Feng Chongyi and David Goodman, eds, North China at War: The Social Ecology of Revolution, 1937-1945

During the Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese revolution was a
many-sided, fragmented and chaotic process, deeply affected by the variegated
social structure of Northern China. It was conducted more under the influence
of local nationalist intellectuals and social elites, and the constraints of the
realities on the ground, than under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP), which had set up its base in far-off Yenan. The military and political
struggles were not always, nor everywhere, under the tight control of the Party’s
central and regional hierarchy. The decisive factors behind undertaking and broadening
the anti-Japanese resistance were the local guerrilla situation and interpersonal
relations, and even among the communists these gave rise to forces acting independently.
Such are the main conclusions of this collection of essays edited by Feng Chongyi
and David Goodman, from the proceedings of a conference held in May 1996 on the
North China resistance bases during the Sino-Japanese war.

This collection generally supports the guiding thesis of the
work by Chen Yung-Fa on the “localisation” (difanghua) of the
revolutionary process((1). But, we may recall that for Chen the revolution in
central China was primarily co-ordinated and directed by the CCP, and was not
the product of a defensive peasant nationalism provoked by Japanese attacks((2).
Against this background, the authors of North China at War insist that
local communities were active participants that included members and activists
of the CCP, with the consequence that control over the revolutionary process,
by both the central and the regional Party apparatus, is downplayed.

Two of these chapters, namely those of David Goodman((3) and
Pauline Keating((4), have already been published, at least in part. But this by
no means detracts from this very useful and enlightening volume, which, helpfully
focused by the methodological reflections in its introduction and conclusion,
enables a greater insight and understanding of the complex social diversity at
work in the revolutionary process. It was not without difficulties and setbacks
that this process finally led to the defeat of the Japanese and the ultimate victory
of the CCP. It is all the more useful to turn back to these issues, because since
the 1980s a plethora of CCP documents, personal memoirs, and works by Chinese
historians on the Sino-Japanese war period have been published that tend to obscure
them, or even conceal them completely.

I will begin with two still very sensitive points, sensitive
because of their current relevance, concerning the historiography of the Chinese
revolution. These are the questions of the degree of peasant resistance to the
construction of the single party state, and of their participation in the organisation
and establishment of grassroots democracy. Lucien Bianco has already stressed
the passive, defensive and hence rather weak nature of peasant resistance to the
CCP’s policies for mobilising and organising them((6). But the communist
revolution did also encounter opposition from peasants who were attached to their
traditions and modes of economic and social organisation and were linked to the
local elites by relationships of dependency((7).

Mutual aid and resistance

Pauline Keating shows us that in the Shaan-Gan-Ning base area
(Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia), the villagers of Suide district undertook their own moves
towards economic reconstruction and the rebuilding of traditional structures of
mutual aid, which did not conform to the communitarian ideal preached and demanded
by the Party along the lines of the village co-operatives((8). The capacity of
the peasants for independent organisation gave them a power of resistance that
provoked the Party to assert its control through policing methods (p. 45). In
1943 the tenants associations in charge of achieving rent reductions and of conducting
the class war against the local elites, were militarised by being merged with
the self-defence militias. In Suide district, which was overpopulated in proportion
to the available land, the resistance to any unification of the revolutionary
process under central control was in fact increased by ancestral conflicts among
the peasants themselves over land ownership.

However, her case study of the Yanshu region, where land was
abundant, allows her to bring out a measure of flexibility in the Party’s
opposition to the traditional peasant forms of organised production. In the Yanshu
villages, the Party supported the independent re-establishment of village communities
by organising small self-help groups, which it intended to become the basis for
a wider collectivisation bringing whole villages together. Here there were no
conflicts, but rather a convergence between the aims of the Party and the interests
of the village communities. Keating states that the Party took its inspiration
from the traditional idea of self-strengthening, according to which the self-governing
village and the mobilisation of the people provided a solid foundation for central
authority. Deeply influenced at the time by the populist anarchism of the radical
students of May 4th 1919, the Party allowed the development of rural democracy
in the economic sphere, wherever local autonomy did not obstruct its own power-building
or, more importantly, its penetration into the heart of the local communities.

