TWO IMAGES OF THE 1950s
The 1950s were remembered by many older farmers of the 1990s as one of the happiest periods of their lifetimes, something of a golden age; and yet the anecdotes they told reveal that the 1950s encompassed a difficult metamorphosis as the State took control of local affairs. Western literature on the Chinese revolution includes works which emphasize the total transformation of rural Chinese society in this period through state penetration (for example the thesis of Helen Siu (1989) and works which maintain that 'traditional' social structures survived the revolution (for example, Potter and Potter (1990, p.56-57) who draw this conclusion even as they acknowledge the elimination of the "landlord-bureaucrat-local despot class" and its replacement by cadres loyal to the nation-state). In Xiakou, People described how, in the 1950s, spirits were high and it was a time of celebration and diversion. In the 1950s Chairman Mao was leading the country to tackle a series of important priorities for which the farmers were nearly universally grateful. These priorities associated with Mao included reigning in official corruption, eradicating banditry and petty crime, freeing society from opium addiction, and building up the nation's infrastructure. Nonetheless, stories told of the period reveal that change was difficult and even violent as locals mobilized their resources in an effort to preserve the powers and privileges of a passing era.
Liberation took place at the time of the traditional New Year celebration in 1949-50. Land Reform covered the period 1950 to 1951, after which production was arranged on an independent household basis until 1955 when the mutual-aid teams were established. Mutual-aid teams were based on poor and lower-middle peasant associations organized to "trade labor". The chujishe (or cooperative, hezuoshe ) began in 1956, and marked the beginning of the work point system, with "bad elements" or people with "bad class backgrounds" excluded. The higher cooperatives were begun in 1957 and were basically the same as the chujishe except the administrative units were larger. The higher level cooperatives lasted until the eighth Chinese calendar
month of 1958 when the cafeterias and steel production began. The period from 1958 to a reform movement in 1962-63 was called "the people's commune" and is the subject of the article entitled "The Great Leap Forward to Famine" on this site. For overviews of the period see: (Dietrich 1986, p.91-102), and (Spence 1990, p.541-550)). Add Chinese Village Socialist State . Hinton (1966) is the classic source on land reform.
Pam asked Wu Guangxin (our primary host over the years) when he thought the "happiest times" were. "After Liberation we were happiest." he said with certainty,
"Happier than people now. Look at my daughter. She has lots of clothes and many pairs of useless leather shoes, but she compares her situation to city people and thinks she has nothing. At Liberation we did not care about money the way people do now. Why were our spirits so high? We could go see a movie at the commune and come back at night and we loved it. My generation's people really get happy at movies. Also, we could go to Ya'an to hear Opera and dance the Lion Dance for all the soldiers who had come to Ya'an from North China ."
Wu Guangxing expanded on what fun it had been to go to the city then and stay late seeing Sichuan Opera. Afterward they would pay to take a bed in a hotel. It was remarkable to him that then they could afford a hotel; now if they go to town he feels they must walk back the same day.
Wu Guangkui harbored a similar nostalgia. One evening he invited me to dinner at his home and at the end of that evening I was feeling rather guilty. He had worked a long hard day and then at dinner, which to my mind ought to be a pleasant occasion, we had spent the time going over what had to be rather painful memories for him. He had been one of the most persecuted in the village during the struggle sessions of a later period. He looked tired and unhappy and I wanted to end on a cheerier note. I mentioned that I had heard that the 1950s were fun, thinking this might be a way to lighten things up before we took our leave. His eyes lit up and a dim smile formed. I imagined that I could see his mind wandering back; he seemed to be lost for a long silent moment in happy reminiscences. He then said, yes, it had been fun. He too told how they used to go to Ya'an to listen to Sichuan Opera, and stay in the hotels. He described it as fun and happening (hao sua, lao re).
It is significant that in the 1950s Xiakou had a basketball court. Located in front of what is now Wu Guangliang's house, the men remember the games that they used to play. They even had a basketball league in which they would compete. A shared public space intentionally designated for pleasure and entertainment has long ceased to exist in Xiakou.
Some people say that the 1950s was the last time people sang the "mountain songs," traditional songs sung as call and answer by groups of farmers while working in the fields. Often improvised on the spot and frequently about ribald love affairs, they are a source of great pleasure for those who have taken part in their singing. They are rarely heard today.
