BORDER REGION SOCIETY
23. Are They Slaves to Work?
|I WAS once on a walk in the countryside
outside the crumbling walls of an ancient county town in Hopei. As I was
passing beside a village, I saw a peasant, bent low with a rope over his
back, straining in every muscle of his body to pull a small plow, which
his sweating wife guided from behind. The bestial nature of the labor shocked
me and I paused to talk with the toiling farmer.
"You are eating much bitterness," I said, offering him the time-honored words of sympathy.
"Yes, it is hard work," he said, pausing while both he and his wife raised their work-strained faces to mine.
| After mouthing several banal phrases,
I ventured to ask the farmer and his wife whether they worked harder in
the Liberated Areas than they had worked under the Japanese or Chiang Kai-shek.
"Harder," he said, grinning and mopping at his brow with his sleeve. "Everyone works more."
"Since the 8th Route came, your life's gone back then?"
The man looked up suddenly.
"You do more work. Is that progress?"
"Of course. What else but?"
| I stared at the peasant, at the plow,
at his toil-worn wife. It seemed so unbelievable that anyone should say
that harder work meant progress that I thought I had not heard him rightly.
But he was vehement in repeating his assertions and there was no doubt of
Later I thought this was just an exceptional outburst of cynicism, a dash of gall on a surging billow of despair. But further experiences in the villages dispelled the supposition soon enough. If I pointed out that the average American thought the aim of society ought to be to give people more leisure and not more work, I was met by reactions that ranged anywhere from astonishment to amused contempt.
"But you work for the capitalists."
"Before we worked for the landlords; now we work for ourselves and keep what we earn."
"You have so many machines. When we have machines, we won't work
| It seemed amazing, but
there was no doubt about it. The farmer not only worked harder, but often
reveled in his longer hours. Why? The answer was that he could keep the
fruits of his toil. No more rents to the landlord. No more robbery by the
soldiers. Thus he had an interest in working hard. And with that interest
and with a new-born pride in work, he became fertile ground for the seeds
"Produce and we can have liberty!"
"Produce and we can overthrow Chiang Kai-shek!"
"Produce and we will end the feudal reign of the landlords."
On village walls, in defiled roadside shrines, in the schoolbooks and
on the sides of carts - everywhere - were to be seen these slogans about
the necessity and glory of work. And they were effective. Sometimes, however,
the enthusiastic cadres went too far. On the long New Year holidays should
the cadre try to stir the peasant from his hearth a hearth and home, he
would be met by vacant stares, well-fed grumblings or good-humored hostility.
For not even for the cadres would the peasant give up his fortnight seasonal
To perform this task without resort to slave labor appeared impossible. The Communists had no industry and had to depend almost entirely on farm labor. But how could they increase farm production when they were taking labor from the fields and putting it in the army.
I believe the Communists had six main ways of increasing production:
1. Collective labor.
In North China there had long been a custom for peasants to get together
and do certain jobs collectively. Families would often organize working
teams from their surplus labor and send them around to do work for others.
Or a man with a mule would plow the field of his neighbor in exchange
for help in weeding his own land. These practices never played an important
role in Chinese farm production and gradually faded out. The Communists,
however, learned about them, refined the old methods and handed them back
to the people with the proper propaganda stimulus and efficient organization
In Three Wang Village, in the Shansi Mountains, for example, I found
a mutual work team of 124 persons, 54 donkeys, 20 oxen, 5 horses and 2
mules. In this group, there was a rich farmer who formerly hired men to
work his fields for him. Joining a co-operative and working himself, instead
of hiring labor, he saved twenty bushels of wheat a year. In the same
village, I came across an opium smoker who hired a man to work his two
acres of land for him. Because of the money spent on opium and hired labor,
he had barely enough food for himself. Joining the labor brigade, he cured
himself of the drug habit, stopped using hired labor and saved two bushels
of wheat a year. A poor farmer in the same brigade told me he formerly
took sixteen days to weed one-third of an acre of land. Now, with the
help of eleven group members, he weeded it in one day.
