(a) Hard life on the plain -- (b) The revival of rural commerce -- (c) Abolishing the People's Communes -- (d) Trouble
with tangerines -- (e) Revisiting the past
In autumn 1978 I travelled by day and night in Shandong, then and now one of China's most developed provinces.
Rural life was still visibly poor and reliant on human or animal labour. Simple courtyard inns - four-sided low buildings
around a large empty square - displayed signs saying they catered for `horses and carts'. Late at night, the peasant carts
were still on the move: vast loads of fodder or straw piled ten feet high, with the driver wrapped in sacking and asleep on
top. Opposite the Shengli or Victory Oilfield, a showpiece for China as it now embarked upon modernization, there were local
villages of squat mudbrick houses huddled together, with a foot of straw stacked on wooden frame roofs to keep off the rain.
The peasants defecated into an open cess-pit, whipped by the wind blowing across the salt marshes.
The suburban farms on the outskirts of Beijing and Shanghai had long been modernized, with mini-tractors,
greenhouses and plastic tunnels. Even during the Cultural Revolution they had done well, supplying the city's state-run shops
with vegetables. They used the proceeds to set up small-scale industry, turning out mats and household utensils, and some
simple farm machinery. They began to make more money in the free markets which were re-opened in the late 1970s. Their industrial
enterprizes were the forerunners of the Township and Village Enterprizes (TVEs) which would become so profitable in the 1980s.
But away from the big cities, the countryside remained backward. On any long train journey, the hardships of rural life were
easily visible from the carriage window.
Cautiously at first, the post-Mao leadership encouraged rural communities to revive incentives which had
been frowned on, and to parcel out the land for farming by individual households. By 1980 peasant markets were again thriving
in rural towns at the county and district level: a journey across the loess plateau from Yan'an to Xi'an revealed bustling
activity. In 1982 I visited Anhui province to splash around in the mud of villages where the People's Communes were being
dismantled. The land was divided into small strips with complicated contracts allowing families to farm it individually. Peasants
could build new houses, sell produce on the free markets, and start their own small enterprizes. The one-child-family campaign
was pushed hard: couples who signed up for it might get a prize, or be given priority to buy a bicycle or a sewing machine.
No one wanted to restore the commune system, and they give a vivid account of what had gone wrong with it. But I noticed that
those who were doing best were often relatives of the local cadres who were most enthusiastic about the reforms.
A year later in Fujian province, I discussed a difficult question with provincial officials: if the collective
assets are divided up and some people are allowed to get rich, might they not do so at the expense of the public interest?
And how could eager peasants be dissuaded from digging up good farming land to build new houses? They denied that it was a
problem, but the local paper was full of complaints that good earth was being stripped off the fields, and orchards were being
cut down, to feed the voracious brick-kilns.
The spirit of rural reform was moving away from the collective ethos which I and fellow-enthusiasts had admired
when we first visited China in 1971. Over sixteen years later, I returned to the model brigade of Dazhai to see how it had
changed: I already knew that its peasant hero Chen Yonggui - promoted to Vice-Premier in the Cultural Revolution - had died
of cancer, his reputation destroyed by allegations that the Dazhai success was a myth. On the spot I discovered that the truth
that Dazhai's new leaders were adopting the new policies without repudiating the popular efforts of the past. I also found
out just where we had our group photograph taken in 1971: it was a small but humiliating discovery.
(a) HARD LIFE ON THE PLAIN
April 1980, Tianjin-Shanghai railway
It is time to go home on the North China plain, along the railway line from Tianjin city into Shandong province.
The peasants work in small groups, a dozen shouldering their hoes to walk back along paths of beaten earth.
A shepherd picks himself off the side of a gully where his sheep have grazed. A ploughman stands in front
of his ox and wooden plough, urinating. In the course of an hour's journey, as dusk falls, I see two tractors. One is busy
around the wigwam-like framework of bamboo poles which means a new well is being sunk. The other is actually ploughing - on
an eccentric course to avoid the low mounds of ancestral graves.
