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Background Notes to Fanshen

On April 3, 1999, a one-day conference, “Understanding China’s Revolution: a Celebration of William Hinton’s Lifework” was held at Columbia University to celebrate his eightieth birthday. At the conclusion of the conference, organized by China Study Group and cosponsored by Monthly Review and Columbia’s East Asian Institute, Hinton gave an impromptu talk on the background to the writing of Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in A Chinese Village. The talk was transcribed and we publish its text here, as revised by Hinton in October 2002.

Fanshen was first published by Monthly Review Press in 1966. It is an account of how land reform was implemented in one village—Long Bow—in northern China. Hinton first visited China in 1937. He returned in 1947 with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and stayed on in the liberated areas of north China as a tractor technician and teacher until 1953. During that time, mainly living in Long Bow, he was witness to the great social convulsion that was the Chinese Revolution.

Along with his Chinese academic colleagues, Hinton advised the residents of Long Bow on the complicated tasks of teaching peasants to read, breaking up old feudal estates, insuring the equality of women, and replacing the old magistrates who governed the village with elected councils. While there, Hinton took more than one thousand pages of notes about what he saw. In them he detailed not merely measurable successes and failures of the revolution, but the deep scars of struggle, the resistance to change, and the uniquely Chinese process, often painful and violent, of criticism and self-criticism. Hinton was witness to a world literally “turned upside down.”

On his return to the United States, Hinton was determined to document the revolutionary process he saw in that peasant village, but on his return, at the height of the McCarthyite anticommunist repression, customs officials seized his papers. Only after a lengthy court battle was he able to retrieve them in 1958. Hinton spent the next six years completing his manuscript and nearly three more seeking a publisher. All of the major New York publishers turned it down despite enthusiastic reader’s reports and scholarly recomendations. In most cases the rejections seemed to be politically motivated and were of a piece with the great fear that the victory of the Chinese Revolution spawned; no one wanted any aspect of that revolution seen in other than a negative light. Finally, the manuscript came to Monthly Review Press which eagerly published it. A first clothbound edition sold out quickly; softcover rights were licensed to Vintage Books which sold an astounding two hundred thousand copies. Fanshen remains in print in a University of California paperback edition.

Fanshen’s success was partly due to timing and coincidence: the Vietnam war focused western attention on Asia and, at the same time, the Maoist Cultural Revolution, shaking up the foundations of post-revolutionary bureaucracy, put China on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. In a review in the (London) New Statesman, Martin Bernal wrote that Hinton’s Fanshen “gives details of the changing social and economic structure of his village….The descriptions alone make this book one of the two classics of the Chinese revolution, the other being [Edgar Snow’s] Red Star over China.” It was also due to the groundbreaking character of the work, brilliantly relating quotidian history at a time when narratives of everyday life were just becoming part of the historian’s utensils. Arguably, it is Fanshen’s transforming ethnographic scholarship that makes it such a profoundly important book.

William Hinton’s other works include a sequel, Shenfan: The continuing revolution in a Chinese Village (1980), as well as Iron Oxen: A Revolution in Chinese Farming (1970), Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University (1972), Turning Point in China: An Essay on The Cultural Revolution (1972), and The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978–1989 (1990).

John J. Simon


This is by popular demand, particularly by Monthly Review readers and China friends, who felt that I should retell this tale.

First, the long period in Long Bow Village itself, the lice, the fleas and all the hardships; and eating that terrible gruel out of an unwashed bowl while the young girl lay dying of tuberculosis. And then I had all these notes; I carried them for months on my back.

We walked out of the Taihang Mountains, in 1948, all the way to Chengding which was out in the Hebei Plain, maybe 150 miles or more, and I carried those notes on my back. And then the Kuomintang cavalry attacked. We all had to get out of the university on three hours’ notice, running away from the cavalry of Fu Tso-yi and the planes that came to bomb us. Our bedrolls were made of a light material and our clothes were more or less dark blue or khaki. We were in groups of eight and when the planes came we ran out into the field, threw our bedrolls in the middle and lay face down on our bedrolls because they said it looked like a manure pile from the air. My Fanshen notes and I were in those piles. Looking up, I could see the pilots’ faces sometimes. I did see people get killed but not any of group I was with. There were all these hardships and then seven more years of work with no chance to do anything with these notes. So I brought them home, or, I tried to bring them home.