A peasant democracy?

According to Feng Chongyi, in the Jin-Sui base area (Shanxi-Suiyuan),
the collectivist spirit of the peasantry was a factor favouring political democracy((9).
This is an interesting thesis, but it ought to have been deepened by a closer
study of the way the co-operatives functioned. This would have given a sharper
outline to the forms taken by the politicisation of the peasantry in the framework
of production under the control of the mass organisations and the local organs
of the CCP. Pointing to Party control over village elections, which was also shown
by Chen Yung-Fa to be the case in Central China((10), the writer draws an over-hasty
conclusion concerning the CCP’s “benevolent despotism” (p. 168)
and its failure to understand the idea of democracy. But to what extent did the
acquisition of land by the majority of the peasants, and their classification
as “middle peasants” by the Party, provide them with political understanding?
An attempt to answer this question would perhaps entail redefining this democracy
by placing its practices in the context not only of local social relations, but
also of their ideological mixture of Maoist Marxism-Leninism and radical populism.

In the resistance bases along the border region of Jin-Cha-Ji
(Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei), the fact that the Party granted political powers to the
peasants in charge of directly electing the village leaders, leads Wei Hongyun
to describe political power at the village level as a peasant democracy. He argues
that the strong organisational unifying presence of the Eighth Route Army contributed
to the victory of the social revolution by overthrowing the power basis of the
former local elites. The revolutionary models and heroes inspired emulation, and
spread the new collectivist egalitarian values, to the benefit of women((11).
This conclusion would perhaps have been a bit more nuanced if the writer had situated
this revolution in the local context of rural society. What were the limits to
the peasants’ adherence to the new values and to their political participation?
By what means was the emulation of heroes and models promulgated by the Party,
and to what extent did it amount to a constraint and a form of violence against
the peasantry? Wei Hongyun’s thesis concerning the Party’s reconstruction
and integration of the pre-existing social, political, and military structures
of local society is more convincing, and directs our attention towards the main
underlying idea shared by all the authors in this volume: namely, the major role
in the formation of the single party state, played at the local level by social
groups which have been neglected by the official historians of the peasant revolution.
These include the local elites and the intellectuals in particular, but also the
middle peasantry (Tian Youru, David Goodman)((12), and, to a lesser extent, the
workers (Gregor Benton)((13). The political processes of the revolution unfolded
within the complex and differentiated structures of the rural society to which
local communists also belonged. Consequently, even within the political agencies
and regular armies led by the CCP, there were social processes that eluded the
normalising and unifying control of the regional Party hierarchy and the Eighth
Route Army. Because of this, the Party came up hard against the paradoxes inherent
in the localisation of revolutionary strategy, as it adapted to the local prerequisites
for political and military organisation.

The paradoxes of “localisation”

The guerrilla warfare strategy, and the policy of recruiting
new members and activists from local sources, gave rise to the difficulties confronting
the Party as it built up its national organisation. The decentralising tendencies
among communists and local activists forming the guerrilla groups, created a strong
resistance to the drive from the leadership of the Party and the Eighth Route
Army towards unifying the local revolutionary forces under its control. The Party’s
regional and central hierarchy accused these forces of “localism” and

It was difficult to establish a balance between Party norms
and the independence required by guerrilla warfare, and in the Shandong base area,
according to E. DeVido((14), this gave rise to conflicts between the local activists
and guerrilla units on the one hand, and the members of the Party leadership on
the other, the latter being regarded by the former as outsiders. The military
situation in Shandong and the province’s accessibility for maritime trade,
help to explain why the resistance to centralisation was particularly strong there.
The widespread Japanese presence under the occupation brought about a large degree
of fragmentation in the base area, because the participation of local activists
in local trade and smuggling networks (the latter being particularly lucrative
in times of war), along with their exclusive control over their own finances,
gave them the means for independent action beyond the edicts of the upper levels
of the district and provincial governments (p. 182). In the period 1939-40, fresh
cadres were dispatched to Shandong to carry out massive, so-called “anti-Trotskyist”
purges, in the local parties. Wherever the influence of the central representatives
of the Party was especially weak, the task of centralising and unifying the leading
local and regional organs of the Party, both military and political, was carried
out by violent means, which could at times become extreme.

