploiters, and those who had collaborated with Japanese invaders. Only then came land reform (tudi gaige), a confrontational program of land redistribution that promised economic prosperity and socialist liberation.
During land reform, impoverished farmers were molded into peasant activists through rigorous ideological training, a process that Communist Party work teams carefully managed. These teams, largely composed of urban intellectuals, helped give every villager a new Maoist class label, the most feared being the “landlord” classification. Unlucky landlords were “struggled,” a violent and humiliating form of public class conflict that resulted in countless deaths. According to Mao’s grand tale of rural revolution, passage through land reform’s fierce crucible of class struggle awakened villagers to their power as the great peasant masses who would create a new China. The importance of this story of agrarian revolution to the course of modern Chinese history cannot be overstated. Early years of campaigning helped bring the Chinese Communist Party to power. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, massive rounds of land reform cemented the party’s rule over its vast but young state. And even today, the party’s claim to have liberated China’s peasant masses remains a bedrock of its political legitimacy.
Due to its scope and complexity, Mao Zedong’s agrarian revolution has proved an uneasy topic for historical inquiry. Over the course of over a half-dozen years, the Communist Party launched systematic and thorough campaigns in the hopes of completely transforming the Chinese countryside. Mao’s attempt to remake village China was not a single event in one place and time, but a long series of interrelated campaigns with differing terrains, land laws, and political contexts. During these years, moreover, the Communists went from revolutionary upstarts to rulers of the world’s most populous nation. Transcribing the history of these campaigns has been further complicated by the powerful stories that the Communists told about their revolution. These stories, fully fleshed out in novels claiming to realistically represent the entire process of local transformation, have done much to confuse the lines between the literal and the literary. Even nonfiction accounts of land reform owe much to Mao’s narrative of rural revolution.
This study investigates the entire process of agrarian revolution in order to explore the discrepancies and disjunctions within the campaigns. It also recognizes the power of the Maoist narrative of exploited peasants who found liberation through class struggle. During the years of land reform, this story was inescapable. Chinese citizens need not read the lengthy novels penned by party authors on rural revolution or attend the operatic performances that brought rural class struggle onstage. Even the illiterate could attend huge exhibits that meticulously showed the transition from the feudal past to the liberated future. I wrote this book because of my belief that historians must engage Mao’s narrative of revolution in order to understand what truly occurred in rural China as the Communists came to power. The party indoctrinated a vast army of would-be revolutionaries with this story before dispatching them to the countryside in work teams to make fiction become reality. In writing this book, I drew heavily on the sources historians have traditionally employed to understand rural China: archival documents, internal party reports, newspaper articles, and firsthand accounts of village life. But I also sought inspiration from the powerful stories that have been told about this revolution. Having studied land reform for almost two decades, I have found the lines between fact and fiction blurred and permeable. This book is my attempt to make sense of how the stories told about the revolution became the revolution itself.
The Introduction to this book traces the development of Mao’s revolutionary narrative within the context of the party’s long engagement with village China. Subsequent chapters begin with narrative treatments of land reform as an entry point into the various steps of rural revolution. In chapter 1, work teams arrive in newly liberated villages to announce the onset of revolutionary change. In chapter 2, team members search out poor peasant activists and train them to speak out against their wealthy neighbors. During later chapters, class statuses are determined and counterrevolutionary plots discovered. In this book, just as in Mao’s story of agrarian revolution, everything builds up to class struggle, the ferocious ritual that allowed peasants to obtain their true liberation by publicly attacking landlords and other class enemies. But while this book uses the land reform plotline and draws on stories of revolution, it simultaneously deconstructs and questions Mao’s narrative to show how it was manufactured, deployed, and received in a diverse countryside, all too often with unexpected, even deadly, results.
Investigation into the relationship between revolution and narrative reveals that stories have shaped not only our understanding of the past, but the contours of history itself. Despite the diversity of China’s vast and populous countryside, the party demanded that work teams overseeing agrarian revolution follow its established plotline, which assumed the need for fierce class struggle against evil landlords. The stories the party told about land reform and other mass campaigns in the countryside made agrarian revolution understandable and desirable. But this tale was never intended to be confined to the page and would prove to have massive implications for China. Even today, the dissonance between Mao’s grand story and the realities of these years of campaigning reverberate across the countryside.
This project originated many years ago when I was a graduate student at UCLA, studying with Kathryn Bernhart, Philip Huang, and Lynn Hunt. Since then I have accumulated a tremendous debt to many scholars. Foremost among them are the colleagues who found the time to provide invaluable feedback on various chapters of this book: Jeremy Brown, Christian Hess, Jeffery Javed, Matthew Johnson, Fabio Lanza, Fangchun Li, and Aminda Smith. Of course, the remaining mistakes are mine alone. I also thank Andrew Endrey and Felix Wemheuer for helping me access new historical materials. I commend their generosity and commitment to academic exchange. Many others helped me think through the challenges of writing this book, including Deng Hongqin, Edward Friedman, Carma Hinton, Huaiyin Li, Ma Weiqiang, Zhao Ma, Ralph Thaxton, and Yiching Wu.
A deep thanks to everyone at Stanford University Press, starting with Marcela Maxfield. Her strong editorial voice and belief in this project were essential in getting this book into print. Tim Roberts skillfully managed the production of the book. And a special thanks to Bev Miller, who painstakingly oversaw the copyediting of the manuscript. The Stanford University Press design team astounded me with their work for the book. I also owe a tremendous debt to the two anonymous reviewers whose perceptive critiques made me rethink many aspects of this book.
Researching China from New Orleans, the city that care forgot, presents a unique challenge. Working at Tulane University, however, has been a blessing. A Young Mellon Professorship, awarded by the School of Liberal Arts, provided critical research funding. My colleagues in the history department have given me camaraderie and a true academic home. As this book came to completion, my fellow historians Emily Clark, Kris Lane, Jana Lipman, Liz McMahon, Linda Pollock, and Randy Sparks shared much needed advice on writing and publishing. I also thank the department administrators, whose hard work allowed me to finish this book: Donna Denneen, Susan McCann, and Ericka Sanchez. And I cannot forget my students, some of whom have put up with my rants about narratives and grassroots China for years. Three talented students volunteered to comment on this book: John Berner, Colin Boyd, and Drew Pearson. My research assistant, Xiaoyu Yu, helped me navigate through a collection of particularly challenging handwritten documents. Off campus, these friends helped make New Orleans home: Amy Arthur, Ryan Farishian, James Gentry, Nowell Raff, and John and Sarah Wachter.
My parents, Maggie and Paul, chose to raise their ‘ohana in Hawaii. I grew up there, spending years in the sunshine with my siblings Pam, Jeff, and Tracey. I often thought about those blissful days as I worked on this project. As readers will discover, the story of China’s rural revolution is not always a happy one. I suspect that I never would have finished this book without Nina and Miles DeMare. Thanks to them, my life has been filled with aloha, which has sustained me during the most depressing moments of archival discovery. Nina, from our days living in a hutong not far from Tiananmen, always believed that I would finish graduate school, find a job, and get tenure. She never once suspected that this book might not see publication. Her love and unrelenting faith in me pushed me to be a better scholar, husband, and father. Miles, my young son just entering kindergarten, rejuvenated my soul with his good humor and joy for life. His essential kindness has proven that Mencius was right all along. There is nothing I could ever say to properly express how wonderfully happy they have made my life. All I can do is dedicate this book to them.