George Walford: Shenfan

The events of the Chinese Revolution, even since 1945, are complex, dramatic, and on an enormous scale. Some of them, particularly incidents of the Cultural Revolution, are bizarre; in the course of that upheaval the youth of Peking and other cities smashed monuments, invaded homes, broke records, burnt books – and demanded red as the colour for “go” in traffic lights. It requires a hero to attempt a narrative account, and William Hinton attacks the problem by looking, as it were, through the lens of one village. The village is Long Bow, in Shansi. Province, and Hinton first went, to live there in 1947. He published Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village in 1966 and the present work, Shenfan: the Continuing Revolution in a Chinese Village (London, Martin Seeker and Warburg), in 1983. Fanshen means to turn over, hence to make a revolution,and shenfan means digging deeply into the earth to extract its most fertile soil.

It is a big book, and packed solid with detail, with the personal experiences of individual people and with many conversations reported in direct speech, but it is far from being the cosy sort of local history we know in Britain; it is intended to illustrate the broad social movements of the time. Hinton writes as a supporter of the revolution and of Chairman Mao, presumably therefore as a marxist; he has trouble reconciling his theories with his observations. This is a part of his concluding summary:

post-liberation China developed by means of a series of wavelike advances and retreats. Mao time and again unleashed enthusiastic mass movements of the people. As they rushed forward, threatening everything in their path, they jeopardized the prerogatives and careers of innumerable officials who misdirected, blocked or coopted every popular thrust. While Mao still lived, each confrontation ended in stalemate. After he died – le deluge in reverse

That is of,course the standard communist picture; the masses, eager for socialism (if not yet communism), being urged forward by a hero-leader, but their joint efforts frustrated by entrenched reactionaries. This was the myth that led to the slaughter of Stalin’s functionaries, sometimes down to the fifth replacement. The unusual feature of the present instance is that Hinton himself provides massive evidence of the falsity of such a view.

His narrative shows clearly that the repeated efforts to progress toward communism – the Socialist Education movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the rest – were not undertaken by Mao in conjunction with the masses. It may well be true that Mao provided the immediate impulse for each of them, but in each of them there were many activists of the Chinese Communist Party striving to impose socialism or communism on the people. Each of them was resisted by the broad masses and it was this, rather than any cunning manoeuvres of a minority of bureaucrats, that defeated them. Every attempt to induce the general body of the people to work primarily for the collectivity of which they were constituents was a failure. At the beginning of the Great Leap the East Wind Commune guaranteed each of its members three meals a day and two-and-a-half yuan in wages even if he or she did no work at all. This was the outcome:

Since everyone could eat free of charge and everyone who lay at home all day got paid, those who had always been most active began to slow down. If one could eat and earn whether one worked or not, why work? (p. 250)

In revolutionary China as anywhere else, a large part of the people are inclined away from work, (it is this inclination that provides much of the motive-power for technological development), and if they are to be induced to undertake it they must derive direct personal benefit from their labour.

The Chinese have a practice of using vivid, concrete terms that keep the narrative bright. To act in a capitalist (or communist) way is to take the capitalist (or communist) road. When, for a time, writers were allowed greater freedom, it was known as the Hundred Flowers movement (from a remark by Mao that a hundred flowers should bloom where there had been only one). An undesirable tendency was a “wind;” when a demand from above for improved production led one commune to report a harvest of 33,000 catties per mou (the true figure could hardly have been above 550) the “Exaggeration Wind” was blowing. People who stood out against the village meeting, denying that they had behaved badly and refusing to engage in public self-criticism, were classified as “bastards to the end.” (One city art worker, appointed to a commission investigating a commune, demanded to know what had happened to the offspring of the mules).

The tone throughout the book is of friendly approval; it is largely this that makes it so pleasant to read. But there are features which raise doubts whether Hinton is being as outspoken as his style suggests. He speaks of fighting on a large scale between armed factions, but for all the resultant death or suffering that appears the rifles might as well have been popguns; what he rather chooses to stress is the occasion when the army (which had to be brought in to suppress the fighting) surrounded a large armed band and induced them to surrender, although the soldiers’ rifles were not loaded. There is little here of the bitter frustration inflicted on enthusiastic cadres each time the party line turned back upon itself, the feeling of hopeless entrapment that appears, for example, in Heng and Shapiro’s Son of the Revolution, which relates how Heng’s mother was induced, much against her will, to put forward criticisms of the Party and then, because of this, was condemned for life, with her family, as Rightist when policy reversed.

In 1965 and later the failure to establish socialism was still being ascribed to “new bourgeois elements.” Hinton sees the difficulty:

Since no one in China possessed private capital, such objective criteria as the ownership and control of productive property and income from exploitation could no longer serve to demarcate classes. What remained were subjective criteria, judgments concerning belief and behaviour, estimates of politically significant line and policy differences. (p. 348)

In marxist theory the bourgeoisie is defined by its ownership of the means of production. When these are no longer privately owned there can be no bourgeoisie and it becomes apparent – even if it is seldom recognised – that the dominant factor determining political behaviour is not class position but ideology.

In China as elsewhere, and after the revolution as before, the general body of the people are identified with economic individualism. Those who support communism, or even socialism, are a minority, and it is when the Chinese Revolution is seen as a prolonged attempt, by a minority that has seized control of the state, to enforce its programme on the majority, that what has taken place becomes comprehensible. What Hinton says of Long Bow toward the end of his book is true of China as a whole:

While political rhetoric remained militantly socialist, reality tended toward the “capitalist road,” that is to say, toward individualism (p. 704)

– – –

STICKER, said to have been seen on a police car:

When in trouble, call a hippy.

This essay quoted in Beyond Politics by George Walford (1990)

from Ideological Commentary 20, September 1985.