Jie Fu remembers how one day he sang in his field and heard some passers-by on the road sing back in answer. He found their songs good fun and as they continued, he moved closer to the road to share his music with them. They ended up all sitting under a tree and singing until evening. These strangers had paused on an errand for which they were travelling to town, but were so diverted that they ultimately abandoned their business and gave in to the amusement of the moment. It was not until evening that they finally took their leave, returning to where they had come, business undone. Jie Fu noted that this event took place in the 1950s and one can see how really it could not have happened a decade sooner, when banditry reigned, or even less a decade later when life took an austere turn. Now mountain songs are but part of the nostalgia for the past, squelched by the events of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
These memories of happy days may seem trivial, but put in the context of explicit statements about attitudes toward cooperation in the 1950s, and about the good aspects of Mao's leadership, they take on a fuller significance. Villagers talked about a `mood of the times' that pulled the nation together, and that enthusiasm drew on and reinforced the economic successes that characterize the period.
In the 1950s there were fewer village and township officials than in later periods and this made life more manageable. The chujishe had just three, a head, a deputy head, and an accountant. Later a person in charge of work-points was added. Just as importantly, work point designations in the 1950s, in contrast to the 1960s and 1970s, were decided at village meetings by discussion and consensus. Opportunities for discussion and consensus or voting was one aspect that made the 1950s better than later times.
In 1955, the mutual-aid system was organized. After the land reform, production was still organized on a household or individual basis ( ge ren ge fu ). Mutual-aid simply organized groups of individuals to help each other with the labor required on individual holdings. It was basically the same arrangement as the traditional "labor exchange" still used today, but the difference was that there was an intentional plan to exclude the "bad elements"-- defined under the new government's system of class labelling as counter-revolutionaries, criminals, landlords, and rich peasants. In all of Xiakou, there were only eight "bad elements," and of these only one "landlord," the remaining seven were of the "rich peasant" category. Those had a good class background-- the members of the poor and lower-middle peasants association-- remember holding political meetings as others went to labor. The mood of enthusiasm was such, however, that even the "bad elements" wanted to join the cooperative movements. Yang Mingao can still remember the sting when after joining the mutual-aid team for a day's work, Wu Zhenfa said to him, "we don't want you. How does the son of a rich peasant dare to join us?" Yao had wanted to join because "at that time it was a big collective; everybody was a part of it except us. They said it was fun doing things together and pleasant ( hao sua, anyi ), everything under a united leadership ( tongyi lingdao )."
In reflecting on the 1950s from the vantage point of the 1990s, villagers said that after the anarchy and social disintegration of the years leading up to Liberation in 1949, the prospect of solidarity under a unified leadership was a welcome change. No one wanted to be excluded from the new system of mutual aid teams and cooperatives. Two factors may explain this attitude. Besides the benefits of pooled resources (such as draft animals and tools) and labor exchanges, the cooperatives also seem to have drawn on the strong valuation of work in the Chinese cultural tradition. The ability to work serves as the measure of individual worth, whether in choosing a marriage partner or selecting village leaders, and work is the basis of social interaction. (Potter and Potter, 1990, p.189-95). Thus exclusion from the mutual-aid teams may have been a weighty social stigma as well as a practical disadvantage.
This remembered eagerness to participate is something that separates the Cooperatives of the early 1950s from the efforts to collectivize farming in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1950s, jobs were arranged like piecework--a particular job had an ascribed amount of work-points. Some jobs paid more and some less, but people were still willing to perform the less rewarding tasks because they knew "it was fundamentally fair and everyone would get their chance. No one faked sick." In the 1960s and 1970s, by contrast, cooperative labor is remembered as "four breaks, eight cigarettes and thirty six trips to the toilet."
Zhu Congde saw the economic arrangements of the two periods as "basically the same, both involved work points, but the early cooperative was done better." He admitted that even in the 1950s, however, some trouble began because people realized with the "3/7" system of dividing grain (70% based on family population and 30% based on work points), having more children gave a family unfair benefits. Potter and Potter (1990, p.165) call China under the Maoist system "one of the most pro-natal societies ever instituted." Families with more children got more grain than families with more labor. But, he concluded that the early period was "fair and it worked well because if you worked more you would get more."
While people often no doubt felt it was correct to say positive things about Mao to us, the foreigners, there also can be no question that most (not all!) farmers harbor a great respect for Mao's leadership ability; and Mao's attention to "national construction" (guojia jianshe) has to be seen as central to his widespread popularity in the countryside, even today. The public works projects of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s not only brought new conveniences and services to the village, but also provided extra employment for these farmers whose farm work has always had slack seasons and labor surpluses.