When I left China in 1952, I had already run through my five-year passport. I stayed seven years and the passport was no good. I left China with an exit visa stamped on a heavy piece of paper about half the size of this stand. The visa to go through Russia was on that, and the visa to go through Czechoslovakia was on that, too, so I used that as my travel paper. I didn’t have time to check all the things I threw into the trunk, along with my notes. I had a footlocker with all kinds of letters, correspondence, my diaries, magazines, posters and so on. Everything I had collected of China and the Chinese Revolution was in that box and I didn’t have time to check it through. You know how you never have time to do what you’re supposed to do—even yesterday I forgot my notes for this talk.

I went by train, west across Siberia and Russia and I thought I would have a lot of time on the train to sort out these notes. I figured that I would perhaps be investigated, perhaps called before a committee to explain myself. I was only concerned that there would be names of other people in the letters that might get people in trouble and get them called before the committee too, so I wanted to check it all out. But when we got to the Russian border the locker was put in a safe locked in a baggage car. I rode all across Siberia with plenty of time on my hands, but I didn’t have my notes so I couldn’t check them out.

The first place I could go to an American consular officer was Prague. So I went to get a new passport to go home. He was kind of congenial; the young man was about my age; he had been to Harvard. He knew Putney School; he had cousins at Putney School (my mother’s school). We were talking about old times and skiing in Vermont when he said, “Are you or were you ever a member of the Communist Party?” Suddenly Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde. It took me completely by surprise. I did the wrong thing. I donhave to answer for my politics to a consular officer. But, I said, “No.” Then he became real nice again.

So he gave me a passport all right. It cost me ten dollars and it was only good for ten days. A dollar a day for your passport, can you imagine? The route home was marked in it. He didn’t give it to me until I had arranged an air ticket to England and a steamship ticket to Canada. When I got to England, I was met by seven members of British intelligence: Scotland Yard, London Special Police, Air Force, Naval Intelligence, whatever the British had, they all met me. Seven people escorted me into a back room and questioned me from noon until the next morning.

I had met some friends from Prague who told me the Americans very much wanted travel papers from China so they could forge documents and send agents into China. And here I could see these people weren’t just going to question me, they were going to search me. I had this Chinese exit visa and I thought, “What am I going to do?” I wasn’t prepared for that. The only thing I could think of doing was to eat the darn thing. I did. I went to the toilet and I ate that paper, it took me a lot of chewing. Anyway, they never got that paper.

So, after they were all done, of course, they were still interested in my box and all the documents and all the things. It was like a collection of everything that happened in China in seven years in that box. They were very surprised by it and they asked a lot of questions. In the end they offered me a cigarette. “Have you ever heard of Senator McCarthy?” they said. After they did all the dirty work for American intelligence, then they felt sorry for me. Meanwhile, they’re passing on everything they learned. I got on the boat and there I had time to check through the box. I threw, or cut out the names of people that might meet trouble by being associated with me and I felt better approaching the North American continent. But I didn’t want to go through the same thing with the Canadian Mounties, the FBI and so on. I put my things in bond so when I landed in Quebec they would go in bond to St. Albans, Vermont, there I would go through customs once more and go through the interrogation once more by the Americans and bypass the Canadian problem.

My mother and sister met me at the dock and they had in their hand a magazine called Real Magazine and it had an article about my younger sister Joan entitled, “The Atom Spy That Got Away,” [Laughter] written by the head of Naval Intelligence in the Pacific Theater in the Second World War, and the Rosenbergs had just been executed about two weeks before. This article said that my sister Joan, who worked with Fermi at Los Alamos in making the atom bomb, escaped to China and gave them all the atomic secrets and I was the guy who arranged all this. My mother and sister were a little pale and asked, “What did you come home for?” I said, “Well, I’m not worried about anything.” And I figured if they were serious, if the ruling class wanted to do me in, it wouldn’t be in Real Magazine. Real Magazine was only a motorcycle, blood-and-guts magazine. It wasn’t like the Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s or some important journal. It was just a piece of pulp. So I wasn’t too worried about that. So I calmed them down and we took off.

