Peng Pai and the beginning of the peasant movement in Guangdong Province.
Pang Yong-pil, “Peng Pai: From Landlord to Revolutionary”
Yuan Gao, “Revolutionary Rural Politics: The Peasant Movement in Guangdong and Its Social-Historical Background, 1922–1926”
Robert Marks, Rural Revolution in South China: Peasants and the Making of History in Haifeng County, 1570-1930
Roy Hofheinz, The Broken Wave: The Chinese Communist Peasant Movement, 1922-1928
Fernando Galbiati, P’eng P’ai and the Hai-Lu-Feng Soviet
Some names from this episode:
Peng Pai, Communist peasant organizer
Li Dazhao, Co-founder of the Communist Party
Chen Jiongming, Warlord dominant in Haifeng region until 1925
Zhu Mo, Bad landlord in Haifeng County
Zhang Zepu, Judge in Haifeng County
Welcome to episode 37 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
When we left off last episode, Chiang Kai-shek had pulled off his March 20, 1926 coup following the Zhongshan Gunboat incident, and reached a new arrangement with the Soviet advisors in Guangzhou to launch a Northern Expedition to reunite China under Nationalist rule. Originally, the Soviet advisors and the Chinese Communists had wanted to delay the Northern Expedition so that more political work could be done to prepare the areas where the military would be advancing into to rise up, so that a social revolution of peasants and workers would accompany the military advance of the National Revolutionary Army. As Chiang Kai-shek forced the timetable for a Northern Expedition to be moved up, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee held an enlarged plenary meeting in early July in Shanghai. The Northern Expedition had just formally been launched in early July, although fighting had already begun in southern Hunan province before the formal launching of the campaign at a ceremony is which Chiang Kai-shek was formally named the Commander in Chief of the Nationalist military forces.
As the Northern Expedition began, then, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party evaluated the forces that it could bring to bear in the forthcoming struggle. As of this meeting, there were more than 800,000 peasants organized into peasant associations led by the Communist Party. In fact, the peasant associations were formally part of the Guomindang, but almost all of the peasant organizing that was done in the name of the Guomindang had been done by Communists. In a future episode, we will look ahead and see how the Northern Expedition, and the Communists’ plans for infusing the Northern Expedition with social revolutionary energy, played out. But this episode I want to look at how the Chinese Communist Party, which had consistently deprioritized peasant organizing work, somehow came to have almost a million peasants organized in associations which it led when the Northern Expedition was launched.
In order to understand what happened, we need to look at the work of the Communist Party’s first real organizer of peasants, Peng Pai. We’ve talked about how Li Dazhao, one of the co-founders of the Communist Party, theorized the importance of the peasantry to the Chinese Revolution very early on in his transition from liberalism to Marxism. And we’ve talked about the realization that Mao Zedong had about the centrality of the peasants to any possible Chinese Revolution while he was in his home village in 1925. But the Communist Party’s first major organizer of peasants was Peng Pai.
Peng Pai was from the county of Haifeng, about 125 miles east of Guangzhou. He was born into a very wealthy landlord family. However, Peng’s mother had been sold as a concubine to Peng’s father, which kept his mother from ever fully integrating herself into the landlord class that she had been sold into. Peng’s mother’s parents had been poor peasants, and had sold their daughter out of the economic desperation that they felt. Peng’s mother’s situation had a deep influence on Peng Pai, and, being a very bright boy who was influenced during his education by many of the new, modern ideas, he came to hate the feudal system.
One example of how Peng Pai was influenced by modern ideas, and became a local leader in their implementation, comes from when he was 16. In 1912 he was put into an arranged marriage, and while he opposed arranged marriages, he went along with it for his family’s sake. But he did convince his new wife to unbind her feet, and after her feet had healed up, he and his wife would go for strolls through the streets of Haifeng hand-in-hand, which was apparently quite the spectacle in a society where wealthy women were expected to bind their feet. As a result of their example, more and more people came out against the practice of footbinding in Haifeng.
