Mao Zedong in a rice field

In the early days, the Chinese Communist Party was an army of volunteers who believed that land should be confiscated from the rich landowners and given to the poor peasants and that industry and production should be controlled by the Communist party not foreigners and rich industrialists. Peasant organizations within the Communist Party demanded that 1) rents be reduced to 25 percent of the crop; 2) that the private armies of the warlords be abolished; and 3) the seizure of land to pay for debts be prohibited.

The Communist soldiers were told to have respect for peasants in the countryside, and there was even a song about it.

"Replace the door when leaving the house
Return and roll up the straw matting
Be courteous and polite to the people and help them
Return all borrowed articles
Replace all damaged articles
Be honest in all transactions with the peasants
Pay for all the articles purchased
Be sanitary; establish latrines at a safe distance
from people's houses."

"During the 20 year struggle that preceded the revolution," historian John Reader wrote, "Mao Zedong and his colleagues placed China into a network of party cadres. Throughout the country, individuals were selected and secretly trained as links in a unified command structure which steadily transformed the rural population from a largely unprotesting peasantry into the conscious agents of change." After the revolution this structure laid the foundation for the country's bureaucracy. [Source: "Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perennial Library, Harper and Row]

Websites: Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party china.org.cn ; Books and Posters Landsberger Communist China Posters ; Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mao Internet Library marx2mao.com ; Paul Noll Mao site paulnoll.com/China/Mao ; Mao Quotations art-bin.com; Marxist.org marxists.org ; New York Times topics.nytimes.com; Early 20th Century China : John Fairbank Memorial Chinese History Virtual Library cnd.org/fairbank offers links to sites related to modern Chinese history (Qing, Republic, PRC) and has good pictures; Sun Yat-sen Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; May 4th Movement Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Obituary Madame Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese History: Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia ;

Books: 1) "Mao; the Untold Story" by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. ; 2) "The Penguin History of Modern China" by Jonathan Fenby 3). "Red Star Over China" by Edgar Snow; 4) "The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China" by Jay Taylor, former U.S. foreign service officer; "Cambridge History of China" multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); "The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China" by Julia Lovell (Picador, 2011); ""China: A New History" by John K. Fairbank; "In Search of Modern China" by Jonathan D. Spence; “China in the 21st Century” by Jeffrey Wasserstrom; “The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China” edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom covers the period from 1550 to the present day.

Farmers and the Chinese Revolution

Li Dazhao, Chinese Communist Party founder, with Jiang Menglin, Cai Yuanpei and Hu Shi

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “While treaty ports along China's coast were feeling the direct impact of foreign demands during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most people in China were — and still are — rural people, living in towns and villages. Although most farmers in China owned some land and often had sources of income apart from farm work, such as handicrafts, life was generally harsh. Farm plots were very small, averaging less than two acres per family, and peasants had little access to new technology, capital, or cheap transport. We have read about the nineteenth century internal crises which had terrible repercussions for country folk — wars and rebellions, droughts and floods. From late Qing times on, new taxes and charges were levied against individual village residents and/or the village as a unit to pay for government administration, state services like police and education, and most importantly, military expenses. More insidious were the less visible effects of the new international economy into which China had inexorably been drawn. Tea, silk, sugar, and tobacco were all products with increasing competition in this period, and thus international market forces began to affect rural people in China's interior. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“There is much debate about whether China's farmers were "immiserated" in this period, that is, if they faced worse conditions than in previous times. But, as the first reading on raising silkworms demonstrates, without greater technological inputs, just working harder was not always enough to stave off privation. Addressing the problems of the farmers was a major challenge for Chinese leaders. The short story, by Mao Dun (Shen Yanbing, 1896-1981), entitled "Spring Silkworms," also demonstrates a greater awareness, on the part of a new breed of politically engaged and socially conscious urban writers in the 1920s and 1930s, of the plight of people in the countryside.

“Traditional Marxist thinking relegated peasants to a class which Marx believed represented "barbarism within civilization" — people who were unable to develop revolutionary consciousness and only wanted land and bread (food). During the Russian Revolution, Lenin revised Marx's view, assigning peasants a more supporting revolutionary role, although he still believed that it was the urban working class which initiated revolution. In the 1920s, Chinese leftists began to change their view of the revolutionary potential of the rural population. Some, like the Kuomintang organizer in South China, Peng Pai, had great success from 1921-23 in convincing disaffected farmers to form peasant associations and challenge oppressive landlords. Likewise, Mao Zedong's own work in the rural areas in 1925 and 1926 led him to see the farmers differently. When Nationalists forces after 1927 drove him and other Communists to rural hideouts from their urban bases, they intensified their work among the rural population. Their belief in rural revolution thus became a hallmark of Chinese Communist thinking.”

