Chinese Discourses on the Peasant, 1900-1949

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Chinese Discourses on the Peasant, 1900-1949, by Xiaorong Han. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. xii + 259 pp. US$75.00 (hardcover), US$24.95 (paperback).

This short book (175 pages of text) is a survey of what Chinese intellectuals were writing about peasants and rural life, mostly in the 1920s and 1930s. The topic is interesting and important, and Xiaorong Han has read a great quantity of material from a broad range of writers-political, literary and academic.

The writers surveyed tended to view peasants as poor, ignorant, illiterate and superstitious, and as powerless and vulnerable. More positively, peasants were also sometimes thought of as free from urban corruption, and as happy-or at least as having been so at the beginning of the century, before becoming so impoverished. There was disagreement about the causes of pauperization: was it due to landlord exploitation, or the Qing government, or Western imports ruining handicraft industries, or warlords? There was disagreement, too, over rural class differences: were they sizable and exploitative, or not?

There is a surprisingly interesting chapter on the debate between Stalinists and Trotskyites over the nature of Chinese society, an arcane theoretical matter which, as Han's admirably clear exposition shows, came to turn on whether China's villages had been significantly affected by capitalism or were still basically feudal. Some of this led to serious empirical research, by Chen Hansheng and scholars associated with him at the Academia Sinica. This chapter is satisfying also because it is historical, explaining how the discussion developed over time.

By 1925, most writers blamed foreign imperialism for rural economic decline, and the image of the peasants began to improve as nationalistic Chinese came to see in the rural masses a powerful force for resisting imperialism and saving China. Literary portrayals of villagers changed by the early 1930s from Lu Xun's feckless Ah Q to figures of politically conscious rebels. On the whole, it was thought that peasants needed to be mobilized by intellectuals; however, in making contact with peasants, intellectuals had difficulty overcoming the huge cultural gap created by their modern urban education, even though most were themselves originally of rural origin (as Han shows in an interesting chart, pp. 122ff).

Novels described young intellectuals returning to their villages to organize the farmers. They had to learn to hide their horror at the filth, malodor and superstition they found in the villages. They had also to develop an understanding of rural class structure-where to draw the line between oppressors and oppressed. Most of those who actually went to the villages, of course, were Communist revolutionaries, but there were also rural reformers like Liang Shuming and Yan Yangchu and researchers like Fei Xiaotong, and they also had to struggle with learning local dialects, gaining trust and bridging the great cultural distance. …


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