BORDER REGION SOCIETY
24. Do They Live any Better?
|HAVE you ever considered what it means
to be a Chinese peasant in the interior of North China? Almost completely
outside the influences of modern science and twentieth-century culture,
the peasant was a brutal, blundering backwoodsman. He had never seen a movie,
never heard a radio, never ridden in a car. He had never owned a pair of
leather shoes, nor a toothbrush and seldom a piece of soap. And if he was
a mountain man, he perhaps bathed twice in his life - once when he was married
and once when he died - not because he so much enjoyed wallowing in the
dirt, but because water was scarce and could be spared only for drinking.
Consider the immense implications of such a materially impoverished life. Consider what you as a human being would value most of all in such an environment as this. Is not the answer obvious: food, clothing, shelter, but above all food.
| A characteristic North China peasant
proverb was the following: "Husks and vegetable peelings are foodstuffs
for half a year." Truly startling revelation! It meant the peasant
could not even eat grain under the old rule, but only the grain shells or
And the more bitter corollary: "If you don't eat husks for three days, it is hard to maintain the operation of the stomach." Hard indeed! And many people in the old days died for the want of even these husks.
The average consumption of millet, from what peasants in the poorer
areas of North China told me, used to be two and four-fifths bushels a
year. In the richer grain-producing areas it was only four bushels a year.
| Figures. But those figures
spelled tragedy for the peasant. A man used to be lucky to have rags. Suits
were often shared between two and three people. When a father went out,
he would put on the family pair of pants and leave his daughter naked on
the bed. A?man and wife would split a pair of pants between them. No wonder
in north Shansi women did not go out into the fields.
You are stirred and appalled. You overflow with sympathy for such victims of feudal economy. But did the Communist make things any better? Were the labor brigades and the revived handicrafts really means of improving the people's livelihood or were they just subtle traps to snare the peasant into producing for the army? I can only tell you what the peasants told me and what I saw myself. In cotton-producing or non-cotton-producing areas, most of the peasants now had three and a half pounds of cotton a year. Border Region officials said they would soon make it four. Propaganda? Maybe. But for the most part soldiers and the peasants seemed better dressed than I had seen them a number of years before. In some places they were still in rags, but you could seldom find a man and a wife wearing the same pair of pants.
In the past in North China, and in the present in Chiang Kai-shek's areas, the New Year festival, instead of being a time of celebration and happiness, of feasting and merrymaking, as it was for the rich peasant or the landlord, was a period of bitterness and woe, of privation and horror for the poor farmer and the tenant. Flinging themselves out of doors and hiding in the fields, tenants would run from their landlord or his "dog leg" to avoid the New Year settlement day. If he dared not run away or wished to remain in the arms of his family over the holidays, the tenant, in order to pay his debts, would have commonly to strip his house, leaving his loved ones only husks, and sometimes not even that.
In the Liberated Areas when I was there, you could not find a poor
peasant enjoying a great banquet over the New Year holidays, but neither
could you find him cowering in the fields to avoid his creditors, nor
could you find a peasant who gave his daughter as a slave to the landlord
or as sleeping companion to the landlord's son in order to fulfill his
debts. However, if you go to Kuomintang areas, you will still find these
conditions, not as a rare, but as a commonplace, everyday occurrence.
In certain sections of North China, it is the custom of the villagers to carry their bowls of food out of doors at New Year's time and eat together. In the past the rich would gather at the east end of the village and eat wheat (a luxury) bread; the poor would gather at the west end and eat a water gruel. True class distinction - one based on points of the compass and food! In the older Liberated Areas I found no such distinctions, for the people all gathered together in the middle of the village and they ate not gruel, not even wheat bread, but meat. And not just at the beginning of the year, but on the Dragon Boat, the Moon, and the New Year festivals.
| On the more luxurious side: In the
past the great majority of the people thought it a great luxury to be able
to smoke two or three cigarettes a year; by 1947 they could afford as much
as one cigarette a day. Index of prosperity? No, of course not. But an advance.
An indication of health. Due to what? Revived handicrafts that have no fear
of being beaten down by the influx of machine-made goods from abroad.
Except once, in a town on the borders of the Kuomintang areas, I did not see any beggars in all my months of travel through the Border Regions. The absence of those creatures that grovel at your feet in Chiang Kai-shek's areas, crying with hideous inferiority - "master, master, a little pity!" - could not but impress an experienced traveler going through Communist areas.
The Communists had not brought tremendous economic benefits to the peasantry, but they had made hitherto unbearable conditions bearable. What they gave the peasant was a chance to live and an improved livelihood. This does not mean the Communists produced perfect conditions everywhere. They did not. You could still find child labor and some horrible examples of it, too. I have seen children, of ten and eleven years put in buckets and lowered down fifty feet below the ground into coal pits. I have also seen peasants wheeling over mountain trails wheel-barrows piled with so much pottery that a mule could hardly have carried it. And I have also seen children working in cigarette factories for eight and ten hours a day. Under these circumstances to say that the Liberated Areas had eliminated economic injustice would be to betray the truth.
It would also be betraying the truth to take at face value Commissar Po's statement that the livelihood of 80 per cent of the people in the Border Regions had been improved during the Japanese war. From what I heard and saw, that was patently untrue. Eighth Route Army cadres who had been away from their homes for six and seven years always told me their first impression on going back to their native villages was the terrible poverty. But it was just this poverty that highlighted the Communist contributions to the people's economic welfare. For conditions in areas that had been under Communist control for only two years and those that had been under them for five or six were entirely different. It never failed to impress me that in many small villages the basically poorer mountain areas, conditions were far better than in larger villages on the richer plain. In the first case, the villages had been under Communist control for seven years; in the latter, only since the Japanese surrender.
盐 七十二斤 八元四角
煤 七百三十斤 十元
An interesting feature of life in the older Communist regions was that
many farmers, because they had surpluses, because they could make a little
profit out of farming and because they had learned to figure, had begun
to keep budgets. Here is the budget of a farmer named Shih Yu-li who had
a family of six and two acres of land.
| By now I had studied the history, government
and economy of one Border Region in Communist territory, but in this study,
though I had discovered many lessons, I bad not discovered anything that
added up to victory in the civil war.
For there was no question that the economic and productive machine owned by China's dictator was far superior to the economy of the Liberated Areas. In view of this circumstance, Communist economy could never hope to overcome the economy of Chiang Kai-shek. All the Border Regions could hope to do was to produce enough to keep an army in the fields, to support a government and to clothe and feed the people and keep them content until such time as other factors brought about a change in China's civil war.
What were those factors? They were many, but they could all be combined under one word: revolution.
To understand why Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his well-equipped armies were defeated by the Chinese Communists, I think it is necessary to examine some of the broader aspects of this revolution. Such an examination will take us for a moment out of Red Territory and lead us into a long detour through Chinese history. But perhaps we can return better armed to understand the terror, violence and murders which occupy a great part of the rest of this book.