Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945

By Elizabeth J. Perry | Go to book overview
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7. Conclusion

The revolutionary entrance of the peasantry onto the stage of world history has prompted many a social science theory intended to explain why peasants revolt. Anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and political scientists alike have recently formulated answers to this critical question. 1 Although the approaches have varied according to the discipline and predilections of the particular theorist, they share a nearly universal emphasis upon the novelty of the peasant's participation in revolution, locating the cause of this new behavior in the unprecedented expansion of world capitalism. The intrusion of the international market, we are told, opens the village to outside forces, thereby undermining traditional rural culture, disrupting patron-client ties between landlord and tenant, and "freeing" the peasant to engage in protest activity. 2

There is much merit in this explanation; certainly the sudden emergence of rural revolutions worldwide is closely linked to the incorporation of agrarian sectors into an international capitalist system. Yet preoccupation with peasant revolution offers little help to the study of traditional precapitalist rebellion. If contemporary peasant revolt is a product of new capitalist relations, how are we to account for the multitude of uprisings that occurred for centuries prior to the penetration of the global market? More than a few scholars have expressly linked the existence of a rebel tradition to the likelihood of subsequent agrarian revolution. 3 Even if we accept that the latter phenomenon was in large measure generated by the impact of the world economy, however, where do we seek the roots of the far more numerous and persistent earlier uprisings?


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