Soon after taking power in China, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began a sweeping program of agrarian reform. Underpinned by a law passed in mid-1950, the program of agrarian reform sought to take land from wealthy families and hand it to peasant-farmers. These reforms not only redistributed land but involved a degree of retribution, and had a profound impact on class and social structures in rural communities.
For thousands of years, the Chinese people survived by farming the land. By 1949, practically all arable land was under cultivation, and peasants constituted 85 per cent of the Chinese population.
Mao Zedong was convinced China’s peasants must drive the communist revolution and the transition to socialism. Under Mao’s direction, the CCP developed a program of agrarian reforms.
These reforms, while revolutionary and often progressive, were implemented and enforced by coercive and violent means.
Agrarian Reform Law
The Agrarian Reform Law, one of the communist republic’s first major policies, was passed in June 1950. It promised to seize land from affluent landlords and redistribute it to landless peasants. Its first article promised that:
“The land ownership system of feudal exploitation by the landlord class shall be abolished and the system of peasant land ownership shall be introduced in order to set free the rural productive forces, develop agricultural production, and thus pave the way for new China’s industrialisation.”
After the bill was enacted, Mao congratulated the peasants, stating that it was “with their help that victory was won in the revolution, and it is again their help that will make the industrialisation of the country possible.”
The CCP’s agrarian reform program involved turning China’s traditional social system and land ownership on its head. The Chinese word to describe this transformation was fanshen, which means to free oneself or ‘turn over the body’.
Rural society was divided into new categories:
In some villages, individuals were required to wear a strip of cloth identifying their class background. Some of the colours used were white for landlords, yellow for middle peasants and red for poor peasants.
The state also seized large tracts of land owned by wealthy industrialists. This acquired land but also marginalised and disempowered affluent capitalists, who tended to be supporters of the Guomindang and the old regime.
The process of land reform quickly became an opportunity for retribution, as landlords were violently denounced by peasants. According to British historian Jonathan Fenby, “in this reordering of the rural world, peasants whose families had lived on or below the margin for generations got their revenge on those who had oppressed them”.
The CCP legitimised and exploited these grievances through government propaganda and the state-sanctioned ‘Speak Bitterness’ campaign.
During the ‘Speak Bitterness’ campaign former landlords were forced to attend public hearings, where they were subjected to interrogation, accusation and haranguing from those they had previously exploited or mistreated. These sessions often ended with acts of violence that could range from slaps and punches to torture and execution. Banishment, imprisonment and forced and voluntary suicides were also widespread.
A class war
The process of ‘Speaking Bitterness’ was devised and encouraged by Mao Zedong. It was promoted as a means for healing the wounds of the past and purging the soul – but its true purpose was to agitate class consciousness, empower the peasantry and encourage revolutionary thinking.
In June 1950, Mao described the process of land reform thus:
“Land reform in a population of over 300 million people is a vicious war. It is more arduous, more complex, more troublesome than crossing the Yangzi because our troops are 260 million peasant soldiers. This is a war for land reform, this is the most hideous class war between peasants and landlords. It is a battle to the death.”
Problems and difficulties
According to some historians, the process of ‘Speaking Bitterness’ and fanshen did not occur uniformly across China. Frank Dikötter suggests that CCP activists sometimes found it difficult to penetrate prevailing Confucian attitudes and to shift old social structures and patterns.
In some villages, the landlords and rich peasants were able to retain at least some status or influence. In some cases they were trained as cadres (local communist leaders) while in other areas, class distinctions had scarcely existed, meaning there was little to ‘speak bitterness’ about.
“The challenge was that none of these artificial class distinctions actually corresponded to the social landscape of the village,” writes Dikötter, “where most farmers often lived in roughly the same conditions”. He also argues that the CCP met with resistance because “ordinary people had qualms about persecuting and stealing from their erstwhile neighbours”, regardless of what they had done before.
As a consequence, the ‘Speak Bitterness’ sessions in some areas became a charade. The villagers complied with the wishes of the party but learned to “perform as a way to survive”. If CCP cadres discovered any indifference to fanshen, it was interpreted as resistance to reform and dealt with through indoctrination, intimidation and violence.
By 1951, more than 10 million landlords had been identified and dealt with and 40 per cent of land was held by 60 per cent of the population. At the beginning of 1953, the CCP declared China’s agrarian revolution complete – though in reality, more significant changes were yet to come.
Statistics on violence against landlords vary significantly. It has been estimated that anywhere between one and two million former landlords died during the campaigns of 1947 and 1952.
While agrarian reform and land redistributions helped the CCP gain peasant support, as new landowners the peasants faced more difficulties and problems.
Many peasants lacked the knowledge, equipment and resources to cultivate the land productively. With the land producing less than before, there was disruption to food supplies and markets that led to shortages and price rises.
There was also disruption to agricultural practices, including the loss of ancient ceremonies, replaced by party meetings and propaganda performances. Cultural artefacts like rare manuscripts, bronze coins, wooden furniture, ink paintings and ceramics were also destroyed, prompting the Ministry of Culture to order the confiscation of all rare books and antiques as a protective measure (June 1951).
The changes of the early 1950s would be supplanted by even more radical social and economic reforms in the decade to come, including the implementation of mutual aid teams, collectivisation, the People’s Communes and the disaster of the Great Leap Forward.
A historian’s view:
“The objectives of land reform were to improve the lot of the poor and to make them feel they had a stake in the country and a loyalty to the new government… But the objectives of land reform also included information and control. The CCP, by means of the cadres, obtained an insight into conditions in every part of China – and useful lists of enemies of the people. By implicating the local population in the ‘judicial’ process and the killings, control through fear was quickly established.”
William S. Morton
1. The Agrarian Reform Law (June 1950) was a communist policy that aimed to confiscate land from landlords and redistribute it to landless peasants.
2. Agrarian reform also aimed to destroy the structures and inequalities of the old social order, where people were categorised as either landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, poor peasants or labourers.
3. In implementing land reform, Mao and the CCP encouraged the peasants to seek retribution against wealthy landlords. This led to denunciations, imprisonment, violence and executions, with as many as two million people killed between 1947 and 1952.
4. The agrarian revolution resulted in 40 per cent of the land being handed over to 60 per cent of the population. This had some adverse effects on agricultural production, as peasants came to terms with their changed situation.
5. The new society also experienced significant cultural change and disruption, as ancient agricultural festivals were replaced with party meetings and propaganda, while a great deal of cultural material like rare books and antiques were lost or destroyed.
Title: “Agrarian reform”
Authors: Rebecca Cairns, Jennifer Llewellyn
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 21, 2019
Date updated: December 29, 2022
Date accessed: March 12, 2023