Socialization was a hallmark of China’s economic strategy from the early 1950s onward, and the collective organization of agriculture was a defining characteristic of China’s rural economy under Mao Zedong. The strong organizational emphasis of farm policy reflected a belief that institutional change was the main determinant of agricultural growth. By 1953, land reform had fundamentally changed the balance of political power, as well as the profile of land ownership, land use, and farm management, in the countryside. However, it had not advanced the cause of socialization. It was, in fact, always the government’s intent that land reform would be merely the first step in a series of institutional changes eventually leading to a fully socialist collective agriculture, to be completed by 1967. The process would take place gradually and in stages, with farmers initially engaging in what were called “lower-level (semisocialist) agricultural-producer cooperatives” until the demonstrated benefits of cooperation encouraged them to voluntarily join fully socialist (“higher-level”) collectives. The underlying economic rationale was that collectivization would bring agriculture more firmly within the remit of planning and strengthen government control over grain, while the larger scale of farming and the mobilizational capacity of the collectives would enhance agricultural efficiency and generate sustained output growth. But thanks to the overwhelming response to Mao’s call for accelerated collectivization (31 July 1955), the original timetable was abandoned, and coercion was increasingly used to force peasants—including those with minimal or nonexistent experience of lower-level cooperatives—into fully socialist collectives. A mere two years later, under a more indigenous strategy of development (the “Great Leap Forward”), another massive institutional upheaval took place, as peasants were incorporated into a new and huge organizational unit (the rural people’s commune), whose remit extended to political as well as economic management. Following the human and economic catastrophe precipitated by the Great Leap, there was a temporary institutional retreat. But the imperative of collective farming soon reemerged and remained intact until decollectivization in the early 1980s. These events have generated a rich literature, much of it written before the post-1978 explosion of data and other materials from China. That so many of these early studies still merit careful reading is testament to the remarkable dedication of authors (e.g., Kenneth Walker, Nicholas Lardy, Chao Kuo-chün) who spent years locating and then immersing themselves in Chinese-language books, journals, and newspapers to an extent that seems inconceivable in the 2020s. Economic issues define the major themes of the literature (e.g., the rationale of institutional change, its impact on yields and output growth, the role of state procurement policies, the implications for urban and rural food consumption). But it has also embraced political-economy dimensions of China’s rural institutional framework, a notable example being Jean Oi’s pathbreaking 1989 study.
There are comparatively few comprehensive studies of agricultural development during the collective era that capture the institutional and other policy dimensions of rural change, as well as the economic impact on the farm sector. Although not primarily economic analysis, MacFarquhar 1974–1997, a monumental three-volume study, is an invaluable source of information and comment on the political economy of rural change between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. Schurmann 1968 too offers valuable insights into the dynamics of village-level economic organization. Although not a general overview in the conventional sense, Oi 1989 is included here for its analysis of the evolving nature of the relationship between state and farmer in China. Nolan 1988 and Bramall 2009 offer opposing views on the impact of collectivization: the former providing a negative view; the latter, one that is much more positive. Wang 2009 offers a Chinese perspective—not necessarily one that should be regarded as representative—on the role of the various forms of collective farming in China since the early 1950s. Finally, the two ethnographic studies listed here—Chan, et al. 1984 and Friedman, et al. 1991—offer a valuable counterpoint to documentation-based analyses. They provide firsthand accounts of changes in villagers’ lives in two provinces (Guangdong and Hebei) during the collective era, on the basis of in situ fieldwork or interviews (or both) of rural émigrés in Hong Kong. They also highlight continuities in village life carried over from pre-1949 times into the socialist era of China’s development.
Bramall, Chris. Chinese Economic Development. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.
Examines the theoretical case for collective farming and draws on a wide literature and extensive empirical data in order to evaluate its impact during the Mao era. The favorable assessment that emerges is more favorable than that of many scholars (compare with Nolan 1988).
Chan, Anita, Richard Madsen, and Jonathan Unger. Chen Village: The Recent History of a Peasant Community in Mao’s China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Based on interviews with rural émigrés living in Hong Kong, highlights the pressures under which farmers lived in one village of southern China, as the institutional fabric of their lives changed between the mid-1960s and the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Friedman, Edward, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden. Chinese Village, Socialist State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.
Provides a vivid and detailed narrative history of rural change under the impact of socialist development policies, viewed through the prism of a village in Hebei Province. Contains rich material on the economic and human impact of collectivization and the policies of the Great Leap Forward (GLF).
MacFarquhar, Roderick. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. Vol. 1, Contradictions among the People, 1956–1957. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.
A valuable source for understanding the challenges facing the farm sector in the wake of the “high tide” of agricultural collectivization.
MacFarquhar, Roderick. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974–1997.
A magisterial study that, although primarily a study of elite politics, offers invaluable insights into the economic dimensions of institutional and structural change.
MacFarquhar, Roderick. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. Vol. 2, The Great Leap Forward, 1958–1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
A detailed account of the evolution of the GLF, including the emergence of a new form of agricultural cooperation in the guise of the rural people’s communes. Includes analysis of the disastrous impact of the Leap on agricultural production and food supplies.
MacFarquhar, Roderick. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. Vol. 3, The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961–1966. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Useful overview of the food crisis facing China in the wake of the collapse of agriculture during the GLF. Traces the response to this crisis in the form of reform of the commune system and the prioritization of agriculture over industry. The extensive bibliography is especially useful.
Nolan, Peter. The Political Economy of Collective Farms: An Analysis of China’s Post-Mao Rural Reforms. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1988.
Although post-1978 agricultural change defines its main thrust, this carefully argued analysis contains a critique of China’s collective farming system. Its negative findings offer a useful counterweight to the more positive conclusion of Bramall 2009.
Oi, Jean. State and Peasant in Contemporary China: The Political Economy of Village Government. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Impeccably researched study, based on fieldwork and a wide range of Chinese-language materials, of the changing relationship between state and farmer in China. The analysis, viewed primarily through the prism of the production team, focuses on the struggle between the two parties for control over the division of the harvest. Analysis embraces consideration of impact of early post-1978 farm reforms.
Schurmann, Franz. Ideology and Organization in Communist China. 2d ed., enlarged. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
Addresses institutional history of China down to the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. A classic work still full of rich insights into the organizational dynamics of economic, political, and social change under Mao. Chapter 7 (“Villages,” pp. 404–500) examines the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’S) attempt to use organization to transform rural society and promote agricultural growth. Also contains useful overview of traditional peasant organization and pre-1949 Kuomintang and CCP farm cooperation initiatives.
Wang Licheng 王立诚. Zhongguo nongye hezuo jianshi (中国农业合作简史). Beijing: Nongye chubanshe, 2009.
Useful but occasionally idiosyncratic treatment of the evolution of the collective system of agriculture in China. Includes sections on early institutional change (mutual aid and early cooperativization), the “high tide” of collectivization, and the establishment of rural people’s communes.
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