Book Review: Fanshen
Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village
University of California Press, 1966
The word "Fanshen" was coined during the Chinese Revolution. It means, literally,
"[T]o turn the body', or "to turn over." To China's hundreds of millions of landless and land-poor peasants it meant to stand up, to throw off the landlord yoke, to gain land, stock, implements, and houses. But it meant much more than this. It meant to throw off superstition and study science ... [to] learn to read, to cease considering women as chattels and establish equality between the sexes, to do away with appointed village magistrates and replace them with elected councils.(1)
And that is precisely what Fanshen chronicles. It is written from the personal experiences and extensive notes gathered by William Hinton himself while in the Liberated Area village of Changchuang (Long Bow), Lucheng County, Shanshi Province, China, during the spring and summer of 1948. Long Bow sat on the edge of an area surrounded but never conquered by the Japanese. It was one of the few villages which the Japanese invaders occupied and fortified. This Japanese occupation (1938-1945) ended when Long Bow was liberated by the Eighth Route Army and the Peoples Militia of Lucheng County on August 14, 1945.
Hinton wend to China as a tractor technician with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and was sent to the communist-led area of South Hopie to supervise a project there. When UNRRA closed down in the fall of 1947, Hinton accepted an invitation from Northern University to teach English in South Shansi. Hinton relates that Northern University was a guerrilla institution in Kao Settlement that moved according to the dictates of war and that life at the University was not much better than village life. As examples he states that the University only served boiled millet (a grass grown for its edible white seeds) and was never warmed by scarce firewood.
Fanshen is foremost about land reform in rural China. To fully appreciate the enormity of this land reform, Hinton provides plenty of background information on the revolutionary upheaval that led up to it, as well as the traditional society which brought on and was transformed by revolution. From the British-imposed First Opium War of 1840 and the Second Opium War of 1856-1860, to the 1899 imperial rescript granting Catholic bishops equal rank with provincial governors which led to the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, to the Amerikan backing of the Nationalist Government of Chiang Kai-shek, Fanshen supplies the reader with plenty of pertinent hystorical dialectic facts. No punches are pulled in the especially provcative documentation of Amerikan interloping. From General Marshall's mission in China to the lend-lease program that gave the Nationalist Government over $600 million between Victory over Japan Day and the end of July, I was left wondering who left the hystory books I had read in school incomplete. There are plenty of footnotes recalling Amerikan troop involvement in China well after the Japanese surrendered. Nuggets such as;
Of numerous attacks in Eastern Shantung the most widely known were the one by U.S. warships on Langnuankou and Hsiali Island, Mouping county, on August 28, 1947, and one by U.S. forces in conjunction with Kumintang troops on Wanglintao Village, north of Chino County, on December 25, 1947.(2)
left me scratching my head and hungry for more. I was not let down. It is interesting to note that this is the time period that Hinton joined Northern University.
Fanshen does not neglect the environmental conditions of so vast a country as China. Without knowing the violence and extremes of the seasons, the living conditions of such an agrarian society could not truly be put into context. Drought followed by famine, followed by peasant-dwelling-destroying monsoons are a way of life for the Chinese peasants, and Hinton documents these ordeals with great clarity, even experiencing a flash flood and violent localized hailstorm first-hand while in Long Bow.
Once the hystorical context is set, Hinton wastes no time in drawing you into the consciousness of Long Bow. He begins this phenomenal feat with the Japanese invasion of Long Bow in the summer of 1938. With great skill he documents what village life was like for the peasants through their own words. He continues this painstaking documentation of events, using thousands of interviews, from the period of liberation when the cadres took over until the arrival of the work teams (1945-1948).
The Draft Agrarian Law was announced to the world on December 28, 1947, three days after the joint U.$./Kuomintang military assault on Wanglintao Village. The Draft Law was to serve as a yardstick by which to measure theand movements, as well as to measure the political position and consciousness of everyone who opted for progress and a new democratic China. Many questions had to be answered, such as: Had the land been equally divided? Had the poor peasants and hired laborers taken control of village affairs? If not, why not? Politically, the main question was, on which side do you stand? I was so drawn in by Hinton's prose that I was just as shocked as the villagers to find that the majority of the cadres carrying out the reforms of the Communist Party, sometimes to extremes, were not even Party members. This was but one of many surprises to come.
