Background Notes to Fanshen

Article excerpt

On April 3, 1999, a one-day conference, "Understanding China's Revolution: A Celebration of William Hinton's Lifework" was held at Columbia University to celebrate his eightieth birthday. At the conclusion of the conference, organized by China Study Group and cosponsored by Monthly Review and Columbia's East Asian Institute, Hinton gave an impromptu talk on the background to the writing of Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in A Chinese Village. The talk was transcribed and we publish its text here, as revised by Hinton in October 2002.

Fanshen was first published by Monthly Review Press in 1966. It is an account of how land reform was implemented in one village--Long Bow--in northern China. Hinton first visited China in 1937. He returned in 1947 with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and stayed on in the liberated areas of north China as a tractor technician and teacher until 1953. During that time, mainly living in Long Bow, he was witness to the great social convulsion that was the Chinese Revolution.

Along with his Chinese academic colleagues, Hinton advised the residents of Long Bow on the complicated tasks of teaching peasants to read, breaking up old feudal estates, insuring the equality of women, and replacing the old magistrates who governed the village with elected councils. While there, Hinton took more than one thousand pages of notes about what he saw. In them he detailed not merely measurable successes and failures of the revolution, but the deep scars of struggle, the resistance to change, and the uniquely Chinese process, often painful and violent, of criticism and self-criticism. Hinton was witness to a world literally "turned upside down."

On his return to the United States, Hinton was determined to document the revolutionary process he saw in that peasant village, but on his return, at the height of the McCarthyite anticommunist repression, customs officials seized his papers. Only after a lengthy court battle was he able to retrieve them in 1958. Hinton spent the next six years completing his manuscript and nearly three more seeking a publisher. All of the major New York publishers turned it down despite enthusiastic reader's reports and scholarly recommendations. In most cases the rejections seemed to be politically motivated and were of a piece with the great fear that the victory of the Chinese Revolution spawned; no one wanted any aspect of that revolution seen in other than a negative light. Finally, the manuscript came to Monthly Review Press which eagerly published it. A first clothbound edition sold out quickly, softcover rights were licensed to Vintage Books which sold an astounding two hundred thousand copies. Fanshen remains in print in a University of California paperback edition.

Fanshen's success was partly due to timing and coincidence: the Vietnam war focused western attention on Asia and, at the same time, the Maoist Cultural Revolution, shaking up the foundations of post-revolutionary bureaucracy, put China on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. In a review in the (London) New Statesman, Martin Bernal wrote that Hinton's Fanshen "gives details of the changing social and economic structure of his village.... The descriptions alone make this book one of the two classics of the Chinese revolution, the other being [Edgar Snow's] Red Star over China." It was also due to the groundbreaking character of the work, brilliantly relating quotidian history at a time when narratives of everyday life were just becoming part of the historian's utensils. Arguably, it is Fanshen's transforming ethnographic scholarship that makes it such a profoundly important book.

William Hinton's other works include a sequel, Shenfan: The Continuing Revolution in a Chinese Village (1980), as well as Iron Oxen: A Revolution in Chinese Farming (1970), Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University (1972), Turning Point in China: An Essay on The Cultural Revolution (1972), and The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978-1989 (1990). …