The villages, the Chinese would say, are `neither poor nor rich.' Houses are single-storied, with dry mud
walls but solid tiled roofs. They have walled courtyards enclosing the `private plot' where vegetables can be grown or chickens
raised - and since last year sold in the free market of the nearest town.
I have seen much poorer. There are frequently stacks of new bricks, heaped in a semi-circle. And the pigs
look comfortable in their mud pens, circular in shape. The ground is dry and, except where recently broken, covered with late
frost at the end of the day. All the ditches have been cleared and channels re-dug ready to irrigate the spring wheat.
Some production groups - perhaps one large family - work late to hoe down the rows. Even allowing for a long
lunch break they spend ten hours in the fields. A father cycles home on a path snaking across the fields; three children run
behind him. In the train I turn on the light with its blue cut-glass stem and chintz lampshade.
I wake to the classic sight of people standing outside their huts and cleaning their teeth (in the towns
they do so on the pavement). This is the Yangzi valley, greener, more water and wealthier. Some villages have two storied
houses with balconies and painted balustrades. Every house has its own small haystack kept dry by a thatched lid looking like
There are frequent canals with freight barges poled by two men. Some of these are made of concrete but kept
afloat on the simple principle of displacement. The Chinese are proud of them. There is much activity hauling mud out of the
bottom of ponds and canals and dumping it at the side. It serves as a low-value fertilizer.
Unlike the North, those working in the fields are segregated - all women, or all young men. Perhaps it is
the more commercial life close to a big city which draws off the older men. The villages grow rich selling vegetables to Shanghai
and there are long strips of plastic sheeting to cover the early crops.
The women carry water on the traditional carrying pole with a bucket at each end, moving with a springy trot
in rhythm to the flexing of the bamboo. In `revolutionary operas' (Gang of Four period) they would frequently burst into song
while doing so, or shout cheerful remarks about the new Party secretary.
I have window-gazed for several hundred miles along a strip of countryside which, next to the railway, Chinese
define as highly developed. Almost everyone I have seen is working with a hand implement, often made of wood, to till land
which becomes fertile only with immense investments of human labour.
(b) THE REVIVAL OF RURAL COMMERCE
February 1981, Huangling, Shaanxi province
The dust is just beginning to rise in the main square of Huangling County Town, Shaanxi province, north-west
China. The melon-seller is still asleep where he lies guarding his stock. The man at the noodle stall is pumping his bellows
for the first customers. Neat children cross the bridge and head for school above the old shrine on the hill.
Rather scruffy but basically well-ordered, this is the pattern of life in small-town China which the visitor
rarely gets to see although it holds the key to the country's future. This month, a long editorial in the official People's
Daily called for the `systematic development' of China's small town economy. There are over 3,200 towns at the `county'
or similar level, and more than 50,000 small market towns in the communes, some of which - the People's Daily said
- `are in desolation and utter decline.'
They have suffered from neglect during yeas of emphasis upon large-scale development in and around the big
urban centres. Local commercial enterprize was also restricted during the Cultural Revolution, so that `the shops closed down
and none appeared on the street.' All this is now changing and the commodity economy rules again. Every sort of wheeled vehcle
now seems to be on the move in rural China, taking produce to the small town market. A trussed pig wriggles in a wheelbarrow.
Chickens hang on bicycle handlebars.
In Huangling the state administration confronts the individual peasant produce face to face across the main
square. On one side is the post office, now decked with posters to advertize China's new six-figure `zip code'. Next to it
is the bus station, where no service leaves more frequently than twice a day in this still backward region of the north-west
(not far from Yan'an, where Mao led the revolution.) The bus timetables are written up according to the ten-day week of the
nongli - the agricultural calendar still in general use.
