2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 38: Rethinking Social Changes during China’s "Great" Revolutions

Organizer: Zhongping Chen, University of Victoria

Chair: Elizabeth J. Perry, Harvard University

Discussants: Mary B. Rankin, Independent Scholar; Xin Zhang, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis

Keywords: modern China, social changes, revolutions.

This panel presents three case studies examining the transformation of social associations, classes, and movements during the eras of the Republican, Nationalist and Communist Revolutions and within the different contexts ranging from southern to northern China. Its purpose is to balance the revolution-centered historiography by emphasizing the broader social changes, their intrinsic logic, and their historical significance beyond their relations and contributions to revolutionary politics.

Zhongping Chen’s paper spotlights new elite associations and their influence on social transformation during the period of the 1911 Revolution within the rarely examined context of Lower Yangzi towns. It argues that the revolution in these towns was a part of the social transformation by which elite associations had already changed local power structures and their relations with the township communities and the Qing government. Colin Green’s paper further highlights the under-researched military classes during the Nationalist Revolution, including regular soldiers and officers in the revolutionary forces and cadets in the Huangpu Military Academy. It reveals that many youths joined the previously despised military profession not merely because of the appeal of revolutionary ideologies, but because of the inspiration provided by the revived Chinese martial tradition. Xiaorong Han’s paper argues that the Rural Reconstruction Movement in the Nanjing decade took a different path from both the Communists’ peasant revolution and the Nationalists’ state-making policy. The movement helped redefine the agrarian policy of the Nationalist government, and for a short period of time, offered an influential alternative to the revolutionary approach of the Chinese Communist Party.

Beneath the Republican Revolution, beyond the Revolutionary Politics: Elite Associations and Social Transformation in Lower Yangzi Towns, 1903–1912

Zhongping Chen, University of Victoria

This paper examines how elite associations developed within the context of Lower Yangzi towns during the era of the 1911 Revolution, and how their activities influenced the revolutionary movement and deeper social transformation at the township level. From 1903, new elite associations, such as study societies, chambers of commerce, educational associations and self-government institutions, successively appeared with specific missions, formal structures and state-granted legitimacy in Lower Yangzi towns. These new institutional forces quickly overshadowed the preexisting guilds, charitable halls and similar organizations because they incorporated elites from the latter, developed strong associational connections and acquired broad public representation. They also filled a gap in the imperial bureaucracy by operating as official deputies to manage public affairs in these market towns. Ultimately, their associational and public activities went far beyond official permission and expectation.

Although these elite associations had no connections with revolutionary parties, their associational and public power allowed them to control local situations, declare independence from the Qing government and even establish elected "municipal governments" during the 1911 Revolution. Thus, the Republican Revolution in these Lower Yangzi towns was not only a natural result but also a component part of the broad social transformation led by elite associations. These associations integrated diversified elites into organized forces in local society and politics, including the revolutionary movement, and transformed the local elite dominance with public representation of communal interests. Their associational and public activities pioneered and underpinned the short-lived Republican democracy, even though they had only limited influence on national politics.

Militarism and Chinese Martial Culture in the Nationalist Revolution

Colin Green, York University

This paper examines the role played by the revival of the Chinese martial tradition in attracting youths into military service for the Nationalist Revolution in the mid-1920s. Contrary to the emphasis on the appeal of revolutionary ideology in previous studies, this paper argues that many of those drawn to Guangzhou and the Huangpu Military Academy were inspired to take up arms largely by the revival of the Chinese martial tradition.

This tradition enjoyed a revival from the late Qing period to the era of the Nationalist Revolution. Along with the traditional carriers of the martial tradition such as plays and operas, the burgeoning print media promoted concepts of heroism and patriotic sacrifice through serialized youxia (knight-errant) novels and editorials exhorting the Chinese people to take up arms. At a time when imperialism posed a real threat to China’s survival, these messages were effective in prompting youths from all classes to pursue careers in the previously despised military. They saw themselves as the saviors of China, heroes in the traditional mold like Yue Fei or Wen Tianxiang, and they consciously modeled themselves on these figures. Jiang Jieshi and the officers who would dominate the revolutionary movement at Guangzhou saw this tradition as a vital component of their own military outlook, and they deliberately incorporated it into the training at the Huangpu Academy. This martial tradition and the militant nationalism it promoted were ultimately more successful in attracting recruits to the Guomindang’s Party Army than Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles or communism.

The Third Path? The Rural Reconstruction Movement between Communist Revolution and Nationalist State-Making, 1927–1937

Xiaorong Han, Butler University

This paper examines the loosely coordinated Rural Reconstruction Movement during the Nanjing Decade and its relations with the Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party. The movement had two basic goals: first, to take over rural reforms in the areas under the control of the Nationalist Government since the latter had largely abandoned peasant work after the failure of the Nationalist Revolution in 1927; second, to develop a reformist agrarian program as an alternative to the Communist revolutionary approach.

Though the leaders of the Rural Reconstruction Movement did not regard themselves as politicians, they were inevitably involved in the struggles between the Nationalists and the Communists. Their efforts to promote popular literacy, public health, modern technology, credit and marketing cooperatives, as well as other reformist programs in the countryside differed from the urban-centered state-making policy of the Nationalist government. These grassroots activities helped redefine the Nationalist agrarian policies and improved conditions in some Nationalist areas.

The Rural Reconstruction Movement came to an end in 1937 when the war with Japan broke out, but the leaders of the movement continued to exert their influence. During the Civil War period (1946–1949), some rural reconstructionists participated in organizing the so-called Third Force that affected the Nationalist failure and the Communist success. In the early 1950s, Liang Shuming made his last effort to revive his rural reconstruction approach but failed. Nevertheless, he spearheaded intellectual criticism of the Communist agrarian policy toward peasants before the Hundred Flowers Movement.