Down There on a Visit

In many ways this is the book that everybody interested in China has been waiting for, a book describing what it feels like to be a peasant living through the Chinese Revolution. In the summer of 1962 Jan Myrdal, the thirty-year-old son of the famous Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, lived for a month in a Chinese village. The village Liuling is a small collection of man-made caves hollowed out of a soft slope set in the weirdly beautiful loess hills and gorges that cover much of Northwest China. With the help of two interpreters, the author spent nearly all his time talking with the villagers, and the social side of Report from a Chinese Village is the product of these conversations. From the leaders of the village organizations Jan Myrdal obtained considerable statistical information about village life. There are tables showing the annual accounts for 1961 of the village Labor Groups, Labor Brigade, and the local commune. The names, ages, and family relationships of most of the villagers are given and there are lists of the number of work points earned and wages received in grain and cash by each family. These data, though scattered throughout the book and made still more confusing by the lack of an index, still tell us a great deal about the social and economic structure of a Chinese village.

However, the real value of the book lies in the life stories of thirty villagers related to the author in a series of interviews. Many of Myrdal’s subjects are active supporters of the new regime, but some are apolitical, and there is even one “counter-revolutionary.” Since the stories were written down as they were told, without comments, there is a good deal of overlapping and confusion; but from the repetition and confusion a richly textured picture of the village and its hard-working, resilient inhabitants emerges—the days spent hoeing and weeding, from 4:30 A.M. to 6 or 7 P.M. the evenings taken up by discussion meetings. The villagers’ reactions to occasional movies are described. A young housewife gives a picture of the difficulties and advantages of living in a cave. She goes into detail about the monotonous but relatively nutritious grains and vegetables that she prepares for the family to eat, and dwells lovingly on the special dishes cooked for traditional festivals. Such interviews make it plain that although the traditional customs of birth, marriage, and death have been modified, they are still very much alive—“everyone in the whole village goes to their ancestors’ graves that day.” The family has survived, too, and the older generation retains its power to control and frustrate the desires of the younger, despite the encouragement given to youth by the new regime. At the same time, one sees vividly the immense changes that have taken place in and around the village since the Communists came to power. These biographies related by illiterate peasants are particularly striking when they describe the miseries of the past: the meanness and cruelty of landlords and moneylenders, the brutalities of the Kuomintang army.

It is its credibility that sets this book apart from others written about China in the last twenty years. The men and women described in it are neither diabolically inspired ants nor shining heroes; they are just sympathetic human beings. So routine an event as the burning of a family’s grain store by Kuomintang soldiers becomes extremely moving when described by the peasant to whom it happened. It is equally moving to sense the relief these people feel now that they live in times of peace when, in spite of the confusion of innovation, life is gradually improving; to see the pleasure the mothers feel knowing that for the first time their children have a reasonable chance of growing to maturity, and the pride of the old peasants as their grand-children learn to read. The author succeeds completely in involving the reader in the life of the village.

But it may be that the characters portrayed are too sympathetic, too approachable, and perhaps even too Western. While there is a common humanity that transcends the most massive cultural and economic barriers, it would be extraordinary if after only five months in the country Myrdal could understand and convey to Western readers the full range of feelings of Chinese men and women. In a sensitive and interesting Introduction he discusses the emotional links that he sensed between a Chinese village and his own background among egalitarian and conservative peasants in rural Sweden. The book as a whole gives one the impression that he was looking for Asian equivalents of these admirable men. It may be that in some respects he has imposed their image on the peasants of Liuling, and that this helps form a bridge between them and the reader.

There is one transcultural phenomenon that the villagers of Liuling share with all men preoccupied with survival, the desire to tell those in any way connected with authority what they want to hear. Myrdal wanted to hear “the truth,” and if he could not find it at once he would either go on asking questions until he succeeded, or abandon the interview. If, for example, a girl said that she was overjoyed to leave her husband and small children for a year, to work for China and the Communist party under the glorious leadership of Mao Tse-Tung, he would not believe her, and would press her until she admitted that she missed her husband emotionally and physically, though in many ways she found the work rewarding. This is exactly what one would expect. Throughout the book the author seems to have searched until he found something approximating his preconceptions, and then looked no further.

