You Can’t Understand Modern China Without Looking at the History of Land Reform

Although China now has an urban majority, the key to its development since 1949 lies in the vast countryside. Maoist land reform redistributed land on a huge scale, but the country’s rulers are still reluctant to discuss the darker side of its history.

Depiction of a tea plantation in Southwest China, circa 1850. (Pictures from History / Getty Images)

I always end my courses on modern China with two final messages for my students: go to China, and when you go, be sure to visit the countryside.

That second message is much needed. Today we know China as a nation of sprawling megacities. My adopted hometown of New Orleans wouldn’t even crack the list of the top 150 Chinese cities by population. But there still exists ample beauty in a vast, diverse countryside, especially in remote villages that have managed to find a way avoid the sledgehammer of modernity.

In the early 2000s, I spent much time traveling the countryside and was constantly surprised by the hospitality of the villagers I met, as well as the quiet serenity that could still be found in rural China. But as my students should know by semester’s end, even the most remote and tranquil of villages holds a buried secret.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Communist Party of China carried out land reform throughout the countryside. This was a series of violent campaigns that shook village societies to their core and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Chinese citizens.

These years only make sense in the context of decades of conflict between the Communists and their Nationalist rivals, but land reform also has deeper roots in an age-old question: Who owns the land?

All the Land Under Heaven

Even before the founding of the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE signaled the start of the imperial era, powerful rulers claimed ownership of all lands under their domain. In the parlance of the time, “all under Heaven” belonged to the emperor. But in practice, farmers enjoyed private ownership of their fields. The taxes they forwarded to the imperial state paid for palaces and armies, creating an economic foundation for Chinese states throughout the imperial era.

This was a system that allowed some farmers to prosper. A family with many hard-working sons might be able to accumulate enough land to start renting out their excess fields. If a family was able to rent out enough land so that they themselves didn’t need to labor, all the better.

The vast majority of farmers, of course, never achieved such wealth. And with little safety net to offer protection from bad harvests, the fear of having to sell their fields in times of need was ever present. Many imperial subjects, uneasy with the vagrancies of the land market, came to embrace the ideal of fixing landholdings in equal shares.

At times, their concerns dovetailed with those of their emperors. During the Han dynasty, an era when landholdings became increasingly concentrated in the hands of powerful clans, the usurper Wang Mang attempted to forcibly redistribute land to commoner families in equal shares. Wang Mang’s reforms were widely ignored and quickly repealed, even before he fell from power.

Other rulers had more luck. Drawing on his claim to be the true owner of all land under his domain, Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty instituted the land equalization system. Undercutting aristocratic power and reestablishing his tax base, Xiaowen distributed land to farmers on the basis of their labor power. This system, further developed under the activist emperor Wendi of the Sui, aimed to provide all farmers with a guarantee of at least a small plot of land, while reminding the realm that all land indeed belonged to the emperor.

However, the fall of the subsequent Tang dynasty was accompanied by the total demise of the land equalization system. No subsequent dynasty even attempted to assert the ruler’s right to confiscate and redistribute land.

The Land Problem

The result was a cutthroat private market for land that only got worse as China’s population rose over the centuries. With not enough land to go around, farmers had to invest ever more labor and resources in ever smaller plots of land. Ownership of land became an existential issue, especially as the imperial system slowly weakened before finally collapsing in the early twentieth century, removing any remaining safety nets.

Farmers still dreamt of owning enough land to live off land rents and avoid having to till the earth themselves. But thanks to rising populations, the fear of losing access to land and falling into utter destitution had never been greater. Even in cities, intellectuals far removed from agricultural production recognized that the young nation faced a land problem that had to be solved if China was ever to stand up to imperialist aggression.

Revolutionaries, while initially focused on urban intellectuals and workers, began to formulate policies for the countryside. Sun Yat-sen, an early leader of the Nationalist Party, advocated the slogan of “land to the tiller” but provided little advice as to how this was to be achieved.

In the Communist Party of China, meanwhile, few leaders had much interest in the countryside. Farmers, now classified with the newly imported term “peasants” (nongmin), had a bad reputation in Marxist circles. Viewed as petty capitalists, peasants could at best be a reluctant ally in the proletarian revolution that the Communists sought to lead.

History, however, had other ideas. Every attempt by the Communists to incite urban revolution failed miserably, and by the early 1930s, the party was forced to flee to the countryside.