If the reader be shocked at equating animals with men, it ought to
be remembered that these were the methods that the people themselves chose
to compute the value of what they contributed to the co-operatives.
But in the meantime, unknown to them, fourteen villages had elected
committees to divide the land. With pencils and papers and knotted ropes
and abacus and stakes they split up the land into fourteen general plots.
Then, having obtained seed from the government, on the night the Americans
finished their tractoring, they made the final preparations for planting.
That very evening village leaders got up on the roofs with megaphones
and shouted for the people to bring rollers, seeders and planters to the
fields early the next day.
But even organized manpower was not able to solve some of the most pressing problems of production in the Border Region. For example, no one had found a way to deal with insects. In the Border Region there were no insecticides, no repellents and no poisons. The only way to fight insects was to catch and kill them.
Almost as hard on crop production was the shortage of farm animals.
Although UNRRA shipped thousands of mules to China, few came to the Border
Region. None could be bought outside and famine and war had killed off
over half the animals. A drive had increased livestock to 70 percent of
normal, but many of these animals had to be used in transport and the
situation on the farm remained desperate.
Besides the shortage of farm animals, there was also a shortage of
men, many of whom were at the front. This brought women into the fields
and contributed greatly to the smashing of an old North China custom that
women should not be seen outside the home. In harvest time, I saw women,
even those with bound feet, and children gathering crops from the fields
and working side by side with men. When the idea of mutual help teams
was first introduced to the villages, old men and husbands objected violently
to women working in the fields; for they were afraid what might happen
when their wives and daughters came into contact with other men. Some
of the women, however, revolted against their husbands and went to work
in the co-operatives of their own accord. Later, when the men saw the
money their wives were bringing in, they no longer objected. As more and
more women went into the fields and entered handicraft industries, a saying
grew up in the villages: "In all times before this, men supported
women, but now maybe women can support men."
| The battle to increase
farm production was the most difficult economic problem the Border Region
had to solve. Somewhat less important, but hardly less difficult, was the
struggle to increase manufactured goods.
When the 8th Route Army first arrived in the Taihang Mountains it found peasants using spinning wheels as fuel and hand looms laid away on the beams of farmers?homes. Oil pressing, paper manufacture and leather tanning were almost lost arts. All those handicrafts, which roused Marco Polo's admiration and which had supplemented the farmers' income from the land, had been destroyed by the influx of Western machine-made goods, for even these rural mountain communities had become linked to the world market.
The Japanese war, however, suddenly cut off imports, and manufactured articles no longer could be found. To supply themselves with cloth and the army with uniforms, the Communists had to seek to revive the old handicrafts. There was no doctrine like Gandhiism behind the mass movement which revived weaving in the villages and introduced spinning into government offices, schools and armies, but only sheer necessity. So successful was the revival of handicraft industries that the Border Region within a few years became self-sufficient in cloth, produced enough oil for every home to have an oil lamp, made wheat flour and paper and tanned leather enough for every important need. Over 80 percent of the industry in the Border Region, according to Vice-Chairman Jung, went on in the home. Ninety-five per cent of the cloth was produced in village farmhouses.
Economic theorists might find it strange that the home handicrafts did not expand into workshops and weaving mills. The answer was that the mills found it impossible to compete with home industry. Factories need capital; home industries do not. Factories had to feed laborers or guarantee them a wage to buy food; home workers could live off the family's land.
During one of the more optimistic truce periods in 1946, the Border
Region officials suddenly drew up an industrial plan. They would build
a steel plant, two cotton mills, one woolen mill, two wheat rolling mills,
two cement mills, one acid works and two match factories while operating
six large coal mines. How would they finance this plan? Vice-Chairman
Jung got up before a meeting of the People's Council and made a resolution
that American capital be invited to participate in the development of
industry in the Border Region. The resolution was unanimously passed.
In the meantime, a large cotton mill was brought in from Shanghai.