Skip to main content

Chinese Society

Chinese Society

Traditional Chinese society

Transitional Chinese society

Contemporary Chinese society


Hegel spoke of China as the country “des ewig wiederhehrenden Prinzips” meaning, in general, “eternal” China. Eternity, however, is not a concept much in vogue in a time when revolutionary changes are transforming almost every human society in the world. China appeared eternal to the French philosophes of the eighteenth century, many Sinologues of the nineteenth century, and some social scientists of the early twentieth century. Even at present some historians claim they see the re-emergence of old imperial patterns. There is continuity, but the changes have been more profound.

This article examines Chinese society in three stages. The first is traditional Chinese society, characterized by the social patterns that prevailed from the Sung dynasty (960–1279) until the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, it is necessary to begin with an account of the development of these patterns in the earliest centuries of Chinese civilization. The second stage is transitional Chinese society, characterized essentially by the patterns of Chinese society growing out of the dual impact of inland revolution and Western imperialism, which struck China almost simultaneously during the middle of the nineteenth century. The third is contemporary Chinese society—the patterns of Chinese society which arose after 1949, when the communists assumed control over the Chinese mainland.

Our main theoretical approach distinguishes between state and social system. By state we mean the macrosocietal structure of legitimate and organized political power. By a social system we mean a micro-societal structure of authority and human relationships deriving therefrom, whose boundaries can often be historically and culturally determined. The state, as a formalistic entity, ruled an aggregate of particular or local social systems. Chinese society represents a unity of state and social systems held together by institutionalized links. In traditional times, linkage between state and social systems was provided by a status group, known in the West as the gentry, which had substantive attachment both to the state and to a social system. In contemporary times, similar linkage is provided by the Communist party. The theoretical distinction between gentry and party is close to that made by Max Weber between status groups and parties ([1906–1924] 1946, pp. 194–195).

We regard this theoretical approach as an explanatory device to account for both the flexibility and changes in traditional Chinese society and the nature of the Chinese revolution. The three inter-locking sectors of Chinese society (state, gentry, and local social system) historically gave it different options for maintaining the traditional patterns of power and authority. The state recruited from the gentry to fill its positions of power (notably bureaucratic). In turn, local elites reinforced their authority within the social systems through the exercise of state power roles. The cumulative effect of the interaction between state and social systems was the appearance and persistence of a distinct status group.

The main criterion for recruitment into the organizations of the state was education based on the ethos of Confucianism. Internalization of that ethos through the institutionalized educational system assured an individual society-wide status, on the basis of which he could obtain power roles within the state and also authority roles within the local social system.

In traditional times, the legitimacy of the state was sustained by the ethos of Confucianism, and its organization was concretely manifested in government (monarchy and bureaucracy). However, it is theoretically important to note that one segment of the state, the military, was independent of the complex of state, gentry, and social system. The military was attached to the monarchy, and for many centuries was non-Chinese. The dual nature of the traditional Chinese state has its counterpart in other traditional and modern societies.

The social systems were sustained by particular and local cultures, which included the ethos (Confucianism) but also other distinct cultural beliefs and values, and by patterns of human relationships based on status and authority.

The gentry, as the institutionalized link between state and social system, had a character of its own, but the composition of this status group varied from time to time. Since there were several options for achieving gentry status and recruitment was generally open, the gentry never developed the characteristics of a caste or an estate; it resembled more some of the “middle classes” of modern societies.

These structural elements are the core elements of traditional Chinese society. Since the core elements were either destroyed or profoundly transformed during the last one hundred years, we regard the Chinese revolution as a major transformation of Chinese society. The dominant ethos, Confucianism, was destroyed by the intellectual revolution of the early twentieth century. The dominant governmental organization of the traditional Chinese state disappeared with the 1911 revolution. The gentry was destroyed, as an elite and as a source of authority, by the revolutionary land reform of the late 1940s, thus doing away with traditional local stratification and status. Local cultures have changed more slowly, but the far-reaching liberation of women in modern times can be construed as having struck a deep blow to the traditional kinship system, so vital to all Chinese local cultures.

Since we regard change and not continuity as the main phenomenon to be explained in Chinese society, we have chosen to analyze it in the framework of the three mentioned stages.

Traditional Chinese society

The Chinese historically regard China both as a country and a culture, as evident in two words for China, Chung-kuo and Chung-hua. As a country, it occupies a large land mass in eastern Asia; except for Sinkiang and Tibet, both areas of non-Chinese peoples, its borders have not basically changed in two thousand years. As a culture, China extends to wherever there are ethnic Chinese. Since China’s dual character as country and as culture is significant for understanding traditional Chinese society, let us first examine China’s historical background.

During the second millennium b.c., the present area of China was inhabited by peoples belonging to at least eight different culture groups. Archeological comparisons suggest relationships between these cultures and those of proto-Tungusic peoples of the northeast, proto-Turkic peoples of the north-west, Tibetan peoples of the west, and the peoples of southeast Asia. During the middle of the second millennium b.c., tribal groups from the central and southern parts of Hopei invaded the rich agricultural regions of Honan. They founded several large cities, the most notable of which was Anyang. With Anyang as a political and military base, these tribal peoples created China’s first empire—the Shang (Eberhard 1948; Needham 1954; Cheng 1959).

The development of empire and high culture occurred simultaneously. Although the cultural diversity of neolithic times continued well into the first millennium b.c., the Shang created China’s first high culture, characterized primarily by the development of a system of writing that is the direct ancestor of the modern Chinese written language. The importance of writing in the subsequent high culture of China is reflected by the fact that the word wen in Chinese signifies both writing and culture.

During the latter part of the second millennium b.c., invaders from the northwest destroyed the Shang dynasty and established the Chou dynasty. The Chou dynasty created the first permanent system of political dominion; the rulers divided the country into appanages governed by relatives and allies of the dynasty. Each appanage was based on a town from which rule was exercised over surrounding villages and tribes. The links between dynasty and appanage were maintained through bonds of kinship, ritual, and loyalty. This system of personal indirect rule, in contrast to the impersonal bureaucratic rule which developed later, bears similarities to medieval European feudalism.

Although over-all Chinese cultural unity developed further during the Chou, largely through the linguistic unification of north China, the high-cultural achievements of the early Chou were not outstanding. A major reason was the downfall of the Shang priestly caste, which earlier had been the main creative element in Shang high culture. In contrast to the Shang religion of heaven worship and totemism, the Chou religion was essentially a politically oriented ancestor worship which tended to develop locally rather than nationally, thus impeding the formation of a unified high culture (Eberhard 1948, pp. 26–32 in 1950 edition; Reischauer & Fairbank 1960, vol. 1, pp. 49–52).

Great changes occurred during the middle of the Chou dynasty. The appanages became increasingly independent of central political authority. Economically, Chinese rural and urban life was transformed. Intensive agriculture replaced the extensive agriculture of the Shang. The use of irrigation led to stable villages. The introduction of wheat permitted a two-crop economy, which further consolidated village life. Iron not only revolutionized agricultural technology but made new types of war-fare possible. The growth of trade led to an expansion of the towns. Socially, the increase in population led to migrations, which brought Chinese into the aborigine-settled areas of the Yangtze River basin and even farther south. All these changes laid the groundwork for the rise of China’s classical age, a period of creative thought comparable to the Attic period in Greece. As in Greece, growing political disunity was accompanied by growing cultural unity. The language and concepts of the philosophers, although differing widely in content, came from the same cultural matrix. With few exceptions, almost all the philosophic currents explored paths that could lead to a new political unification (Reischauer & Fairbank 1960, vol. 1, pp. 53–84).

Unification came in the third century b.c. through the Ch’in dynasty. Though short-lived, it brought into being the organized state based on bureaucratic rule. The succeeding Han dynasty further expanded the Ch’in system of rule, which became the basis of the political structure in China for the next two thousand years. The political continuity and stability of the Chinese empire are unmatched anywhere else in the world; without the state bureaucracy, the history of China would indeed have been different.

If bureaucracy was the instrument of rule, the source of power was monarchy. From the Chin dynasty to the twentieth century, China was ruled by emperors who were regarded as the sole agents of heaven on earth. Despite the strong ties between monarchy and bureaucracy, the two remained distinct; many emperors, for example, held religious beliefs different from the predominant Confucianism of the bureaucracy. In later centuries, the monarchy became the preserve of alien conquerors; from the twelfth to the twentieth century the emperors were Chinese only during three centuries (Levenson 1958–1965, vol. 2, pp. 25–73).

