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2/25/2007

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

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

36 Responses to “When is a Farmer not a Farmer? When He’s Chinese: Then He’s A Peasant”

  1. Excellent stuff: I’m going to have to think about the usage in Japanese studies (where the term “peasant” is still pretty much the norm for landed rural agriculturalists).

  2. elizabeth says:

    Interesting observations on the evolution of the Chinese peasant in Euro-American discourse. I wonder why the term switched in the 1930s. Specifically, I wonder if it followed or informed a similar discourse in China. (I’ve just started looking into the evolution of social categories of status in Republican China.) Brinkley’s description of Mao’s corpse as peasant under glass certainly hints at Orientalism, but I can only imagine that it also suggests an image of Mao that he himself cultivated as the leader of a semi-feudal China of peasants. I wonder what part if any, the Chinese had in internalizing and informing the European master narrative.

  3. I’m with you, but perhaps farmer isn’t such a good term either? Many of the people labeled as “peasants” don’t really farm, do they? If you were to go with a literal translation of the Chinese nongmin, farmer seems more appropriate. But there’s other terms like laobaixing to work with as well.

  4. It’s also interesting that many urban Chinese use the term ‘nongmin’ as an insult, similar to the derogatory use of ‘peasant’ in English.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  5. Jeremiah says:

    Following Chris’ comment, I’ve heard the term “nongmin” thrown around by PKU students as a general term for “knucklehead.” Given that some of the students at PKU (even now) really do come from “down on the farm,” one wonders how those students feel hearing their classmates use the word in this way.

    That said, I made a conscious decision a few years ago, on the advice of a professor at my university, to use “farmer” (“one who farms” or nongren/nongmin) or “commoners/common people/ordinary people” (Dave’s “laobaixing”) or even just plain “people” rather than the somewhat tired phrase “peasants” when teaching either Chinese or Japanese history. Students fresh from European history were too quick to ascribe “peasants” with ahistorical or Marxist characteristics of serfdom, other students I believe took “peasant” to be a category acted upon (either to be ruthlessly oppressed or whipped into a mindless frenzy) rather than a group of people with common interests but who could and often did act as individuals. I like Hayford’s conclusion: “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.”

    Another great post, Hayford. Thanks.

  6. CW Hayford says:

    Thanks for all your observations.

    A major omission in my posting was the Chinese side, which was just too big to include. But I’d be very grateful if anybody can confirm or deny my impression that the term “nongmin” is also recent, probably the 1910′s or 1920s. It smells like one of the many terms adopted from Japanese usage. It should be translated as “peasant” in most 20th century contexts, but again, we should keep our eyes open for evidence as to where it came from and what it is used to mean in different contexts.

  7. Alan Baumler says:

    Charles,

    Yes, Lidia Liu in Translingual Practice p.329 identifies nong min as a “return graphic loan,” i.e. a Japanese term made up of classical Chinese elements and then brought back to Chinese. That said, her classical readings do seem to define a social class.

    more later, maybe

  8. Sam says:

    I think I come down on the “farmer” side. “Peasant,” these days, has too much of a they’re-too-stupid-to-trust-to-politics connotation to it. Now, that is probably what many urban Chinese believe. But we do not have to participate in the reproduction of that bias. Farmers know their interests and will act upon them if given a chance…

  9. Jim says:

    Qin Hui has an article directly addressing the distinction.

  10. Steve says:

    On the subject of Brinkley’s comments about Mao the peasant, its probably worth remembering that one commonly enough hears Chinese urbanites from a range of social classes readily refer to Mao as a peasant, with a good deal of vemon in their use of “nong-min” Although that probably due to his percieved identification with and extolation of the rural population than due to the actual details of his CV.

  11. Great post. The urban-rural split in China is huge and one has to wonder when, if ever, that will change.

  12. Hilary Smith says:

    For what it’s worth, here are some notes I took a few years ago on an article relevant to this discussion:

    Cohen, Myron L. “Cultural and Political Inventions in Modern China: The Case of the Chinese “Peasant”.” Daedalus 122, no. 2 (1993): 151-70.

    Argues strongly that the Chinese “peasant” (nongmin) as a cultural category is an invention of the 20C, and that it’s freighted with elite prejudices about rural Chinese as ignorant, superstitious, and incapable of participating in full democracy. This cultural prejudice was codified into legal discrimination under the Communists, who identified people as nongmin (peasants), gongren (workers), and jumin (urban residents) administratively. They prevented “peasants” from moving to cities via registration policies. Thus, he suggests that Chinese intellectual elites have been in league with Chinese political elites in denying China’s rural population a significant role in revolution, reform, or governance generally.

    Demonstrates that the culturally loaded urban-rural difference that we (and the Chinese) perceive today did not exist before the 20C. Nongmin is a term that was imported from Japan and did not exist in Chinese before that; when it was imported, it brought along the negative cultural valence that the English translation “peasant” reflects. No one presumed there was a gap in intelligence, wealth, sophistication between urban and rural residents in imperial China, the way Europeans saw such a gap in pre-modern times. So Chinese and European rural residents have actually made opposite transitions in terms of their cultural categories.

    Cultural prejudice aside, Cohen thinks we should analyze rural Chinese in terms of the family as economic unit. When we do that, we perceive that “peasant” families, like other Chinese families, diversify their production so that some are farmers, some are factory workers, etc. Giving rural residents such a negative cultural association obscures the ways in which rural residents actually do participate in change and reform; elites’ cultural disdain for the “peasantry” (shared by American elites) doesn’t adequately reflect their role in China’s economic development.

  13. Du Yisa says:

    Although I admire Sam’s blog, I must respectfully disagree with him on the (intentional or not) implications of the term ‘nongmin’ as an epithet. Not that my opinion carries any particular credibility, but my observation is that ‘nongmin’ – as an epithet – is seldom if ever directed against the rural population in rural areas. It is used against urbanites, many of whom come from rural backgrounds.

    To my mind, this distinction seems significant, so please bear with me. The nouveaux urbanites in China don’t see themselves in competition with the rural population; rather with one another, and this is where comparison accordingly becomes critical, in more than one sense of the word.

    It is their own perceived backwardness that urban Chinese are reacting to, and this arguably drives their desire to separate themselves from the – largely rural – masses. When they call one another ‘nongmin’, it means something to the effect of “you think you’re chic because of all your new stuff, but you still spit in the elevator”, and is directed more against the emerging middle class than against, say, garbage collectors (although the latter also occurs).

    It’s also often true. For example, I would assert that anyone who claims Shenzhen to be cosmopolitan (this was said to me by a reporter at a local paper) is indisputably a nongmin. True ignorance is when one doesn’t even know what one doesn’t know.

    To continue my offensive (if you will), I also beg to differ with Dr Hayford’s characterization of Mr Brinkley’s quip “peasant under glass” as racist. I don’t see how this is any more racist than numerous international (including US) references to Presidents Reagan and Bush II (if you will pardon the flippancy) as ‘cowboys’. Such comments are intentionally caricaturish, intended to subvert cultural icons that are arguably already caricatures – albeit sometimes venerated ones. It seems mistaken to conflate the appropriation and/or subversion of an icon (a la the Danish Mohammed cartoons) with the mythicization (with either a positive or negative valence) of an entire people (viz. the Chinese ‘Jewish’ business publications mentioned in a previous post by Dr Dresner – who, I assume, is a card-carrying member of ZOG (for you peasants out there, that’s an acronym for Zionist Occupational Government (the phrase you are now reading has been added for the purely facetious purpose of including yet another parenthesis at the end of this run-on sentence))).

    Finally, since I feel particularly antagonistic this evening, I’d like to mention that it has always irritated me that Edward Said never offered a single example – that I am aware of – of ‘Occidentalist’ thought (if you will) on the part of Middle or other Eastern cultures – and there’s plenty.

    One reason for this, I believe, is Dr Said’s personal investment in a specific – and highly contrived – cultural icon – Palestinian nationalism.

    Said identified himself as Palestinian, although he was born in Egypt (as was Arafat, among others). This is interesting, because there is no historical, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, political, commercial, medical, religious, philosophical, tribal, or academic group that could be defined as Palestinian prior to around, say, 28 May, 1964. It is simply a late 20th century political construct, created specifically to provide a counter-narrative denying any Jewish claims to sovereignty. For example, when the Palestinian nationalist movement was initiated, its charter specifically denied that Gaza and the ‘West Bank’ were parts of Palestine, as they were controlled by Egypt and Jordan, respectively. However, once they came under Israeli control, they became Palestinian lands. Suffice it to say that if Said and Arafat are Palestinian, every Israeli is Palestinian – but not according to the Palestinian master narrative, which ingeniously claims a history going back to the Phonecians. There were certainly peoples in the region before the kingdoms of Judea and Israel (Jerusalem wasn’t founded by Jews). However, to call them Palestinians, when there is no evidence whatsoever of any kind of cultural, ethnic, religious or other continuity, is as risible as the claim that Xinjiang is an eternal part of China.

    I could go on at – even greater – length, but as this isn’t Frog in a Well – the Levant, I’ll stop here.

    Cheers

    Du Yisa

  14. cat says:

    What about Taiwan before and after 1945?

  15. Du Yisa says:

    Well, I suppose I should thank Ms Smith for her informative comment (which wasn’t visible when I wrote mine), which pretty well validates Sam’s observations about the implications of the term ‘nongmin’. Of course, as I am neither an historian nor professional academic (i.e. I’m a lightweight), this isn’t exactly shocking.

    However, in defense of my previous comment, I’d like to add that the usage and meaning of terms often change over time (e.g. contemporary users of the term ‘dunce’ rarely consider John Duns Scotus), and we may be seeing that here. I have not attempted any kind of systematic survey, but I feel I can safely report that many of those who currently employ ‘nongmin’ as an epithet aren’t cadres or intellectuals, but yuppies. Many of these also speak wistfully of how honest and open people are in their home towns, and how difficult it is to live in the city. To me, this shows that the usage of ‘nongmin’ in contemporary China is somewhat more nuanced than a simple disparagement of the rural poor, although that aspect certainly exists.

    Conversely, I don’t buy the argument that urban elitism didn’t exist in China prior to the import of nongmin as a Japanese loanword. There had to be social forces leading to its widespread adoption. My first assumption would be that it was adopted as part of a convenient rationalization for pre-existing exploitation, again perhaps at least partly as a counter-narrative to republican ideals – but this is unadulterated speculation. Perhaps those who know better can edify me.

    Given continual exploitation of the Chinese rural population over the centuries – I would even half-seriously refer to it as a cultural practice, as it seems so deeply entrenched in the society – it seems to me that while the explanations and dynamics might have undergone some changes, the underlying practice has largely remained the same.

    As this wasn’t a particularly well-informed contribution to this discussion, I can only hope it was interesting.

    Cheers

    Du Yisa
    PRC Shenzhen

  16. Richard says:

    I’m with Du Yisa (well, the bits about China, anyway). And yes, calling Mao a peasant under glass may well have been tasteless (don’t know the context) but as Du Yisa says seems to be a subversive comment on Mao’s political thought rather than a comment on the Chinese people. On Mao’s idolisation of the “peasants” and his own personal history, his father was indeed a rich peasant – he got his hands dirty and made money too. You might want to do a bit of popular psychology since the two fought bitterly – was Mao’s alleged sympathy for the peasants a reaction against his father’s self-aggrandisement (at their expense?)
    Ditto emperor: it was Mao himself who famously compared himself to the first emperor of Qin, and proceeded to recreate an imperial court in the emperors’ imperial garden, was it not?
    Enough of that. There’s a much simpler explanation for the change from “farmer” to “peasant” – as rural life changed dramatically in the dominant anglophone world – US, UK, etc – the connotation of “farmer” also changed radically. As a journalist, I don’t like using “peasant”, but “farmer” doesn’t do it to describe Chinese rural life for readers who associate the term with rolling country acres and huge profits (often subsidised to the tunes of millions). That’s a caricature of American and British farmers, I know, but that’s how they are seen.
    Given the main western cultural dialogue is pro-democracy when it comes to China, it is also hard to attribute to the change of translation to the political/orientalist motivations you provide. If anything it is the reverse: westerners have come to use the term peasant precisely because under Mao farmers came to live a feudal existence, where they had no ownership of the land, and their produce was variously completely given over to, or at best tithed (well, a lot more than a tithe) to their temporal lords and masters.

  17. Du Yisa says:

    In case comment 14 was intended as a response to mine (comment 13), I will add the following:

    Cat, if you make the attempt to formulate an intelligible question, I will attempt an answer.

    Cheers
    Du Yisa
    PRC Shenzhen

  18. cat says:

    No Du Yisa, I wan’t suggesting that Edward Said was born in Taiwan before or after 1945 (his birth certificate was issued in Jerusalem by the British Mandate of Palestine). I was asking if anyone knows how farmers/peasants/people living in the countryside were referred to in Taiwan before 1945 under Japanese rule and after 1945 under KMT rule.

  19. Du Yisa says:

    Cat, thanks for the correction. I was wrong. Said’s family left Egypt (where they lived and had their business) to have Edward delivered in Jerusalem because their previous child had died in Cairo.

    You’re right, he was born in Jerusalem, but he and his family never lived there, and his permanent residence is registered on the certificate as Cairo.

    —————–

    http://www.meforum.org/article/191

    Edward Said and Me

    A briefing by Justus Reid Weiner
    September 20, 2000

    In September 1999, Commentary magazine published an article by Justus Reid Weiner, a scholar-in-residence with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which demonstrated that the autobiographical references of Edward Said, a University Professor at Columbia University, were fundamentally inaccurate. In a September 20, 2000 discussion at the Middle East Forum in New York, Mr. Weiner spoke about repercussions of his widely publicized exposé.

    The Article

    In my article, I showed that contrary to his depiction, Said was in fact not exiled from Jerusalem by the Haganah in December 1947. Nor was there any basis to his claim that he “spent most of his formative years” in Jerusalem and that he “left with [his] family for Cairo” by “the end of 1947.” Similarly Said’s assertion that he lost his “beautiful old house” in the Talbieh neighborhood was revealed to be false. Actually, this avatar of the Palestinian refugees was the scion of a wealthy Cairene family. His father was an American citizen who moved to Cairo from Jerusalem a decade before Edward was born. Living in Cairo until his departure to attend prep school in America in 1951, Edward Said resided with his family in luxurious apartment buildings in the exclusive Zamalek neighborhood where he was attended to by maids and a butler, he played with childhood friends in the manicured private gardens of the Aquarium Grotto, he attended private English and American schools, he was driven around in his father’s large black American cars by a chauffeur, and he enjoyed the facilities at the exclusive Gezira Sporting Club as the son of one of its only Arab members.

    Edward Said and his parents had lived in Cairo, and where his father’s business was located. I consulted the Jerusalem registry of deeds, sent Arabic-speaking researchers to interview Said’s relatives, did researched in the declassified public records of the British Mandatory government in Palestine and the map and aerial photographs department at Hebrew University. I located Said’s birth and baptismal certificates. I interviewed some eighty-five individuals. I discovered many interesting points: that Said was in fact “born in Jerusalem,” but only because his parents feared hygienic conditions in Cairo hospitals after their previously born son died of an infection within days of his delivery. Thus, Edward Said’s birth certificate bears no entry in the box marked “local address,” but it does list a permanent address: “Cairo.”

    …Said spent his entire childhood – except for a few summers and other visits abroad – living in a prestigious neighborhood in Cairo, surrounded by butlers, maids and the like. This was his life, and it had almost nothing to do with Palestine.

    —————

    Hope that clears things up.

    Cheers

    Du Yisa
    PRC Shenzhen

  20. Alan Baumler says:

    It’s not really relevant to this discussion, but the Weiner thing on Said is controversial and I at least consider it to be garbage. Some links are available on Said’s Wikipedia page

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Said

  21. Du Yisa says:

    Many thanks for Dr Baumler for his criticism. That said, the critiques of the Weiner article (e.g. the one in Counterpunch) completely fail to disprove the main assertion of Weiner’s article: namely that Said’s claim that he grew up in the Palestinian Mandate is false.

    In fact, I was unable to identify any devestating critique at all. The biggest revelation in the Counterpunch rebuttal is that Said’s family might have sent him to study in Jerusalem for a year of two. The claim that the overwhelming majority of his life was in Cairo is left entirely untouched.

    You’re welcome to continue to attack me on this, but I believe I should drop the topic, as I’ve already spent more than enough text off-topic. I don’t mind strongly worded corrections, so please feel free.

    Best wishes

    Du Yisa
    PRC Shenzhen

  22. cat says:

    Thank you Alan, for saying what I would have said. The Palestine/Israel debate could go on forever, but it is not very relevant to this subject. Can we get back to discussing the historical, cultural and political usage of the words nongmin and peasant. I really am interested to know how the urban/rural divide was, and is, treated in Taiwan which has a cultural and political history that is both linked and separated from the mainland.

  23. Du Yisa says:

    Since two posters have said basically the same thing, I feel compelled to add one more comment, about history as a discipline, rather than the “Palestine/Israel debate”, as cat put it.

    I fail to see how any responsible historian can consider the 1 Sept 1999 Counterpunch article by Cockburn and St. Clair as anything other than garbage.

    Here it is, for those who want to see it:

    http://www.counterpunch.org/said1.html

    It doesn’t call into question any of the records Weiner consulted (e.g. school and housing records), and provides no counter documentation whatsoever. In fact, the only evidence it provides are questionable ‘eyewitness’ accounts – which, as we all know, are highly unreliable – and only manages to provide two.

    One consists of an aged schoolteacher who was asked if he remembered Said as a student. His response was that he did, and that the boy was ”a bit of a rascal, very naughty.” I’m sorry, but this is laughable. Such a generic answer is so easily prompted that it is immediately suspect. Clearly, other documentation is needed. So why don’t the authors provide it?

    In fact, the entire rebuttal falls apart under brief scrutiny. I could attack any paragraph. Here’s are two consecutive ones:

    “Said’s family, Weiner asserts, was really from Cairo, and only occasionally visited Jerusalem. Weiner concedes that Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, but exerts himself greatly to demonstrate that Said had virtually no other connection to that city. Not only did Said’s family not own the house in the Talbieh district but, Weiner says, there is no evidence to buttress Said’s claim to have attended St. George’s school in East Jerusalem.”

    Note that this doesn’t in any way contest Weiner’s claims. It merely accuses him of having made them. Here’s the following paragraph:

    “In one passage, Weiner insists that the Talbieh neighborhood in Jerusalem was peaceful in the months before establishment of the state of Israel, and that therefore any notion of compelled flight, of exile, of the Said family is wrong. (Yes folks, we’re back with that old chestnut-now disavowed in Israeli schoolbooks-of ”voluntary” Palestinian departure in 1948.)”

    Note that Cockburn and St. Clair completely fail to upset Weiner’s claim. Their counterattack does nothing more than set up a straw man built of anonymous Israeli textbooks. Did the Said family flee or not? The evidence clearly points to the latter, and the Counterpunch rebuttal does nothing whatsoever to refute it. Every paragraph and even every sentence is as bad or worse.

    This isn’t history. It isn’t scholarship.

    I honestly don’t know how anyone can stomach such rubbish.

    I sincerely hope that the standards of this list are somewhat higher.

    Cheers

    Du Yisa
    PRC Shenzhen

  24. J Chan says:

    If the term ‘nongmin’ came from Japanese, and then translated into English as ‘peasant’, then, perhaps, it is incorrectly applied in Chinese. ‘Nongmin’ means ‘agricultural people’. Nong is an adjective. Perhaps a better term in English is ‘People of the land’- a bit more cumbersome, but strictly more correct. In the PRC, at least in the early days, it was glorious to be a ‘nongmin’. And post the 1979 reform, it was frequently the case that the ‘nongmin’ got rich first. A ‘nongmin’ does not necessarily farm, but his life is to do with working the land. There is nothing shameful in Chinese about being a ‘nongmin’. Even in Britain, the British Royal Family describes themselves as farmers.

    There have been several classes of people throughout Chinese history deemed lower in status than the ‘nongmin’, for example scholars (so watch out you educated people out there), merchants and beggars.

    If ‘nongmin’ were a Japanese term, it would be interesting for the learned people here to tell us what was the Chinese term before this term was introduced in China. Or was it a case that the Japanese loaned the term from Chinese in the first place?

  25. Jeremy Wallace says:

    I too have been frustrated by the usage of “peasant” but have had difficulty replacing it when attempting to discuss individuals who live in the countryside including those who do not farm. “Rural resident” just does not roll off the tongue…. Suggestions?

  26. J Chan says:

    How about Agricultural Working Class? The West is already familiar with The Working Class, The Middle Class, and The Upper Class. There is also Blue Collar Workers and White Collar Workers. So translating ‘nongmin’ into ‘Agricultural Working Class’, or perhaps ‘The Chinese Agricultural Working Class’ could clarify matters. That would then not lead to a mismatch of the translation to the peasants of the West or Japan.

  27. katemh says:

    It is nice to see this topic come up. I wonder to what degree the shift has also to do with the shifting definition of “farmer” in the U.S. and Europe in the 1930s? This is a period when farms began to increase in size and farming began its march toward mechanization and professionalization (with the increase in and institutionalization of ag schools and ag studies). Thus, could the shift have been in part a result of a shift in perceptions in the West (primarily in the U.S.) of what it meant to be a farmer, rather than a reflection of intellectual and rhetorical moves in China/in reaction to China itself during this period (the need to construct defined feudal classes)?

  28. J Chan says:

    You mustn’t forget the words ‘farmer’ and ‘peasant’ are both English words, and not Chinese words.

    The word ‘farmer’ has a wide range perception in the West now, and is similar to the perception of the word ‘builder’ in the West. A ‘builder’ ranges from an unskilled labourer to a highly skilled person akin to a civil or structural engineer or architect.

    I would say a farmer in the West is either the owner of the farm or tenanted farmers, that is, they lease the farm from the landowner, and therefore has control over the means of production. A glance at the job adverts in the local newspaper, suggest that hired hands at a farm are called farm labourers. Perhaps the modern English equivalents of peasants are the farm hands or farm labourers. So the perception of a farmer in the West ranges from the humble farm hand to the landed gentry of the landowner.

    I have recently read articles (I cannot recall where) in which farm workers in Russia and Poland were referred to as peasants.

    Perhaps when ‘nongmin’ refers to an individual who did not own the means of production, then its translation is ‘farm hand’ or ‘farm labourer’. When ‘nongmin’ refers to a class of people perhaps it should be translated as ‘agricultural workers’ or ‘agricultural working class’.

  29. lirelou says:

    Very interesting post and comments, but I take feudalism to have ended in Europe (western, at least), well before the French Revolution with the rise of the centralized state, absolute monarchy, and mercantilism. And serfdom certainly survived past the French Revolution in Russia (and I presume some other parts of eastern Europe). A salute to Du Yisa.

  30. elizabeth says:

    I was searching through the “pre-liberation” periodicals mulu at Tianjin library yesterday and found two journals – one published by the Henan University agriculture institute called Nongmin (1936). And another called Xin nongmin (1938). I really can’t wait to check out what the “new peasant” is all about. It may very well be that the term really took off in the thirties. I’ll keep looking for examples.

    I found Du Yisa’s comment about urbanites using “nongmin” as a cutdown to differentiate between one another quite interesting. I spent some time in Kunming about five years ago and people were using a transliteration of farmer to note uncouth behaviour. I do think that this kind of behaviour is slightly different than how urbanites would have used the rural during the Republican era to define their own social status. And I think it is a symptom of the topsy-turvy urban-rural world post Cultural Revolution where city folk hunt out the hidden nongmin in their midst.

  31. [...] remains. Government, says Hexun blogger CCTV-1000, give the allocated money straight to the ‘peasants‘ themselves instead to local authorities where it gets diverted. Keep finances transparent, [...]

  32. [...] a buscarle un significado a este hecho, no han faltado los que apuntan a que la constante utilización del término campesino/s para referirse a la población rural china [...]

  33. CW Hayford says:

    See the pointed comments by Ma Kening, a legislator from Shanxi, on Josie Liu’s blog, China in Transition, to the effect that “nong min” (peasant) shold not be used http://josieliu.blogspot.com/2007/03/2007-npc-cppcc-journal-day-11.html

  34. [...] Frog in a Well’s really interesting discussion of the semantics of, and the history of, the western usage of the term ‘peasant’ with reference to China. [...]

  35. [...] S Buck win the Nobel Prize. The Good earth reads like a song of the war, of china, of farmers (NOT peasants), of women and men, of marriage, of poverty and riches and, of birth and [...]

  36. [...] S Buck win the Nobel Prize. The Good Earth reads like a song of the war, of china, of farmers (not peasants), of women and men, of marriage, of poverty and riches and, of birth and [...]

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