Wu Guangliang once explained to us that the peasants had not joined in the student movement of 1989 because they did not want to go against the party. To them the party meant Chairman Mao who gave the peasants food to eat and clothes to wear. Wu Guoyun, the current team head whose family was a target during the struggle sessions of the 1960s and 1970s, might seem an unlikely devotee of Mao. Nonetheless, he gave a thumbs up, as he proclaimed Mao China's number one leader. He said Mao was good because he gave the people four things: roads, railroads, planes and electricity. "Mao made life better for all the peasants, and especially those in the poor areas like in these mountains ( shanqu )."
Many of the big infrastructure developments in the Sichuan countryside were built in the 1950s. The vehicle road past Xiakou was built in the 1950s and electricity arrived in 1965. Before liberation the road past Xiakou was a walking path only, narrow with steep stairs in places and treacherous passes high over deep jungled caverns. By 1957 it was made passable to cattle carts, and by 1967 the first cars and buses could reach the Zhongli district. Public works also proceeded on irrigation projects, schools, and hospitals-- all items that the peasants recognize as central to their well-being.
A DIFFICULT TRANSITION
The anecdotes told of the 1950s, however, don't entirely jibe with the more self-conscious construction of life in the 1950s. Anecdotes reveal the many ways that locals stuck to old patterns in the face of the new, and tried to preserve privileges and positions gained in the old order, if not further those interests. While the deliberately constructed descriptions of the 1950s have more to do with evoking the feeling of optimism and even celebration of a new order; stories from that period also reveal a difficult metamorphosis with the old powers reluctant to give way. Thus, while the centralizing force of the 1950s was cause for optimism and even celebration as order was restored, it was also a cause for resistance as people saw their own individual interests threatened.
ARMED RESISTANCE TO LIBERATION
On the eve of liberation Liu Wenhui, an important Sichuan warlord who had nominally been a supporter of the GMD, cut a deal with the communists. The liberation of Ya'an was peaceful, that is, Liu Wenhui cooperated with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and posted announcements declaring the transfer of power. Liberation Army soldiers were stationed at "Liu Wenhui's Electric Station" that sits on a curve in the road below the township of Longxi . Liu's cooperation with the communist forces, while it furthered his own power interests, could not ensure the capitulation of his underlings, nor could it guarantee the loyalty of local elites who felt betrayed in the shifting constellation of power. In Zhongli, the transfer was carried out by a young officer Chen Qifu, who was the son of one of Liu Wenhui's biggest generals. Chen was dissatisfied with the way the PLA treated him and the way he was shunted out of power. He planned an attack on the electric station to start a rebellion, and gathered together the local armed elements--the Pao Ge-- to serve as his forces. In the area of Longxi he got Yang Yunzhong and Bai Xiang Zhan (Township-leader Bai) to join him, and Wu Wenbing of Xiakou to serve as liaison. Eighteen days after the official liberation of Ya'an, on December 24, they launched their attack. Outnumbered and outgunned, the attack failed and those who were not killed or captured managed to flee. It was in part for his involvement in this embroglio that Yang Yunzhong (whose son and grandsons live in Xiakou today) was executed shortly after. Thus the era of banditry and of alliance between local government and armed Pao Ge militia drew to a close.
The communist forces moved to consolidate their control over 'public order' and win the support of the masses. Opium, landlords and bandits all were exorcised in mass campaigns led by the new government. The period of 1950-52 was the first stage of Land Reform in Ya'an--a period known by the slogan "clean up banditry, overturn local despots, reduce rents and rollback pressure" (qing fei, fan ba; jian zu, tui ya). During this period many bandits and landlords were executed and the first steps were taken to measure land holdings, assign class labels, and give "land to the tiller." Programs helped former addicts to overcome addictions to opium and gained control of criminal activities.