During the Han dynasty China’s traditional ethos of Confucianism was institutionalized. From the welter of philosophic currents of the preceding period, the teachings of Confucius emerged as doctrinal. Confucianism, in effect, became the ethos of bureaucracy. It was an ethos of legitimate authority, as expressed in the five basic human relationships: emperor–subject, father–son, elder brother-younger brother, husband-wife, and friend-friend (only the last relationship expresses egalitarian values). Its religious core combined belief in the natural law of heaven and the sanctity of descent and kinship (Yang 1961, pp. 244−257).

From the Han to the Ch’ing dynasty, China was essentially held together as an organized state based on bureaucracy and governed by the ethos of Confucianism. During the early decades of the Han, the Chinese empire began to assume the geographical form characteristic of modern China. In the process of expansion, the Han political and cultural system spread over large areas of central and south China, which were then inhabited by non-Chinese peoples culturally related to the peoples of southeast Asia. Over the centuries, a gradual process of cultural assimilation took place; aboriginal languages were replaced by the Chinese language, and Chinese high culture prevailed. Today there are still minorities who speak non-Chinese languages and have distinct particular cultures but who participate in the Chinese high culture.

Traditional China was a unified political and cultural entity. Was it a society? Despite political and cultural unity, considerable local diversity persisted and even increased over the centuries. The Chinese language split into many dialects, many of which became mutually unintelligible. Diversity was social as well as cultural, for customs differed widely across the country. This was traditionally reflected in law, which recognized local practices in the adjudication of offenses and disputes (Niida 1952, pp. 49–51; Wang 1937, p. 15).

In their joint memorandum on the concepts of culture and social system, Talcott Parsons and Alfred Kroeber defined a social system as “the specifically relational system of interaction among individuals and collectivities” (Kroeber & Parsons 1958, p. 583). In traditional China, such “specifically relational systems of interaction” were local rather than national. If marriage and kinship are taken as significant indicators of concrete relationships, then the boundaries of the social system rarely went beyond the hsien (district). In fact, in most instances the boundaries were marked by areas centering on market towns (Skinner 1964–1965).

One of the most important functions of social systems is the generation of authority, specifically in the form of status groups and notables. Western observers in the nineteenth century called the ruling status group they found throughout China the “gentry.” However, modern scholars have objected to the word on grounds of false analogy with the gentry of eighteenth-century England. Ping-ti Ho contrasts the Chinese “class of officials and potential officials,” often including men of modest means, to the English gentry, whose power and authority were based on the ownership of land (1962, p. 40). Wolfram Eberhard, on the other hand, regards local landowning as the chief mark of the Chinese gentry (1952, pp. 13 ff.). The long-continuing “gentry controversy” among Sinologists basically revolves around the question whether the ruling status group derived their power and authority from the state or from the local social systems. Since the Chinese themselves have no traditional term to designate the ruling status group, the controversy cannot be settled by reference to the Chinese sources. However, if one looks at the documents of China’s numerous revolts during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one finds a recurrence of the words “officials, landlords, and notables” (shen) to designate the class enemies of the revolution-aries. The common phrases are “corrupt officials and venal clerks, local landlords and debased notables.” Officials and their clerks made up the traditional magistracies. The word shen, which we render as “notable,” has been responsible for much of the confusion surrounding the gentry. Strictly speaking, the shen were members of the scholar-official class who did not hold office in the state bureaucracy; the lowest members of this group were often little more than poor schoolteachers in the village (Fei[ 1947–1948] 1953, pp. 177 ff.). This indicates that gentry status had its roots both in the state and in the local social systems. G. William Skinner has suggested a solution to the controversy through “a recognition in future research that social structure in the middle range of traditional Chinese society is at once derivative of and enmeshed in two quite distinctive hierarchical systems—that of administration to be sure, but that of marketing as well” (1964–1965, p. 43). What Skinner calls “marketing” is what we call local social systems.

While all observers agree that China had a ruling status group linking state and society, the traditional Chinese designation of that group as “officials, land-lords, and notables” suggests that there were three different sources of status—in effect, power, wealth, and prestige. At different periods of Chinese history, each of these factors had a different weight in the determination of status. Thus, during the first half of the first millennium a.d., landed wealth and genealogical prestige appear to have been the dominant factors, as evident in the existence of great aristocratic families. Subsequently, as the result of rapid socioeconomic development, a new landed meritocracy emerged, which acquired prestige through education, thus substituting official prestige for genealogical prestige. With the growth of political centralization during the Ming and Ch’ing, actual and potential bureaucratic position combined with education became the leading determinants of status (Ho 1962, pp. 259–262). However, regardless of the changing weights of the power, wealth, and prestige factors, acquisition of bureaucratic rank ultimately meant a rise in all three of these status determinants.

The ruling status group, which we shall hence-forth call the gentry, enjoyed power, wealth, and prestige both within the state and within the local social systems. Because of the openness of membership, the gentry was neither an estate nor a caste, unlike the Japanese bushi and European nobles or the Indian Brahmins and Rajputs. Its members ranged from officials associated mainly with the state to landlords who belonged to prestigious and wealthy local families; the notables enjoyed mainly prestige as the result of education in the Confucian high culture. The gentry, with its large families, provided the model for those familistic values which have been considered so characteristic of traditional Chinese society. The clan, whose leading members were gentry but whose ordinary members were often poor peasants, symbolized the ideal solidarity of the traditional local social system (Hsu 1963, pp. 60 ff.).

We can thus say that traditional China consisted of a universal state characterized by a common high culture and a multiplicity of particular social systems of diverse local culture. The gentry formed the link between the two. Landed wealth gave the gentry access to higher education; internalization of the high culture allowed the gentry to assume positions in the state bureaucracy. Participation in the bureaucracy, in turn, contributed to the consolidation of local power, prestige, and wealth. The state recruited primarily from local status groups to fill the roles of organization. With the strict separation of monarchy and bureaucracy and of military and civil, local status groups were not endangered by alien competition for state bureaucratic positions. So entrenched had the system become that even foreign dynasties, such as the Mongol Yuan and the Manchu Ch’ing, had to accept it to consolidate their rule over China.

If we define a society as the broadest aggregate of people governed by common cultural, political, and social norms, traditional Chinese society coincided more or less with the territory of the Chinese empire. Prior to the development of the modern nation-state, there have been few instances in world history of the outer limits of society coinciding with those of political dominion. The ephemeral empires of the Islamic and Indian worlds, for example, were never able to bring state and society into line. Since the historical boundaries of the Chinese empire expanded more rapidly than those of the society, we can conclude that it was the political and cultural power of the state that unified the diverse local social systems and extended them to the outermost limits of the empire. Once the state established its dominion over territory, the assimilation and acculturation of local status groups brought them in line with those that were generally characteristic of China, thus creating Chinese society.

Theoretically, it appears more productive to regard Chinese society as the product of the interaction of the state with a multiplicity of local social systems than to see all of Chinese society as a single social system with differentiated parts. C. K. Yang agrees when he states: “… Traditional China may be thought of as having two major structural components: a national bureaucratic superstructure emphasizing centralization, standardization, formalism, a monocratically organized hierarchy of authority, and the norm of impersonality; and a vast substratum of heterogeneous local communities based on a morally common acceptance of the Confucian ideology, a national bureaucracy, and a weakly organized national economy” (1959, p. 135).

Thus, the modern Chinese nation-state may be seen as the unification of a particular state system with most, but not all, of the local social systems that can be considered Chinese. In traditional China, such a distinction was not too important, for the Chinese empire included virtually all areas of Chinese settlement. However, in modern times, the areas of Chinese settlement have expanded far beyond the borders of the Chinese nation. If society is regarded as the product of the interaction of state and social system, then, in the modern world, we have a number of distinct Chinese societies in formation. Presumably this process would be reversed if Taiwan and Hong Kong were eventually to be reunited with the mainland, which appears likely. However, in the case of the overseas Chinese areas, different processes are at work.

Traditional Chinese society achieved its classical form during the Sung dynasty (960–1279) and remained basically unchanged until the advent of the modern era. The Sung reunified China after a protracted period of political fragmentation, marked by an early form of warlordism. From then until 1911, despite dynastic changes and internal rebellions, China never again fell into political fragmentation.

Despite its benign character, the Sung contributed to the growth of absolute monarchy, which, in the Yüan, Ming, and Ch’ing became increasingly powerful. Since the main weapons of the monarchical institution were the large professional armies and various local paramilitary forces, political centralization brought with it growing military and police control. Thus, the pao-chia village control organization, which failed during the Sung, was institutionalized under the Ch’ing. The success of foreign dynasties (Liao, Chin, Yüan, and Ch’ing) in ruling over China was partly due to their abilities to command military power (Reischauer & Fairbank 1960, vol. 1, pp. 197–198; Liu 1959, pp. 90–91).

