Jack M. Potter
With the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party set out to modernize rural Chinese society and to change radically the social lives of Chinese peasants. As members of a quasi-religious revitalization movement, under the charismatic leader Mao, basic-level party cadres struggled to transform landlord-dominated, impoverished, and war-torn 'feudal' Chinese villages into prosperous socialist cooperatives based upon collectivist and egalitarian values, within a new modern, industrialized, socialist state.
The party's programme of revolutionary change in the countryside progressed through three main periods: (1) the initial Maoist period of land reform, social reorganization, and collectivization of the 1950s, which eliminated the old landed elite and established party committees in the countryside, culminating in the enormous Great Leap Forward communes of 1958; (2) the period of Maoist collectivist society, lasting from 1961 through the early 1980s, based upon the 'three-level system' in which the basic levels of organization were the production team, the brigade, and smaller, less radical communes ; and (3) the post-Maoist period, from the early 1980s to the present, during which the Revolution was routinized: agriculture was decollectivized, private internal markets were reinstituted, contacts were re-established with the world capitalist system, temporary labour migration of peasants was permitted for the first time in several decades, and the emphasis in policy was changed from revolutionizing the society to focusing on immediate economic prosperity.
What has been the effect of four decades of revolutionary socialist praxis upon the traditional structures of rural Chinese society? How does present rural China compare to pre-Revolutionary China? Have Chinese peasant society and culture been fundamentally changed? If so, how? If not, what are the continuities, and why have they persisted? What is the changing relation of the peasantry to Chinese society as a whole? Most importantly, how have all these changes affected peasant lives?
Here I present evidence from the results of my fieldwork in Zengbu brigade (now called Zengbu xiang, or 'township'), a rural settlement of over