Farmers and the Chinese Revolution

While treaty ports along China's coast were feeling the direct impact of foreign demands during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most people in China were — and still are — rural people, living in towns and villages. Although most farmers in China owned some land and often had sources of income apart from farm work, such as handicrafts, life was generally harsh. Farm plots were very small, averaging less than two acres per family, and peasants had little access to new technology, capital, or cheap transport. We have read about the nineteenth century internal crises which had terrible repercussions for country folk — wars and rebellions, droughts and floods. From late Qing times on, new taxes and charges were levied against individual village residents and/or the village as a unit to pay for government administration, state services like police and education, and most importantly, military expenses. More insidious were the less visible effects of the new international economy into which China had inexorably been drawn. Tea, silk, sugar, and tobacco were all products with increasing competition in this period, and thus international market forces began to affect rural people in China's interior.

There is much debate about whether China's farmers were "immiserated" in this period, that is, if they faced worse conditions than in previous times. But, as the first reading on raising silkworms demonstrates, without greater technological inputs, just working harder was not always enough to stave off privation. Addressing the problems of the farmers was a major challenge for Chinese leaders. The short story, by Mao Dun (Shen Yanbing, 1896-1981), entitled "Spring Silkworms," also demonstrates a greater awareness, on the part of a new breed of politically engaged and socially conscious urban writers in the 1920s and 1930s, of the plight of people in the countryside.

Traditional Marxist thinking relegated peasants to a class which Marx believed represented "barbarism within civilization" — people who were unable to develop revolutionary consciousness and only wanted land and bread (food). During the Russian Revolution, Lenin revised Marx's view, assigning peasants a more supporting revolutionary role, although he still believed that it was the urban working class which initiated revolution. In the 1920s, Chinese leftists began to change their view of the revolutionary potential of the rural population. Some, like the Guomindang organizer in South China, Peng Pai, had great success from 1921-23 in convincing disaffected farmers to form peasant associations and challenge oppressive landlords. Likewise, Mao Zedong's own work in the rural areas in 1925 and 1926 led him to see the farmers differently. When Nationalists forces after 1927 drove him and other Communists to rural hideouts from their urban bases, they intensified their work among the rural population. Their belief in rural revolution thus became a hallmark of Chinese Communist thinking.

Primary Source Readings

Mao Dun (Shen Yanbing), 1896-1981 "Spring Silkworms" [PDF]
Mao Zedong, 1893-1976 Report on the Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan (March 1927) [PDF]

Additional Discussion Questions for the Mao Zedong Reading

  1. What do you suppose the "gentry in Hankow and Changsha" and "revolutionary authorities" believed about the peasants?
  2. What did Mao predict about peasant behavior in the future?
  3. What do you think he was suggesting as a wise course of action to follow regarding peasants and revolution?
  4. What factors were necessary to make a rural based revolution succeed? Rank these factors and discuss their relative importance:
      • bad harvests
      • landlordism
      • poverty
      • market collapse
      • nationalism
      • education
      • arms
      • military strategy
      • leaders from outside
      • leaders from within

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