When is a Farmer not a Farmer? When He’s Chinese: Then He’s A Peasant

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 1:03 am

After Mao Zedong died in 1976, they put his body on display in one of those see-through coffins which Lenin made popular. Shortly after, the NBC evening news commentator, David Brinkley, termed this “peasant under glass” – a racist flippancy which would not have been accepted (or probably even thought of) for the dead leader of a Western state.

Now the thing is that Mao wasn’t even a peasant: He never made his living with a hoe (if anything he was a landlord); he earned the highest educational degree available in his home province at the time; he was successively a librarian, teacher, and school principal; and for most of his career he was a salaried government official. He saw himself in the tradition of rulers and state builders like Qin Shi Huangdi and George Washington. Mao is a peasant only if all Chinese are peasants in essence, simply by virtue of being Chinese. (Curiously, for some of the same Orientalist reasons, Mao and his successor Deng Xiaoping were also held to be “emperors.” That is, all rulers in Beijing were “emperors” by virtue of being Chinese.)

So when I looked into it, I was surprised to find that the use of the word “peasant” rather than “farmer” was relatively new. I spent a pleasant afternoon in the library pulling books off the shelf and found that until the 1920s, Americans religiously used “farmer” for China, “peasant” for Europe, Russia, and even the Mediterranean. F.H. King’s classic 1911 study is Farmers of Forty Centuries.

After about 1930, the words switched positions. Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), for instance, uses the word “farmer,” never “peasant,” but after that, Americans overwhelmingly prefered “peasant.” When Oprah Winfrey chose The Good Earth for her book club in 2005, the New York Times bestseller list said it was about “peasant” life.

In recent years, “peasant” has come under fire. A writer in China Daily wrote in 1985 that “from now on, the word peasant no longer suits China‘s rural population.” Randy Stross called “peasant” a “quaint taxonomic term that Americans usually used and that served to keep the Chinese apart – and ranked vaguely below – the ‘farmers’ at home.” The British anthropologist Polly Hill attacked the term first because it confused all residents within a village, whether they farmed, peddled, wove, cooked, or lent money (or did each in succession), and second because it lumped together villagers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia who are actually in quite different situations.

What did Americans down to Pearl Buck mean when they insisted France and Russia had peasants but the United States and China had farmers? The distinction was central to Jeffersonian democracy. Thomas Jefferson charged that “the mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body” and believed that the “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.” Old World despotism was based on landless peasants who did not have the independent means to stand up to the dukes, lords, barons, and kings. A “peasant” worked under “medieval” or “feudal” conditions, while a propertied “farmer” produced free or democratic rule.

Now we can re-conceive our problem of why there were farmers in China. As best I can make out, the implicit logic runs something like this:

  • European history was normal; the stages were ancient, medieval/ feudal, and modern.
  • China was not Europe, was outside normal history, was eternal, and therefor had no feudalism.
  • Peasants are a feudal phenomenon
  • Ergo, China had farmers, not peasants.

Then why the change from “farmer” to “peasant”?

Young Chinese of the New Culture Movement (1916-1923) came to see China as poor, backward, and shameful; they searched for a new political force powerful enough to destroy traditional culture and to repel imperialism. Revolution was this force and “feudal” the word made China’s weakness a curable structural malady.

Historians now resist the claim that China was feudal. Feudal Europe and Japan had decentralized political systems in which the economy was dominated by military force to the detriment of the market. But from at least the sixteenth century the Chinese rural economy had been basically commercialized, with markets in land and labor. Politics were civilian, centralized and national – anything but feudal. True, by the mid-1920s, the Chinese village economy had been shaken by political disarray, deflation, inflation, drought, flood, famine, warlords, taxes, pestilence, opium, and sociologists. But the solution proposed to these terrible realities depended on the terms in which they were construed as problems. The problem was not feudalism but political disorganization.

True, but not the point. “Feudalism,” in this new argument, was not a technical description but a metaphor, and a devastatingly effective one at that. After all, Marxists and American liberals both saw Progress in history; feudalism in Europe ended with the French Revolution of 1789. Therefore to say that China was “feudal” was to assert that China followed the patterns of universal history; that the Chinese people had to be liberated from feudalism through revolution; that revolution was possible; that the formation of a nation was liberating; and that a vanguard should lead it.

Therefore that the man with the hoe was a peasant.

Must we give up the word “peasant”? Heavens no. But too often we mistake “peasant” for a primary category of nature rather than a convenient term which must be used warily. After 1949, too many in China and in the West saw the countryside as filled with feudal minded peasants, making it easy to rationalize state power. Observing that the “peasant” was invented, not discovered, helps to keep us honest.

[This piece draws on my “The Storm over the Peasant: Orientalism, Rhetoric and Representation in Modern China,” in Shelton Stromquist and Jeffrey Cox, ed., Contesting the Master Narrative: Essays in Social History (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998): 150-172. reprinted as Lund East Asian Working Paper Series on Language and Politics in Modern China (Formerly Indiana East Asian Working Paper Series on Language and Politics in Modern China): Paper # 11, Summer 1998. Please see that piece for footnotes and references.]


