READERS FAMILIAR with Fanshen, William Hinton's classic study of land reform in a Shansi Province village during China's revolution, will approach his Shenfan ("deep digging") with the greatest curiosity. How will Hinton, one of the men most responsible for American romanticizations of Chinese socialism, come to terms with excesses and disasters such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution? And how will he deal with the question of Mao's responsibility? This lengthy volume, covering the years between Hinton's departure from Long Bow Village in 1948 and his three-month return visit in 1971, supplies only the first part of the answer (volume three of a trilogy on the area, on the period from 1971 to the present, is promised).
However, despite the challenges that have been made to Hinton's assumptions and the sincerity with which he seems to have struggled with himself (he tells us he waited 10 years to write this story because of his confusion), it is clear that he remains a Maoist. His beliefs in ever-increasing collectivization and in the saving power of mass peasant movements, as well as his relatively uncritical acceptance of the notion that class struggle should be a major yardstick for social relations, thus mar this otherwise useful chronicle of China's early contemporary history.
As Hinton writes "the history of collectivization in Long Bow," he jumps back and forth between the events he observed personally in 1971 and his reconstructions of the local effects of some of China's major political movements. The recurrent narrative thread is his account of how a work team sent from the city to deal with local struggles carries out its criticism of leaders in 1971. (One wonders whether Hinton did not realize that the work team members, as "intellectuals," had themselves been Cultural Revolution targets and doubtless had quite mixed feelings about being sent, as a form of punishment, to the countryside to enforce leftist agricultural policies). The story of the work team alternates with successive descriptions of such benchmarks as the formation of peasant mutual aid teams; communization, grandiose plans, and economic chaos during the Great Leap Forward; the period of retrenchment which Hinton calls "a retreat all the way back to individual production and property"; the Socialist Education Movement, as Mao regrouped his forces; and finally the Cultural Revolution itself on local, regional and national levels. Unfortunately, this structure may prove confusing to the general reader, since the background for the events of 1971 is given only toward the end of the book. Perhaps a tighter style and a stricter editorial pen would have helped.
Hinton bases his defense of Maoist agricultural policies primarily on the successes of the model brigade, Tachai. Shenfan includes glowing descriptions of its extraordinary output and achievements, as well as admiring interviews with its ex-party secretary, Ch'en Yung- kuei. Although Tachai has now been discredited on a number of counts, including its inflation of production figures, its policy of assigning work points according to peasants' "political showings," and its receipt of massive financial and physical aid from the central government and the army, Hinton glosses over these accusations. Other problems with the book include Hinton's simplistic equation of rebel and loyalist factions during the Cultural Revolution, and numerous smaller inaccuracies such as assertions that a divorce can be obtained in China even if one party disagrees and that in small towns the same facilities are available as in big cities.
Although Shenfan reflects Hinton's awareness of such major problems as the bureaucratic class and entrenched feudalism, the reader has to read patiently and alertly through Hinton's enormous collection of material to uncover his gems of insight. There is a valuable discussion, example, of the impact of the grain ration ticket and residence card systems, which make it virtually impossible for people to buy food outside their assigned home districts. "The fact that rural people were unable to leave home perpetuated one of the primary aspects of feudalism--bondage to the land--which has plagued Chinese peasants over the ages. Under the new regulations this bondage was much more severe, in fact, than it had been under the old regime because Chinese peasants had not traditionally been serfs bound by contract to feudal manors or castles."
Hinton provides insight into the "bureaucratic infrastructure uncannily reminiscent of (that) built by past dynasties whose roots lay in landlordism." And he provides an excellent description of Mao as emperor after the Lushan meeting in 1959: "China came perilously close to closing that circle that had so often been closed before--the establishment of a new dynasty on the ruins of the old through peasant rebellion."
The bulk of Hinton's material is also interesting, as anecdotes, often humorous ones, remind us how little local issues have often had to do with official rhetoric, especially since Mao's love of political movements came to hold sway over daily life.
Fanshen (which means "Transformation") was based on six years' residence in China. Perhaps the fact that Shenfan was based on a visit of only three months, with subsequent visits of even shorter duration, excuses Hinton's failure to convey the depth of recent tragedies. Perhaps the fact that, as Hinton himself points out, Fanshen's fame led China's top leaders to treat both Hinton and Long Bow Village with a care and attention that could not fail to distort the situation, helps explain why he remains so defensive of Mao.
In today's China, Shenfannwill probably be seen as leftist and anti-Dengist, since Hinton portrays the Liu-Deng reforms after the Great Leap Forward as capitalist backsliding, and the current "responsibility system" (under which peasant families keep what they produce on their assigned plots of land after meeting their quotas) as a disastrous regression being valiantly resisted by collective-loving peasants. In the United States, Shenfan will be respected for the massive quantities of material presented and for the sincerity of its author, but it is to be hoped it will be read with a careful eye to distortions arising from the political slant Hinton so candidly makes clear. There was a time when many Americans' friendship for China was based on the romantic idealizations with which Hinton's name has become synonymous. A still deeper friendship is possible if it grows out of a critical understanding.