Like many Chinese youth who wanted to modernize China, Peng saw Japan’s quick rise as a possible model for China to follow and went to study in Japan from 1917-1921. As we’ve discussed in prior episodes, these students tended to be quite nationalistic, it was their love of China which prompted them to try to find a way to modernize China, and so they tended to be angry at how Japan treated China. This made being in Japan to study a sort of radicalizing experience for many Chinese students, who were thrown together in Japan trying to learn how to modernize China, but in a country which oppressed China and many of whose residents were really pretty racist toward Chinese people.
In Japan, Peng had some radicalizing experiences. The first was in 1918, when a protest movement broke out among Chinese students against Japanese impositions on China. Chinese students in Japan were not permitted the right of assembly, and when 46 students held a secret meeting at a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo and the Japanese police heard about it, they raided the meeting. They beat up the students and then paraded them in front of the Chinese Young Men’s Association, where Peng Pai was staying, while Japanese onlookers joined in on abusing the Chinese students both verbally and physically, reportedly saying things like “Fools without country, are you aware of the power of our Empire now? … stupid Chinese.” Despite all this mistreatment, the Chinese students carried themselves in a brave and determined manner. This whole incident impressed itself deeply on Peng Pai.
The next year, when the May 4th Movement broke out in China in opposition to the Paris Peace Conference giving Japan ownership of the parts of Shandong that Germany had taken from China, Chinese students in Tokyo launched their own protests. They tried to hold a peaceful protest meeting on the grounds of the Chinese legation in Tokyo, but the Chinese government was colluding with Japan and opposed the protests. The students, in response, were even more upset at the betrayal of their own government than with Japan, and insisted they would hold their protest anyways. When they did, they were savagely repressed by the Japanese police. Peng Pai was among the protest organizers and was beaten badly by the police, with wounds to his head, arms and legs. He lost a lot of blood, and he used some of it to write a message back home to the student association in Haifeng which said “Never forget the national humiliation” and which was posted up publicly by the students there.
While at Waseda University in Tokyo, Peng joined a socialist group called the Kensetsusha Domei (which literally translates as Builders’ League in English). The Kensetsusha Domei debated and disseminated the whole range of socialist ideas, from anarchism to social democracy, and emphasized communal living. Most of the students were Japanese, but there were also Koreans and Chinese like Peng Pai in the group. One of the major projects which the Kensetsusha Domei took up was the organization of rural peasant leagues. So even before returning to China in 1921, Peng had already become familiar with peasant organizing strategies based on his experience in Japan.
If Peng had gone to Japan to learn how to save China, he returned to China in 1921 convinced that he had learned how to do it, although not in the way he had thought when he had left for Japan in 1917. As it turned out, Peng spent most of his time doing political work in Japan, and left Waseda University with grades far below what he was capable of academically. But it didn’t matter, because he had learned the lesson he had come for. It was socialism that would save China, and when he returned to China one of the first things that he did was to join the newborn Communist Party.
He joined up in Guangzhou and then returned to his home county of Haifeng. As you might recall from episodes 17 and 18, the Communist Party was very loosely organized right after its 1921 founding, and many Communists were still very influenced by anarchism. Peng Pai definitely was. In the journal which he launched in Haifeng when he got back there, he wrote “We have supported the government, however, it oppresses us. If we want to keep ourselves safe, we must destroy government.” Over the years Peng would be one of the anarchists to become convinced of Marxism and remain in the Party, but when he began his peasant organizing work in Haifeng, one would have to say his politics were closer to anarchism than to Marxism.
And just as the Communist Party was ideologically loose in 1921 and 1922, it was also organizationally very loose. Peng Pai’s decision to return to his home territory and begin organizing peasants, essentially continuing the agrarian revolutionary orientation that he had picked up as part of the Kensetsusha Domei in Japan, was an entirely individual decision on his part, and not a decision by the Communist Party to deploy Peng in this capacity. In that sense, it’s not unlike Mao’s experience in Hunan in 1925, when Mao also began organizing peasants as an individual decision about where to apply his energies, rather than as part of a centralized plan by the Party. However, in Peng’s case the individualist decision to decide where and how to work was much more in line with the Communist Party culture of 1921 and 1922, unlike in Mao’s case in 1925.
