Peasants and Revolution in Rural China: Rural Political Change in the North China Plain and the Yangzi Delta, 1850-1949, by Chang Liu. London; New York: Routledge, 2007. xiv + 258 pp. £80.00/US$145.00 (hardcover).
Until the late 1980s the history of Communist success during the War of Resistance to Japan (1937-45) was both much contested and highly controversial. Opinions differed over the importance of socio-economic conditions and the Communist appeal to the peasantry; the Communists' superior organizational skills; and the impact of invasion and war on the local population, particularly in terms of appealing to popular nationalism. Intellectual conflict was at its height when access to archives and other materials was most limited. In recent years, however, the republication of both Communist and other sources, and a general greater access to archives and information, has led research into new and largely more interesting directions. There have been a series of extremely detailed local studies of social, economic and political change, particularly in North China in the century before 1945.
Chang Liu's excellent study of peasants and social change in the century before the end of the War of Resistance builds on this intellectual foundation, but by way of a research design goes to the next stage. The sheer socio-economic variety of China is a challenge to generalization. The result is often either essentialization, or no attempt to build wider explanation. In this study Chang Liu adopts an implicit comparative approach, attempting to highlight similarities and differences between processes of social change on the North China plain and in the Yangtze Delta region. There is no question that the major objective is to provide explanation of Communist success in North China and its relative failure further south.
At the same time, though, Chang Liu develops a theory about the relationship between state and rural society in the century before 1945 in China that is likely to be a major topic of research for many years to come. The key finding is that state-society relationships on the North China plain had already started to become state-village relations because of changes in the immediate and increasingly globalized economy of the time. In the Yangtze Delta area, village development was considerably less central to the relationship between state and society, not least because of the higher levels of commercialization, workforce skills and transport integration. …