Chinese Land Reform (土地改革) Overview
Land reform, in a Chinese context, denotes the abolition of the landlord class, and the returning of farmland to peasants in the spirit of Sun Yat-Sen’s proclamation ‘He who tills the land shall own it.’ Soon after the Chinese Communist Party won the Civil War, many peasants held the deeds to their own land for the first time.
When Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the country's economy was predominantly agricultural with 85% of the population classed as peasantry. For centuries, most peasants had been poor, owning little or no land. They were often exploited by high rents, interest on debt repayments, and suffered from poor nourishment and sickness. As such, dismantling the old system of landlord-peasant relations was one of the key goals of the Chinese Communist party, who believed the liberation of peasants would enable a communist revolution. Indeed, ideas of land reform were first espoused by Mao Zedong as early as 1927 after investigating conditions in Hunan Province throughout areas under communist control. As Zongli Tang (2006) notes:
‘Mao’s rural surveys, or investigations as he called them, were carried out in Hunan, Jiangxi, and Fujian provinces between 1927 and 1934. With the belief that investigations had to be the starting point of policy-making and that one’s perceptions of Chinese society and peasants should stem from observations rather than from books, Mao highly valued the role of investigations, saying, ‘No investigation, no right to speak’.
In his 1927 text, ‘Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan’ (Source 1) Mao Zedong’s observations sowed the seeds for what would become official Communist Party land reform policy after the revolution: imposing fines on corrupt landlords, prohibiting increases in rent, enforcing contributions to poor relief, parading landlords for public humiliation, incarcerating landlords, banishing them and in extreme cases, resorting to execution.
The activity of ‘Speaking Bitterness’ or 诉苦 (suku) was a central element to land reform. In communist controlled areas, before the 1949 revolution, ‘people’s courts’ were erected whereby tenant farmers could directly confront their former landlords and accuse them of crimes in the form of a public trial (Source 2). Sometimes these meetings were fairly civilised but often could turn violent, as landlords were spat on, insulted, beaten and even executed directly after the court session. For Guo Wu (2014), the act of public humiliation and transfer of collective power from rich to poor was perhaps more important than land redistribution itself:
‘Before the masses became the true ‘‘masters of the house,’’ they needed to eliminate the fear of landlords in their inner hearts, and the best move to achieve this was ‘‘to hold a grievance meeting,’’ which allowed poor peasants to confront landlords as a collective, to right past wrongs, and to look to the future. In this sense, the cultural and symbolic meaning of Land Reform and speaking-bitterness campaigns overrode the substantial meaning of land redistribution.’
However, speaking bitterness was much more than an emotional means through which a peasant could enact revenge upon their former oppressors. Land Reform was centrally organised by committees in communist controlled areas. In many cases, the acts of speaking bitterness did not come directly from the wishes of peasants themselves but after the prompting of work teams who entered villages to supervise land reform. As Xiaobing Tang (2015) comments: ’The work team was itself a novel experience for an ordinary peasant as he had never encountered people connected with government on this intimate level.’ Moreover, the work teams would usually be comprised of educated urbanites. As Brian De Mare (2019) notes, this served to kill two birds with one stone by indoctrinating both rural peasant and city-dwellers into communist ideology:
‘Increased mobilisation of urban intellectuals for land reform dovetailed perfectly with the party’s effort at thought reform (sixiang gaizao). This ideological campaign, launched in late September 1951, focussed on the educated elite and attacked pro-western views in an attempt to enforce ideological purity […] Many educated Chinese, including thousands of teachers and students from China’s top universities, joined land reform teams.’
Zhang Huaijiang’s 1950 woodblock print Struggle Against the Village Bully (Source 3) is a detailed depiction of how institutionalised and well-organised speaking bitterness sessions had become by 1950. Zhang depicts armed guards, as the landlord is deprived of a seat and cowers on the ground, encircled by a large crowd, including female villagers, whilst an angry peasant points directly at him to make an accusation in what is clearly a highly orchestrated, emotive scene.