They always went for the summer to Cape Breton Island. My sister sped up hills where she couldn’t see the other side. I was seven years in China and you can’t go sixty miles an hour there when you don’t know what’s on the other side of the hill. So I was scared to death. All these cars looked like beasts of prey, going at that speed with Jean driving. That passport was good for ten days. I arrived in Quebec on the tenth day. On our way to Nova Scotia, we passed Madawaska, the northern tip of Maine, and about a quarter to midnight there was a bridge. I walked across the bridge and found a sleepy guard. I plunked down the passport and said, “Here!” I didn’t get a receipt or anything for the passport. That was sort of foolish, but anyway, they had the passport which proved I got home before the tenth day. I went to Cape Breton Island and I had a wonderful time. A couple of weeks later a letter came, “Your trunks and your baggage have arrived in St. Albans; you’d better come pick them up.” So I went to St. Albans but they couldn’t find my stuff. That seemed pretty strange. About an hour later an FBI man showed up. The reason they couldn’t find my staff was they were waiting for him. They were waiting for an FBI man to drive up from Burlington and they couldn’t find my stuff until he arrived. He wanted to question me, but I knew that I didn’t have to talk to an FBI man. He wanted to discuss everything with me, but I said “I’ve got nothing to say to you, period.” He kept after it and he threatened but in the end he had to give up and leave.

So then my trunk arrived. They found it. They opened it up and there was nothing in it. Everything was gone. The notes to Fanshen were all gone. I asked, “Do you always break into things and take whatever you find or whatever you want?” They said, “We never break into anything. We have keys that fit everything.” “So, welcome to the land of the free and home of the brave,” I was told. That was the big mistake. Property law is vitally important to bourgeois society, it’s the foundation of capitalism. They didn’t have any legal basis to take it.

Thus began years of lawsuits. Customs took it and they are under the Treasury Department so I sued the Treasury Department. And they finally decided after two years of lawsuits they would give it to me. That’s what they said, anyway. I went down to Washington to pick up my footlocker. They said, “Sorry, yesterday Senator Eastland sent a man by and he took your locker away.” Now Senator James Eastland had it. We had to set up a whole new lawsuit. In order to pay all these legal fees, with all these lawsuits going on, we gave chiaozi (dumpling) parties to raise money. In the end, I had a subpoena from the Senate International Security Subcommittee, known as the Eastland Committee. The hard thing was what to do about a lawyer. Almost the whole left, certainly the core of the left, had decided that the way to confront the committee interrogations was to stand on the Fifth Amendment. It was after the Hollywood Ten, they all stood on the First Amendment, and they all went to jail. And so the idea was “What’s wrong with the Fifth Amendment?” There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s probably one of the great things in the Bill of Rights, because that’s the method that prevents the torture of people; you cannot force people to testify against themselves. That means it’s no use torturing people because that would be self-incrimination.

It’s a very important part of the Bill of Rights and there’s nothing wrong with standing on it. I wasn’t worried about anything I did in China. What I didn’t want to do was to answer questions about other people and make trouble for them. The problem was finding a lawyer who allowed you to talk but also could stop the talking when it got onto other people’s names and so on. I finally found the perfect man; his name had a very bad smell, Milton Friedman was his name. [Laughter.] He was Eslanda Robeson’s lawyer, and she of all the people who came before the committee did the most damage to the committee, because she talked and exposed them. He helped her to do that because he knew how to use the Fifth without waiving the Fifth. There was a danger that if you didn’t know how to answer certain questions, you would be held in contempt of the committee. But most lawyers didn’t know how to use that. That’s not what I wanted to do. At one point when I refused to stop talking, the Senators stopped the hearing and reprimanded Friedman for allowing me to be so rude. They warned him to tell me to show more respect, which he then promptly did in a loud voice. As soon as he was done, he leaned over and said in a very soft voice in my ear: “You are doing fine. Hit him again.” [Laughter.]