The other major case of decentralisation and independence,
which is well documented by Gregor Benton in his comparative analysis at the end
of the volume, was that of Central China. The strength of this chapter is to show,
in terms of their sociological makeup, the uniqueness and social diversity of
the local communist parties and the New Fourth Army. This reflected their “modernity”,
as well as the fact that Shanghai was open, so that the New Fourth Army could
recruit mostly from among its urban elite and literary circles, but also from
among its industrial workers and its women.

David Goodman’s detailed study of the social composition,
dominated by local elites, of the Li Gua Tao religious sect in the Jindongnan
base area, south-east of Shanxi, enables him to establish links between the strength
of the sect’s political resistance, the presence of several members of the
CCP within it, and its close relationship with some of the Party cells((15).

The problems of integration within the resistance base areas
were the paradoxical outcome of the “localisation” of the political
and military aspects of local party building. The Party cells and local militias
actually developed within the pre-existing structures of local organisation, relying
on social, professional and family ties. The economic and patriotic anti-Japanese
slogans were not in themselves a sufficient mobilising force for the building
of local Party branches and their military sections. The valuable contribution
of the volume as a whole is to show up the limits of the politicisation of the
local communists, and of their identification with the resistance base areas.

Amid the upheaval and crisis occasioned by the war, traditional
organisations like the Li Gua Tao religious sect, which was dominated by the local
elites and rich peasants, or by the great land-owning Ma clans in Shaanbei (see
Joseph Esherick’s article), constituted opposition forces against the building
of a class society dividing village communities along the lines laid down by the

The two writers confirm the absence of a mass rallying of
poor peasants and women to the revolutionary policy of the CCP. The better-off
women preferred to look for the freedom to which they aspired in the Li Gua Tao
sect; and the peasants were tied to the large landowners of the Ma clan by paternalist
and patriarchal relations (p. 76). In this respect, a question might be raised
concerning the extent to which the local militias supporting the Ma clan exercised
a power of constraint over the peasantry. This question could be answered through
a close study of the social origins of the militia members, and their relations
with the landowners and with other peasants.

The importance of Joseph Esherick’s article is that it
throws light on the peasants’ lived experiences of the 1948 agrarian reforms.
The peasants who were questioned about this do not remember their acquisition
of the land, but rather the communist government’s grain requisitions in
spite of the poor harvest (p. 79).

Thus the construction of the single party state in the resistance
base areas was characterised by social processes giving rise to contradictions,
which encouraged resistance and raised obstacles to the communist aim of creating
a class society in the framework of a homogeneous and unified party. As this volume
clearly shows, the various trends opposing the central leadership of the CCP and
its representatives were not only to be found outside the Party, in the local
elites, but within it too. The diversity of the social origins of the local communists
is a reflection of the complex society in which the Party grew and developed.

According to David Goodman and Feng Chongyi, the ultimate
triumph of the communists was due essentially to their organisational and leadership
ability, rather than to any charismatic appeal (p. 13). This is certainly the
case, but there remains the problem of how the processes of organisation and development,
relying on models and heroes to provide the moral grounds for legitimacy, were
closely associated with the specific forms of hidden coercion to which they gave
rise. The popular militias, made up of peasants organised by the Party, whose
role in the development of the revolution was crucial, saw their heroes promoted
by the governments in control of the resistance base areas. The militias had given
legitimacy to the Party by protecting the harvests and defending the village communities
against Japanese attacks, but, by their armed presence at the time of the mass
movements for rent reductions and land redistribution, they had also forced the
majority of the peasantry to support the revolution. By closely examining the
forms taken by the unification of rural society, it is possible to reach a more
balanced understanding of the respective weights of tradition and of the social
fragmentation brought on by the revolution, and to explain how and why, unlike
communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the single party state in China
was able to secure its legitimacy and authority, and thus ensure its long-term

Translated from French original by Jonathan

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