Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China

Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China

by Sigrid Schmalzer

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Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China by Sigrid Schmalzer

In 1968, the director of USAID coined the term “green revolution” to celebrate the new technological solutions that promised to ease hunger around the world—and forestall the spread of more “red,” or socialist, revolutions. Yet in China, where modernization and scientific progress could not be divorced from politics, green and red revolutions proceeded side by side.
In Red Revolution, Green Revolution, Sigrid Schmalzer explores the intersection of politics and agriculture in socialist China through the diverse experiences of scientists, peasants, state agents, and “educated youth.” The environmental costs of chemical-intensive agriculture and the human costs of emphasizing increasing production over equitable distribution of food and labor have been felt as strongly in China as anywhere—and yet, as Schmalzer shows, Mao-era challenges to technocracy laid important groundwork for today’s sustainability and food justice movements. This history of “scientific farming” in China offers us a unique opportunity not only to explore the consequences of modern agricultural technologies but also to engage in a necessary rethinking of fundamental assumptions about science and society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226330297
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/20/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 26 MB
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About the Author

Sigrid Schmalzer is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of The People’s Peking Man, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and coeditor of Visualizing Modern China.

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Red Revolution, Green Revolution

Scientific Farming in Socialist China

By Sigrid Schmalzer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-33029-7


Agricultural Science and the Socialist State


The dominant historical narrative of science in Mao-era China charts a pendulum-like alternation between "radical" periods (the Great Leap Forward and most of the Cultural Revolution) when political struggle stifled intellectual pursuits and economic development, making science virtually impossible, and "moderate" (or technocratic) periods when steadier minds — especially those of Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, and Deng Xiaoping — prevailed and more liberal policies rekindled the hopes of beleaguered scientists. David Zweig depicts Maoist "radical policies" on agriculture to have been "fueled by an anti-modernization mentality that saw economic development as the antithesis of revolution." In fact, however, the history of agricultural science in socialist China is marked by a great deal of continuity across radical and moderate periods, and modernization based on scientific development was a value embraced by leaders across the political spectrum. Indeed, the move to develop "scientific farming" began circa 1961 during the heyday of the moderate technocrats, but it built on important precedents set during the Great Leap Forward, came into its own amid the intensifying radical politics of 1965, flourished throughout the Cultural Revolution, and remains relevant even today. The green revolution thus progressed along much the same timeline in China as elsewhere, and it did so in the very middle of China's continually unfolding red revolution.

The Cold War presented at least three competing development paradigms, including the one embraced by Mao and his followers. The attractiveness to Third World nations of the Marxist-Leninist model of state-led economic development alarmed many academics and political leaders in the United States, inspiring Walt Rostow's tremendously influential "non-communist manifesto," The Stages of Economic Growth (1959). The parallels between Leninism and Rostow's "modernization theory" are clear. Both were committed to modernization through technological development, and both depended on deterministic expectations that development would proceed through specific "stages." Soviet agricultural policy embraced the goal of progress through modernization and even adopted the US strategy of Taylorism to increase efficiency in farming practices. Though Mao considered himself a Leninist and never questioned the progressive value of modernization, his economic and political program — and the philosophy of science that went with it — departed in dramatic ways from modernization as pursued in the Soviet Union. Frustrated with the bureaucratic and technocratic structures of authority that formed in China during the period of Soviet learning, and with the rigid expectation of "stages" that slowed China's progress toward communism, Mao sought to abandon the determinism of staged growth and instead embrace a voluntarist faith in the power of the masses to channel their collective revolutionary will into rapid achievement of a truly communist economy. His was an explicitly political vision of development that promised to eliminate the "three great differences" that privileged mental over manual labor, cities over countryside, and workers over peasants.

This chapter moves away from the pendulum narrative to focus on questions that promote a fuller understanding of the political significance of agricultural science for the socialist Chinese state, and the significance of the state in agricultural science. Whereas in later chapters the chief protagonists are people at the grassroots grappling with mandates descending from above, this first chapter focuses on the policies and ideological priorities developed at the upper levels of the state. Agricultural science, and specifically the philosophy and practice of agricultural extension, had a deep historical relationship with state policy and ideology. The central tensions found in agricultural science policy resonated with the broader tensions faced by the socialist Chinese state as its leaders strove to resolve dilemmas related both to internal political and economic conditions and to the geopolitical contexts of colonialism and the Cold War. In the "point-to-plane" system of policy experimentation and implementation, in the tu/yang binary that informed Mao-era politics of science, in the emergence of the rural scientific experiment movement from the priorities of both radical and technocratic state leaders, and in the "three-in-one" epistemology that dominated state writings on agricultural science at the grassroots, the threads of China's red and green revolutions were tightly interwoven.

