poor peasants

In Modern China class we will be talking about Communists and their analysis of China’s social classes. What is a poor peasant? I will give them the standard Maoist spiel, but I will also give them this. Other readings that might work for this are solicited.

After my mother took me to live in Jiang Village with her parents, our life was very difficult. My grandfather had lost his sight because he was old and had overworked. He had the white eye disease [cataracts]. My mother was deaf. She had been ill when she was young and couldn’t hear after that. We had about six mu of poor land, enough to feed us for only about half a year. We had no meat and rarely ate vegetables. Every year we ate sorghum porridge twice a day until it ran out, then we ate tree leaves, grasses, roots, and wild vegetables. I did not eat a mantou (steamed wheat bun) until I was seventeen or eighteen years old. I was always hungry. I never went to school. Having nothing to eat, how could I study? To this day I cannot read or write. Later, when I was Communist Party secretary of Houhua Village for thirty years, I did everything by memory. I kept everything in my head.

In Jiang Village my mother helped support us by weaving cotton cloth. Someone would take it to market and buy more raw cotton for her to weave. Our clothes were made from the cloth she wove, as were our cotton shoes, which were dyed with red soil. We never had much to wear. We couldn’t even afford a long overcoat for winter, so I wore a short cotton-filled jacket with a belt around the waist. Even when I was twenty years old my mother and I had to share a single quilt when we slept.

I collected firewood to sell. I remember being beaten when collecting wood near the property of a rich family. They thought I was stealing. Some­times I did steal. Once I stole about 100 jin [1 jin = 1.1 Ibs.] of leaves from pear trees. We boiled them and ate them for quite a long time. When I was sixteen or seventeen I collected manure for fertilizer. One day when two of us were collecting manure, we were accused of stealing and told to eat it. The other person did, but I didn’t because my grandfather came in time.

I sometimes worked as a short-term laborer for the more prosperous households in the village. I was used only for a few days at harvest time to cut corn and sorghum. I received no pay but was given my food for the day. I remember well that when I was about eighteen I was working for a rich peasant and was given five steamed wheat buns at noon and four more in the evening. They were the best thing I had ever eaten, and that was the first time I had ever had enough to eat. The next day there was no work, and I was hungry again.

from  Seybolt, Peter J. Throwing the Emperor from His Horse: Portrait of a Village Leader in China, 1923-1995. Westview Press, 1996.



  1. And remember the word “peasant,” rather than “farmer,” carries a message! The message is different in different periods. In the 1920s, Mao used the peasant concept to say that China was a feudal society. Historically this is hard to back up but carried the message that Feudalism was followed by Revolution, as in 1789.

    Anyway, for my rant on the subject, see my Frog piece, “When is a Farmer Not a Farmer? When He’s Chinese, Then He’s a Peasant.” (2/25/07).

  2. “In the 1920s, Mao used the peasant concept to say that China was a feudal society.”

    Could you tell me what’s the difference between “peasant” and “farmer” in Chinese?

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