Peng initially began his peasant organizing work in 1922. His initial strategy was to win tenant-farming peasants to form associations so that they could utilize their collective strength to negotiate lower rent payments with the landlord that they rented land from. The going was very difficult, because while peasants wanted to pay less rent, they were scared. In Peng’s own words, “there was nothing more difficult than persuading the peasants to join the association.” In the first month of organizing, about 30 peasants joined the association. Then Peng had his first breakthrough. What happened was that one of the peasants who had joined the association had a child-bride who was six years old, who fell into a latrine and drowned. The girl’s family was very upset, and wanted the husband or someone from his family to be killed in retribution for the death of the girl. Also, a low level government official showed up and started threatening people and trying to get paid off in order not to have everybody involved punished by the state. This is, I think, illustrative of the oppressed life of these peasants that Peng was trying to organize. Children dying by drowning in latrines, child marriages, and a state which was entirely predatory and provided no services or justice for the peasants. What happened in this situation was that the peasant association was able to step in and both mediate the conflict between the peasant families and band people together to drive off the predatory government official who was looking for a bribe. That this ugly situation turned out about as well as it could have for the peasant community due to the power of the organized association showed people the power of collective action, and the association began to grow.
As the association grew, it undertook a wide range of activities. Some were fairly predictable, such as organizing campaigns against landlords who evicted people after jacking up their rent. These were mainly boycott campaigns so that no one new would move in on the land. The association also got unfair docking fees removed which previously peasants who were transporting grain along the river in Haifeng town had had to pay. But in addition to these sorts of basic economic demands, the association also began to take over positive government functions in the countryside, such as mediating disputes, organizing education and providing medical care. Essentially, in the absence of any positive government functions being provided by the Chinese state, the peasant association organized to meet some of the basic needs of the people in the area. By January 1923, the association had grown to 20,000 households, or about 100,000 people total.
Peng Pai actually wrote some pretty detailed accounts of the peasant organizing that he led in Haifeng County. I want to read you an extended account of one incident, which I think will give you a sense of the overall political orientation that informed Peng’s organizing in 1922 and 1923, and give you a sense concretely of what this peasant organizing looked like. This extended account that I am going to read here is condensed and rendered into English by the historian Gao Yuan from something that Peng wrote in 1926.
[bottom of p. 169 through p. 170 of Gao’s article]
As we can see from this case, despite this situation which could have turned into one of dual power, where there are competing authorities claiming to be the legitimate state, the peasant association in 1923 was not trying to overthrow the government and didn’t push things to that extreme. Rather, it limited itself to working for better conditions for the peasantry and did not treat the established regional authorities, which were dominated by the warlord Chen Jiongming, as illegitimate. The strategy that Peng Pai was following involved getting the peasants together to organize around economic demands and provide services that the peasants needed, but was not fundamentally oriented toward a near-term revolution and was not preparing for a peasant insurrection. Fundamentally, although Peng was a member of the Communist Party, the work that he was doing in Haifeng in 1922-1923 was cut off from the larger strategic plans of the Party. This work also demonstrated the potential for peasant organizing in the countryside, although there remained some question of whether this work was reproducible elsewhere, and to what degree it could be coordinated with a more all-encompassing revolutionary strategy.
Despite the basically non-violent approach of Peng’s association, in August of 1923 there was a crackdown and it was repressed. What happened was that the association had a big assembly of between 4,000 and 5,000 peasants who met in Haifeng city. The local gentry freaked out about all the peasants who had come to town, even though it was just a mass meeting to discuss the organization of the association and not even a protest. Once the meeting was over and most of the peasants had left town to go home, the local gentry and Chen Jiongming’s forces went and raided the headquarters of the peasant association, arresting more than 20 organizers and staff members, although Peng Pai and some others managed to get away. The repression actually brought Peng Pai more directly into collaboration with the rest of the Communist Party, because he fled to Guangzhou and was there just as the Soviet-Guomindang alliance was being cemented and implemented.