Agricultural Knowledge and the State

As Francesca Bray has demonstrated, imperial-era China "was from its inception an agrarian state in the strong sense of the term," and so "dissemination of technical agricultural knowledge was considered an essential technique of the state." Embracing a similar mandate, the socialist-era state created an extensive knowledge network premised on the idea that science is relevant to agriculture, and thus that knowledge of how to farm in any particular village can and should benefit from outside institutions. Even the term laonong (literally "old farmer"), which held such political potency in the socialist era, was used similarly in eighteenth-century China, when, in William Rowe's words, "activist governors ... nominat[ed] 'experienced farmers' (laonong) from the local population itself to serve as exemplars of technological proficiency." And Peter Perdue's account of nineteenth-century officials in Hunan attempting to convince farmers to plant two crops of rice a year reads as strikingly similar to what we find in 1960s–1970s China with respect to both state ambitions and local resistance.

Despite its explicit hostility toward what it called "feudalism" (a term meant to capture both the class oppression and the religious "superstitions" of imperial-era society), the socialist state was not above borrowing from the traditional symbolic universe. A telling example is the "Eight-Character Charter" for agriculture ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], figures 6 and 7). Sanctified by Mao during the mid-1950s and widely popularized beginning in the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960), this was an easy mnemonic that organized agricultural knowledge and practice under the headings of eight Chinese characters that stood for landscaping, fertilizer, water, seeds, close planting, crop protection, tools, and management ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The formulation was new, but the Eight-Character Charter strongly evoked the "eight-character fortune-telling" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) popular in rural areas, which used characters derived from the date and time of a person's birth to make predictions about the person's fate. Mao knew this practice well: not only was he born and raised in a rural village, but he criticized eight-character fortune-telling in his famous 1927 essay "Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan." The Chinese Communist Party frequently adopted this strategy — using popular customs to further state priorities, while simultaneously seeking to replace the "superstitious" or otherwise undesirable elements of the old practices with scientific or otherwise ideologically correct meanings. And for their part, as Steve Smith has shown, peasants "were perfectly capable of combining magico-religious elements with secular elements from the Party's own discourse ... so if their world-view was rooted in an essentially religious cosmology, it was nevertheless powerfully shaped by revolutionary policies and by official propaganda."

Its roots in imperial-era Chinese precedents notwithstanding, the socialist state's mechanisms for agricultural extension derived more directly from an influence geographically more distant and politically even more suspect. Despite all their struggles and failures, the work of John Lossing Buck and other Americans who pursued agricultural reform in early twentieth-century China left a profound legacy. In 1953, an American agricultural economist observed with alarm, "Refugees making their way out of China bring constant reports that experimental farms established and financed by the United Nations and the United States have been taken over by Communists, the fruits of their experiments accepted, and their teachings forced upon Chinese farmers." Indeed, the extension system the Chinese state adopted in the 1950s bore clear resemblance to that of the United States.

An article penned by Buck in 1918 demonstrates how strongly his approach to agricultural transformation prefigured that of the Mao era. Buck wrote, "In order to carry on this work it seems to me necessary that it be divided into three parts: an experiment farm, demonstration work, and school work. ... Scientific principles of agriculture can best be instilled in the school boys. They will be much more ready to accept new ideas as compared with the ignorant farmer, who can be best reached through farm demonstration work." Buck's integration of experiment, demonstration, and "school work" would take new form in the Mao-era emphasis on integrating experiment, demonstration, and extension. And, as will be explored fully in later chapters, Buck's faith in the younger generations found a loud and clear echo in Mao's conviction that youth were the "least conservative" of social actors and so the most valuable for spearheading change.

Chinese-American agricultural extension expert Hsin-Pao Yang's 1945 "Promoting Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service in China" reviewed the work of a number of Chinese extension projects based on the American system, among them the rural reconstruction project in Dingxian by James Yen (Yan Yangchu). Yang's analysis highlighted themes that were to emerge again strongly in Mao-era extension work. He proclaimed extension work a "grass-root operation" and decried the situation in which Chinese agronomists trained in the United States could "relate vividly how cotton is raised in Mississippi, corn cultivated in Iowa, wheat harvested by combines in Kansas, but are unable to help the hard-struggling farmers in their potato patches or in their rice paddies." According to Yang, successful extension workers should not only understand local issues but should adopt a humble attitude to win farmers' respect: "A decade ago a sensation was created among the villagers when a college professor took off his shoes and got himself dirty in a rice seedling plot where he demonstrated the proper way of transplanting. He put his teaching across because he followed the most natural way of working with the people."

