Two Revolutions: Village Reconstruction and the Cooperative Movement in Northern Shaanxi, 1934-1945. – Review

Two Revolutions: Village Reconstruction and the Cooperative Movement in Northern Shaanxi, 1934-1945. – Review – book review

R. David Arkush

Two Revolutions: Village Reconstruction and the Cooperative Movement in Northern Shaanxi, 1934-1945. By Pauline B. Keating. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. Pp. xviii, 340. $49.50.)

Our understanding of the complex process that brought Communists to power in China is being greatly enriched by local studies of the revolution in different places; these studies have been made possible by an increase in available information, and are informed by increasingly sensitive analysis. The locality under study here is northern Shaanxi province, a poor region of difficult terrain and hostile elements and the site of the Communists’ central base for over a decade from the end of the Long March to almost their final victory in 1949. The Communists’ first major changes, Pauline Keating says, were land reform, tenancy reform, and removal of inequalities, all of which took power away from the old elite. In fascinating detail, based on newly available party materials, she tells how in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Communists abandoned radical land reform and used local elections, sharply progressive taxation, and rent reductions to gain control. These policies crippled the power of landlords and local elites, reduced inequalities of income, and built a constituency among villagers. They served the party’s state-building interests.

Did such policies also serve the interest,; of peasants? The author finds generally that villagers’ livelihoods and well-being increased, but to what extent did this depend on the locality? Keating’s analysis is given much force and originality by her systematic comparison of two subregions of north Shaanxi, each with several counties and a few hundred thousand people. Suide was more densely populated, more commercialized, and had more landlordism; it came under Communist control later. Yanshu, where war and drought over the previous hundred years had reduced the population density to one third of that in Suide, was short on labor but had much wasteland that could be brought under cultivation. The Communists encouraged migration and resettlement in Yanshu and invested considerable funds and manpower in land reclamation. The result was greatly increased grain production and a population of newly prosperous farmers who were grateful to the party and enthusiastic about change.

The second revolution, the early cooperative movement in 1943-45, went beyond class conflict to community building. Here the contrast between the two subregions is sharpest in how much coercion was needed. Farmer cooperatives usually started with a few families sharing their labor and draft animals, and in some cases these grew to include more people and activities in sideline occupations, mainly in weaving but also in public health education. In Suide, with its surplus labor and tiny fragmented plots of land, pooling labor made little sense and cooperatives had to be imposed by the party in a top-down manner. In labor-scarce Yanshu, on the other hand, it brought visible benefits, and, with newly rich enthusiasts as leaders, cooperatives could grow more spontaneously without heavy party involvement. The resulting “community self-reliance, communitarianism, and local governance in the hands of farmer-officials” reinvigorated village communities (242). But this development was primarily due to local structural factors.

The “Chinese Communists came closest to achieving their goals for peasant revolution in an atypical countryside, a place where land was plentiful, and in villages with exceptional histories” (243). Unfortunately the rest of China was not much like Yanshu, and attempts in later years to transpose this model elsewhere were all too apt to involve disastrous coercion.

R. David Arkush The University of Iowa

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