Remembering that time, people often express the great impact of seeing so many people executed for their crimes. While they do not readily say that such executions were wrong, and in general the people seem to approve of capital punishment, to have so many die, it is implied, was extreme and inopportune. Zhu Congde, long-time village "activist" for the party, noted in his darkest voice that in one day twelve or fourteen people were executed in Longxi. He also pointed out, however, that such executions were accompanied by public demonstrations and explanations of condemned' crimes. The executions of Land Reform differed from the more arbitrary course of justice of the Red Army period. During Land Reform, the determination of crimes came from "grassroots" evidence. Common people described the crimes to work teams who prepared reports. It was the government who ultimately determined the punishment and local militias were called upon to help carry out the government orders. It is remembered as significant that justice was not the casual process it had been before with the Red Army because now everything required permits and investigations by formal means. Political violence was the extreme expression of control, but to a large degree is perceived as regulated and legitimate.
Due to the formalized process of 'consulting the masses', many of the campaign's victims were, in fact, unpopular local characters who had committed crimes. Yet the executions had as much to do with furthering the communist agenda of cultivating local activists as locating local tyrants. Hinton (1966, p.111-116). If one were wealthy, after all, it was easy to have enough enemies to seal one's doom, and many people were involved with criminal activities in the final years before liberation. But if one did the work of the party or was well-liked, criminal activities might be overlooked or undiscovered. Three cases illustrate the idea of 'destroying our enemies but helping our friends.'
Yu Sulan had no idea what was coming. He was an outsider who had married into the village (shangmen), but had failed to adopt the Wu name. People say he had "ambitions." He allegedly ran an opium den in Xiakou and when he failed to make money at that, he took to robbing the village at night. Yu thought he had successfully concealed his activities, so he was surprised when the authorities took him away. In this case, it is clear that the victim was an 'outsider' and quite unpopular in the village. In contrast, although Wu Wenbing had been a prominent local member of the Pao Ge and was even connected to the incident at the electric station, he managed to escape the purges of the land reform and remain undiscovered. It is significant in this regard that Lao Yang, who had many rivals among the Wus, described Wu Wenbing as "very cultured, a scholar who wrote articles and whose speech carried the flavor of classical Chinese." Yang added that, "Wu Wenbing, along with Wu Guangkui wore fedoras, then in fashion, but he was not an especially bad or fierce bandit. His bandit activity and involvement in the electric station incident was due to the influence of the society at that time." Likely Wu Wenbing was able to escape these early purges because he was an integral member of the community and, moreover, well-liked by local people.
But to say that those targeted were merely a reflection of popular feeling would be to miss an important point. Wu Guanglin, a prominent communist activist during the soviet period, was let off for the more heinous crimes committed in 1936. The party deemed his conduct a result of the special circumstances of the Red Army passing through, and that the Red Army and not he was responsible for the excesses. These examples underscore that a perennial problem of the communist method arose from the fact that it nurtured and protected the initiatives of local "activists" who naturally tended to be the more extreme and even violent personalities of the village. Solomon (1971, p. 217-218) describes the "chaos" of land reform violence add reference. At the same time, reliance on grassroots evidence led to a settling of old scores, while the need for revolutionary activists made for less than perfect justice.
There is other evidence that the initial period of communist reform (1949-52), because of an emphasis on grassroots organization, tended to favor old networks and patterns of alliance. At the time of Land Reform, the temple of the Sichuan God, Chuan Zhu, which sits at the bottom of the hill below Xiakou, was taken over by the township government as the new seat for political activities. Elections were held there and a man who lived not far from the temple, He Zehai, was chosen as the wider-village peasant leader. According to Old Yang, He Zehai was in league with the Wus of Xiakou, and so the first set of officials in Xiakou were the hegemonic Wus. Not coincidentally, the first set of class labels were locally designated and no one in the village was above middle peasant. They even tried to pin a label of bandit on Old Yang and he was arrested, but the charges were unable to stick. Old Yang comments, "the Wus were acting cohesively at that time".
Old Yang went on to describe how everyone had to register their land holdings and Wu Guangliang had the job of "measuring land" for redistribution. Wu attended a workshop that taught about the new land reform policy and how it would be carried out. He then used this information to help his kinsman arrange their land holdings in a way that would prove acceptable to the authorities and prevent them from being assessed as exploiters. They filled in their own forms about how much land they had and its quality and production. They bent the truth downward. Land they could not work themselves they gave away. Wu Guangliang told them how much land they should quickly give away to stay within the safe bounds.