They called me to a closed hearing; the point of a closed hearing is to see if they can make some political capital out of having an open hearing. They decided that this was a treasure trove of treason and treachery on the part of one Bill Hinton, and they could all benefit. On that committee was Eastland, Herman Welker, William E. Jenner, John Marshall Butler, a whole bunch of lawbreakers. I knew Eastland sewed the original copy of the civil rights bill in the lining of his coat so it could not be voted on. I was barnstorming the country, giving lectures, and I never knew where I was going to be next. And one lecture would always lead to two or three. I just kept moving around the country. The subpoena had to be served in person by a U.S. Marshal and they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to find me. The fact is, the FBI always found out where I did speak but they never found out where I was going to speak. By the end of the fifties, I had given several hundred talks and I had rolled up a dossier of about twenty thousand pages of FBI files. The deal was if they sent the subpoena to my lawyer, it would be honored by me. I would come and then when it was over they would give me my notes back. However, after the closed hearing, they called for an open hearing. That was the high point of my life. I was eyeball to eyeball with those crooks. I was down in the pit, way down in the bottom of the room, and they were up on a big dais like they were judges in court and there was a big seal of the United States about six feet across hanging behind them. It was sort of intimidating and my mother told me to show respect.

I figured out that I liked Mao’s advice better. He said, “A hungry tiger is going to attack you if you provoke him or not.” So it doesn’t matter if you provoke the tiger. My sister Jean had a friend who worked for the Federated Press, the labor press, in New York. In New York, somewhere down Broadway, they had a library. In the library, they had files, and in these files Senator Eastland and all his colleagues were listed. They had a big file. In two or three days I had them all in my pocket. So when they asked me the first question, “What is your name?” that was where I had to go on the offensive. I said, “I’ll be glad to tell you my name if I know what the point of this hearing is.” And they said, “Well, we’re interested in the internal security of the U.S.A., and we think you have something to add.” I said, “I’m interested in that too, but I think you have the wrong man out here. The chairman of this committee is doing more to threaten the internal security of the United States than anybody else.” And that was Senator Eastland. And he looked really shocked. Pages from other hearings and other offices came running in—here’s someone taking on a committee. It was really something. There were six television cameras, three networks filming all this. My trunk was lying there, open. There was a New Year’s poster of children with little tiny spears and a machine gun shooting down American planes. And beside it was a two-foot-by-two-foot black-and-white woodcut of Mao Zedong. They thought that would sink me. So we finally got started after that exchange about my name and went ahead with the hearing. Their whole problem was they were trying to prove I had done something in China that would cause me to lose my citizenship. There are about ten things you could do to do this; one of them is joining the army of a foreign state. They said, “And you’re wearing a soldier’s hat. So you must have been in the army.” I said, “You have to look closely at this picture. Because if you look closely you’ll see the soldiers have two buttons on their hat and I only have one button. And this is not a soldier’s uniform.” Another time, I knew Butler and Welker had been to Denver, Colorado to redbait a district attorney who was making trouble for the Mafia in Denver. So at a point where the questions got particularly sharp and Butler was particularly happy, I said, “Just a minute, Senator Butler. You’re not in Denver now.” He was completely taken aback. The whole press knew what I was talking about, and they began to laugh. He said, “You are not in China either.” So, that’s the way it went. Eastland left after the first hour. The only person who hung in there was Welker. He apparently thought he had something to gain.

The next day they held it in a much smaller hearing room and there were no television cameras. On the third day they met on the attic of a small building and didn’t tell the press either. And the final exchange was when Welker said to me, “If you were in Idaho, you couldn’t get elected to dogcatcher.” And I said, “Well, Senator, I’m not running for dog-catcher in Idaho. But I know you’re running for another term in the Senate and I don’t think you’re going to get elected, because all this week when the Farm Bill was up for debate on the floor you’ve been here questioning me about what happened in China ten years ago. I don’t think the farmers in Idaho like that.” Welker just went into a fit and he said he wanted to impound my papers. His counsel was a man named Morris who was my Harvard classmate. Morris said, “Well Senator, you can’t do that.” Welker said, “I don’t care! He hurt my feelings!” [Laughter.] He left my footlocker right there on the table. I could have picked it up and walked out. But I was afraid it wasn’t all there. Maybe the Fanshen notes were half gone. I didn’t want to take it without a chance to examine it. So after that I sued the Senate committee. Being sued, they immediately turned everything over to the U.S. attorney. And then every time you add someone to a suit you have to reprint the whole darn thing. And it has to be printed by a press; you can’t xerox it or e-mail it or anything like that. You have to go to a printer and get it typeset. So it’s very expensive.

