Remembering Hinton’s Fanshen

As an antidote to the mainstream media’s rush of misinformation and vitriol aimed at the Chinese revolution on its 60th anniversary, nothing is so effective as William Hinton’s masterpiece, Fanshen, which means to “stand up” or “turn over,” as in a revolutionary change.  Unfortunately this book, never as widely known as it deserved, now seems largely forgotten – like a long banned book.

Hinton’s book is a fascinating, absorbing and detailed account of land reform in a single Chinese village, Long Bow, near Changzhi in a liberated area in 1948 when land was turned over to the peasants.  No less than the better known Red Star Over China, it is a classic of the revolution wrought by Mao’s Communist Party of China (CPC).  The book is a very concrete, first person account.  Hinton himself lived in the village of Long Bow in China at the time of land reform when the feudal estates were broken up and given to the peasants.  Two of its characteristics make the book compelling.  First the reader gets to know the participants, the peasants, by name and to witness their lives change forever as they take their destiny into their own hands for the first time in millennia.  Second, the book begins by describing in detail what life was like before liberation.  This writer is pretty much sob-resistant, but I wept several times as I read the condition of the peasants, ruthlessly exploited and degraded by the landowners in collaboration with the central government and the connivance of the Catholic “missionary” effort.

Hinton took over a thousand pages of notes and returned to the US only upon the termination of Truman’s widely despised war on Korea in 1953, which killed one million Asians and about 50,000 U.S. soldier and contributed mightily to his defeat at the hands of Eisenhower.  Hinton’s notes were promptly confiscated by customs and turned over to the notorious McCarthyite committee of Senator James Eastland.   Hinton had his passport confiscated, was harassed by the FBI, blacklisted and unable to find work.  He finally found land to farm which he did for a decade and a half.  He finally got the release of his notes and set to work on Fanshen.  No major publishing house would print it, but in 1966 Monthly Review Press, bless their Marxist souls, finally published it.   In the splendid political climate of the 60s, it was a great but short lived success.

One especially stirring moment in Hinton’s account arrives when the landlords, deprived of any armed force to impose their will, take to threatening the peasants with the wrath of their ancestors.  Standing before a monument to his ancestors, fearful and hesitant, one of the leading peasants finally takes a hammer to the headstone and smashes it to pieces.  There is no thunderbolt from the skies, and at that moment the hold of the old exploiters was greatly weakened but not broken.  The peasants remained afraid that Chiang Kai-shek’s  Nationalists and their army would win and the old landlords would return; and the influence of the Catholics and their support of the old ways remained.  But the peasants encouraged by the CPC cadre pushed on (Of course the threat of the displeasure of an ancestor is pretty thin gruel compared to the fire and brimstone fear that the monotheistic desert religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, provided to the West.) Here Mao’s words found expression in the deeds of the peasants:

“What should we not fear? We should not fear heaven. We should not fear ghosts. We should not fear the dead. We should not fear the bureaucrats. We should not fear the militarists. We should not fear the capitalists.”

Pretty good advice –then and now.

During land reform in Long Bow, there was no presence of the People’s Liberation Army, just a few CPC cadre and in this case Hinton.  More often than not the cadre had to restrain the peasants from killing the landlords at once and often in fairly merciless ways – and the cadre were not always successful.  Millenia of rage at the beatings, rapes, theft, death of loved ones and worst human degradation imaginable poured out at the rulers of old China in those days.  But revolution is not a matter of serving tea, as Mao put it.

I recently returned from a short stay in China.  Without Hinton’s book I an adequate perspective on what I saw would have been impossible.  New China is impressive in many respects, but it arose on the ashes of old China and the suffering endured for millennia by the Chinese peasantry until the end of Chiang Kai-shek’s U.S. backed rule.  In Hinton’s book Mao makes no appearance nor do other giants of the Chinese revolution, but we see the fruits of their work up close. Chairman Mao liked to say that to understand society one should look down, not up; and Fanshen does just that.  Look down not up – pretty good advice and so little regarded on the contemporary “left” which is so much given to watching those on high.

JOHN V. WALSH can be reached at



John V. Walsh can be reached at