The initial reliance on established networks of local power made for shallow revolution. Wu Guangleng's family, the family famous in the village for its abject poverty in pre-liberation days, received nothing more than a liquor shot glass in the redistribution of household goods that accompanied Land Reform. He claimed that his family did not regret receiving so little: In 1935 he was nine years old and just beginning to remember things. When the Red Army came, they told the poor people that they were all one family and the rich people ran away in fear. The Red Army took some of the belongings that had belonged to a wealthy landlord family of team three, the Dengs, and gave them to Wu Guangleng's family. After the Red Army left, the landlords returned with a thirst for revenge. Activists of the period such as Wu Guanglin even ran away for a time, afraid of reprisals. The landlord Deng Tingjie came to Wu Guangleng's father to take back his belongings, and to beat him. Thus, after liberation, Guangleng claims his family was content not to have redistributed items; they had come to believe that things seized from others in redistribution could never really be theirs. Moreover, he said that they were satisfied because they had already survived the hardest of times and knew they could make it. In short, the first stage of the Land Reform campaign brought real changes in the broader realm of political power and public order, but in the local context the web and hierarchy of social life continued along lines set before liberation.
Business as usual did not last long, though. 1952 brought the "Re-examination" (fucha), the first work team to stay in Xiakou and real change in village politics. Work teams (a fixture of the communist period) were groups constructed of party officials, mostly from outside areas, and were designed to live in the village and conduct a time-consuming process of interviews and cross-checking to determine the 'real situation at the grassroots.' The 'fucha' work team in Xiakou quickly began to uncover problems and contradictions, and previously unknown aspects of people's backgrounds before Liberation came to official attention. The events of the Reexamination broke old patterns of cooperation (or domination) and foreshadowed the form of intra-village conflicts that were to plague the village in the decades that followed.
Investigation led to a reversal of fortune for the old network of power. At the Chuan Zhu temple, He Zehai ran the opium detox program during Land Reform. Here addicts were permitted to smoke opium but the amounts were regulated--addicts were allowed withdrawal in stages. During the Reexamination, it was discovered by the work teams that He Zehai, in distributing the opium, was collecting money from the addicts. Some people allege that he was even getting extra opium, then still plentiful, through his relations with the Wus. Because of his collection of fees, and because he had violated guidelines in appointing Wus as leaders in Xiakou, He Zehai was removed from his position.
Changes in leadership meant that hitherto concealed connivance came into the open. Whereas initially class labels were based on self-reporting and village consensus, and thus no one was labelled higher than 'middle peasant', the Reinvestigation work team reviewed the designations and reclassified many locals as "exploiters." The policy determined an average-size land holding: 35% more land than the standard earned the label 'landlord'; 25% more the class label of 'rich peasant.' Class labels were determined by this landholding standard -- not the hiring of labor. As a result, Wu Guangkui's family was reclassified as rich peasant as were those of Wu Guangliang and Wu Guangren.
These changes in the local power structure did not occur without resistance. During February and March of 1952 the work team had been stationed at Yang's house. They had taken away remaining weapons in the village that had not been handed over voluntarily (i.e. all the guns in Xiakou, which, according to Old Yang, mostly belonged to Wus). They changed the village leadership, taking it from Wus and giving it to members of the other families: Zhus, Chens, and Yangs, and they had called everyone to jiaodai , come forward and admit their holdings and class status-- double-checking with the masses to reassign class backgrounds. The Wus had plenty to be unhappy about. Old Yang says that in reaction Wu Guangliang, once again, hatched a plot. Ten of the Wus went to the work team to protest. They said the work team had been unfair in assigning class labels, and they gave as an example Old Yang's aunt who had not been classified as a landlord. The argument grew more and more heated until Wu Guangjun's father spat on the leader of the work team, and the Wus made a move to struggle for the guns of the work team and new village officials. At this Old Yang went to Longxi to get reinforcements. They hauled off the Wus and dealt with each according to their individual class background and history, and in Yang's version, it is here that Wu Wenbing was recognized by some Liberation Army officials as one involved in the electric station incident. He was taken away for seven years of "corrective labor."