Globalized Chinese Culture

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:48 pm

Chinese culture is global culture. Though Hawai’i is, in some ways, not a good sample, nonetheless there’s an awful lot of Chinese culture which has been nativized here, well beyond the presence of significant Chinese communities. Actually, this island has the lowest ratio of Chinese of any of the well-populated ones in the state, but the influences are unmistakable.

We just had our own Chinese New Year celebrations here in Hilo, for example, complete with firecrackers, and the usual downtown festival with fried foods and local crafts:

The tradition of firecrackers at New Year’s has been adopted by the State for the secular New Year, as well, producing hours of smoke-filled, eardrum-threatening fun at the turning of the calendar, regular reports of injuries and fires, and ever-so-slowly-tightening regulations about purchase and use of fireworks.

The annual visit by the Shanghai Circus (not the one based in Branson, MO, but I’m not sure which troupe exactly it is) is another big cultural event in Hilo, bringing out a huge population of children and parents:

In spite of that, the Chinese food in this town is terrible. On the up side, we have at least half a dozen decent-to-great Thai restaraunts (no, I don’t know why?, and fantastic Japanese food (that’s an easy one).

Update: to be fair, I should point out that Hilo does have a Chinese diaspora community, though it’s not as large as it has been. They used to have a church, though it no longer serves a purely ethnic constituency.


Family and Community in Asia (or, do my job for me)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:38 am

As our regular readers know, there is a tradition here of posting our syllabai for comments. One class I will be teaching in the Fall is ASIA 200, Introduction to Asian Studies. This is a class that is supposed to introduce our Asian Studies students to the various areas of Asia (we do all of Asia) and the various disciplines that study it. I usually organize it around a few readings and films that have a common theme of sorts. I’m thinking of using “family and community” as the theme.

One possibility is using Gregory Ruf Cadres and Kin: Making a Socialist Village in West China, 1921-1991 It’s Antropology and History, it’s China, its short, it’s readable (I think), and it’s in paperback. It deals with the transformation of a community under the hand of the modernizing state. Now I need a bunch of other stuff from other areas and other disciplines. I was thinking of using at least a couple of films, maybe Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home and Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less? (Maybe Oshima’s Boy?) Something on Southeast Asia, a novel, something more poly-sci like. I can think of lots of China things and a fair number of Japan things, but for South Asia and the Middle East I get a bit more limited.

So my question to you is what books or films or whatever had you really wanted to teach and thought would work well with undergrads? The nice thing about a thematic class like this is that we historians are very rarely released from the tyranny of chronology, so for me this is a chance to do a lot of fun stuff. What should I do with it? I’m pretty flexible at this point as far as theme and areas, I’m mostly looking for really good things to show them/have them read.


Has anyone seen the scissors?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:07 pm

Tang-dynasty scissors, via wikipedia


Perhaps they are not as interesting as pigs, but I had a question about scissors. I was reading the 海王 chapter of Guanzi in the Rickett translation, Guan Zhong is advising Duke Huan. The Duke is in favor of raising revenues by increasing taxes. Guang Zhong says that instead the king should rely on controlling the trades in salt and iron as in effect an indirect tax. (This section seems to date from the Han, far later than the actual time of Guan Zhong). In discussing the need for iron he says

“Each woman must have a needle and scissors before she can carry on her work. Each person who cultivates the soil must have a digging fork, a plow and a hoe before he can carry on his work. Each person who builds and maintains hand carts and small and large horse-drawn wagons must have an axe, a saw, an awl, and a chisel before he can carry on his work.”

So far so good. But scissors? In the Han? I found out from wikipedia that scissors were known in Egypt as early as 1500 B.C. But in 汉语大词典 the earliest reference to scissors (剪子) is from the Tang. The actual quote from Guanzi, as least as I found it on-line, is 一女必有一鍼一刀 ,
which I would translate as knife rather than scissors. So is Rickett wrong, or did 刀 once mean scissors? When did the Chinese start using them?


The changing world of scholarship

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:27 am

I got a box of books in the mail yesterday. This book to be exact


I’m not really interested in reading it, as I assume I already know what’s in it. I always hate looking at my own work, since it alway seems so dead, and in the past, (I was done with the final edits well over a year ago) and inadequate. The only think that I find at all interesting about the book is the marketing.

Some of you of may want to buy it to drive up my Amazon numbers. Of course some of you may also want to read it. Actually,  if you do want to read it I’m not sure you need to buy it. Chapter one is available for free from the publisher. There is also a Google books link, and although it is
not up yet I assume soon you will be able to Google the whole thing. My old book is already up on Google, so there is no reason to buy that one. You can already read the table of contents on World Cat and I assume soon on Amazon. There are already used bookseller selling it on Amazon marketplace, although at a mark-up rather than
a discount. There has been a lot of talk about the decline of the book as a form of scholarship, and we seem to be reaching the point where the actual physical book is less important than the electrons that surround it. Of course it was electrons to begin with. When will we start to skip the printing part?