China’s high culture achieved a stabilization under the Sung which subsequently led to a decline in creativity. Whereas there was a flowering of scientific and philosophical thought until the end of the Sung, later dynasties turned conservative; China’s scholar-officials became mainly compilers and encyclopedists. Chu Hsi, who lived from 1130 to 1200, was China’s last great philosopher (with the exception of the Ming scholar Wang Yangming); his writings on the classics were elevated to the status of orthodox doctrine (Levenson 1958–1965, vol. 1, pp. 3 ff.; Needham 1954, pp. 144–149).

General institutional stabilization was also reflected in the economy. During the T’ang and the Sung, the economy grew, not only quantitatively but qualitatively. New cities arose along with new forms of productive enterprise. However, from the Ming on, economic growth largely took the form of a continuing expansion of internal trade (Ho 1959, pp. 196 ff.). As Ping-ti Ho has stated, “… even during the period of steady economic growth [the economy] … was capable of small gains but incapable of innovations in either the institutional or the technological sense” (ibid., p. 204). Thus, state and economy became routinized, but at the cost of their ability to deal creatively with the challenges that were to arise in later centuries.

Rapid social mobility in the T’ang and Sung periods led to counterforces that attempted to root the new landlord meritocracy in the local social systems. Many of the great clans of the early modern period had their beginnings in the Sung. In fact, most prestigious families of the modern period trace their genealogical roots to the Sung dynasty (Liu 1959, pp. 64–65).

While we have sketched a picture of traditional Chinese society as consisting of a state resting on a sea of local communities, one must remember that the core of the local social system was the village. During periods of tranquillity, the state made use of the local gentry to achieve its two main goals in the rural areas—the collection of taxes and the maintenance of order. However, the gentry, for the most part, did not live in the villages but in the towns and smaller cities, where it was in direct contact with the magistrates of the central government. The state needed the gentry, since it itself could not control the villages directly. However, at times, and particularly during the last centuries of the millennium of stability, the gentry, too, was unable to control the villages, or, if it did, it infringed on the interests of the state by failing to extract and deliver needed revenues. Thus, the state periodically stepped in and undertook direct organization of the villages (as in the case of the she, li-chia, and pao-chia systems). Ideally, the gentry functioned as a link between state and village, but when it failed, state and village directly confronted each other: the state tried to organize the village, and the village resisted with means ranging from noncompliance to open revolt (Hsiao 1960, pp. 43–83).

Transitional Chinese society

The word “transitional” implies a move from one base point to another. The two base points are the society of China as it was until the nineteenth century and as it is now in the People’s Republic. What came in between was a period of change (Levy 1949, pp. 41–42). Although the roots of change can be traced to the eighteenth century, two great events of the nineteenth century symbolized the transition—the Opium war, from 1840 to 1842, and the Taiping rebellion, from 1851 to 1864.

The Treaty of Nanking in 1842 opened China’s coastal ports to foreign penetration. As a result, a modern sector developed, essentially along Western lines. Great new cities, such as Shanghai, Tientsin, etc., grew up along the China coast, attracting immigration from the interior. With the opening of Manchuria in the middle of the nineteenth century, that rich underpopulated land was rapidly filled with immigrants, chiefly from Shantung. Russian and, later, Japanese economic penetration began a process of development that ultimately made Manchuria the center of China’s heavy industry.

The rapid growth of a modern sector, on the coast and in Manchuria, based on an economy linked to the world market system or to particular foreign powers, notably Japan, created an ever-widening gap with the traditional sector of inland China. A new kind of Chinese society, based on Western principles, emerged in the modern sector. Education, from primary school on, was organized along Western lines. The mass media copied Western models. An urban business class appeared, often identified with particular cities, such as Canton, Hong Kong, Ningpo, and Shanghai. Industrialization brought a modern working class into existence. The modern cities, with their central business districts, surrounding slums, and suburban indus-tries, resembled those of the West rather than the traditional cities of the interior. Intellectuals went to the West or to Japan to study; those that remained at home studied in Western-type universities. As in many modernizing countries, the cities became the social matrix for Westernization (Murphey 1953).

As the state became increasingly incapable of fulfilling its traditional role as a unifying force, China began to split into two different societies. The Chinese communists have recognized this split as one between the “semicolonialism” of the modern sector and the “semifeudalism” of the traditional sector. Both sectors evolved different social forces, thus giving a dual character to the great changes that marked the hundred years of transition.

If the Opium war launched the development of China’s modern sector, the Taiping rebellion began the transformation of the traditional sector. Toward the end of the eighteenth century significant socio-economic changes appeared in many parts of in-land China. Population growth began to rise sharply, putting a great strain on resources. China’s technology was stagnant; the ruling gentry was unable to introduce new forms of production. Moreover, outlets for internal migration declined in many in-land regions. For example, during the seventeenth century, Szechwan became very crowded, and migration from Hunan to Szechwan dwindled. Undoubtedly, the rebellions that began to break out in the eighteenth century were linked to the changing economic conditions (Ho 1959, chapters 7, 9, 10).

Significantly, an ideology of foreign origin, Christianity, aroused the greatest rebellion in Chinese history. In 1850 a religious-military band, known as the “God-worshippers,” began a rebellion which by 1853 had conquered much of China, including the early Ming capital, Nanking. The rebellion was led by a charismatic leader, Hung Hsiu-ch’üan, the son of a poor Hakka peasant family. Hung had come under the influence of Christian missionaries and, after a series of visions, came to believe that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Although the original adherents were mainly Hakka, in a few short years large numbers of people in southern and central China rallied to the Taiping banners, as they were known after Hung was pro-claimed the “heavenly king.” The movement was egalitarian, puritanical, and socialistic (e.g., advocating the redistribution of land to the peasants). Like the communists who followed them a century later, the Taipings had a superb gift for organization. Although the movement almost succeeded in conquering all of China, internal decay and pressure from the combined forces of the Manchu dynasty, an aroused local gentry, and foreign mercenaries finally crushed them. The Taipings combined nationalistic hatred of the Manchus with an even fiercer hatred of the local gentry. The cry of the Taipings, carried throughout China, was: Ta kuan (“Smash the officials”). It is therefore not surprising that the gentry responded with counter-revolutionary ferocity (Michael 1966).

The gentry understood the threat and responded, in some cases with repression and in others with constructive measures. In the face of Manchu weakness, the provincial gentry and the Chinese bureaucracy recruited from it became increasingly powerful. Both nationally and locally, the gentry and the bureaucracy tried to improve conditions. Gentry-led economic development was by no means a rarity. However, sporadic reform could not resolve the fundamental problems. The inevitable result was the growing militarization of the provinces and the appearance of warlordism in the post-1911 period (Wright [1957] 1962, chapters 8–9; Feuerwerker 1958).

The Taiping rebellion revealed that the traditional state was in crisis. It was unable to bring about the pacification of the rebellion by its own resources. It was the combined forces of foreign powers and the local elites that finally led to imperial victory.

Although the decades that followed allowed hope for a reconsolidation of China’s traditional system, the erosion of the state and of its ethos continued. The monarchy became increasingly obscurantist and impotent, and the bureaucracy could not give the country the leadership that it needed. In 1895 the monarchical armies of China were beaten by a resurgent Japan. In 1898 a reform movement emerged, which, despite its failure, revealed the growing lack of popular faith in the old system. Around the same time, intellectuals began to gnaw at the legitimacy of the ethos, first suggesting new ways of interpreting Confucianism and finally asserting its irrelevance for the modern world. The 1911 revolution was fairly bloodless, but it marked the death of a political system and an ethos that had held the country together for two millennia. The rise of the Chinese republic marked not the triumph of a new system, but the funeral of the old. China immediately fell into disunity (Teng & Fairbank 1954; Levenson 1958–1965, vol. 1, chapters 3–9).

However, the 1911 revolution did not disturb the power of the gentry. As bureaucratic positions in the new governments became unattractive, the gentry returned to their native provinces, where most were ready to collaborate with the rising warlords. The seeds of warlordism were planted in the post-Taiping period when the national armies were largely decentralized and placed under provincial control. When Yuan Shih-k’ai seized power in 1912, he found it only possible to rule through military commanders set up in different parts of the country. When his rule collapsed, these commanders became virtually independent and proceeded to construct their own military-political rule. Since the social revolution of the mid-1800s had subsided, the gentry had no reason to fear a challenge from the bottom again. Warlord rule combined with gentry administration appeared to be able to guarantee local stabilization until a new national unity could be achieved.