Whether one looks at remembrances of the atmosphere of celebration that colors the 1950s or at specific anecdotes of personal struggles against the new policies, it is clear that the over-arching direction of the period was increasing control of the central government over local affairs. According to descriptions given today, in the 1950s villagers appeared to be rejoicing in the new security a strong government and a stable economy provided. They felt optimistic about the future course of their new nation, and through developments such as the work team, local affairs were bent to accord with national policies. While uneasy with the violence of the Land Reform movement, in general, locals seem to approve of the centralized character of those times. While the attempt to subvert policy for personal gains is intrinsic to the lore of this period as any period, subversion is not at the core of what the 1950s has come to represent to these people. Rather the 1950s are cast as a time of hope and optimism for the new order; of a gathering together that finds its force in its opposition to the chaos of the period just before liberation and the confusion about values and future directions of today. The 1950s were a time when the peasant's social position was high (renmin diwei gao) and they were at the center of a movement to rebuild their nation. If they tried to work things for their own advantage, they also are grateful that those times represent something greater than individual interests. The 1950s quintessentially represent a time of joining together for national construction, a cause with which they could identify. These two images of the 1950s-- as the high spirited celebration of a nation coming together, and as a difficult period of transition punctuated by incidents of resistance and loss-- tell the story of China in a period of strengthening central powers and reveal local people's reactions and ideas about that process.
Their approval of a strong central government, however, has serious limitations. If the 1950s were so good, it must also be seen as a function of the fact that the basic mode of production of the period remained firmly based on a traditional form-- that is, it was family based and relatively independent of direct state control. Traditional forms of arts, such as mountain songs and the lion dance flourished, and while religious institutions were under pressure, relatively speaking people still had options. These aspects of relative freedom were to disappear in the period that followed, as the process of centralization went too far. If the work team in its capacity as disinterested arbiter offered a particular antidote to the problems of grassroots power-- such as the perpetuation of local cliques and patterns of domination-- it also had its attendant problems: a tendency to extreme policies and solutions and the fact that they brought with them their own agenda. These contradictions matured in the period of overcentralization that followed, where, as a result, the productive machine seized up and trust in government and its officials tumbled. The story of township leader Yang that follows provides further insight in the process of centralization and its problems, as it brings us into the next historical period: the Great Leap Forward and Starvation.
YANG XIANG ZHANG'S STORY
An old man sat in front of a back-road store, his grizzled face was overtaken by animated expressions as he told us the story of his political experiences during the 1950s. We sought him out because we heard Yang was a `true local' (bendi ren) who had been the head of the township government after Liberation. He was the township head of Longxi in the 1950s; since then township leaders have hailed from "outside" --other townships and from Ya'an city. He told a tale of political change, of how the business of politics changed from the last phase of GMD rule to the 1950s, and ultimately created the conditions that unfolded into the Great Leap Forward. His story showed how the communist government gained control only to lose touch with the reality of the masses, as a system that emphasized grassroots power gave way to centripetal forces that centralized power and cut it off from the people.
In the Old Society Yang's family was upper middle class by any standard. They had eight mu of paddy and also did some business. They had had enough money to educate their son at the missionary school in Ya'an where he had an American English teacher for three years. Upon graduation he returned to Longxi and became a teacher. His family had some status in the area and he was chosen to be a People's Representative to the GMD congress in 1948, but he says he was too busy to go to the congress meeting in Ya'an. He remembered, however, that his vote at that congress had been sought after for the higher level elections. Candidates eagerly tried to carry his vote by telling him that if he voted for them, he could go into any restaurant in Ya'an and the candidate would pick up the bill. Also, the candidate would be sure to "look after him" if he cooperated.
Yang was still a busy man at Liberation with classes to teach and family land to cultivate. During the rice planting season of 1950, a meeting was called at the Chuan Zhu temple to form a Poor and Lower-middle Peasant's Association. Peasants came from all over the administrative unit (a bao including the three villages of Xiakou, Dingjia, and Longxi) and were asked by the work team to nominate 15 candidates for the position of Chairman of the new organization. They did this and it took a very long time because people were encouraged to stand up and express their opinions ( ti yijian ), a right they freely exercised much lengthening the process. Yang got the most votes and He Zehai came second.
Yang told the work team that he really did not want the job because he was so busy and behind on his own work. The work team leader, a former army officer under the Shanxi warlord Yan Xishan (who would later come to ill ends because of his warlord association), sat Yang down and interviewed him at exhaustive length. He asked about everything he and his family had done since he was seven years old: did they borrow money? lend money? Rent their land? What kind of business did they do? etc. Yang was impressed by the "thoroughness" and "uprightness" of this work team official. Finally the official determined that Yang was a student son of upper middle class family. He went on to explain to Yang that the purpose of the new association was to encourage and develop the poorer peasants. He then struck a compromise with Yang: He Zehai should take the top post and Yang would be his assistant, helping He with his ability to read and write. Yang reluctantly agreed.