On a few other points, however, Yang's prescriptions spoke to a very different set of political priorities than those later adopted by the socialist Chinese state. In contrast with Mao's emphasis on self-reliance, Yang argued that "no one can live exclusively unto himself" and so "China cannot attain these [agricultural] objectives entirely by her own efforts. Help from and cooperation with other countries are indispensable." He also strongly urged extension workers to recognize that Chinese villagers "live by well-established behavior patterns" and that "customs and habits are dynamic stabilizers of community life." If the Chinese extension system failed to look utterly familiar to US agricultural scientists when they arrived on delegations in the 1970s, it was no doubt because of the infusion of revolutionary politics that insisted on self-reliance and social transformation, that placed political value on the mobilization not only of technical experts but also youth, party cadres, and old peasants, and that emphasized not only top-down "extension" of technologies developed by experts but also experiments and innovations pursued by peasants at the grassroots to meet local needs and suit local conditions.

Testifying to just how tightly China's green and red revolutions intertwined, the US agricultural extension system influenced not just socialist Chinese agriculture but key political processes of the Chinese Communist Party itself. When he traveled to China in 1974 on the coattails of the US Plant Studies Delegation, China scholar Philip Kuhn observed that the term "experiment" was a highly potent element in "current Chinese ideology." Much more recently, the political scientist Sebastian Heilmann has traced the historical roots of China's "distinctive policy process" that emphasizes local experimentation at "experimental points," from which the center can select the most promising for widespread application. One of the influences Heilmann identifies for this policy process was the work of agricultural reformers in the 1910s and 1920s, who advocated "experimental extension" — that is, trying out new technologies and, on the basis of those trials, extending the ones that worked. By the 1960s, the system of "using one place's experience to lead a whole area" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or "moving from point to plane" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) was such an accepted part of the policy process that its roots in agricultural extension were no longer noticed, even as it was adopted as the guiding philosophy for agricultural technicians themselves.

Heilmann argues that during the Mao era, and particularly during the radical periods of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the experimental policy process shifted decisively. In place of genuine encouragement of local innovation, political pressures to enforce ideological correctness favored the heavy-handed imposition of national models across locales, whether those models suited the locales or not. However, Heilmann further notes, "Certain programs of the 1960s and 1970s allowed meaningful experimentation to find new policy instruments when the policy context was more relaxed and top-level backing was present." I find considerable evidence that scientific experiment continued to play an important role in agricultural extension; moreover, the commitment to experiment and local self-reliance as revolutionary values offered an antidote to inappropriate models imposed from above. Interestingly, the political ideals most useful in combating excessive imposition of models were those most often trumpeted by radical leaders.

Tu and Yang

In the terms of Mao-era scientific discourse, radical political and scientific leaders emphasized tu ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) over yang ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Tu denoted a cluster of related meanings (native, Chinese, local, rustic, mass, crude) that contrasted with yang (foreign, Western, elite, professional, ivory-tower) to form a radical vision of science in Mao-era China, that is, a science produced by the broad masses for the fulfillment of socialist revolutionary goals. Official policy encouraged harnessing tu and yang together in productive partnership ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). However, radicals harbored suspicions of scientists with foreign connections and consistently pushed for tu to lead yang, while technocrats took every opportunity to secure the leadership of the professional scientists whose skills they trusted to modernize China. Tu and yang mapped well onto other, more famous binaries that structured Maoist approaches to science — for example, red versus expert (i.e., commitment to socialist revolutionary politics versus technical expertise) and theory versus practice — and also onto the binary at the heart of this study, the green and red revolutions.

That the history as it emerges from the sources falls so easily into binaries tells us something important about the time and place: it is highly characteristic of Maoist dialectical materialism, and also of course characteristic of the geopolitics of the Cold War. My intention in employing these binaries is not to fall back on dichotomies but rather to think critically about them in their historical contexts and also to consciously "try them on" to see what they reveal and what they obscure about science in socialist-era China. While historians of science are very familiar with the pair "science and technology" and often debate the meanings of these terms and their relationships to one another in different times and places, they did not evoke the same degree of provocative contradiction in China as they have in the West. In China, tu and yang were considerably more important, speaking simultaneously to transnational relationships (foreign versus native) and to cross-class relationships (intellectual versus peasant). As such, tu/yang offers insight into how people in Mao-era China understood the way scientific knowledge is made and how it travels from one group of people to another — what James Secord has called "knowledge in transit."


Excerpted from Red Revolution, Green Revolution by Sigrid Schmalzer. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1                      Agricultural Science and the Socialist State
2                      Pu Zhelong: Making Socialist Science Work
3                      Yuan Longping: “Intellectual Peasant”
4                      Chinese Peasants: “Experience” and “Backwardness”
5                      Seeing Like a State Agent
6                      The Lei Feng Paradox
7                      Opportunity and Failure


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