William Hinton’s Fanshen Remembered on New China’s 60th

Mao’s Land Reform Changed China Forever

As an antidote to the mainstream media’s rush of misinformation and vitriol aimed at the Chinese revolution on its 60th anniversary, nothing is so effective as William Hinton’s masterpiece, Fanshen, which means to “stand up” or “turn over,” as in a revolutionary change. Unfortunately this book, never as widely known as it deserved, now seems largely forgotten — like a long banned book.

Hinton’s book is a fascinating, absorbing and detailed account of land reform in a single Chinese village, Long Bow, near Changzhi in a liberated area in 1948 when land was turned over to the peasants. No less than the better known Red Star Over China, it is a classic of the revolution wrought by Mao’s Communist Party of China (CPC). The book is a very concrete, first person account. Hinton himself lived in the village of Long Bow in China at the time of land reform when the feudal estates were broken up and given to the peasants. Two of its characteristics make the book compelling. First the reader gets to know the participants, the peasants, by name and to witness their lives change forever as they take their destiny into their own hands for the first time in millennia. Second, the book begins by describing in detail what life was like before liberation. This writer is pretty much sob-resistant, but I wept several times as I read the condition of the peasants, ruthlessly exploited and degraded by the landowners in collaboration with the central government and the connivance of the Catholic “missionary” effort.

Hinton took over a thousand pages of notes and returned to the US only upon the termination of Truman’s widely despised war on Korea in 1953, which killed one million Asians and about 50,000 U.S. soldiers and contributed mightily to his defeat at the hands of Eisenhower. Hinton’s notes were promptly confiscated by customs and turned over to the notorious McCarthyite committee of Senator James Eastland. Hinton had his passport confiscated, was harassed by the FBI, blacklisted and unable to find work. He finally found land to farm which he did for a decade and a half. He finally got the release of his notes and set to work on Fanshen. No major publishing house would print it, but in 1966 Monthly Review Press, bless their Marxist souls, finally published it. In the splendid political climate of the 60s, it was a great but short lived success.

One especially stirring moment in Hinton’s account arrives when the landlords, deprived of any armed force to impose their will, take to threatening the peasants with the wrath of their ancestors. Standing before a monument to his ancestors, fearful and hesitant, one of the leading peasants finally takes a hammer to the headstone and smashes it to pieces. There is no thunderbolt from the skies, and at that moment the hold of the old exploiters was greatly weakened but not broken. The peasants remained afraid that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and their army would win and the old landlords would return; and the influence of the Catholics and their support of the old ways remained. But the peasants encouraged by the CPC cadre pushed on (Of course the threat of the displeasure of an ancestor is pretty thin gruel compared to the fire and brimstone fear that the monotheistic desert religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, provided to the West.) Here Mao’s words found expression in the deeds of the peasants:

“What should we not fear? We should not fear heaven. We should not fear ghosts. We should not fear the dead. We should not fear the bureaucrats. We should not fear the militarists. We should not fear the capitalists.”

Pretty good advice –then and now.

During land reform in Long Bow, there was no presence of the People’s Liberation Army, just a few CPC cadre and in this case Hinton. More often than not the cadre had to restrain the peasants from killing the landlords at once and often in fairly merciless ways – and the cadre were not always successful. Millenia of rage at the beatings, rapes, theft, death of loved ones and worst human degradation imaginable poured out at the rulers of old China in those days. But revolution is not a matter of serving tea, as Mao put it.

I recently returned from a short stay in China. Without Hinton’s book, an adequate perspective on what I saw would have been impossible. New China is impressive in many respects, but it arose on the ashes of old China and the suffering endured for millennia by the Chinese peasantry until the end of Chiang Kai-shek’s U.S. backed rule. In Hinton’s book Mao makes no appearance nor do other giants of the Chinese revolution, but we see the fruits of their work up close. Chairman Mao liked to say that to understand society one should look down, not up; and Fanshen does just that. Look down not up – pretty good advice and so little regarded on the contemporary “left” which is so much given to watching those on high.

John V. Walsh, @JohnWal97469920, until recently a Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, has written on issues of peace and health care for several independent media. Read other articles by John V..

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on October 9th, 2009 at 8:50am #

    Merciless revolution against merciless landowners did succeed; at least to that degree that it ?forever dispossessed the despots of their power.

    In US, revolution probably cannot work any longer. For one thing, ?all orgs and movements may be infiltrated and spied on. Thus, no revolt can be organized.