The Land Revolution

Stranded in the countryside, under attack by Nationalist forces and far from urban workers, the Communists had little choice but to embrace the peasantry. In an attempt to win over poor farmers and fund their rural base area, in 1927 the party launched a “land revolution,” a bold experiment of confiscating and redistributing land.

Critical to this process was the introduction of class labels formulated by Mao Zedong into the countryside. Previously, villagers didn’t think of themselves or their neighbors in terms of class. Because property was distributed equally between sons, a family’s prosperity rose and fell from one generation to the next.

A wealthy neighbor might be called a “moneybags” or “big belly.” Poor farmers dreamt of becoming a “big belly” themselves, but they also knew the son or grandson of a “big belly” might end up laboring in the fields and struggling to survive.

The arrival of Maoist class labels fundamentally restructured rural society in ways that still reverberate in the countryside. Those who lived off land rents and didn’t farm themselves were now labeled as “landlord” households. “Rich peasants” were the ones who farmed but also collected land rents, now considered a form of feudal exploitation.

“Middle peasants” only earned income from farming, while “poor peasants” typically rented land from landlord or rich peasant households. “Hired hands,” heralded as the proletariat of the countryside, had no access to farmlands and instead drew salaries by working for their wealthier neighbors.

These simplistic class categories were a poor fit for the diverse economy of rural China. No matter. During the party’s land revolution, Red Army soldiers forcefully confiscated all landlord property, leaving them destitute. As rumors of on-the-spot executions swirled, many wealthy villagers decided they had no choice but to flee, sending the local economy into a tailspin.

With their rural base area under military pressure from the Nationalists and buckling from within, Communist leaders called for a mass evacuation in 1934. The resulting “Long March” saw the Communists flee to the far northwest, where a new base was established in Yan’an.

Yan’an remained the Communists’ headquarters during the long war against Japan. During these years, the party moderated its land policies to unite a broad spectrum of society against Japan. The Communists also forged an alliance with their Nationalist Party rivals and even flirted with collaboration with the United States during World War II.

Yet less than a year after Japan’s surrender, the Communists and the Nationalists were once again at war. In May 1946, land reform, seen as a surefire way to tie peasants to the newly renamed People’s Liberation Army (PLA), returned as well.

Land Reform: Village Revolution

The Communists, now recognizing the folly of forcing land redistribution at gunpoint, dispatched “work teams” to implement rural revolution, one village at a time. Work teams, largely composed of village activists and urban intellectuals, were responsible for remaking rural life. The script they adhered to during their brief stays in any given village followed these steps:

  1. Develop ties with poor villagers
  2. Determine class statuses
  3. Struggle against landlords and other class enemies
  4. Redistribute land and other property

Moving in with the poorest members of their target village, work teams carefully investigated the local scene, seeking to uncover exploitation and abuses of the rural elite.

They discovered that poor peasants, in desperate need for more land, indeed had many grievances. But not all were economic in nature. Past violations of the local moral order or personal grudges were cause enough to be labeled a landlord. This was particularly true in poverty-stricken villages that lacked an actual economic elite. Class labels proved an uneasy fit for rural citizens, and many families would endure decades of abuse as a result of the label handed out by a visiting work team.

The party launched multiple rounds of land reform during the Civil War, with drastic policy swings that exacerbated rural violence. An early suggestion that the party purchase excess landlord property for redistribution was quickly discarded. Land reform, now central to the larger project of Maoist revolution, demanded “struggle”: direct and often violent confrontations with landlords and other class enemies.

Many families targeted as landlords had risen to relative wealth through hard work, attention to household matters, and no small amount of luck. There was a good chance their children or grandchildren would be poor. But according to Communist propaganda, landlord families had exerted feudal control over their neighbors for centuries.

They were also said to be evil and reactionary figures by their very nature who would do anything to forestall peasant liberation. Because this included hoarding away vast amounts of wealth, work teams encouraged peasants to torture accused class enemies in hopes of uncovering buried treasure.

In 1948, in recognition of the centuries-old ideal of equal landholding, a new policy called for equal distribution of land. In practice, this meant that nearly any villager could become a potential target for work teams.

Land reform during the Civil War didn’t go as Mao and other party leaders had hoped. No amount of torture could unearth buried treasure that simply didn’t exist. The never-ending struggle that followed the move to equalize landholdings was deeply unpopular. And perhaps most importantly, party leaders discovered the folly of waging rural revolution during wartime.