Oy, vey.

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:12 am

Not this again!

SHANGHAI — Showcased in bookstores between biographies of Andrew Carnegie and the newest treatise by China’s president are stacks of works built on a stereotype.

One promises “The Eight Most Valuable Business Secrets of the Jewish.”

Another title teases readers with “The Legend of Jewish Wealth.” A third provides a look at “Jewish People and Business: The Bible of How to Live Their Lives.”

What do I mean, “not again?” This kind of stuff has been common currency in Japan for years, where the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still sold in bookstores…. as a model for Japanese admiration and emulation, usually.


Some China News

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:24 am

The 11th Asian History Carnival is up, and the next host will be this blog’s own Alan Baumler!

In spite of new evidence regarding Japanese war crimes, a Japanese director is planning a Nanjing Massacre Denial production (is there anything more tiresome than the prospect of a widely announced documentary project produced by a hard-core partisan on a subject the results of which are known in advance and easily rebuttable?) in response to the widely acclaimed pro-fact documentary. Naturally, China is disturbed. This comes in the midst of remarkably ambitious attempts to reach common understanding, though with caveats. It’s important work, though.

Jonathan Clements, author of a biography of Tang-era Empress Wu, is interviewed by the BBC

Taiwanese textbooks refer to China as “China” instead of as “our country” and the National Museum edits its charter: mainland China objects, Taiwanese politicians stand fast.

Barefoot Teachers lose licenses, or at least the right to educate without them. It’s a byproduct of the professionalization of labor in China, the abandonment of the Maoist idea that expertise is a function of will rather than of training. As the article notes, by this time these “barefoot” teachers are seasoned veterans, and many of them are testing into licensure with no problems; some, though are refusing to test, or failing for reasons that have nothing to do with their knowledge or skill bases, or refusing to bribe the right people….

The average age of a Chinese woman at her first marriage has risen by two years in the last fifteen, and that delayed family life is likely to play a role in China’s demographic transition. Sex before marriage is becoming more popular, though, so they’re not missing out, exactly….

The Times Online review of the Dreyer book on Zheng He by Jonathan Mirsky is worth it just for the description of Menzies’ theory: “The most recent theory, masquerading as fact, is the fantasy, disputed by all authorities….” There’s an intriguing emphasis on the Zheng He expeditions as military ventures, and successful ones.

Ross Terrill’s article on Mao Zedong is one in the ongoing series of attempts to cast Mao in something like a consistent light, this time as a freedom-loving youth whose ideas were turned by circumstance, institutional demands and ideology into something “half modern Führer and half ancient Chinese­sage-king.” He is also trying to link China today with the legacies of Mao, casting the last thirty years as a sort of — though he’d never think of using the phrase — incomplete bourgeoise revolution. Mao’s transition to demi-god status — in cultural, not political terms — is incomprehensible to him, and seems deeply troubling.

China’s relationship with Africa has echoes of the “third way” tradition.


Does learning Chinese bring about world peace?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:06 pm

China Law blog asks an interesting question, and as they specifically call us out for a response, I thought I would say something. The question they asks is “Does having Americans study Mandarin make war between the U.S. and China less likely?” At its heart this is the “why study China” question that I think about a lot. In the literal sense, no, I don’t think that more students studying Chinese will make war less likely. War, as in actual shooting, could probably come about only at the end of a very long period of increasing conflict, and I don’t think dropping 2000 Chinese-speakers into the final crisis would do much good. The bigger question is will more language learning lead to less conflict?
Not necessarily. I don’t agree that getting to know people better will make you like them. Sometimes its only after getting to know people that you can really despise them. But in this case I suspect it might help a lot. At present American relations with China are sort of adrift, but at some point Americans will have to think about China and how to deal with it, just as China is trying to deal with America. I think more knowledge about China, from language classes or whatever, would do a lot of good. China’s relationship with the rest of the world is changing, and Americans need to figure out what, if anything they want to do about it. This is a rather complex question, as even Chinese can’t explain to themselves what their current situation is and where they want to go, just like every other country in the world. Present American popular and elite knowledge about China seems to be to be even worse than that about other places. Mao is dead and the Maoist era is over. China is not a super-sized North Korea that happens to produce Happy Meal toys, yet -lots- of people seem not to be aware of this. I think that there is the possibility that the rise of Chinese capitalism and the existence of American capitalism can co-exist and benefit from each other (I’m an optimist), but for that to happen understanding has to exist. Americans at fancy liberal arts colleges studying Chinese so they can read Tang poetry, business people learning Chinese so they can make a ton of cash, people taking my classes to fill a non-western cultures requirement, its all good.


Han Dynasty Pig Sty-Latrine

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 3:29 pm


© Minneapolis Institute of Art

This is posted on the Institute’s rich and well organized site, Art of Asia, which notes that combination pig sty-latrines can be found in rural China today.

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