William Hinton: Fanshen (Part 1)

by tigermanifesto


Few books could hope to share the dramatic background and meticulous field research of Fanshen. Published in 1966, thirteen years after Hinton, on returning from serving the people in China, ran headlong into the Red Scare, losing all of his notes to customs officials. After a short time, he found himself blacklisted from working in the United States, forcing him to earn a living as a farmer on land he inherited from his mother. Regardless, he managed to retrieve his documents and, from those detailed scratchings, produced a book that is indispensable to anyone trying to understand the background, methods, and successes of the early Chinese Revolution.

What reason did Uncle Sam have for treating Hinton with such trepidation and roughness? Fanshen is not a complete account of his doings in post-WWII China, but it does lay out a compelling rap sheet. While working as an English teacher in a Communist-controlled Liberated Area in Northern China, Hinton volunteered to travel to a nearby village to participate and learn from the land reform process overturning the long-established feudal order in the Chinese countryside. The village’s name was Long Bow

The necessity of land redistribution in the Chinese rural zones is a remote topic to people who live in the long-industrialized West. Accustomed to meeting their needs through cash payments and used to thinking of farms as dull filler on road trips rather than the backbone my entire culture, I was grateful for the visceral descriptions of pre-Revolutionary peasant life in the opening chapters of Fanshen. In essence, peasant life under the rule of feudal landlords was as far from primitivist paradise as one could imagine. In its long cycles, the rural life of the poor was static, bound closely to climates, weather, and entrenched social helplessness. What mostly defined peasant life in the day-to-day, however, was complete insecurity, where tragedy was the scar tissue of each and every waking moment. Hinton’s vivid writing injects flesh and blood into these harrowing stories:

“The following are only a few incidents culled at random from the life stories of peasants with whom I talked:

  • There were three famine years in a row. The whole family went out to beg for things to eat. In Chichang City conditions were very bad.Many mothers threw their newborn children into the river…We had to sell our eldest daughter…
  • During the famine we ate leaves…I went out to the hills to get leaves and there were people fighting each other over the leaves on the trees. My little sister starved to death. My brother’s wife couldn’t bear the hunger and ran away and never came back. My cousin was forced to become a landlord’s concubine.”

Fanshen (2008), 42-43.

Even in just this book, there are horror stories that far exceed the ones I cited. As the author later argues, the worst part about this life, worse than the bloodsucking landlords who routinely put peasants into intractable debt, was the hopelessness of change. Every person in the rural areas who owned no land and had to labour on behalf of others rather than for themselves and their community was a half-person, someone whose real potential and intelligence were smothered in mud and wasteful toil. And all to serve the appetites of a social system that was rapidly decaying and spiralling into chaos. This was the central issue of land reform: how to unleash the immense power of this mass of humanity and the land on which they lived and concentrate it into a mass movement for revolution. This truly was a struggle for life and death, politics at its sharpest and most brutal.

The Communist Party of China (CPC from now on) outlined a policy roughly encapsulated by the slogan “Land to the Tillers.” Landlords and wealthier peasants, who lived off of rents the exploited labour of their fellow human beings, would be expropriated. The seized land and property would be distributed to all of the landless and land-poor peasants in the villages until they could become self-sufficient. Hinton’s book enters after the initial assault on feudal land ownership was already well in progress. For eight months, he lived in the village of Long Bow, labouring during the day and attending day and night political meetings. In unwavering and compelling prose, which makes the book a surprisingly quick read for a 600-page tome, he describes the painful process of political awakening and the redress of wrongs in Long Bow. A central part of that process was the internal reform of the Communists attempting to lead the charge for a new China, and their own psychological and political awakenings.

The next post will describe that process in more detail, and attempt to sum up the true virtues of Fanshen: its unblinking and protracted analysis of the political process of revolution at the lowest and most practical level, and the messiness of implementing grand policies of revolution in a tiny village. It’s an instructive book for anyone interested in Chinese history or the dynamics of any agrarian revolution––and to a lesser extent revolution in general.