"The True Meaning of Life" by Chen Duxiu

Chen Duxiu

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) was one of the leading intellectuals of the May Fourth movement. Dean of Peking University in 1916, and, in 1921, co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen also edited and published the popular New Youth magazine. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

In the “The True Meaning of Life” Chen Duxiu wrote: “What is the ultimate purpose in life? What should it be, after all? … From ancient times not a few people have offered explanations. … In my opinion, what the Buddha said is vague. Although the individual’s birth and death are illusory, can we say that humanity as a whole is not really existent? … The teachings of Christianity, especially, are fabrications out of nothing and cannot be proved. If God can create the human race, who created Him? Since God’s existence or nonexistence cannot be proved, the Christian philosophy of life cannot be completely believed in. The rectification of the heart, cultivation of the person, family harmony ordering of the state, and world peace that Confucius and Mencius talked about are but some activities and enterprises in life and cannot cover the total meaning of life. If we are totally to sacrifice ourselves to benefit others, then we exist for others and not for ourselves. [Source: “The True Meaning of Life” by Chen Duxiu, “Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 366-368; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“This is definitely not the fundamental reason for man’s existence. The idea [of altruism] of Mozi is also not free from one-sidedness. The doctrines of Yang Zhu [fourth century B.C.?] and Nietzsche fully reveal the true nature of life, and yet if we follow them to their extremes, how can this complex, organized, and civilized society continue? Because we Chinese have accepted the teachings [of contentment and laissez.faire] of Laozi and Zhuangzi, we have to that extent been backward. Scientists say that there is no soul after a man’s death. … It is difficult to refute these words. But although we as individuals will inevitably die, it is not easy for the whole race or humanity to die off. The civilization created by the race or humanity will remain. It is recorded in history and will be transmitted to later generations. Is this not the consciousness or memory of our continuation after death?

Chen and the Department of Philosophy graduates, 1918

From the above, the meaning of life as seen by the modern man can be readily understood. Let me state it briefly as follows: 1) With reference to human existence, the individual’s birth and death are transitory, but society really exists. 2) The civilization and happiness of society are created by individuals and should be enjoyed by individuals. 3) Society is an organization of individuals — there can be no society without individuals. … The will and the happiness of the individual should be respected. 4) Society is the collective life of individuals. If society is dissolved, there will be no memory or consciousness of the continuation of the individual after he dies. Therefore social organization and order should be respected.

“5) To carry out one’s will and to satisfy his desires (everything from food and sex to moral reputation is “desire”) are the basic reasons for the individual’s existence. These goals never change. (Here we can say that Heaven does not change and the Way does not change either.) 6) All religions, laws, moral and political systems are but necessary means to preserve social order. They are not the individual’s original purpose of enjoyment in life and can be changed in accordance with the circumstances of the time.

“7) People’s happiness in life is the result of their own effort and is neither the gift of God nor a spontaneous natural product. If it were the gift of God, how is it that He was so generous with people today and so stingy with people in the past? If it is a spontaneous, natural product, why is it that the happiness of the various peoples in the world is not uniform? 8) The individual in society is comparable to the cell in the body. Its birth and death are transitory. New ones replace the old. This is as it should be and need not be feared at all. 9) To enjoy happiness, do not fear suffering. Personal suffering at the moment sometimes contributes to personal happiness in the future. For example, the blood shed in righteous wars often wipes out the bad spots of a nation or mankind. Severe epidemics often hasten the development of science.

“In a word, what is the ultimate purpose in life? What should it be, after all? I dare say: During his lifetime, an individual should devote his efforts to create happiness and to enjoy it and also to keep it in store in society so that individuals of the future may also enjoy it, one generation doing the same for the next and so on unto infinity.