China’s modern sector began to slip under the control of foreigners. Japanese influence in Manchuria grew until, in 1931, that land was detached from China. Despite Chinese participation in World War I, the Japanese emerged as the real winners at the Versailles Peace Conference. The big Western powers retained a firm grip on the concessions they owned in the Chinese treaty ports.

The existence of a unitary state and ethos for so long a period of time could not but give rise to political movements that would seek to re-establish a new state and ethos. The Kuomintang, under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen, played a major role in the 1911 revolution, but its ideology was little more than a traditional antidynasticism: the Manchus must go. After 1911, the Kuomintang was reduced to a minor political movement. However, by the end of World War I, it was apparent that revolutionary ferment was arising in the cities, in particular a form of nationalism that, like all nationalisms, had a defined target of opposition— in this case, the Japanese. The Peking May Fourth Movement in 1919 and its successor in Shanghai revealed a deep hatred for the Japanese among the entire people; as during the French Revolution, the spearhead of popular opposition came from the intellectuals and the rising urban bourgeoisie. The Kuomintang took on a revolutionary character, made even more explicit by alliance with the newly formed Soviet Union. Protected by the liberal war-lord of Kwangtung, Ch’en Chiung-ming, and aided militarily by the Soviet Union, the Kuomintang developed into a political and military force which, in 1925, was able to launch its “northern march” and capture Peking. Despite some efforts made in the area to organize peasant leagues, the Kuomin-tang was largely an urban revolutionary movement. By 1926 it was clear that the movement consisted of two wings—a disciplined military wing with power-political rather than revolutionary aims and an intellectual-dominated left wing, which saw revolution as the means to transform Chinese society (Chou 1960; Brandt 1958; Fitzgerald 1952).

The inevitable split came in 1927 when Chiang Kai-shek smashed the left-wing Kuomintang and the communists, who were allied with them. The new bourgeoisie rallied to Chiang and supported the Nanking government founded in 1928. Chiang’s failure to unify the country, however, was due to the fact that the Kuomintang had few roots in inland China, which remained largely under the control of the warlords. Chiang Kai-shek attempted to bring inland China under his domination, much in the manner of the first Sung emperor, who, facing a similar heritage of disunity, pitted warlord against warlord, infiltrated their power bases with officials, and used the presence of an external threat to dissipate their power.

But there was one major factor that made the China of 1900 fundamentally different from the China of 900—the fermenting social revolution in the interior. The smoldering embers of peasant rebellion burst forth again in the mid-1920s. The Chinese Communist party, founded in 1920, functioned mostly as an organizational arm of the left-wing Kuomintang until 1927; its weakness was underscored by the ease with which Chiang destroyed its urban power base. However, in 1927, Mao Tse-tung united with dissatisfied units of the Kuomintang army and raised the banner of village revolution in Kiangsi and Hunan, classic areas of rebellion. The response was more than Mao could have hoped for. Rebellion burst forth in village upon village. Peasant jacqueries killed thousands of gentry and officials; the old Taiping cry of “Smash the officials” was revived. In 1931 the Chinese communists were strong enough to proclaim a Soviet republic on Chinese soil. Although short-lived, it revealed the immense revolutionary potential of the peasantry. The road to power for the Chinese communists lay in once again arousing and directing the peasant energies that had brought the Taipings close to victory (Ch’en 1965).

The gap between the two parts of China— coastal and inland—grew wider. The development of modern business and industry, the rise of Western education, and the ever-tightening linkage of coastal China to the world market system gave the cities a character sharply different from the back-ward villages of the interior. From 1928 to 1936 the nationalists succeeded in stabilizing conditions in the cities and even launching some social and economic reforms. However, coastal China gradually became prey for imperial Japan; the Sino-Japanese war, which began in 1937, led to the amputation of all of modern China and to Japanese occupation of all the major cities. Inevitably, the old nationalism reasserted itself, particularly among the intellectuals and the young army officers. Chiang’s strategy of seeking accommodation with the Japanese until the country was unified met with opposition from intellectuals and young army officers. They triumphed after the Sian incident of 1936, when, in collaboration with the communists, they forced Chiang to accept a united front against the Japanese (Ch’en 1965, pp. 229–230; Ch’ien 1950, pp. 106–107).

In 1946 the civil war resumed, as did the great internal social revolution. In May 1946 the communists once again proclaimed a policy of radical land reform. Throughout rural China communist cadres revived the old hatreds within the village, and from the ensuing “struggle meetings,” drew recruits for their armies. Within a few short years the nationalists lost their military superiority. The communist organizational build-up paid off handsomely, for when the challenge came, the communists knew how to turn guerrillas into regulars, make peasants into soldiers, and use the village base areas as powerful logistical support for the communist armies. The nationalist cause was also doomed by the attitude predominant among war-lords, officials, and urban businessmen, one that led them to believe that they could return to their old ways. So vast was the social revolution that by 1949 China’s gentry was destroyed. So violent was the land reform that the Chinese communist leaders tried to stem it in 1948, even before achievement of final victory. In 1949 the Chinese communists unified the entire mainland of China (Belden 1949).

In 1949 the last act of the Chinese revolution had been consummated. With the destruction of the gentry, the traditional local social systems ceased to exist: state, ethos, and gentry all disappeared. China stood at the threshold of a radically new era.

The main characteristic of transitional Chinese society was revolution—revolution against the state, the old ethos, and the gentry. Revolution first erupted in inland China, but by the beginning of the twentieth century it had spread to the cities. However, the urban revolution was mainly nationalistic in character; the uprisings that occurred in China’s cities after 1919 were anti-imperialist, specifically anti-Japanese. The Kuomintang represented this tradition of revolution. In the mid-1920s, the revolution shifted back to the interior, where it became the instrument of communist victory. The communists, despite their nationalistic phases, represented the other tradition of revolution. Characteristically, the Kuomintang was mainly concerned with the acquisition of state power, after which it hoped to reform Chinese society. The communists, by contrast, first transformed the local social systems and then reached out for state power. Communist victory suggests that, in the end, the inland revolutionary tradition was a more powerful force than the nationalism of the cities. Nationalism needed an external enemy to remain alive, and the end of World War II did away with China’s main enemy, Japan.

Transitional Chinese society saw great changes in the traditional patterns of social stratification. In the modern sector, new classes without prece-dent in Chinese history were created—a business class, a growing industrial proletariat, and the new intellectuals. As in most modernizing countries, the intellectuals played leading roles in the revolutionary movements. Discovering the power of direct political action during the May Fourth Movement, they became the ideologists of Chinese nationalism. Subsequently, large numbers went over to the communists, and became cadres in the rural war and revolution. In the rural areas young peasants coming from the poorest strata of the village population formed the bulk of the combat cadres of the Chinese Communist party. They not only spear-headed the revolution against the gentry but assumed positions of rural power after 1949.

Although the inland revolution had deep roots in the past, the ideology of revolution, brought to the peasants by urban intellectuals, was modern. While the Chinese communists often used traditional means to achieve their goals, the values underlying their ideology were radically different from those of the past. Communist victory in 1949, rather than signifying a dynastic restoration in modern garb, was a revolutionary transformation of the foundations of society.

Contemporary Chinese society

In October 1949 the Chinese communists established the People’s Republic of China, thus creating a new political entity which launched a large-scale transformation of Chinese society. In this section we shall examine the transformation in relation to the key elements of Chinese society discussed in the section on traditional society—the state and its ethos, the local social systems, and the gentry (Schurmann 1966).

Whereas state and society in traditional Chinese society were governed by the ethos of Confucianism, China today is governed by the ideology of Marxism—Leninism. For Confucianism’s world view of harmony the communists have substituted one of struggle. The functional importance of ideology cannot be separated from the main instrument of communist Chinese power—organization. After years of trial and failure, the Chinese communists realized that ideology serves to create and use organization and that organization is the only way to mobilize men to achieve goals. Chinese communist ideology consists of two parts—“theory” and “practice,” or, in official terminology, Marxism-Leninism and the thought of Mao Tse-tung. The Chinese communists stress their membership in a global movement held together by common adherence to a fixed Marxist-Leninist theory. The core of that theory, as they see it, is the universality of class struggle: from the smallest village, where the poor fight the rich, to the whole world, where socialism and capitalism are in conflict, the human condition is one of class struggle. In this struggle, the poor will finally win. After the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Marxism spread rapidly among China’s intellectuals; they were revolution-minded men, who lived in the modernizing cities of China, who realized that Sino-centric isolation was no longer possible, and who saw the emerging industrial proletariat as the prototype of the future population of China. The Chinese communists, in particular Mao Tse-tung, turned Marxism into “theory” by linking it with “practice,” that is, organization and revolutionary action.

