In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Village Society in the Early Twentieth Century

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sociological and Anthropological Studies of Villages
  • Field Investigation Reports
  • Rural Economy
  • Social Structure
  • Environment and Rural Society
  • Banditry, Secret Societies, Rebellions
  • Communist Peasant Revolution: 1921—1937
  • Communist Peasant Revolution: 1937–1949
  • Rural Reconstruction and Rural Reform

Chinese Studies Village Society in the Early Twentieth Century
Xiaorong Han
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0211


The early twentieth century was an era of rapid and drastic transformations in Chinese history mainly because of the serious survival crisis that China was experiencing, and the Chinese villagers, who formed the great majority of China’s population at that time, actively participated in such transformations. They were the ones who launched the unsuccessful Boxer Rebellion at the very beginning of the twentieth century, and they also formed the core force that brought the Communist revolution to its triumph in 1949. Villagers acted either spontaneously or at the instigation of groups of reformers and revolutionaries, most of whom were of rural origins but had received education and accepted new ideas in urban centers. Throughout the early twentieth century, village China became the setting of all kinds of reformist and revolutionary movements aimed at bringing about multifaceted changes to China in general and rural China in particular. The size of the rural population, the significant influence the Chinese villages had had on the Chinese traditional culture, as well as the important roles the villages and villagers played in the modern transformations of China, are among the factors that have made the Chinese village society in the early twentieth century a subject of a large number of political, academic, and literary writings during and after the first half of the twentieth century. Those writings focus on many different topics, including the nature, structure, and culture of the village society; the performance of China’s rural economy; the relations between the villages and the cities; the relations between the intellectuals and the peasants; and the villagers as bandits, rebels, reformers, and revolutionaries. The authors of these writings were political leaders, scholars, novelists, and others, and they wrote for different purposes. Generally speaking, most of those who wrote about the villagers and villages during the early twentieth century were motivated by an intense desire to present justifications for the reformist or revolutionary agenda they were advocating, whereas those who wrote after the early twentieth century have shown a stronger interest in seeking interpretations than providing justifications. This bibliography includes not only academic studies of the Chinese village society of the early twentieth century, but also representative political and journalistic writings that are essential for understanding the major aspects and dynamic changes of village China in the early twentieth century.

General Overviews

Fan 2018, Chen, et al. 1985–1989, and Li and Zhang 1957 are all multivolume collections of primary sources regarding the diverse aspects of village China in the early twentieth century. Fan 2018 is the most comprehensive among the three, but the other two are also essential references. Wang 2017, Yang 1980, and Zhu 1997 are general historical surveys of social changes in rural China during the modern period. Each of the other volumes in this section deals with a major aspect of rural China or a major subject related to rural China. Tawney 1966 analyzes China’s rural problems in the early twentieth century, Little 1989 is a study of four major debates about rural China from a philosophical perspective, Skinner 2001 provides a general framework of the economic systems and trading networks of China proper, Fei 1992 is a concise introduction to traditional Chinese rural society, and Han 2005 offers an overview of Chinese intellectuals’ perceptions of the Chinese peasants.

  • Chen Hansheng 陈翰笙, Xue Muqiao 薛暮桥, and Feng Hefa 冯和发, eds. Jiefangqian de Zhongguo nongcun (解放前的中国农村). 3 vols. Beijing: Zhongguo zhanwang chubanshe, 1985–1989.

    These are collections of writings produced by leftist or communist intellectuals before the founding of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) in 1949. Most of the pieces were reports of rural investigations conducted in different parts of the country, and the favorite topics of the authors were the sufferings of the peasants, class conflicts, and the destructive impact of imperialism and capitalism. The three editors were leading communist scholars who studied rural China.

  • Fan Qiushi 樊秋实, ed. Jindai Zhongguo nongcun wenti yanjiu ziliao huibian (近代中国农村问题研究资料汇编). 50 vols. Shanghai: Shanghai kexue jishu wenxian chubanshe, 2018.

    A comprehensive collection of over two hundred texts about the various aspects of rural China during the modern period. These texts include scholarly works, investigation reports, journalistic reports, and policy proposals, and they deal with important issues pertaining to rural China, including land shortage, collapse of the rural economy, rural education, rural finance, rural reconstruction, and rural revolution.