From 1950 to 1953 Yang also served in the township government as secretary (wenshu) and as an official in charge of measuring land, posts to which he was appointed by the work team in charge. He said it was difficult and unpleasant because he was often left in charge of gathering provisions for the Liberation Army soldiers which had to be taken from landlord families. There were four township officials, the head, deputy head, secretary, and the head of people's militia held by He Zehai. These positions remained the same until after the Land Reform movements were completed in 1953. In that year they held elections for the various village leaders and for the Longxi township head. Yang pointed out that the method was again relatively democratic: the masses would recommend a list of candidates and the work team chose the Township head from the list. They chose him.
Yang contrasted this method of choosing leaders with the undemocratic methods used at higher levels then, and with those in use at the time of the interview, 1993). All of the candidates chosen by the masses became People's Representatives and went to Ya'an to select higher level officials. Yang says they were given a list of candidates to choose, not to choose from. During one of these discussion meetings, in a small group, Yang said he complained openly that he could not very well elect someone he knew nothing about, "when I report to the masses, I want to be able to tell them if the person is black or white, tall or short." Later, during a larger meeting, his point of view was brought up and criticized--this frightened him, but did not completely cower him or keep him from getting into trouble later.
From 1953 to 1955 there were a series of five District party Secretaries who had good relations with Taiping township and its leaders. They always treated the township head and the village heads well and gave them good meals at meetings. The Sixth District party secretary came from a higher level and from further away, and his relations with and attitude toward the grassroots officials was not as good as his predecessors. At meetings he gave the grassroots officials the simplest food and reserved the best food for himself and a few chosen officials who ate separately. In Yang's mind this was elitist and corrupt (tanwu).
In 1957 Yang was called to attend a meeting in Dui Ai, across the mountains on another side of Ya'an. He left for the meeting early, using the opportunity of travel to visit some of the more remote villages that were part of his jurisdiction. He arrived after dark and was greeted gruffly. They asked him why he had come; had he not received the message that the meeting was postponed one day? He replied that he did not hang around the office all day, he had been out visiting villages, and the least they could do was to give him something to eat and a place to sleep. When dinner was served he was surprised to discover how well they ate, and the next day, when the other local officials arrived, he told them of his discovery. These were the days of speaking out during the hundred flowers movement In the Hundred Flowers movement, named for Mao's invocation of the classical formula, "let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend", intellectuals were given the opportunity to air criticisms of the party. The period of liberalization was short-lived and closely followed by a crackdown on 'rightist' critics of the regime. See MacFarquhar (1974) and Solomon (1971, p.268-329).) During the next day's meeting he publicly criticized the District party Secretary and even posted a big character poster accusing him of corruption and bad relations with the masses.
The Hundred Flowers movement ended abruptly as the government did an about face, cracking down on critics. In the time of Yang's speaking out, transgressions against authority were not met with beatings, only criticism. That was to change, however, during the anti-rightist movement and Great Leap Forward. Yang said the change was sudden: "in the morning it was 'blooming and contending,' in the afternoon it was 'rightist'". The first targets were people who had historical problems ( lishi wenti ) among officials and intellectuals, but as the movement continued people were struggled for "disobedience." "If they said it was black, it was black; if they said it was white, it was white."
Yang was relieved of his post in 1958 and assigned to be a teacher, although he managed to avoid being labelled a "rightist." Others were not so fortunate. Stories of intellectuals who suffered for decades under the "rightist" stigma are legion in China . Such stories abound in the autobiographical literature. For a particularly thoughtful account, see Liu Binyan (1990). The rural population, however, were largely unaffected by these ominous developments. The process of collectivization throughout the 1950s was not without problems, but enthusiasm ran high as villagers in Xiakou were mobilized to take part in a "Great Leap Forward." In villagers' memories of that moment, the harvests had been good, and 1958 looked like a bumper crop. But they could not see then what they know now: that the "golden age" of the 1950s was closing and a period of horrible suffering was about to begin.
About This Essay
Liberation and the 1950s in Ya'an
This essay is based on villagers' recollections of life in Xiakou
during what could be described as the golden age of the communist
party in the eyes of villagers, the period of Land Reform and early
collectivization (1950-56). We recorded these narratives in 1992-93.
An earlier version of this essay appeared as the chapter entitled "The
1950s" in Pam Leonard's 1994 Ph.D. thesis "The Political Landscape
of a Sichuan Village ."