    If russia wld emulate china and become socialist once again, i do not think that chino-russian soyuz wld ever allow nato to take over all of the planet and establish plutocratic millennial dream to establish its permament dictatorship. tnx

  2. lcl said on October 9th, 2009 at 3:51pm #

    mao was not progressive… he was a monster who preferred supporting nixon and kissinger and pol pot to national liberation movements in vietnam, bangladesh, and elsewhere.

    yes land redistribution to the landless poor is usually very beneficial to them and to society in general.

    however this is not reason to praise mao. he didn’t invent this idea, the good reforms that occurred in china happened in spite of him and party leaders, not because of them.

    ps – the social safety net that enabled china to grow economically as it recently has area being erased by the current money-hungry and blood-thirsty “communist” govt.

    when will we stop believing that our enemy’s enemy is our friend?

  3. Heike said on October 10th, 2009 at 6:15pm #

    You are hardly qualified to talk about misinformation. Truman wasn’t defeated by Eisenhower in 1952 because he didn’t run for reelection. It seems that the simplest facts like these evade you. It wasn’t Truman who ordered his troops over the 38th Parallel in June 1950, but Kim Il Song, in collusion with that other great version of socialist virtue, Josef Stalin. There is plenty of original sources material available on the Korean War, and you should enlighten yourself before putting down these banalities in print. By what right do you talk about his “widely despised war” when you seem to be putting the victims in the agressor’s shoes and vice versa. Mao was one of the most vicious and murderous tyrants of the 20th century, and if the peasants of Long Bow were freed from their bound feet (something made illegal when the ROC came into existence in 1911), that remark of yours has about as much resonance as saying that Hitler wasn’t that bad because he built the Autobahns and ended unemployment.

    In “The Great Reversal,” Hinton showed his dismay at the way in which things went in China after Deng Xiao Ping took over and China took the “Capitalist road” (“you zhongguo tese de shehuizhuyi” as party-speak tells it). Yet, he supported the Cultural Revolution with its wholesale destruction of people’s lives and Chinese culture. Some Chinese cultural artifacts are only available in Taiwan, which was spared the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

    Wiritng such trash as this shows nothing other than your complete lack of a knowledge base beyond one or two books that cause your Marxist emotions to flow.

    If this is the best you can do, why don’t you go back to your recognized field of expertise — physiology — and leave politics and history to those who actually bother to educate themselves on the subject.

  4. B99 said on October 11th, 2009 at 5:42am #

    The Korean War ran almost precisely three years – from 1950 to 1953. In 1952, Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson for the US presidency. Truman had decided not to run, maybe some one here knows precisely why he chose not to do so.

  5. john walsh said on October 11th, 2009 at 6:17am #

    In response to B99’s comments:
    I should not have said that Truman was defeated by Eisenhower although that is essentially what happened. The year 1952 was the first serious run of the NH primary and Truman lost because the war was so unpopular. Like Johnson in 1968 he then decided not to run. And Eisenhower specifically ran on an antiwar platform, wise man that he was and the greatest president of the second half of the 20th Century. I am old enough to remember, as a very young child, my parents, one Republican and one Democrat, both good Catholics, hating the war and Truman, a mass murderer who seemed to be in love with nukes. I remember footage of the soldiers trapped in the snows of Korea, TV coverage that presaged that of the war in Vietnam. 50,000 Americans died there and one million Asians. Helluva job Harry. (There was a small anti-war movement at the time of Korea. I met one its members whose career as a scientist in America was cut short for his opposition. He had to flee to Canada where he became quite a success, the best thing to happen to Canadian science being Joe McCarthy. This man also had his leg blown off fighting in WW2. Great how he was rewarded by the US for that.)

    As for binding of feet, it was still practiced if outlawed and the marriage and property laws were original with the CPC.

    And as far as the rest of it goes, the misinformation is incredible. Ask any Chinese how and why the cultural treasures got to Taiwan – the murderous Chiang Kai-shek took them there for his own benefit and not out of concerns for culture.
    p.s The exact nature of the deaths in the Great Leap Forward where most occurred are not as they are widely depicted. Look at the lectures on Chinese History put out by the Teaching Company. The Great Leap Forward was perhaps idiotic and certainly carried out ineptly BUT the deaths there were not because Mao was a man who wanted to kill as many Chinese as possible. If anything the man was a Chinese patriot.