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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 260-263

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Salt of the Earth: The Political Origins of Peasant Protest and Communist Revolution in China. By Ralph A. Thaxton Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. xix + 425. $65 (cloth).

Salt of the Earth offers an important perspective on the revolutionary process in the 1930s that draws upon the complex relationship among peasant society, the Guomindang (GMD) state, and Communist revolutionaries. Ralph Thaxton's goal of giving centrality to peasant resistance in the narrative of revolution is laudable. But the reasons he gives for peasant resistance suffer from a tendentiousness that rescues peasant politics from past prejudices only to reappropriate it for a contemporary ideology of the market.

The study focuses on the Hebei-Shandong-Henan borderlands of the lower North China Plain, where salt production and marketing were an essential ingredient of peasant livelihood. An agriculturally poor area, this region was further devastated in the twentieth century by natural and man-made disasters. By the late 1920s the peasants in the area had become partly or, in some cases, wholly dependent for their livelihood on the production and sale of salt. Some thrived off salt production, but for the majority salt provided a means to meet basic subsistence needs. This increased dependence on salt production coincided and clashed with the financial needs of the newly established GMD government, which was as dependent on salt revenue for state-building and the servicing of foreign debt as the peasants were for their livelihood. Having made the salt monopoly into a cornerstone of its financial program, the GMD sought not just to tax but to terminate peasant salt production to maximize its own income from the sale of salt. State intrusion into popular markets was not novel, but the GMD proved to be more effective and ruthless in this endeavor than its predecessors had been. The national revenue police it established in [End Page 260] 1930, the shuijingtuan, was unhampered by the divided loyalties or scruples of local police forces and launched an effort to suppress production that was thorough and frequently violent.

Peasant resistance to the life-threatening measures of the government provides the substance of the study. To protect their livelihood, peasants responded to government intrusion with strategies that ranged from disguising salt production, to taking legal action, to engaging in outright, occasionally violent confrontations. A turning point came in spring 1932, when 3,000 peasants and their sympathizers demonstrated in Puyang township, following which saltmakers' associations were organized across the region to coordinate further resistance activity. Peasant alliances, which cut across class and village lines, were intended not to engage in class struggle or to overthrow the government but to defend local livelihood. They sought, and sometimes received, the help of GMD magistrates, who were more sympathetic to the plight of peasants than were their superiors in Nanjing. Local intellectuals, some of them members of the Communist Party since the mid-1920s, participated in this resistance. Thaxton insists that peasant resistance was autonomous and drew upon a long-standing legacy and culture of peasant resistance: "Chinese Communists did not directly organize the saltmakers' struggle, but rather orchestrated it through local non-partisan activists" (p. 25). Local Communists for their part were careful to eschew ideological blueprints in order to accommodate peasant demands. Peasant-Communist cooperation bore fruit during the anti-Japanese war, when networks established during the early 1930s became crucial to Communist organizing. These networks sustained their utility in the civil war between the Communist Party and the GMD. Fear of the return of GMD taxation was an important reason for the peasants to throw their weight behind the Communists.

The study is based on rich documentation that includes interviews with participants in the events, and it offers valuable detail with keen attention to local differences. Thaxton's call for attention to state intrusion as a provocation to peasant resistance, his insistence on autonomous peasant resistance practices, and the connection he notes between agrarian radicalism of the early 1930s and...