But my lawyer, he took the plane to Washington, and I took the bus. He stayed in the Willard and I stayed in the Y. He invited me to a Chinese banquet and I paid the bill. Anyway, so when you sue, and they turn it over to someone else, you have to print the whole thing again and that’s a lot of money. But I got back at my lawyer by making him fill out my income tax that year. My total income was $3000. I was working as a truck mechanic in Philadelphia. When they asked me where I worked I replied, “I’ll be glad to tell you where I work but you only want to get me fired so I’m reluctant to do that.” That shocked them. Senator Jenner said, “You’re a pretty good mechanic with words.” And he didn’t pursue that anymore.

The thing that allowed you to talk is there’s only one sentence that they can say that means you have to stop talking. And that is, “I command you to stand silent.” They have to say that. So they told me, be quiet or shut up or whatever, but none of them knew they had to say, “I command you to stand silent.” Anyway, I sued and they turned it over to the U.S. attorney and then when he turned it over to a grand jury, it went to the lower district court. They ruled that the grand jury is the sovereign and the citizen cannot sue the sovereign. That didn’t sound like the American constitution; it sounded more like Mussolini’s constitution. We contested that and we appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals. And the night before it was to be argued, we got a telegram saying, “Come get the stuff.” It turned out they wanted to take without warrant the files of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare and they didn’t want a court decision calling my seizure illegal on the eve of having another illegal seizure. So they decided to give me back everything. There was only one document missing, something stamped “secret” in China that had something do with a Central Committee meeting, that never appeared in the locker when they turned everything back.

The reason that I could fight back was the confidence I won from talking coast to coast, from the Gulf to Canada, talking about China. I called it barnstorming. Barnstorming was what the aviators used to do when the planes were first invented and aerial shows would go from town to town. Pass the hat, maybe get twenty dollars to buy enough gas to get to the next school or next church. I just met thousands and thousands of wonderful American people. They weren’t left-wingers but they thought they weren’t getting the truth about China and they were very anxious to hear from someone who had actually been there and had real experiences.

So when I went before the Committee I felt I had a real solid base of support. I felt I had a lot more support than Welker or Jenner or Eastland did. Everyone knew that in Mississippi where Eastland was elected term after term after term only about thirty thousand people vote. At that time, few of the black people could vote. He was the biggest landlord in the United States. He had two thousand tenants; he owned a huge chunk of bottomland in the Mississippi Delta. You know, MacCarthy found fifty Communists in the State Department, and they were supposed to have given China away. How America got it to start with, I don’t know, but the fifty Communists gave it away. And I was the guy who carried out the land reform. The Chinese are not capable of doing anything; it had to be an American traitor that did it. Eastland was livid with rage about my meddling with land ownership. He gave a six hour speech on the Senate floor and he called it “The Biography of a U.S. Traitor.” It was in U.S. News & World Report—they never stopped attacking. But I won the notes back. You know I worked as a truck mechanic—I got a grant one year and I didn’t have to work and that’s how I wrote Fanshen.

That’s something of the background of my conflict with the Eastland Committee. The American Constitution, the Bill of Rights, is a very precious thing, but you have to fight for it in every generation. You have to keep it alive or they’ll take it away from you. It really helps if you have some idea of what people in the whole country are thinking. In the end I think they did me a favor by taking these notes, because I learned how to talk to the American people on those tours. I was able to write a book that Americans, generally speaking, could understand and appreciate.

I just want to tell you one more story. One of the more memorable talks was in a little town called Gowanda, New York. Gowanda is a little town south of Buffalo, very Republican upstate New York community. And there was a Methodist group of quite left-wing, radical ministers called the Methodist Federation for Social Action. This young minister invited me to talk to a student group on Sunday night. I went there and gave a talk on land reform. The parents and then the students came, and the young people. Everything went very well and they thanked me and they went home. Some of the parents went to the Rotary Club the next day and said there’s a wonderful speaker in town, you should invite him for Thursday night. Some other parents went to the FBI and said, “There’s a dangerous Red in town, you should go and investigate.” And they investigated the whole thing, and they went to the Rotary Club and said, “You can’t invite this Hinton. He’s a dangerous Red.” They said, “Who are you to tell us we can’t invite Mr. Hinton? Get lost.” So I came back on Thursday night and I talked to the Rotary Club. That meeting lasted until three in the morning.

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