Myrdal’s preconceptions or hypotheses about the peasants in the Chinese Revolution appear to have been those of many Western men of good will and can be summarized as follows. The villagers living in an intolerable economic and political situation, were at first suspicious of the Communists, but then were convinced by their sincerity and altruism, and joined with them to overthrow the hated landlords and oppose the Kuomintang. Many of them were dubious about the various stages of collectivization but most of their doubts were dispelled as living conditions gradually improved and they slowly came to realize that it was possible to have economic security without owning land. This is clearly what the author went to China to find, and in Liuling he found a village that appears to fit this hypothesis with remarkable accuracy. In fact, it seems that he chose the village precisely because it did happen to fit.

I wanted a village where the first agrarian revolution had been carried through on a local basis (i.e., not one where the change came as a result of civil war, but one where the change had been a factor leading up to the civil war) …I chose Liuling for a number of reasons. In the first place it was a typical village in northern Shensi not in the sense that it was average—that I doubted—but because it presented certain features of the modern Chinese peasant revolution in their purest form.

Fortunately it was also one of the few villages in which the authorities would permit a foreigner to stay. It was unusual for the Chinese Government to allow a foreigner to spend a month in any village during a national crisis. But there is no question that Myrdal would not have had a free choice had his tastes been different.

I believe that the author in his brilliant and readable description of the village is as objective and truthful as it is possible to be. However after reading it, those of us who are more interested in the average than the “type” are left with the problem, what validity has the book for China as a whole?

There is of course no average province or region of China; each is distinctive in its own way. Shensi, the province in which Liuling is set, is known for its poverty and conservatism. It is far away from the coast and the Yangtse and has had virtually no contact with foreigners. In the 1860s and 70s the province was largely depopulated by a series of rebellions and famines, so that for the last hundred years Shensi and particularly its northern half has been unlike most of China in having no shortage of land. The peasants in this book traveling from village to village in search of more land or better conditions show an immense amount of mobility. The situation seems to have been similar to that of England after the Black Death, and like eleventh-century England, northern Shensi in the early twentieth century was an area of great peasant unrest. In 1930 this unrest was crystalized into an agrarian Communist revolution which established a small soviet area.

Peasant agitators from this area reached the village of Liuling in 1934. By 1935 the power of the landlords had been broken sufficiently for the villagers to distribute the rich valley land among themselves. Later that year Mao and the Red Army arrived in the area at the end of the Long March, and in 1937 established their capital at Yenan, the local county seat. Close to what became the capital of most of north China, Liuling enjoyed a ten-year boom. One of the impressions inadvertently given by the peasants in their biographies is that the period 1937-47 was even happier than the years since 1949. Valley land had been distributed and there was ample opportunity to clear new land in the hills. As in other villages in the region, a small school and a co-operative store were set up. However Liuling was unique in that some of its villagers inspired by an able and persuasive local peasant named Li Yu-hua, established the first Mutual Aid Team in the region.

In 1947 Kuomintang armies took Yenan and held it for eighteen months, looting, raping, and devastating the whole region. After their withdrawal the peasant partisans returned to the villages and began to rebuild. In the first years of the new regime a new school and a clinic were set up. In 1940 and 1950 Li Yu-hua, apparently on his own initiative, developed the co-operation of his Mutual Aid Team into what was later defined as the first co-operative in the province. In 1955 a high-grade co-operative including all the households in the village and surrounding hamlets was formed on party instructions. In 1958 this was merged with other co-operatives into a commune of about 6,000 people—very small by national standards.

In what respects, then, can Jan Myrdal’s description of Liuling be applied to the country in general? All the indications are that the average village of that size does now have a school and a clinic and that hygiene and elementary education all over the country have improved in the startling way described. But in other respects Liuling stands out as an exceptional village in an exceptional area. In most of China collectivization came soon after distribution and was prompted by party workers often before the peasants were convinced of its advantages. At Liuling it started as a gradual and indigenous growth. In many parts of China the commune movement caused large-scale economic dislocation, but not at Liuling. There the local leaders confident in their revolutionary past stood up to official pressure and refused to allow even the discussion of such ideas as the establishment of dining halls or the application of the principle “to each according to his needs.” Northern Shensi was also exceptional in not suffering badly from the natural disasters of 1959-61. Thus in 1962 food supplies in Liuling were improving from year to year, while as Jan Myrdal points out, the food situation over the country as a whole was “precarious.” Since 1952 and the reconstruction from the effects of the civil war, for all its achievements in industry, technology, public health, and education, the Chinese government seems to have failed to increase basic food production faster than the relatively slow rate of population growth. Report from a Chinese Village does not begin to deal with the causes and effects of this situation. Jan Myrdal’s book tells the truth, but not the whole truth.

History, Rural Life