The traditional ethos, Confucianism, functioned mainly as a body of values, held by the state, by the gentry, and by the population as a whole, de-spite the diversity of local cultures. A brief comparison between Confucian and communist values will illustrate the changes. Instead of struggle, Confucianism preached harmony. Instead of organized power, Confucianism taught that networks of interpersonal relationships were the core of any political structure. Instead of modernization, that is, directed change toward set goals, Confucianism believed in ad hoc adaptation to situations. Instead of making the worker the human ideal, Confucianism sought the cultivation of man as a “gentleman” (chün-tzu). Instead of equality, Confucianism regarded legitimate authority based on unequal personal relationships as the foundation of the human order (as can be seen in the first four of the five basic human relationships: lord-subject, father-son, elder brother-younger brother, and husband-wife). Confucianism embodied these values in a unified ethos. Communism embodies its values in a unified theory.

It is through theory, with its ideological values of struggle, its political values of organized power, its economic values of modernization, and its social values of proletarianization and equality that the Chinese communists have transformed the value basis of Chinese society. But theory is also the spiritual cement that holds together the key organization of the country—the Chinese Communist party.

In contrast to theory, practice is flexible, changing, and nondogmatic. The thought of Mao Tsetung, rather than fixed doctrine, is a manner of thinking that applies the theory of contradictions to the analysis and resolution of any human problem. Through actual experience, practice has evolved a series of principles and methods of organization and action. Although at times the Chinese have tended to dogmatize these methods, as in their teachings on world revolution, as a whole they have remained committed to the conviction that practice must be flexible and changing. The theory of contradictions has two variants—antagonistic and nonantagonistic contradictions. The first suggests that the juxtaposition of forces must lead to violent confrontation. The second suggests that the juxtaposition of forces can lead to peaceful resolution and even balance. Since practice is flexible and not doctrinaire, the quality of a particular contradiction can change from one day to the next (Mao 1917–1957; Cohen 1964; Holubnychy 1964).

One of the most important functions of ideology is the psychological transformation of individuals through group action. The primacy of organization means that every man must become a functioning member of a group linked to a larger organization. In the context of that group, ideology exerts spiritual pressure on the individual. The strong concern with the individual, which marks Chinese communism, can be seen in movements such as “thought reform” and “socialist education” (Lifton 1961).

The most startling change in China in the years following 1949 was the creation of a state power that emulated the Soviet Union down to the smallest details. There have been few instances in world history where political institutions that grew up in one society were so rapidly and effectively implanted in another with different traditions and practices. Revolutionary movements, once in power, often accept the given institutional framework, fill the top positions with their own men and the middle positions with elites ready to serve the new masters. Many in the West, in 1949, believed that a split between China and Russia would occur and that the Chinese communists, once in power, would revert to more traditional means of rule. Exactly the opposite happened. Despite reluctant Russian support during the civil war, and in the face of obvious Soviet intrigues to acquire power over Manchuria and Sinkiang, the Chinese communists chose to ally themselves unreservedly with the Soviet Union. They abolished almost every institutional structure remaining from Kuomintang times and substituted new Soviet-type ones.

The most important factor in the radical transformation of the state was the nationalization of private enterprise. As in the Soviet Union, the state became the administrator and manager of the economy. Indeed, to this day, the main function of the state bureaucracy is the administration of the economy. Nationalization meant the division of the economy into branches over each of which a national ministry was established. Almost immediately a large number of specialized ministries and agencies were set up, which had no counterpart in republican China. In the provinces and the cities miniature versions of the central government arose. Each of the regional departments was directly linked to a national ministry or agency, thus creating a straightline span of control from center to region. By 1954, China had achieved a degree of administrative centralization that it had never known before in its history.

Clearly guided by Soviet influence and advice, the Chinese communists adopted the view that the state must manage and direct everything. Private businesses, for example, were nationalized and attached to a particular administrative hierarchy. It was no longer possible for managers to enter into free contractual relationships with other man-agers. The most striking evidence of the new managerial totalism was the extension of the bureaucratic apparatus into the smallest social units. City districts which hitherto had been loosely organized were now governed by street offices and residents’ committees. In the rural areas the state extended its bureaucratic arms down to the level of the hsiang and the large administrative village. Administrative centralization served two basic purposes—political unification and economic development.

It is not unlikely that the speed with which administrative centralization was achieved was partly due to the fact that Manchuria, China’s most advanced area, had already developed a functioning Soviet-style government by 1949. Whatever the reasons, it remains a remarkable achievement that the Chinese communists were able to create an entirely new type of state structure and make it work; Japan in early Meiji times is a comparable instance of such a transformation. Before 1868, Japan was ruled by a primitive bureaucratic organization thinly spread over the country and held together by a crude check-and-balance system (the sankin kōtai, or hostage-keeping practice) between the various feudal domains. Within a few years after the 1868 Meiji restoration, Japan had succeeded in building up a modern Western government with an efficient national bureaucracy. In 1949, China made a similar jump from an inefficient part-Western, part-traditional government to a Soviet-type government, comparable, even in details, to the foreign model. Sociologists tend to argue that no change in formal organization will work unless the informal organization, that is, the web of human relationships, also changes. We must remember that the Chinese communists came to power on the wave of a revolution which, as previously indicated, led to the destruction of the inland gentry and the far-reaching weakening of the urban bourgeoisie (through emigration and loss of position). Not only were the structures new, but new men were appointed to fill roles. For example, urban workers, rural cadres, and new intellectuals were given posts of responsibility. Although they were often unclear about how they were to operate, they at least were not burdened with older bureaucratic habits. Moreover, in many ministries and agencies Soviet advisers were on hand to extend help.

In the early years after 1949, the communists recruited mainly from two segments of the population—workers and intellectuals. Workers were put in positions of command, not only in factories but in the state administration. To improve the low level of their education, intensive training programs were inaugurated in schools, factories, and offices. Intellectuals, by which term the communists include all individuals with degrees from upper middle school and any more advanced institution, were taken into administrative, managerial, and technical positions at all levels. Since many of them were of bourgeois origin, special indoctrination programs were introduced (”thought reform”) to elicit their full commitment to the new system. The Chinese communists, like the Russians, tried to create a workers’ intelligentsia. However, whereas the Russians, from the early 1930s on, did this by bringing millions of workers’ children into higher schools and excluding the bourgeois, the Chinese, true to their conviction that an individual’s class identity could be changed by thought reform, tried to make workers into intellectuals and intellectuals into workers and so create a composite new elite.

From about 1955, however, the communists once again turned to the peasantry for cadre recruitment. Large numbers of peasants entered the party. Special educational programs for peasants were introduced—a policy which reached a high point with the rural “red and expert” universities of the “great leap forward.” Peasant cadres now make up the bulk of party members.

In 1954 the Chinese communists completed the political unification of the country, save for Taiwan and Hong Kong, by eliminating the “independent kingdom of Manchuria.” In 1955 they once again turned their focus from coastal to inland China. Having integrated the cities into the new system, they now undertook the difficult task of integrating the villages. By the summer of 1955 the rural party network had been extended over the whole country, and by late autumn collectivization began. Almost at the same time, the leaders began to demand a loosening of centralized administrative control, particularly a cutting down on the immense powers of the central ministries. During the eighth party congress in September several speakers intoned the theme of decentralization. Decentralization finally came late in 1957, but not in the form demanded by the moderates. The power of the big central ministries was drastically cut; new power was given to party-dominated provincial government. In 1958 the “great leap forward” was launched. Almost every province developed its own economic development program, which soon led to autarkic tendencies. In fact, so extreme was the assault on the state apparatus that, in the summer of 1958, many in China felt that the state was truly beginning to wither away.

Decentralization had gone to such extremes that Peking was forced to reverse the process. However, recentralization after 1960 has not led to a return to the conditions of 1949–1955. Although some ministries, notably in the fields of finance, transportation, and heavy industrial production, have reacquired power, provincial governments have retained their own share of power. Central planning continues in China, but in a context of much greater autonomy for regional governments and production units (Perkins 1966; Wu 1965; Tang 1957–1958, see esp. the 2d edition of volume 1).

The continuing decentralization is much more evident in the economic than in the political field, although there too we have some evidence to indicate that regional political leaders, while completely loyal to general policy made in Peking, can undertake autonomous initiative in some areas of “specific policy.” If one looks at the published lists of provincial political leaders, one can discern a continuity of power, suggesting that provincial party machines have arisen. In the economy, Peking appears to have recognized that it must allow impulses to come from below. Enterprises, particularly in light industry and commerce, are allowed to develop their own economic programs, as long as they fulfill the demands of the state. Villages have much more autonomy in setting their own production plans than in the 1950s. Whereas the “great leap forward” policy tried to level differences between advanced and backward areas, Peking today quietly tolerates these differences. Thus today we see a generally centralized political system going hand in hand with a partially decentralized economic system. It is in this context that we must envisage the present decentralization.