Some peasant activists, fearful that they would be attacked if the Nationalists returned to power, pushed work teams to execute anyone who might point a finger their way. Party leaders also realized that while the men who gained land under their guidance might have supported the Communists, they were unlikely to join the PLA. Finally able to farm their own fields and get married, they were keen to settle down and start families.

With rural revolution proving a distraction, the party put land reform on hold until victory was assured. It wasn’t until after the formal establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 that land reform resumed, now on an even broader scale than the wartime campaigns. A new land law, published in the summer of 1950, promised a more controlled and decidedly less violent version of rural revolution for the villages only now coming under Communist control.

However, even though the word struggle was absent from the land law, work teams were trained to see confrontation with class enemies as essential to their efforts to remake the countryside. The outbreak of the Korean War, meanwhile, sparked fear of counterrevolution and the return of the Nationalists as part of a broader global conflict.

Instructed to follow the law but also release the energy of the masses, work teams tended toward encouraging violence. While early land reform victims had often been executed on the spot, makeshift courts known as people’s tribunals now handled the trials and executions of accused class enemies.

The extreme terror and chaotic executions that had plagued early land reform were largely things of the past. But because the party explicitly rejected the idea of “peaceful” land reform and continued to hold struggle as sacrosanct in rural revolution, violence continued until the final campaigns concluded in 1952.

Rumors: Land Reform’s Legacy

Writing the history of the Communists and their revolution is greatly complicated by the party’s attempt to control the historical record. That has been especially true since the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, when the party began accusing its critics of “historical nihilism” — a charge leveled at those who dared to question official party history.

As far as party historians are concerned, land reform was the transformative moment of Maoist revolution, when the party heroically led long-oppressed peasants to stand up and overthrow feudal power. The party has actively pushed back against any questioning of this interpretation. When the Cyberspace Administration of China released a list of the top ten “rumors” of historical nihilism, number eight on the list was the rumor that land reform had been a mistake.

I don’t think land reform can simply be dismissed as a mistake. The party has reason to be proud about the achievements of these years as it made the revolution a reality in every Chinese village. Generations of Chinese elites had known about the land problem yet failed to address this issue in a meaningful way, leaving countless farmers without enough land. Now, under party direction, massive amounts of land had been shifted to China’s most needy citizens.

Poor villagers, who had historically possessed little say in village matters, now formed the political elite. Some of them began working for the new People’s Government, which, in stark contrast to previous regimes, promised to “serve the people.” Many women found empowerment through participating in land reform, even if they were warned only to struggle against class enemies and not against their husbands. With good reason, many peasants who benefited from land reform came to see the arrival of Communist power as a “liberation.”

At the same time, careful research reveals that land reform was also a deeply flawed program that left no shortage of violence, chaos, and death in its wake. Mao’s insistence on confrontational class struggle brought mass beatings and torture to the countryside. Tallying land reform’s death toll is exceedingly difficult, but a conservative estimate counts an average of one death for each of China’s villages, leaving at least a million dead.

These deaths are particularly troubling given what happened after land reform was completed and declared a success. A few short years after party propagandists touted the distribution of land deeds to China’s peasantry, the state forcibly moved to collectivize landholdings, launching an experimental approach to agricultural production that led directly to the famines of the Great Leap Forward.

And because the party made the class labels established during land reform hereditary, households labeled as landlords suffered decades of humiliation and abuse. Subsequent political campaigns always made a point of demonizing these “landlords” as bastions of feudal power, even though they typically were now the poorest members of their village communities.

But there was at least one senior party leader who directly questioned these land reform policies. As I discussed in my recent book about land reform, Xi Zhongxun wrote directly to Mao and warned him about the dangers of class labels, especially if they were to be passed on to future generations. While Xi Zhongxun may not be a globally recognized name, his son Xi Jinping now leads the People’s Republic of China.

In the course of writing my book, I thought that Xi Zhongxun’s insight into the problems inherent in Mao’s approach to land reform presented the party with an excellent opportunity to tell the truth about this pivotal moment in Chinese history. Yet shortly after its release, the book was essentially scrubbed from the Chinese internet. For the moment, it seems the party is not ready to question its official account of land reform. Until that time comes, we can still visit the Chinese countryside, and wonder what secrets lie buried under decades of history.