Conditions in Feudal China

People often cite the Communists as the ones inciting violence during the Chinese Revolution. Those same people also say that things were good back then before the Communists were in power. However, if you reflect on how things were in feudal China, what was so good about it? 

In Fanshen, William Hinton documents life in a Chinese village called Long Bow. Before the Revolution, instances such as these were common:

I and the children worked for others thinning millet. We got only half a quart of grain. For each meal we cooked only a fistful with some weeds in it. The children’s stomachs were swollen and every bone in their bodies stuck through their skin. After a while the little boy couldn’t get up. He just lay on the k'ang sick with dysentery and many, many worms, a whole basin full of worms crawled out from his behind. Even after he was dead the worms kept coming out. The little girl had no milk from me, for I had nothing to eat myself, so, of course, she died (43). 

One Taihang peasant struck back at a landlord who raped his wife. He was hung by the hair of his head and beaten until his scalp separated from his skull. He fell to the ground and bled to death (52). 

Peasants confronted oppressive forces on a daily basis. Landlords would make them work until they couldn’t anymore – or worse, until they died. Rich relatives (even brothers) would use and abuse them as they wished. To make things worse, the French sent over Catholic bishops. People were forced to join because this was the only way that they would get money and grain during a bad harvesting period.

Chinese girls were often given up to the Catholic church’s orphanage. These girls would become the orphange’s property. When the girls were old enough, they were tasked by the orphanage to clean, cook, sew, and various other forms of labor; they worked between 12 to 14 hours a day. The orphanage would sometimes lease these girls to other people so that both the orphanage and church would get a steady income. When the girls were old enough, they were sold off to men to become their “wives”.


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A woman settling the score with a landlord. 

If people had to live under those circumstances from the day that they were born, it is no wonder then that peasants reacted so violently towards their oppressors during the Chinese Revolution. As Hinton has similarly expressed: 

When agrarian revolt flared in isolated parts of China after the suppression of the Great Revolution in 1927, neither the legitimate gangs of the village politicians nor the illegitimate gangs of the local despots were enough to suppress them (53). 

No one, including the Communists, could hold the peasants back from their revolts. The peasants were unleashing years and years of anger that they were forced to keep suppressed. 

Peasants only had bitter stories to tell when they reflected on the past. If things were good “back in the day”, it was only good for those who were the exploiters: the Catholic institution and the gentry. (According to Hinton, the word gentry describes: landlords, rich peasants, and person who made a career of serving them and their interests (such as bailiffs, public officials, village scholars) whose standard of living was comparable to that of the wealthy and came from the same source – the exploitation of the peasants.) The poor peasants had nothing to lose and everything to gain when feudal China was smashed.