The free market on the other side of the square only opened last year. Local officials throughout rural China
have been resistant to restoring petty commerce. In the Cultural Revolution they would have been accused of `restoring capitalism.'
Apart from political hesitations, they are biased in favour of the state-run wholesale and distribution network, which is
also a source of sideline perks for them.
Spread on towels in the dust, or on tables made out of boxes, there are local apples, cabbage, peppers, and
tobacco, twisty doughnuts and glasses of pale tea. Someone has produced a stock of sunglasses, to be worn with panache by
young men driving lorries and tractors. But the People's Daily wants to encourage local enterprizes on a larger scale
The small town has historically been the nodal point of the rural economy. Here the peasant producer sells
his produce, and the commune still does so collectively. Here is the only hairdresser, bathhouse, watch repair shop and cinema
within reach, probably the only secondary school and hospital and whatever light industry the district possesses.
The Chinese now estimate that by the end of the present century where will be more than a hundred million
surplus labourers in the countryside, and tens of millions of unemployed urban youth. But the People's Daily optimistically
argues that if every small town could create two thousand new jobs in local industry, service trades and commerce, the problem
would be solved.
The concentration of industry in large towns cannot be blamed only on the Cultural Revolution, for considerable
efforts were made then to develop small-scale industry in the communes. It grew worse between 1976 and 1979, in the ambitious
mood of Hua Guofeng's `Four Modernizations.'
Outside Huangling the road from Yan'an through to the provincial capital of Xi'an is being widened: the two
hundred miles journey at present takes two jolting days. Bulldozers attack the loose red earth from above; locally-hired peasants
tap it down below with the ancient device of a stone in a rope sling, hoisted and thumped down.
Changes like these all help to promote the rural market economy which (as Mao Zedong argued twenty-five years
ago) is the vital link between agriculture and industry. The question remains whether this can be done without eventually
undermining the collective system which Mao also built up in the People's Communes.
(c) ABOLISHING THE PEOPLE'S COMMUNE
February 1982, Anhui
Who has not hear of Fengyang's fame?
From where the last Ming emperor came?
His folk took all the land, and then
Fengyang had famine, nine years in ten.
The people of Fengyang County in China's central Anhui province are not fatalistic about their lives (nor,
contrary to the stereotype, are the Chinese anywhere else.) They blame people for their troubles, not the gods.
The people of Fengyang now talk again about the state of famine to which they came very close - not in the
Ming dynasty but in the last twenty years. And once more they refrain from blaming heaven. The poverty trap from which they
are only just emerging had specific causes in the unwieldy collectivization policies of the late 1950s onwards and the inability
of local officials to do their jobs properly.
It is a story which Western students of China like myself approach at first with some scepticism. Buffeted
by political changes since the Cultural Revolution, many of us still cling to the view that whatever else of Mao's great vision
proved fallible, the large-scale organization of rural labour in the People's Communes has worked and will or should continue
to. Eleven years ago on my first visit to China writing for the Guardian, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, I watched
the peasants of the national model for agriculture, Dazhai Brigade in Shanxi province, marching out to work, hoes shouldered
in military style, for the afternoon. They looked a little listless, not to say fed up. But I comforted myself with the thought
that this reflected `the natural rhythm of rural life.' It was a good thing it survived - even a credit to the Cultural Revolution
- I said and later wrote.
The people of Fengyang County have their own explicit view of what it was like to march out collectively
to the fields: `We went out to work like a lazy dragon' (in a long shuffling `tail' or line) `but we came back from work like
a gust of wind!' And while they were out in the fields, `we did our jobs all raggle-taggle, just as if we were working for
a foreign boss' (i.e. they slowed down the moment no one in authority was looking.)
Last year the whole of Anhui province completed a new revolution in the countryside, putting into operation
a new scheme which allows each peasant household to farm a plot of land, pay the state taxes, fulfil the state quota, contribute
to the collective welfare fund, and keep the balance for itself. No one marches to work. No one is assigned jobs by the village
leader. The land has been divided, although the collective `team' still holds the title and can re-assign it. It is called
the `responsibility system', but a better term for it would be the `contract system' since the peasant producer acquires through
it both rights and obligations. On the earthen shelf in every home, along with the family photoes and beneath the New Year
posters, is the Contract Book, bound like all official documents in China in a shiny red plastic cover.
Anhui started the scheme in early 1979 before anywhere else and is officially regarded as the national pace-setter.
And Fengyang County is the pacesetter within Anhui. The hot issue at the moment is the virtual abolition of one of Fengyang's
forty-five People's Communes in an experiment which if successful is likely to be copied all over China. The new system has
undoubtedly produced surpluses and some prosperity for the first time in years. It is also still feeling its way, and after
a week's travel in Anhui I can foresee, more easily than my hosts would admit, some big snags ahead in the next three or five
But before discussing the details, should we mourn and deplore what is at least a whittling away of the collective
structure imposed on the Chinese countryside since the mid-1950s (and quite possibly a step towards its complete abolition)?
Or should we instead put ourselves in the place of the Chinese peasant sloshing around at this time of year in the mud (there
are no cement paths in the villages) and consider a rather different historical perspective towards the People's Communes,
which is less flattering both to Mao Zedong and to many of our previous assumptions?
The story starts in the early 1950s, when the Chinese were officially bent upon `Learning from the Soviet
Union.' In appearance, the movement for advanced agricultural cooperatives, launched by Mao in 1955 and followed by the Great
Leap Forward in 1958, owed nothing to the Soviet model - and the Russians publicly disapproved of the People's Communes. But
people in China now argue that these expeeriments were marred from the start by a fatal but invisible Soviet import. It was
assumed that agriculture could and should be organized on a large-scale and uniform collective basis, and that it could be
made to work by the authoritarian intervention of the Communist Party in the whole labour process.
It is true that Mao at that time criticized (though only behind closed Party doors) Stalin's approach to
collectivization for not `trusting the peasants.' But Mao himself only trusted them as long as they accepted the formula `Big
in Scale and Common in Ownership' as being necessarily appropriate for Chinese agriculture. For places like Fengyang, already
disorganized by the 1955-56 movement to set up advanced coops, the People's Communes caused complete confusion. At first there
was free food for everyone handed out from the overflowing public granary. The peasants were not allowed to keep even one
catty of grain at home, creating the illusion of plenty, since no one had ever before see so much grain gathered together
in one place. The grain soon ran out, and before long they were eating dogs. In the three years 1958-61, out of a total population
of 380,000 in the county, more than 60,000 died `in an irregular manner' - the usual euphemism for starvation. This chilling
statistic has never been published before.
Throughout China the situation grew so serious that in 1960 the Head of State Liu Shaoqi, till then uneasily
collaborating with Mao, was summoned back to his home town to see it for himself. Horrified, he returned to Beijing, confronted
Mao, and for a short year or so the policies eased. In 1961 the flight of people to the cities seeking food was reversed.
But then came in quick succession: 1962, Mao's call to `Never Forget Class Struggle'; 1963, the Four Clean-ups movement against
alleged capitalism in the countryside; 1964, the movement to Learn from Dazhai and `Put Politics in Command.'
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, peasants in Fengyang had to study the Little Red Book during their
lunchtime rest, and again in returning from the fields. They had to respond to a mass movement to write poems in their spare
time. `Some households were so poor', I was told by a Chinese researcher who has made his own study of the area, `that they
only had one bowl between them for their rice.' As late as 1978, according to one account, beggars still knocked on the doors
clutching their official permits [allowing them to travel - the local authorities were glad to see them go ] and asking for
Local officials are still reluctant to discuss these years in such detail, perhaps partly because many of
them not so long ago were either being struggled against as class enemies or leading the struggle teams. They are more inclined
to stress that, with or without the Cultural Revolution, the large-scale organization of labour in a backward rural economy
is too ambitious an exercize and that early enthusiasm was bound to wane.
How could local cadres organize anything between sixty and 120 or so peasants in a team of brigade to work
efficiently day by day, and then to assign `workpoints' which adequately distinguished between those who made more or less
effort? Realistic assessment of workpoints caused too much strife, so cadres were tempted to narrow the differentials. The
hard worker might get ten, the lazy one would still earn seven or eight. Favouritism was also shown towards relatives and
friends. The whole business was bu haoyisi, `not nice', liable to cause aggravation and disturb the harmony which a
society living close to the margin must in self-preservation maintain.
A well-known scholar in Beijing, who began investigating the modern transformation of Chinese agriculture
long before the Communist victory, makes a more fundamental theoretical point. The whole idea of collective labour and reward
in agriculture is based on a false analogy with the employment of industrial labour on fixed differentials of pay. Modern
industry can quite precisely quantify its tasks and output, and the industrial process allows for the impartial assignment
day by day of work and reward. In the countryside this can only be done where agriculture is thriving and already semi-industrialized
- for example in the `suburban communes' near Beijing and Shanghai. Places like these still keep the commune more or less
intact, or have introduced less radical forms of the `responsibility system.'
But in undeveloped agriculture such a process can only be partial and subjective, and the only quantification
is provided once a year by the harvest. Placing even the best intentioned cadres under heavy strain, it opened the door to
lethargy and corruption in the People's Communes.
(d) TROUBLE WITH TANGERINES
November 1983, Fujian
The countryside near Fuzhou, capital of the southern province of Fujian, has long been known for its luscious
tangerine orchards. In the last two years it has become better known for the piles of brick, stacked everywhere as part of
the big new rural construction boom. The new `responsibility system' in Chinese agriculture, through which the collectively
owned land has been parcelled out under contract to individual households, has helped bring wealth to many peasants. And what
is more natural than to spend it on a fine new house with concrete floor, tiled roof, and solid walls of brick.
But the apparent harmony of brick kilns amid the tangerine orchards overlays a contradiction which is just
beginning to be discussed in the local press. Tangerine trees grow best on raised mounds of earth. Over the years this has
led to rich soil being heaped up around them. After visiting Luxia Brigade in Chengmen Commune I asked, almost as an afterthought,
where they had obtained the raw earth for the bricks which were stacked by the thousand all around. `From the tangerine orchards
which we have cut down', I was told. It may have been justified in the case of this particular village, close to the provincial
capital, which is rapidly becoming a rural-industrial estate. (As well as bricks, it makes wooden furniture, paper boxes,
saws, plastic rope and even suitcase keys.)
But a letter published in the Fujian Daily on 25 November which I read on the same day of my visit
to Luxia Brigade pointed to a wider problem. `The evil trend of digging up the fields to make mud bricks', said the headline,
`must be stopped.' The writer complained that throughout his county the peasants were helping themselves to good earth for
brick-making, in some places baring the soil till they reached bed-rock. When reproached for doing so, they would reply that
`Now the land has been contracted out to us peasants, you can mind your own business. What's the harm anyhow in taking a bit
of earth to make bricks?' But some more perceptive peasants, according to the letter-writer, understood very well what was
at stake. `This is killing the chicken to get the eggs,' they lamented. `If it does not stop, we shall be smashing the rice-bowl
of our children and grand-children.'
While some food-producing communes have thinned out their fruit trees, others have been planting new orchards
- perhaps this illustrates the trend towards specialized cultivation which the `responsibility system' is supposed to encourage.
In one such orchard near Fuzhou, the work-force told a revealing story. It was only since 1977 that the orchard had been planted,
and only since 1982 that it had begun to show a profit. Yet how had the land been cleared in the first place (it was previously
barren) and when? The answer was readily but uncomprehensively supplied. The work had begun in 1972, with the use of volunteer
labour to open up the barren soil and plant it with mulberries as a first crop. Was volunteer labour a good thing then, and
was it still in practice? Of course not, came the answer amid much laughter. In those days people just came to work for the
food. Nowadays under the responsibility system everyone had enough food of their own.
Officials in charge of the Fuzhou area are becoming aware of the problems which will arise if the habit of
collective labour is lost. One of the five basic principles of the new system, they say, is that there should be collective
labour before and after production (chanqian chanhou de fuwu). Paddy rice is supposed to be planted and more waterworks
to be maintained by joint effort; and the spraying of fields and other pest-prevention also done jointly. But a circular issued
in November by the Communist Party Central committee's Rural Policy Research Office suggested that in some areas the problem
is still the reverse - that demands for collective labour are felt to be too heavy. The circular specified that a ceiling
should be set on voluntary labour, which should generally be kept within twenty days a year. The maximum was thirty days after
which peasants should be paid. The answer may be that in poorer parts of rural China collective efforts are still generally
perceived to be essential, but that in the better-off areas the peasants now wish to go it alone.
The other four principles outlined by Fuzhou officials are:
* To put into full effect the responsibility system, with production fully contracted out to the household.
Less than five per cent of Fuzhou's production teams - mostly specialized vegetable growers - still function as the basic
* To discard the 1970s policy of `taking grain as the key link' and to diversify production, with particular
attention in the mountainous and seaboard zones to the encouragement of forestry and fishery. Ten per cent of the hillsides
has been parcelled out to peasant households to hold `from generation to generation' (i.e. on the same basis as the `private
plots' of arable land).
* To encourage `specialized' households and groups which will develop skills in commerce, service, transport,
building, repairwork etc. These will provide a substitute for (and, it is claimed, an improvement on) the services formerly
provided by the collective.
* To develop flourishing markets and to allow goods to circulate freely for sale. Private shops may be opened
and produce may be transported beyond the provincial boundaries without bureaucratic delay - for example, fish to the markets
By contract to my last visit to the Chinese countryside - Anhui province in February 1982 - officials will
now admit - though with some reluctance - to what are called `certain problems arising from the new situation'. These were
listed in Fuzhou as follows:
1. A falling off of peasants enthusiasm for education, with children being kept back to work in the fields.
To counter this, more schools were being built, and minimum standards of education were now demanded for employment in rural
2. A revival of feudal superstitions. `When the masses have money, some of them spend it on making Buddhas
and building temples.' This was described as a form of `spiritual pollution' and I was told in Beijing that the current urban
campaign against this unhealthy tendency would in due course shift to the countryside. However it has since been stressed
that the countryside will be left alone.
3. Excessive expense on weddings. This is a familiar complaint since the Cultural Revolution.
4. The problem of unregulated building as described above.
5. The burden of collective taxation is still too heavy. Subtractions for the brigade budget should not exceed
eight per cent of peasant income. There were still `too many cadres' being supported by collective funds, and most teams should
be able to manage with just one accountant to keep the books.
It does not take much perception to become aware of the tension between the collective and the individual
interest which both the `achievements' and the `problems' described to me in Fuzhou reveal. On the one hand the need for collective
labour is stressed, while on the other hand the burden of collective taxation is said to be too heavy. One has the impression
of an effort to square the theoretical circle behind which must lie substantial differences of opinion which only rarely break
When pressed hard on this fundamental contradiction between what used to be called `public versus private
interest', one official explained how it is well understood in Beijing that the present system will not, as it stands, provide
the necessary incentives for future `capital construction' in the countryside - the investment of labour and resources in
new projects for the benefit of the community.
`Deng Xiaoping has made it clear', I was told, `that the new forms of organization contained in the responsibility
system are only satisfactory for the present time. As for the future, we still have to investigate how it can be developed.
We have only just made a beginning - it is not clear where we shall go next, but we do know that we cannot return to the old
system. We also know that we have to create a new spirit of enthusiasm and a new form of collective.'
This commitment to seek the establishment of new - and, it is said, `more genuine' - forms of collective
enterprize, is seriously expressed. It also ties in with recent reminders that the post-Mao leadership of the Chinese Communist
Party has not abandoned the goal of proceeding along the path of socialist transition in the direction of a communist society.
But however serious the theory, it is not at all clear that it is seriously reflected in practice. The most recent innovations
to the responsibility system, set out in the Party Central Committee's Document No 1 of 1984, can only point in the other
Document No. 1, it has been explained, has been drawn up with the aim of `doing everything to make the peasants
get rich', though it is acknowledged that it has faced opposition due to `remnants of Lefist influence.' Its most important
provisions are (1) to allow peasants to hold contracted land for a period of at least 15 years (until now land has only been
contracted out for between two and five years), and (2) to allow contracted land to be transferred from one household to another.
The purpose of these reforms is clear enough. The longer lease of contracted land will encourage peasants
lessees to invest more laour and capital in developing its productivity, rather than milking the soil dry of its fertility
for short-term gains. And the provision for transfer of holdings will encourage the concentration of land in the hands of
those best able to farm it efficiently - while other peasants will give up cultivation altogether and work in the expanding
sector of rural industry and commerce. The fact that these reforms are necessary also indicates the inadequacies of the responsibility
system in its original form. It is open admission that the system can lead to a reduction in investment (and therefore a loss
of fertility) and to inefficient cultivation - problems which on my first visit in early 1982 were blamed upon the previous
system of collectively organized production.
But what will be the effect of these latest reforms upon production relations in the countryside? Long-term
leases must further encourage peasant households to regard the land as individually owned - even though title still belongs
to the surviving rump of the collective system. And the transfer of holdings will be accompanied by the payment of `proper
compensation' on the basis of the original land price `appraised according to its grade.' Money will change hands, even though
the transaction is supposed to be handled by the collective, and land will once again after nearly three decades have a cash
value. With reforms such as these, the struggle between public and private interest can only grow more acute.
(e) REVISITING THE PAST
August 1987, Dazhai, Shanxi province
Returning to the former model village of Dazhai in North China, sixteen years after a visit during mid-Cultural
Revolution, I faced two problems. The first was how to find the place where we - the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding
1971 study tour - had posed for our group picture wearing Mao caps and badges.
My sense of geography was disorientated by the vast 200 bed hotel built in Dazhai, and now dustily empty,
since the village was demodelized in the late 1970s. But I found the spot eventually. It was right in front of the village
public lavatory - a detail we had overlooked when we assembled in 1971 - and next to a large hoarding with a quotation written
by Lin Biao (Mao's chosen successor but shortly to die, after an attempt on his life).
The other problem had to do with the relativity of historical truth. It was not just the discrepancies in
statistics between then and now, but whether Dazhai's peasant leaders had falsified the record and there had been no model
Fortunately the photograph, now peered at warily by the current village leaders, helped me to find Mrs Song
Liying. She had been active in 1971 in the women's branch which worked so hard to terrace Dazhai's rocky slopes, and was still
a Communist Party member today, though retired.
The political dramas which affected Dazhai since I last visited included the fall of the peasant leader Chen
Yonggui, made a Chinese Vice-Premier by Mao Zedong but buried without a memorial service when he died in 1981. (His son was
also accused of committing rapes). Dazhai officials were said to have inflated their production figures and relied on special
subsidies. Jiang Qing is supposed to have been visiting Dazhai while Chairman Mao was dying - and dawdled on her way back
For Mrs Song all of this seems remote and on a different plane from the realities of what she and her husband
(the local Party Secretary before Chen Yonggui) and the people of Dazhai actually did. `We laid the foundation then for all
the good things of today,' she says firmly. `Now the village has six cars, seven motorbikes and eight tractors.'
`But that is only possible because we built the dam, levelled the land, and recovered from the great flood
of 1963 by adhering to Self-Reliance and Hard Struggle.' Yes, she adds, Dazhai had been declared `ultra-Leftist,' and it was
probably a mistake to concentrate so much on growing grain instead of diversifying. Yes, she used to go to a lot of conferences
in Peking till Chairman Hua Guofeng (Mao's immediate successor and a Dazhai enthusiast) was demoted. But the important thing
was that they had made Dazhai what it is today.
There is a poster of Chairman Mao meeting Premier Zhou Enlai on Mrs Song's wall, a modest black and white
TV, lots of pictures of grown-up children and their families, and a well-scrubbed earthen floor. Outside they have a patch
with ripening tomatoes which would not have been allowed in 1971. Other changes in the village are a private shop - the owner
nets 1000 yuan (160 pounds) a year - and a private shoe-mender in a building still labelled `library.'
There are also private vegetable plots at the start of the track which goes up the hill to the reservoir,
through terraces of maize and past poplars which were young saplings when I last came. It was once a political nature trail
for thousands of Chinese as well as foreign groups every year. (They had to go clockwise round the valley to ease the traffic
This time there is one old man sucking his pipe and guarding a new orchard where fifty of the villagers work
This is diversification, but it is watered by the sweat of the '60s.. Higher up the hill, some of the less fertile terraces
have been planted with timber.
There is an evident generation gap between Mrs Song and Mr Gao, the new Dazhai Party Secretary who does not
like talking very much about the years when `Learn from Dazhai' was picked out in stones on 10,000 Chinese hillsides. History
for Mr Gao begins at the end of 1978 when the Deng Xiaoping economic reforms began to take hold. He explains that there was
considerable resistance in Dazhai to the new policy of parcelling out the land to individual households, rather than working
it collectively and sharing out the proceeds in roughly equal proportions on the basis of `work-points.'
`Some of our old people remembered the bad old days,' he says. `There were fears of polarization - that the
rich would get rich and the poor poorer. We had to be educated by the party and the state to overcome the spirit of egalitarianism.'
Dazhai edged into the new system slowly, first splitting the `brigade' into three production teams, and then
into six working groups, still organized collectively. It only made the great leap into the household `responsibility system'
in January 1983, probably the last village in the whole of north China to do so.
It was with Mr Gao that I had my problem with statistics. His version has the people of less than 160 yuan
(twenty-seven pounds) in 1978. I had been told in 1971 that the figure was already 300 yuan (fifty pounds). But Mr
Gao was loyal to his predecessors, refusing to admit that anyone had falsified anything. Chen Yonggui, he said, `made some
good contributions - and this is the opinion of the party's Central Committee.'
Why, I wondered, had I been told in 1971 that Dazhai `produced more food in one year than it can eat in three'?
Well, said Mr Gao, they were probably talking about maize. `Nowadays we sell our maize to the state for animal fodder and
eat wheat three times a day.'
A broad highway to Dazhai from the city of Yangquan was the last reward of the Chen Yonggui days. Now Dazhai
is waiting for a more vital rail link to be completed from the same city to the nearby county town of Xiyang. Dazhai, like
many other communities in the eastern hills of Shanxi Province, is sitting on coal and it opened its first mine last year.
Yangquan takes its visitors to the new model village of Xiao Gu Cun, where the men have stopped working on
the land altogether. That is women's work, says the Party Secretary there, `for growing vegetables.' The village has a new
primary school, an open air auditorium for local opera performances, and a Daoist shrine (though I noticed that the Party
Secretary kept the key to it.) The average income is said to be 1,700 yuan (280 pounds) a year, and most people are
well ahead of Mrs Shen in Dazhai. The televisions in Xiao Gu Cun are colour, not black and white.