So, in 1948 the Communist Party organized work teams made up of local and district cadres and students and intellectuals in all the Liberated Areas sending them to key representative villages throughout their respective regions to check on the status of the land reform movement. These work teams, made up of groups of 10 or 12 people each, then went out to survey the true conditions of the peasant population and carry the land reform through to completion.
It was during the assignment of Northern University students and intellectuals to work teams that Hinton requested of University President Fan Wen-lan to be allowed to "join one of the work teams, at least as an observer, and learn first hand what the land reform is all about." Three days later permission was granted to join the work team in Long Bow. He was assigned a young woman instructor, Ch'i Yun, to act as an interpreter. Long Bow was chosen because it was the nearest to Kao Settlement, approximately one mile to the south. This way Hinton and Ch'i Yun could return to the University each evening. On March 6, 1948, the two set off for the first of many trips into Long Bow to begin documenting the long process of getting to know its people, their hystory, their progress, their mistakes, and the complexity of their current problems. Then, in early May 1948, Northern University moved 300 miles away; however, Hinton and Ch'i Yun stayed in Long Bow to continue their work alongside the other work team cadres.
Fanshen thoroughly documents the individual stepwise movements, e.g., the Anti-Traitor Movement (ending 1945), the Settling Accounts Movement (January 1946 - February 1946), the Hide-the-Grain movement (fall of 1946), and the Wash-the-Face movement (spring 1947) that were necessary for the land reform in Long Bow. The mistakes made by the cadres and peasants alike during these movements are laid bare and analyzed. By doing this the reader gains a richer appreciation of the struggle for a true democracy. One of the largest myths of Maoism is that Chairman Mao, via the Chinese Communist Party, ruled China as a totalitarian. Hinton thoroughly debunks this myth as he documents his first-hand experiences of the true democratic election process in Long Bow.
The writing style of Hinton's Fanshen is transcendental. It puts the reader into the mind, i.e. the political consciousness, of the cadres and peasants themselves. My political consciousness developed right along with theirs. Hinton's documentation of the self- and mutual criticism done during village meetings had me identifying with those being criticized. I found myself connecting with them, at times thinking that I would have done the same in those circumstances. Nothing is held back from the reader during these sessions; the selling of female children, the indifference to starvation during the famine years, the beatings, and the violent oppression. At times I rooted for the peasants as they beat a landlord to death during a Settling-of-Accounts, only to be corrected in this error of thinking by Mao's own words a few chapters later.
Fanshen ends by Hinton summing up the progress as of 1949:
Land reform, by creating basic equality among rural producers, only presented the producers with a choice of roads: private enterprise on the land leading to capitalism, or collective enterprise on the land leading to socialism...
Land reform had broken the patriarchal rigidity of the family by granting property rights to women. With property of their own they [are] able to struggle effectively for equal rights...
One had only to think of such problems as illiteracy, the almost complete absence of medical care, and the primitive methods of cultivation still in use, to realize what a long road lay ahead for the village and its people before they could claim full citizenship in the twentieth century.(3)
This is a fitting ending as it is also a new beginning. Once a people organize and gain a political consciousness they can then unite in struggle to break the chains of oppression and write their own future.
Fanshen is a work of literary genius. Hinton does not just write about events as a passive observer, he vicariously brings the reader into the time and space of rural China, circa 1948, to live them. By the time you finish reading Fanshen your own hystorical views and political consciousness will be impacted. Through the various movements, some correct and some incorrect, you will pick up on the subtleties of how and why communism can work, the mistakes that doom it, and the consciousness of the people needed to support it. I have been greatly moved by Hinton's work and feel the Western world owes Hinton a debt of gratitude for his sacrifice in documenting land reform in Long Bow Village and bringing us his first-hand account.