- Chinese Discourses on the Peasant, 1900-1949
Xiaorong Han's book is a comprehensive overview of discourse on peasants' roles in China's modernization as it developed during the first half of the twentieth century. Chinese Discourses on the Peasant is a helpful introduction to the topic for undergraduate classes and a useful reading guide for graduate students in search of documentation on the topic. However, this book does not provide a clear analytical approach, a fresh methodology, or new insights.
Chinese Discourses on the Peasant is comprehensive because of its choice of sources and its mode of presentation. In contrast with most scholars who look at either Marxist theoreticians or non-Marxist intellectuals, Han examines both these groups. Whereas scholars typically focus on either literature or philosophy, Han addresses both these genres and includes novels and short stories from well-known and lesser-known Chinese writers of 1900-1949. He presents the reader with the main arguments exchanged in his sources, avoiding prejudices and biases. Only in the conclusion does Han make his own viewpoint clear. Here, he raises some issues of major importance, albeit not drawn from analysis of his [End Page 421] sources, but rather from his overall understanding of peasants' role in the modernization of China.
A closer look at Han's text shows that he prefers the traditional way of writing history in China-hiding his interpretations in the text (yu lun yu shi 禹论于 史). Han's main argument is that most Chinese intellectuals "went to the peasants for their potential political power" (p. 12). This argument is used by both of the factions he identifies in the debate: the reformers and the revolutionaries (p. 171). Whether the intellectual factions viewed peasants as ignorant or innocent, as victims of imperialism or feudalism, as a revolutionary force or as a passive populace living in unbearable conditions, these intellectuals were interested in peasants' roles only because "the nation's interests were always supreme; in the name of the nation, peasants' interests could be either promoted or sacrificed" (p. 170). Intellectuals' viewpoints were presented in debates of the 1920s and 1930s and clearly varied; Han argues that the variety of viewpoints were due to differences in intellectuals' "grand programs for China in general and rural China in particular" (p. 115). Intellectuals were convinced that they needed scientific proof for their political programs, and this is why intellectuals turned to the countryside to study the peasant role and to academic debates on rural society in which "they endeavoured to link those [ … ] ideas with the realities of China" (p. 116). Because intellectuals' debate over peasants' roles was part and parcel of their political fight for power, they tended to exaggerate the differences between their arguments. However, whether these intellectuals were nationalist or communist, Trotskyite or anarchist, conservative or progressive, they all believed that peasants needed guidance. Han suggests that the peasants were unable to solve the "rural problem" of poverty and inequality without the intellectuals, and the intellectuals were unable to solve the "national problem" of oppression by colonialism without peasant support (p. 138). As most intellectuals came from the countryside, they were well acquainted with the situation, but through their training outside China or in Chinese cities they had adopted ideologies that were "all first developed in the cities" (p. 137). Intellectuals spoke a common language, developed academic attitudes and habits, and articulated scholarly beliefs through which they marked themselves as different from the countryside people they had once been. In order to win peasants' support for their respective programs, intellectuals disguised themselves and pretended to be "learning from the peasants" rather than teaching them how to organize the revolution. One precondition for intellectuals to convince the peasants of their good intentions was "to turn away from one's own family and class" (p. 151). As this was regarded as a major challenge, it was simultaneously "taken as a touchstone for distinguishing a real revolutionary...