In traditional China the concerns of the state were essentially exploitation and control: the state collected as much in taxes as it could and provided armies to maintain law and order. For the most part the state had few other administrative or managerial interests in society. The present state system has developed mechanisms for the extraction of surplus and certainly has created a powerful control apparatus, but it has also become an active manager. Fundamentally committed to change and growth, the state has taken the leadership in developing new economic, social, and cultural programs designed to make China into a modernized and industrialized nation. In the economic field, the state is striving to create a modern heavy industrial base, comparable in all respects to that of the Soviet Union and the United States. Efforts are being made to transform agriculture. Despite the inability of its social mobilization policy to realize more rapid agricultural progress, the state continues its commitment to agricultural development through programs of capital investment and rural education. In the social field the state has made strenuous efforts to improve living conditions. Here it is only since the recovery from the 1959–1962 crisis that progress has been made. Above all, state welfare efforts in the villages have been most notable. Culturally, the state has been consistently committed to the idea of universal education, a goal it has not fully attained but for which it expends major efforts.

Although some historians have regarded the new state as a modern version of a traditional dynasty, the similarities are superficial. A government agency in Communist China is a professional task-oriented bureaucracy, comparable to bureaucracies in other modern countries. As in the Soviet Union, agencies are responsible for management and production, in addition to administration, unlike the traditional Chinese bureaucracy which operated in a patrimonial fashion. Values of expertise and achievement, not Confucian harmony and stability, underlie the modern state system of Communist China.

Let us now turn to rural China. The Chinese communist leaders have consistently held the conviction that unless rural China could be transformed, the revolution could not ultimately succeed. Where traditional Chinese dynasties sought only to control and exploit the villages, the Chinese communists launched a great process of integrating the village into the nation, of unifying the traditional and modern sectors. The destruction of the local gentry through the revolutionary land reform did away with the traditional local social systems but provided no certain course for the future.

Land reform gave land to the peasant but did not fundamentally alter the conditions on the land. The poor peasant remained poor, but many peas-ants began to enrich themselves, much like the Russian kulaks during the New Economic Policy period—from 1921 to 1928. As early as 1948 the party modified its extreme revolutionary policies and adopted a more tolerant attitude toward the rich peasants.

The destruction of the local social systems also had the effect of forcing the natural village to rely on its own resources. The term “natural village” was used widely by the communists and even the nationalists in the sense of an ecologically unified farm settlement (e.g., unified through a common Water system) in contrast to an “administrative village” which was a group of settlements so designated for purposes of political domination. The natural villages had a traditional socioeconomic unity; the administrative villages generally did not. Ever since the ties to the local landlord and official gentry had been snapped, the rich peasants became the chief traditional elements in the natural villages. Since the state administration did not effectively penetrate the natural village, the new rulers of the country had mainly administrative and military means at their disposal to enforce their commands. The Chinese communist leaders regarded this as an unsatisfactory situation, and in the early 1950s determined to lay the groundwork for breaking down the walls surrounding the natural village.

Until the great collectivization drive of late 1955, the Chinese communists followed two basic organizational policies toward the village. First, they encouraged the peasants voluntarily to form mutualaid teams and cooperatives. Second, they expanded administrative control at the hsiang level. The word hsiang designates an administrative district covering a number of natural villages, generally centered on a market town. Although the government periodically changed the size of the hsiang from a very small unit, more or less the equivalent of what earlier were called administrative villages, to larger units coinciding with Skinner’s standard marketing areas, in time the larger unit became institutionalized. Today there are approximately 80,000 hsiang in China. By 1954 it was clear that neither policy was very successful. Although teams and cooperatives were set up in large numbers, many dissolved again or came under the control of rich peasants. Similarly, the hsiang bureaucracy became increasingly repressive, concerned mainly with enforcing the “unified procurement” policies of the state.

Early in 1955 the Chinese communists took a major step toward the reorganization of agriculture: they launched a great campaign to build up the rural party organization. In 1955 they repeated what they had done during the Yenan period— penetrating the natural village through a party organization that recruited its cadres from among the poor peasants within the village itself. In July, Mao Tse-tung, in a secret speech not revealed until October, announced that collectivization would begin in the fall. Once the harvest was in, the party, in a spirit of mobilization called the “high tide,” began a campaign to set up cooperatives in all villages. Though some were exceedingly large, going beyond the bounds of the natural villages, most were small, including only a portion of the population of the natural village. Since collectivization aroused the “class struggle” between rich and poor peasants, that is, essentially between traditional village leaders and the new party cadres, the former were excluded from the new cooperatives. However, after mobilization was succeeded by consolidation in the spring of 1956, official policy welcomed the inclusion of all elements in the village. What was called the transition from early to higher stage cooperatives was, in effect, the transformation of the natural village into an “agricultural people’s cooperative” (APC): the APC became the equivalent of the natural village.

What the communists achieved in the 1955–1956 collectivization was the elimination of private property, a matter of most concern to the rich peasants. Every Chinese village had, in essence, two types of economy—a basic and a supplemental economy. The basic crops included grain, but also, on occasion, industrial and market crops. Even in the past the basic economy had required some degree of cooperation. Peasants grouped together for irrigation tasks and marketing, and they often shared tools and labor. Under the APC system, basic crop fields were amalgamated; the peasant no longer worked as an individual on his basic crop lands but as a member of a production team. The supplemental economy of the village (e.g., orchards, house animals, garden crops) remained a family or individual affair. The products of the supplemental economy traditionally provided the peasants with an income over and above the subsistence guaranteed by the basic economy. Collectivization reduced the scope of the supplemental economy but did not do away with it. The peasant retained his private plots.

Despite the success in collectivization, the APC based on the natural village did not yet constitute a functional equivalent of the old local social system. Although it had great promise for stability and productivity, it did not guarantee an automatic road for moving the village toward greater integration with the larger society. By collectivizing all land in the village and making everyone join the APC, the communists made the village a unified socioeconomic unit. However, the very unity of the village threatened to lead to self-isolation and a growing gap between it and the larger society. In traditional Chinese society, the village was part of a larger socioeconomic unit, as Skinner has indicated in his study of standard marketing areas. The destruction of the gentry by land reform and changes in traditional trading patterns had weakened the bonds holding these larger units together. Thus, the radical wing of the Chinese Communist party, hoping to find a new functional equivalent of the old local social system, sought ways of pulling the village out of its isolation and making it part of such a larger unit.

The greatest attempt to achieve this was made in the summer of 1958, when the communes were formed. The communes were amalgamations of APC’s, generally equivalent to the administrative hsiang. Policy and operational controls were taken from the APC leaders and put into the hands of new commune committees, completely dominated by local poor peasant party cadres. The name “commune,” taken from Marxist history, meant an armed egalitarian workers’ community. So it was that the communes arose at the same time as the militarization of the peasantry, specifically in the form of a revived popular militia. The communes aimed at three things: (1) the creation of rural units encompassing several natural villages; (2) the creation of a new rural organization wherein production brigades and teams worked in different villages according to rational criteria of the division of labor; and (3) the transformation of the traditional work habits of the peasant—in effect, making him into a farm worker. Since communization took place in an atmosphere of Utopian excitement, many of the results were unworkable. Indeed, as early as December 1958 the Chinese leaders ordered a retreat. The growing food crisis of 1959 and 1960 finally led to a widespread modification of the commune system. By late 1960, Peking ordered (or permitted) a decentralization of the commune system down to the team level. The team, a group of peasants living adjacent to each other, was little more than the early mutualaid team. Moreover, Peking once again admitted that the natural village was the basis of the rural economy, and therefore the agricultural areas returned to the conditions of 1956.

Today it is the village that initiates its own production plans; the state exercises direction and control to insure fulfillment of its own procurement needs. The peasant retains his private lands, from which he makes an important “supplemental” living. However, the degree to which the communes were modified misled some observers to assume that the experiment had failed entirely. The fact is that the communes remain. For the most part, the commune is today the equivalent of the hsiang. The commune, for example, remains the headquarters of the important marketing and sales cooperatives which act as middlemen between the peasants and production and supply centers in the cities. Branches of the new agricultural bank are centered in the commune headquarters. The commune remains the center of disaster and relief work. Above all, the commune is the base area of the rural party organization.

