Understanding the Chinese Revolution

source: Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, frontispiece

The Chinese Revolution is one of the world-historical events that has set the stage for the modern world. And, unlike the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, it is sufficiently contemporary that there are very substantial sources of data and informants about its occurrence. Several generations of China historians have sought to provide explanations and elaborations on the occurrence of the Chinese Revolution (link, link). The Revolution set the course for a population of over 1.1 billion people, it affected the economic and international development of the rest of the world, and it established a government that continues to rule the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, vast amounts of scholarship have been written in attempting to describe and explain the course of the Revolution.

So we might imagine that the story has been written, and that we know everything we need to know about the causes, events, and main directions of the Revolution. However, this would be a mistake. As earlier posts have shown, there continue to be new questions, renewed debates over old questions, and deep uncertainties about the best ways of understanding the occurrence and development of this momentous series of events.

It is interesting, therefore, to return to one of the earlier efforts at historical explanation of the Chinese Revolution, the widely read book by Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915-1949. The book first appeared French in 1967, and therefore much of what we now understand to be the development of modern China was yet to occur. The Great Leap Forward and attendant famine had occurred in 1958-1959, the Cultural Revolution was just getting underway, and of course the major reorientation of the Chinese state in the direction market reform was decades in the future. In a meaningful sense, Bianco was writing the history of a revolution that was still underway.

The title of the book captures Bianco’s central goal in his treatment of the Revolution: to identify the large factors that explained the occurrence and characteristics of the success of the CCP’s struggle for mobilization and power. Ideology and doctrine play an important role; Bianco spends a lot of attention on the question of whether Chinese communism was heterodox or orthodox in relation to classical Marxist theory. Another key question in Bianco’s treatment is the role of the peasantry in Mao’s strategy for creating revolution. The ideological frameworks brought forward by Nationalist and Communist leaders play a large role in Bianco’s account.

Bianco organizes his analysis around the role of Marxist ideology and theory, the role of the Comintern in attempting to “manage” Communist activism in China, the role of the Japanese war of aggression against China, and the economic and social circumstances governing the agrarian world that brought Chinese peasants into a state of latent revolutionary activism, just needing the mobilization efforts of the CCP to ignite a social conflagration. And he takes up the nationalism thesis offered by Chalmers Johnson in Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945 just a few years earlier (1962; link), treating Johnson’s work respectfully but critically. In other words, he raises the central explanatory ideas that observers of the time thought potentially important: ideology, exploitation, war, nationalism, and military competition between the Guomindang dictatorship and the Communist Party.

Three large factors emerge as being the most important sources of revolution in Bianco’s account: the tactical effectiveness of the CCP in mobilizing the peasantry, the crushing exploitation and poverty of the countryside, and the military realities created by the three-sided conflict between the GMD, the CCP, and the Japanese army. Of these, the poverty of agrarian China was the most pervasive:

The source of the revolution, the real strength of the CCP, must be sought in the living conditions that prevailed from one end of rural China to the other, where poverty, abuse, and early death were the only prospect for nearly half a billion people. (87)

Bianco’s greatest contributions to Chinese history are focused on pre-revolution peasant politics. These writings are exemplified in Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China, “Peasants and Revolution: The Case of China” (link), and “Peasant Movements” in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13: Republican China 1912-1949, Part 2. Here is a summary offered in Origins:

To the extent that the non-Communist peasant movements I have studied can be characterized in general terms, they seem to me diffuse, sporadic, and lacking in coordination and firm leadership. Above all they seem defensive: peasants may arouse themselves to protest an assault on the status quo, but they almost never attack the deeper causes of their exploitation and misery. (107)

Bianco incorporates his own study of earlier peasant rebellions into his account of the politics of mobilization, and he highlights the non-revolutionary character of those earlier movements (107). As he had argued in his research on China’s peasantry, it was the organizing and mobilizing role of the CCP that turned peasant discontent from local unrest to sustained revolutionary action.

One thing I find interesting in rereading the book today is the fairly general level at which it is written. Bianco essentially summarizes his perceptions of the main elements of the complicated economic, political, and military events that transpired in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s in China. He was a highly expert observer, and was intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the Comintern, the Guomindang, and the CCP. But the work is offered at a very high level of discourse, not really intending to provide new historical understanding of the politics of nationalism and the social program of the party.

This contrasts with the level of historical detail and richness of Bianco’s own primary research on peasant movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in China. Here his work is archival and detailed, and offers genuine new insights into the particulars of the phenomena. And it contrasts as well with the level of detail and precision of the treatments of various parts of the revolution in China that were written in the following thirty years.

Origins was influential and widely read. That said, it should be understood as a work of historical synthesis rather than a contribution of original discovery. It remained for the next generation of historians — people like Mark Selden, Yung Fa Chen, and Odoric Wou — to push the historical inquiry more deeply into the mechanisms and variations of these processes of revolution. In his forward to English edition in 1976, Mark Selden attempts to summarize the key issues for future research posed by the book: the need to give a more fine grained taxonomy of the peasantry (rich, middle, poor), the effects of the rapid commercialization that were underway in the twenties and thirties, and the relative importance of domestic and foreign factors in the occurrence of the Revolution. Selden himself takes up some of these issues in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (1971). And historians like Chen and Wou have given substantially greater detail about the specifics of mobilization, strategy, and military tactices in the base areas than was possible in 1967 when Bianco wrote his book.

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