"Our Final Awakening" (1916) by Chen Duxiu

Chen Duxiu and a revolutionary pal

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the excerpt below (from his 1916 essay "Our Final Awakening") Chen laments the weakness of China's national strength and civilization, but cautions those who think that democracy and constitutional government can be easily established in China. First, he argues, there must be a change in the thought and character of the people such that their attitudes will support constitutional government. Without a new culture, there will be no new political system. (This same argument can be heard in the China of the 1990s.) [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

In “Our Final Awakening”, Chen Duxiu wrote: “We, having been living in one corner of the world for several decades, must ask ourselves what is the level of our national strength and our civilization. This is the final awakening of which I speak. To put it another way, if we open our eyes and take a hard look at the situation within our country and abroad, what place does our country and our people occupy, and what actions should we take? [Source: “Our Final Awakening” by Chen Duxiu, from “Changing China: Readings in the History of China from the Opium War to the Present,” by J. Mason Gentzler (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1977), 168; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Our task today can be said to be the intense combat between the old and the modern currents of thought. Those with shallow views all expect this to be our final awakening, without understanding how difficult it is to put [constitutional government] into practice. … There is no difference between the shameful disgrace of submissiveness of men of ancient times hoping that sage rulers and wise ministers will practice benevolent government and present day men hoping that dignitaries and influential elders will build a constitutional republic.

Why should I reject the desires of dignitaries and influential elders, who are after all a part of the people, to build a constitutional republic? Only because a constitutional republic cannot be conferred by the government, cannot be maintained by one party or one group, and certainly cannot be carried on the backs of a few dignitaries and influential elders. A constitutional republic which does not derive from the conscious realization and voluntary action of the majority of the people is a bogus republic and bogus constitutionalism. It is political window.dressing, in no way like the republican constitutionalism of the countries of Europe and America, because there has been no change in the thought or the character of the majority of the people, and the majority of the people have no personal feeling of direct material interest.

"Destroying the Family" by Han Yi

Liu Shipei

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: ““The essay below was published in 1907, before the May Fourth Movement. It is an example of the intellectual ferment that had begun before the May Fourth period. The piece was published under the pseudonym Han Yi (“a member of the Han race”). The author may have been Liu Shipei (1884-1917), who (like Sun Yat-sen and others) favored a Han revolution to overthrow the Manchu Qing dynasty. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

In “Destroying the Family”, Han Yi (pseudonym) wrote: “All of society’s accomplishments depend on people to achieve, while the multiplication of the human race depends on men and women. Thus if we want to pursue a social revolution we must start with a sexual revolution — just as if we want to reestablish the Chinese nation expelling the Manchus is the first step to the accomplishment of other tasks. … Yet, whenever we speak of the sexual revolution, the masses doubt and obstruct us, which gives rise to problems. In bringing up this matter then we absolutely must make a plan that gets to the root of the problem. What is this plan? It is to destroy the family. [Source: Excerpts from “Destroying the Family” by Han Yi (Pseudonym), from “Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 394-395; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“The family is the origin of all evil. Because of the family, people become selfish. Because of the family, women are increasingly controlled by men. Because of the family, everything useless and harmful occurs (people now often say they are embroiled in family responsibilities while in fact they are all just making trouble for themselves, and so if there were no families, these trivial matters would instantly disappear). Because of the family, children — who belong to the world as a whole — are made the responsibility of a single woman (children should be raised publicly since they belong to the whole society, but with families the men always force the women to raise their children and use them to continue the ancestral sacrifices). These examples constitute irrefutable proof of the evils of the family. Moreover, from now on in a universal commonwealth, everyone will act freely, never again will they live and die without contact with one another as in olden times. The doctrine of human equality allows for neither forcing women to maintain the family nor having servants to maintain it. The difficulties of life are rooted in the family. When land belongs to everyone and the borders between here and there are eradicated, then there will be no doubt that the “family” itself definitely should be abolished. As long as the family exists, then debauched men will imprison women in cages and force them to become their concubines and service their lust, or they will take the sons of others to be their own successors. If we abolish the family now, then such men will disappear. The destruction of the family will thus lead to the creation of publicminded people in place of selfish people, and men will have no way to oppress women. Therefore, to open the curtain on the social revolution, we must start with the destruction of the family.