  • Fei, Xiaotong. From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

    This is the translation of Xiangtu Zhongguo, which is a collection of fourteen articles written by Fei Xiaotong. These articles were first published as a book in 1948, and they are about the special features of Chinese society in comparison with the Western society. Fei’s concept of Chaxugeju (差序格局 the Differential Mode of Association), which is presented in chapter 4 of this book, has become very influential and been adopted by many in analyzing Chinese society.

  • Han, Xiaorong. Chinese Discourses on the Peasant, 1900–1949. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

    This is a broad survey of the political, academic, and literary writings about the Chinese peasants produced during the first half of the twentieth century by the various factions of Chinese intellectuals, including the Nationalists, the Communists, the Rural Reconstructionists, and independent scholars. The focus of the analysis is on how the intellectuals perceived the peasant mass, the nature of the rural society, and the ideal patterns of intellectual–peasant relations.

  • Li Wenzhi 李文治, and Zhang Youyi 章有义, eds. Zhongguo jindai nongyeshi ziliao (中國近代農業史資料). 3 vols. Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 1957.

    A very useful reference book since it collects rich data related to rural China between 1840 and 1937 that are extracted from primary and secondary sources. The data are organized both chronologically and thematically, with Volume 1 dealing with the period of 1840–1911, Volume 2 the years between 1911 and 1927, and Volume 3 the 1927–1937 decade. It covers such major topics as class relations, the landholding system, agricultural commercialization, and the rural revolution.

  • Little, Daniel. Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

    An unusual book written by a philosopher who takes the understanding of peasant China as a philosophical question and provides a clear and informative summary of the major debates on four issues related to peasant China: the moral economy issue, the regional systems issue, the causes of agricultural stagnation, and the reasons for peasant rebellion. The book also contains insightful discussions on methods of social scientific research, and can serve as a good reference for graduate students.

  • Skinner, G. William. Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China. AAS Monographs. Ann Arbor, MI: The Association for Asian Studies, 2001.

    This is a collection of William Skinner’s three articles originally published in Journal of Asian Studies in 1964 and 1965. Combining the micro-level case study approach and a macro perspective, Skinner adopted central-place theory to analyze the evolution of China’s rural marketing system in China’s late imperial and republican period, producing a classic interdisciplinary study. Essential reading for understanding the general features of the rural economy and society of China’s central plains in the early twentieth century.

  • Tawney, R. H. Land and Labor in China. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.

    First published in 1932 (London: Allen and Unwin), this is an influential book about China’s agriculture, industry, politics, and education in the early 20th century. It is based on the personal observations made by the author during his trip to China in 1930–1931 as well as findings from field surveys conducted by Chinese and Western investigators. After analyzing the serious problems China was facing, the author attempts to offer a reformist solution to these problems.

  • Wang Xianming 王先明. Xianglu manman: 20 shiji zhi Zhongguo xiangcun, 1901–1949 (乡路漫漫:20世纪之中国乡村[1901–1949]). 2 vols. Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2017.

    A historical study of the social changes taking place in rural China during the early twentieth century. The author is more familiar with northern China than southern China, and northern China provides most of the local cases covered in the book. Volume 1 analyzes the impact of the 1911 Revolution, reform, modernization and the cooperative movement on the rural society, and Volume 2 focuses more on the change of rural social structure and the efforts to revive rural China.

  • Yang Maochun (Martin C. Yang) 楊懋春. Jindai Zhongguo nongcun shehui zhi yanbian (近代中國農村社會之演變). Taipei: Juliu (Chuliu) tushu gongsi, 1980.

    A general survey of the transformations of rural Chinese society in the modern era. After describing the features of the traditional Chinese rural society, the author analyzes the changes of the Chinese rural society during the republican period (1912–1949) and the rural changes in both mainland China and Taiwan after 1949. The book was reprinted in 1984 and 1986.

  • Zhu Yuxiang 朱玉湘. Zhongguo jindai nongmin wenti yu nongcun shehui (中国近代农民问题与农村社会). Jinan, China: Shandong daxue chubanshe, 1997.

    A historical and sociological introduction to rural Chinese society in the modern period; its coverage is very comprehensive. Major topics explored include population, land ownership, rural production relations, development of rural capitalism, taxation system, commerce, finance, living conditions, migrations, secret societies, rural governance, and religious beliefs. While the author takes the entire country as the unit of analysis, he does pay due attention to regional differences.

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