Ralph A. Thaxton’s book takes the reader on a heart-wrenching journey of learning about the suffering and struggle of Chinese people in Da Fo village, Henan Province. Making numerous field trips since the 1980s, Thaxton earned trust from villagers and gathered amazingly detailed narratives from them. Building on 530 in-depth interviews of Chinese individuals, as well as township and village Communist Party leaders, Thaxton presents rural resistance in present-day China, at least in the deep agricultural interior provinces such as Henan, as being informed by memories of the catastrophic Great Leap Forward (GLF; 1958–61)—of suffering, injustice, insecurity, and government brutality.
For Thaxton, contention in present-day China carries the imprints of this particular past. His work convincingly challenges many observations about state–society relations in China. Instead of “accepting authoritarianism,” today’s villagers, as in the GLF period, continue to struggle to find space outside of authoritarian party-state control and “make do.” Instead of claiming “rightful resistance” and looking for protection from the national government against local ones, today’s villagers understand that, as in the GLF period, national and local governments are on the same side. Instead of overt protests and antiregime mobilization, today’s villagers choose everyday forms of resistance because of their fear of the regime based on their GLF experience.
Following Thaxton’s careful reconstruction of hardship as villagers live it, we see a China with an antagonistic relationship between the state and society, at least in “deep China.” The regime’s stability is, then, not a result of meritocracy, deliberative and inclusive policy making, institutionalization of various power-sharing rules, or its perceived legitimacy in the eyes of the people, as some scholars argue. Rather, what we observe could instead be a peaceful façade covering deep tension that is sustained through the fear of violence and the fragmentation of society.
There are certainly parallels between the periods of GLF and of reform (post-1978) in terms of the injustices experienced and mode of resistance resorted to by villagers in China. Reading the individuals’ stories in Thaxton’s work, we learn that, throughout the reform period, there have been continuous discriminatory policies and brutal repression, as well as villagers’ noncompliance in the forms of refusal or foot-dragging, as shown in strike hard campaigns (Chapter 1), taxation (Chapter 2), family planning policies (Chapter 3), rural schools and teachers (Chapter 4), veteran soldiers’ petitioning (Chapter 8) and migrant workers’ experiences Chapter 9).
However, to what extent do such parallels reflect memories of the GLF and to what degree are those memories at work in today’s contentious politics? In the following, I consider the function of memories, the mode of resistance, and the connection between the two.
The first point is about how memories of the past affect current events. For Thaxton, because the experiences of GLF were traumatic and there has been little political change since then, the memories about it are powerful, “informing” and “influencing” the resistance of those survivors to this day. Here, Thaxton focuses on inframemoria (p. 24), memories as concrete events stored by individuals and manifested in autographical narratives. Because of the temporal limitations of such memories, as recognized by Thaxton, their power dramatically decreases for those who are younger and do not have the same experiences.
Instead of these memories being held by individuals of one particular generation, however, I suggest that social contexts in Chinese villages can help socialize such memories and keep them alive, which in turn conditions the mode of resistance in China. Maurice Halbwachs suggests in his book, On Collective Memory (translated in 1992), that memories, over time, require a social context for their preservation. Group memberships and social context prod individuals into recalling particular events. The highly interpersonal setting of Chinese villages conditions the socialization of autographic memories of individuals. Even without physical representation of memories such as monuments or memorials, memories can be translated into community relations on a daily basis and as such play a pivotal role in shaping communities and orienting their politics. Although Thaxton does not interpret memory through this social context framework, his village stories nevertheless demonstrate how memories of the past affect family relations in later generations. Are memories of the GLF fading away, or have they become part of the collective memory of a community? It would be interesting to see what those young villagers, such as the 17- and 21-year-olds on his interviewee list (pp. 8–9), “remember” about that period and how they talk about village politics and family relations in the villages.
Understanding the socialization of memories through community relationships and their role as constitutive of village politics helps us understand the impact of memories about the GLF. The social framework of memory reaffirms that memories of suffering and injustice can have long-lasting impact in today’s China, as long as the social context permits. Therefore, memories about the GLF may last depending on the degree of change and continuity in the villages. An important source of change since the late 1990s is labor and population movement away from rural areas. Important sources of continuity include unjust policies that continuously marginalize and segregate villagers, as shown in Thaxton’s work.
This social context framework of memory also affects whether the GLF is the single most important memory affecting today’s village politics and contention. Have earlier memories of the Republic or imperial China affected family relations in the villages? Was it the GLF or the waves of political campaigns during the Maoist era, such as anti-rightist campaigns, four-cleanups and the Cultural Revolution, that turned villagers against each other and had a long-lasting impact on village politics? How do we determine which historical memory is the most powerful?
The second point is about the mode of contention or everyday forms of resistance. What could have contributed to such forms of resistance and villagers’ view about the regime as a whole—instead of a few corrupt local officials—being unjust and repressive? Given that structural injustice and brutal repression continue over time, is it possible that, without the traumatic experiences of the GLF and its scarring memories, villagers would still pursue everyday forms of resistance, make do, and put little hope in Beijing? To what extent does making references to the GLF shape the decision to resist or how to resist? