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.]