In the past the traditional local social system was dominated by the gentry; today it is dominated by the party. However, what is significant is that Peking has succeeded in re-establishing a new version of what it earlier had destroyed, something it could not have done by allowing collectivization to remain at the 1956 level. Although it could be argued that the appearance of village-based production and commune-based marketing repeats the situation of traditional times, there have been basic changes. At least in some parts of China the government is making strenuous efforts to electrify and mechanize the villages. In 1958 the Chinese leaders felt that the organizational unification of the commune would eventually lead to its technological integration. During the first half of the 1960s, chastened by failures, they proceeded slowly on paths both of organizational and technological integration (Cheng 1963, pp. 22–59; Skinner 1964–1965). Given the continuing ideological and political campaigns of the mid-1960s, it remains to be seen whether another “leap forward” in the rural areas will occur.

Let us now turn to the third of the key elements in traditional Chinese society—the gentry. The party has replaced the gentry as the new ruling element in Chinese society. No two formations of human beings could be as different as gentry and party. The gentry constituted a status group, bound together by a common ethos, with roots in the local social systems and ties to the state through bureaucratic position. The party is an organization, bound together by ideology, from which the state recruits its leaders. Although one can see superficial similarities between gentry and party, the differences are more significant. (Max Weber’s discussion of classes, status groups, and parties [(1906–1924) 1946, pp. 194–195] throws light on the differences between gentry and party.) The role of the party can only be understood in terms of the changes that have taken place in the society. The party stands as an alter ego alongside every unit of organization, e.g., factory, farm, school, office, etc. The unit of organization (of production, territory, or administration, as it is put in the official literature ) is the basic social unit in China today. Everyone must be a member of one of these units, preferably of production or administration. A peasant in the village is first and foremost a member of a production team, as is a worker in a factory. We do not have enough information to state unequivocally whether these production units are new formations or formations superimposed on more traditional ones (the patterns undoubtedly are varied). Nevertheless, they are units of formal organization and have replaced all earlier units of formal organization. For example, if we remember that the traditional clan was part formal and part informal organization, as is evident in numerous studies of clan organization, then clearly the production teams and brigades have replaced, at least, the formal side of clan organization. If we also recall that the communists have made strenuous efforts to mix team membership in order to prevent “familism” and “cliquism” from reappearing, we can surmise that a good part of traditional informal organization has also been transformed. Since the social system depended heavily on traditional authority and kinship structures, the destruction of the former and the severe weakening of the latter has made possible the implantation of organization. Since organization has thus replaced the social system in China, the party, as the collective body of organizational leadership, has a built-in role in contemporary Chinese society.

The Chinese Communist party began in 1920 as a loose organization of several intellectual “study groups” in various Chinese cities. From 1925 to 1927 it developed a mass base of urban proletarians. In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek virtually destroyed its urban organization; it continued as a military–political movement in south-central China, where it acquired local power on the waves of peasant revolts. Late in 1934, Chiang once again virtually annihilated it, and the communists took their long march to northwest China. During the Yenan period, from 1935 to 1946, the communists turned the party into a disciplined organization based on villages in which party cadres had created deep organizational roots. In 1946, as the communist armies were caught in a life-and-death struggle with the Kuomintang, revolution burst forth in the villages. When the civil war ended, the communists had China, and the gentry had been destroyed.

In 1950 the communists decided on a far-reaching change in their organizational policy. Reducing the number of peasant members, they began to build up an urban-based party organization. The party underwent a certain “apparat-ization” and began to resemble the Soviet Communist party, with the top positions increasingly taken by men of education and skill. The party probably would have continued on this course but for the deep split between Manchuria and Peking. A quasi-independent party organization developed in Manchuria and was finally destroyed in the campaigns of 1954 and 1955 against Kao Kang, party chief of Manchuria. At the same time, the Chinese communist leaders resumed their earlier stress on a village-based party organization. Peasants again entered the party in large numbers. As the influence of Manchuria declined, that of the inland provinces, such as Honan and Szechwan, and later, Kwangtung, rose. By 1958, provincial party power had reached such a peak that many of the provinces began to “leap forward” as if they were small nations. A piecemeal rectification movement in 1960–1961 reduced the excessive power of regional party organizations, but by 1962 the party recovered some of its lost power. An organization with about 5 million members in 1950, it had, as of 1961, 17 million members.

The party is governed by the Central Committee, composed of about 100 regular members and an equal number of candidate members, who are representatives of party organizations throughout the country. The Central Committee meets periodically in formal or nonformal plenary sessions. In this sense, it has some resemblance to a parliament. Its purpose is to transform general policy decisions of the top leadership into concrete policy decisions which are later ratified by the National People’s Congress.

Policy-making power is in the hands of the “politburo” or the standing committee of the politburo. The politburo functions somewhat like a cabinet or the circle of advisers of a prime minister.

There are small-scale versions of the central party structure at the levels of province, city, county, and hsiang. The secretariats function as the chain of command between different echelons.

At the lowest, or basic, level the party organization is attached to a unit of production, of territory, or of administration. Generally speaking, it includes the leaders of all areas within the organization to which it is attached. Thus it forms the leadership core of the organization (Lewis 1963).

It is hardly surprising that China has resumed some of the forms of the past. Decentralization, for example, has brought about a reappearance of certain traditional forms of business and industrial practices, as it has led to a recognition of the village as a basic unit of society. However, the core and substance of China has changed profoundly. China has experienced great progress in the development of its cities and villages. However, without the type of political organization it now has, it is exceedingly unlikely that inland China would have been brought closer to the modern world. Shanghai may have continued to modernize, as Hong Kong has done, but, as is the case in so many other developing countries, the gap between developing coast and retarded interior would most likely have grown wider. The gentry ultimately failed because of its impotence in the face of a changing world. The party that succeeded it has given inland China the needed leadership.

Despite the fact that a united party dominates both modern and traditional sectors, there are indications that a bifurcation of elites is developing, along the lines of “red” and “expert.” As in the Soviet Union, a growing professional intelligentsia, almost entirely the product of the modern sector, is seeking positions of power and influence in opposition to the corps of party cadres, whose roots lie in inland China. The gap between a modern bourgeoisie and a traditional gentry, such as that which marked republican China, has its contemporary counterpart in this bifurcation of elites. However, the party acts as a unifying force, for both “reds” and “experts” are recruited, with the weighting of recruitment depending on particular policies of the leadership.

In the first section, we suggested that traditional Chinese society could be regarded as the product of the interaction of the state and a multiplicity of local social systems. If, traditionally, Chinese society coincided more or less with the bounds of the Chinese empire, this is not so today. There are areas of Chinese settlement outside the boundaries of the People’s Republic of China—Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, and the areas of overseas Chinese settlement. Although most Chinese regard it as inevitable that the first three regions will ultimately be reunited with the mainland, they also agree that the areas of overseas settlement are not Chinese irredenta. In terms of our analysis, however, we can state that these areas, not having been subject to the same state power as the mainland, have developed in different directions. Thus we face not a single Chinese society but several.

Let us look first at Taiwan. Four hundred years ago, Chinese settlers, largely from Fukien, moved onto the island. By the late nineteenth century, the overwhelming majority of the islanders were Chinese, speaking a dialect akin to that of Amoy. Although a landlord class had developed, it was not comparable to the powerful gentry of the mainland. The Japanese occupation led to the growth of cities almost entirely Japanese in character and to the development of a plantation economy foreign to China itself. A new group of literate Taiwanese, strongly influenced by Japanese culture, arose in the cities and in some rural areas. The first Kuomintang occupation in 1945 was little different from that of a hostile army; in 1947 a large-scale revolt broke out, which the Kuomintang brutally suppressed. In 1949 the Kuomintang army and a wave of mainland refugees, largely from the mainland cities, arrived on the island. Despite more than fifteen years of rule by the Republic of China, a sharp cultural gap persists between mainlanders and Taiwanese.

The land reform carried out with American aid did away with the remnant landlord class and paved the way for rapid agricultural development based on private farming. In time, a small entrepreneurial class arose which has launched industrialization. Thus today, despite a massive military superstructure, Taiwan has become a relatively prosperous area. The gap between mainlanders and Taiwanese and the role of the Kuomintang suggest some similarities to conditions in the People’s Republic. The Taiwanese, as the new professional and entrepreneurial forces of Taiwan, have somewhat the same relationship to the politically dominant mainlanders as the mainland “experts” do to the “reds.” The Kuomintang, through its political organization, tries to bridge the gap. However, as in comparisons with traditional China, the resemblances are more of form than of content (Formosa 1963).

The case of Hong Kong is different again. Originally a quiet trading port on the south China coast, it became, in the wake of the communist victory, a large urban area of three million people. It generally resembles the large cities of southeast Asia, which have heavy Chinese populations, notably Singapore. Hong Kong experienced an industrial revolution in the early 1950s under almost classical conditions of nineteenth century laissez-faire capitalism. Originally launched by a small group of Shanghai entrepreneurs, industrialization is now supported by a sizable middle class and a growing class of skilled and semiskilled workers. Like Shanghai, Hong Kong benefited from its membership in a world market system and an enlightened population strongly committed to education (Szczepanik 1958).