"What Women Should Know About Communism" by He Zhen

He Zhen

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The intellectual life of early twentieth century China was a rich mixture of Confucian scholarship (clearly a fading tradition), along with a variety of western ideas — social Darwinism, feminism, anarchism, anti-Manchu revolutionary thought and so on. He Zhen was the wife of the anti-Manchu anarchist leader Liu Shipei (1884-1917). The essay below appeared in the journal Natural Justice, which He Zhen and Liu Shipei published while in exile in Japan. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

In “What Women Should Know About Communism” He Zhen wrote: “What is the most important thing in the world? Eating is the most important. You who are women: what is it that makes one suffer mistreatment? It is relying on others in order to eat. Let us look at the most pitiable of women. There are three sorts. There are those who end up as servants. If their master wants to hit them, he hits them. If he wants to curse them, he curses them. They do not dare to offer the slightest resistance, but slave for him from morning to night. They get up at four o’clock and do not go to bed until midnight. What is the reason for this? It is simply that the master has money and you depend on him in order to eat. [Source: “What Women Should Know About Communism” by He Zhen, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 389-392; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“There are also women workers. Everywhere in Shanghai there are silk factories, cotton mills, weaving factories, and laundries. I don’t know how many women have been hired by these places. They too work all day into the evening, and they too lack even a moment for themselves. They work blindly, unable to stand straight. What is the reason for this? It is simply that the factory owner has money and you depend on him in order to eat.

“There are also prostitutes. Every day they are beaten by their pimps. Whatever the customer is like, they must service him if he wants to be serviced, or they must gamble with him if he wants to gamble. People despise them. The “wild chickens” of Shanghai have to stand in the streets waiting for customers at midnight in the wind and snow. What is the reason for this? It is simply that since your family is poor you must sell yourself in this way in order to eat.

“Aside from these three kinds of people, there are also concubines. They must swallow their resentment no matter how the first wife mistreats them. This too is because they depend on men in order to eat. As for widows, a very few who are from rich families will die to protect their virtue. Very many who are from poor families will die because they have no children [to support them] and cannot remarry. This too is because they have nothing to eat. But even if they survive, their lives are still bitter and so they actively seek to die. As for women who farm the fields or raise silkworms, their lives are also very bitter. The things they have to do are just enough to let them scrape by. Moreover, women who marry are beaten and cursed by their husbands or else ignored, and they dare not make trouble. [This is] not because they want to gaze upon their husband’s face but because they want to gaze upon a bowl of rice.

New Youth magazine

“Thus those of us who are women suffer untold bitterness and untold wrongs in order to get hold of this rice bowl. My fellow women: do not hate men! Hate that you do not have food to eat. Why don’t you have any food? It is because you don’t have any money to buy food. Why don’t you have any money? It is because the rich have stolen our property. They have forced the majority of people into poverty and starvation. Look at the wives and daughters in the government offices and mansions. They live extravagantly with no worries about having enough to eat. Why are you worried every day about starving to death? The poor are people just as the rich are. Think about it for yourselves; this ought to produce some disquieting feelings.

“There is now a kind of person who says that if women only had a profession, they would not fear starvation. Middle.class families, for example, are sending their daughters to school, either to study a general course or to learn a little of handicrafts. Then if they get married they can become teachers. They won’t need to rely on men in order to survive. Likewise, families that are very poor are sending their daughters and daughters-in-law to work in factories. As long as they stay there day after day, they will have a way of making a living. They won’t have to become maids or prostitutes. This point of view has some truth in it. However, as I see it, schools too are owned and operated by certain people, and if you teach in a school, then you are depending on those people in order to eat. Factories too are built by investors, and if you work in a factory, you are depending on its owners in order to eat.

“As long as you depend on others, you cannot be free. This is not much different from those who depended on others in previous ages and thus were subject to oppression. How could they be called independent? Moreover, when you depend on a school or a factory for your living, won’t you end up jobless if they close down or if your boss decides he has too many workers or if no one wants your skills? Therefore, in the final analysis depending on others is dangerous and not at all a good idea. I have a good idea that will exempt you from relying on others while still finding food naturally. How? By practicing communism. Think of all the things in the world. They were either produced by nature or by individual labor. Why can rich people buy them but poor people cannot? It is because the world trades with money. It is because people seize the things they have bought with money for their exclusive use. If every single woman understands that nothing is more evil than money, and they all unite together to cooperate with men to utterly overthrow the rich and powerful and then abolish money, then absolutely nothing will be allowed for individuals to own privately. Everything from food to clothes and tools will be put in a place where people — men and women alike, as long as they perform a little labor — can take however much of whatever they want just like taking water from the ocean. This is called communism. At this time, not only will we be free of depending on others for food to eat, but also the food will all be good to eat. It will be possible to have good things to wear, good things to use, and good things to play with. Think about it: will this be a better future or not? I am not lying to you. If we only unite together, with this method [communism] we can naturally have a good future. There is no doubt about it. As we say colloquially, “the good times are coming.” This is what I have to say today.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=:/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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