Chen Village


Chan, Anita, Richard Madsen and Jonathon Unger, pp. 1-40, 74-168, 186-212 in Chen Village: Revolution to Globalization (1984)


The three authors of this text provide a captivating narrative of a small community called Chen Village under the government of the Chinese Communist Party, which enacts various reform efforts upon China with often harrowing effects. From the Great Leap Forward to the campaigns to the Cultural Revolution, Chen Village suffers and struggles to survive under Mao’s and then Deng Xiaoping’s policies. The authors’ argument (or one of them) is that Chinese village leaders, such as Quingfa of Chen Village, often found themselves in a cruel irony: they came to power seen as opponents of class and were removed from power seen as supporters of class. So it is with Chen Quingfa. Commune leaders were looking for a man of words, a man of action, and a man of wisdom. Party leaders also wanted to select someone with a “clean” class background; Quingfa was extremely destitute and had been his whole life. He was illiterate with humble beginnings. He was their man, and was thus appointed secretary.

Quingfa would later come under fire, transformed into an image of a hated landlord. His relations to former removed landlords would incite criticism. He would be accused of giving the best land to himself and his kin, and eating finer foods than were available to the common man. He was disgraced under the accusation that he received foreign capitalist gifts and thus supported capitalism. Overall, having a better life or having a leadership role was often seen as being of higher class. This impossible situation Quingfa found himself in meant in addition to the turbulent nature of China’s economy and the CCP’s campaigns and policies, leadership roles such as his would be severely unstable and in a state of flux. This only hurt China and slowed its recovery.

The authors use concrete evidence. As many Chinese who lived in this time period are still alive today, there is a plethora of direct quotes from interviewees. Written documents from the time period are also used as primary sources. This book is convincing and effective in showing the reader what Chen Village went through during those trying days.

One thing that struck me was how the sense of identity according to kinship refused to budge even in the face of communist reforms and its new ideology. Quingfa was most helpful to his relatives and neighbors, even going so far as to rig the land distribution lottery to ensure they got better land. He grouped his closest friends into the same work team. Even amongst all the talk of communes, equality and classlessness, older ingrained beliefs and traditions remained. It seems to me that Quingfa did create a higher class for himself, his family and his friends. The ancient sense of identity undermined communism, ensuring that the creation of a classless society would ultimately fail.