There are approximately 13 million Chinese living in countries outside China, mainly in southeast Asia. Most live in cities. With some exceptions, the Chinese have become an urban middle and working class and as such have greatly contributed to the economic development of southeast Asia, notably Malaysia. The predominant pattern of social development resembles that of Hong Kong (Purcell 1951).

From a comparative sociological point of view, it may be concluded that the capacity of Chinese urban populations to modernize and industrialize appears to be independent of the particular type of political structure under which they live. Indeed, this capacity was already manifest in Shanghai during World War i, when industrialization developed in a city subject to several distinct political systems. However, the areas of Chinese settlement outside of China where economic development has been most rapid have also been the areas where traditional social ties have been most weakened, as in Hong Kong and Malaya. In southeast Asia, Chinese political organizations have arisen seeking to create new bonds of unity within the Chinese community. Thus, one finds political organization functioning there in a way analogous to the way it functions on the Chinese mainland. Just as the state traditionally has been the major unifying factor in Chinese society, today political organization aims at the same goal within the various contexts in which it operates.

Judging from the course modernization has taken in other societies, it appears to be only a matter of time before the traditional dichotomy of state and local social systems will be replaced by a new unity that will link village and city. The crucial factor underlying such a development is the completion of the economic and technological revolution on the land. However, without the political unity that the Chinese Communist party created at a time when the society was not yet economically integrated, village and city would have receded farther and farther from each other, as has happened in so many developing countries.

Franz Schurmann

[See alsoChinese political thought; Economic data, article onmainland china. Other relevant material may be found inBuddhism; Historiography, article onchinese historiography; Japanese society.]


Belden, Jack 1949 China Shakes the World. New York: Harper.

Bendix, Reinhard (1960) 1962 Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → See page 476 for the distinction between society and polity.

Brandt, Conrad 1958 Stalin’s Failure in China, 1924–1927. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Ch’en, Jerome 1965 Mao and the Chinese Revolution. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Cheng, Chu-yÜan 1963 Communist China’s Economy, 1949–1962: Structural Changes and Crisis. South Orange, N.J.: Seton Hall Univ. Press. → See especially pages 22–59 on “Agricultural Collectivization.”

Cheng, Te-k’un 1959 Archaeology in China. Volume 1: Prehistoric China. Cambridge: Heffer.

Ch’ien, Tuan-sheng 1950 The Government and the Politics of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Chou, Ts’e-tsung 1960 The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Harvard East Asian Studies, No. 6. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Cohen, Arthur A. 1964 The Communism of Mao Tsetung. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Eberhard, Wolfram (1948) 1960 A History of China. 2d ed. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → First published as Chinas Geschichte. See especially Chapter 1 on “Prehistory.”

Eberhard, Wolfram 1952 Conquerors and Rulers: Social Forces in Medieval China. Leiden: Brill.

Fei, Hsiao-t’ung (1947–1948) 1953 China’s Gentry: Essays in Rural–Urban Relations. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A collection of articles contributed by Fei to Chinese newspapers.

Feuerwerker, Albert 1958 China’s Early Industrialization: Sheng Hsuan-huai (1844–1916) and Mandarin Enterprise. Harvard East Asian Studies, No. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Fitzgerald, Charles P. (1952) 1953 Revolution in China. London: Cresset Press; New York: Praeger. → See especially Chapters 1–4.

Formosa. 1963 China Quarterly (London) No. 15:3–114. → A collection of articles.

Ho, Ping-ti 1959 Studies on the Population of China: 1368–1953. Harvard East Asian Studies, No. 4. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Ho, Ping-ti 1962 The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368–1911. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Holubnychy, Vsevolod 1964 Mao Tse-tung’s Materialistic Dialectics. China Quarterly (London) No. 19: 3–37.

Hsiao, Kung-ch’Üan 1960 Rural China: Imperial Control in the Nineteenth Century. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press. → See especially pages 43–83 on “Police Control: The Pao-chia System.”

Hsu, Francis L. K. 1963 Clan, Caste, and Club. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

Jaeger, Gertrude; and Selznick, Philip 1964 A Normative Theory of Culture. American Sociological Review 29:653–669. → A theoretical discussion of the differences between high culture and culture.

Kroeber, A. L.; and Parsons, Talcott 1958 The Concepts of Culture and of Social System. American Sociological Review 23:582–583.

Levenson, Joseph R. 1958–1965 Confucian China and Its Modern Fate. 3 vols. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → See especially Volume 2, The Problem of Monarchical Decay.

Levy, Marion J. Jr. 1949 The Family Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Lewis, John W. 1963 Leadership in Communist China. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

Lifton, Robert J. 1961 Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. New York: Norton.

Lin, Piao 1965 On People’s War. People’s Daily (Pe-king) 3 September 1965.

Liu, Hui-chen Wang 1959 An Analysis of Chinese Clan Rules: Confucian Theories in Action. Pages 63–96 in David S. Nivison and Arthur F. Wright (editors), Confucianism in Action. Stanford Univ. Press.

Liu, Tzu-chien 1959 Reform in Sung China: Wang An-shih (1021–1086) and His New Policies. Harvard East Asian Studies, No. 3. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Mao, Tse-tung (1917–1957) 1963 The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung. New York: Praeger → An anthology of excerpts dated 1917–1957, edited by Stuart R. Schram.

Marshall, T. H. (1934–1962) 1965 Class, Citizenship, and Social Development: Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → A collection of articles and lectures first published in England in 1963 under the title Sociology at the Crossroads and Other Essays.

Michael, Franz H. 1966 The Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents. Volume 1: History. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press. → The first of a projected three-volume series.

Murphey, Rhoads 1953 Shanghai: Key to Modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Needham, Joseph 1954 Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 1. Cambridge Univ. Press. → See especially pages 79–90, “Chinese Prehistory and the Shang Dynasty.”

Niida, Noboru 1952 Chûgoku hosei-shi (History of Chinese Law). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.

Perkins, Dwight H. 1966 Market Control and Planning in Communist China. Harvard Economic Studies, Vol. 128. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Purcell, Victor W. (1951) 1965 The Chinese in Southeast Asia. 2d ed. Oxford Univ. Press.

Redfield, Robert 1956 Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Univ. of Chicago Press. → The distinction between high culture and culture is analogous to that made by Robert Redfield between great and little traditions. A paper-back edition, bound together with The Little Community. was published in 1961 by Cambridge Univ. Press.

Reischauer, Edwin O.; and Fairbank, John k. 1960 A History of East Asian Civilization. Volume 1: East Asia: The Great Tradition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

The Rise of the Modern Chinese Business Class: Two Introductory Essays. 1949 New York: Institute of Pacific Relations, International Secretariat. → Contains “The Social Background of Modern Business Development in China,” by M. J. Levy, and “The Early Development of the Modern Chinese Business Class,” by Kuo-heng Shih.

Schurmann, Franz 1966 Ideology and Organization in Communist China. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Skinner, G. William 1964–1965 Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China. Journal of Asian Studies 24:3–43, 195–228, 363–399.

Szczepanik, Edward F. 1958 The Economic Growth of Hong Kong. Oxford Univ. Press.

Tang, Sheng-hao 1957–1958 Communist China Today. 2 vols. Washington: Research Institute on the Sino-Soviet Bloc. → A second edition of the first volume, revised and enlarged, was published in 1961.

Teng, SSU-YÜ; and Fairbank, John k. 1954 China’s Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839–1923. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Wang, Hui-tsu 1937 Tsochih yaoyen. Shanghai: Commercial Press.

Wang, Hui-tsu 1939 Hsüehchih ishuo. Shanghai: Commercial Press. → A traditional Chinese comment on the importance of local culture. See especially pages 22–23.

Weber, Max (1906–1924) 1946 From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → See especially pages 180–195 on “Class, Status, Party.”

Wright, Mary C. (1957) 1962 The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-chih Restoration, 1862–1874. Stanford Univ. Press.

Wu, Yuan-li 1965 The Economy of Communist China: An Introduction. New York: Praeger.

Yang, C. K. 1959 Some Characteristics of Chinese Bureaucratic Behavior. Pages 134–164 in David S. Nivison and Arthur F. Wright (editors), Confucianism in Action. Stanford Univ. Press.

Yang, Ch’ing-k’un 1961 Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Chinese Society." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 20 Oct. 2017 <>.

"Chinese Society." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (October 20, 2017).

"Chinese Society." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.