One of the most important accounts of Land Reform from a western perspective is that of the American Marxist William Hinton who wrote a first-hand report from a small village in Shanxi province under communist control. Hinton stayed in the village during 1948 at the height of the Chinese Civil war. The work was eventually published in 1966 and entitled Fanshen (Source 4). The word Fanshen in Chinese literally means ‘to overturn.’ Hinton vividly depicted the hardships felt by the peasants and was highly sympathetic to the premise of land reform. However, he equally criticised the indiscriminate use of violence against landlords and the bias towards seizing their material wealth as well as their actual land. Commerce and industry of the landlord classes were also disproportionally affected, vital to economic stability. Such actions were also criticised by Mao Zedong himself as what became termed ‘left deviation.’ Agricultural production needed to be stimulated at the time which necessitated the smooth running of commerce and industry owned by landlords. This was just as a much of an important goal of land reform as the principle of equality between peoples.
According to Frank Dikotter (2017) ‘The exact number of victims killed in land reform will never be known but it is unlikely to have been fewer than 1.5 to 2 million people from 1947 to 1952’ (Source 5) Shanxi, where Kang Sheng who had formerly worked with the Soviet secret police and presided over land reform, was one of the provinces where the policy was pursued most enthusiastically. ‘In some places, one out of five people was branded a landlord. In Shuo country, nobody dared utter a word when someone was denounced as rich because speaking out may lead to the potentially fatal accusation of ‘sheilding landlords’. Dikotter goes on to note, ‘Families who owned even a pot of sugar or a buffalo to plough the fields could be denounced so that their posessions could be confiscated.’ Hence, in certain areas of China land reform became completely arbitrary and out of control with several entirely innocent peasants falling victim to an indiscriminate crowd mentality.
After the communist victory in the civil war, land reform became official policy throughout mainland China. On the 30th June 1950, the ‘Agrarian Reform Law of the People’s Republic of China’ was officially enacted (Source 6). Society was hence categorised into several different strata of social class:
- Landlords ( who did not perform any manual labour)
- Rich peasants (who owned land and worked on it themselves whilst also hiring others)
- Middle peasants (who owned and worked on their own land)
- Poor peasants (who had next to no land and also rented land)
- Labourers (who owned no land and had to rent land from others).
These distinctions, which were Soviet in origin, did not always fit with the precise make-up of a village. Indeed, certain villages had no landlords at all. Ultimately though, land was redistributed across class divisions to 300 million peasants who formerly possessed no land of their own. Mao had hoped that this would awaken the socialist consciousness of the peasant class whilst also paving the way for industrialisation, since an economic revolution was needed to accompany a political one.
As this propaganda poster outlines (Source 7), the majority of land reform was completed by 1952, just three years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and it was hailed as an unbridled success of the new nation. Clearly, the policy was a success in terms of accomplishing its stated aims - the redistribution of land to the tiller. This success, however, was at the expense of many innocent victims and ideological indoctrination of both rural and urban dwellers. Peasants may briefly have felt a sense of autonomy at owning their own land for the first time. However, in the wake of land reform from 1953 onwards, a process of collectivisation occurred whereby the land tilled by the peasantry was increasingly subject to government control, undoing many key principles of ownership as we shall see in the subsequent section ‘The Collectivisation of Agriculture.’
DeMare, B. J. (2019) Land Wars : The Story of China's Agrarian Revolution Stanford California: Stanford University Press.
Dikötter, Frank. (2017) The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-57. London: Bloomsbury.
Tang, Xiaobing. (2015) Visual Culture in Contemporary China : Paradigms and Shifts Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tang, Z. (2006) 'Land Distribution in Mao's Investigations: Poverty and Class Struggle' Journal of Contemporary China 15 (48), 551-573.
Wu, G. (2014) 'Speaking Bitterness: Political Education in Land Reform and Military Training Under the Ccp, 1947–1951'. The Chinese Historical Review 21 (1), 3-23.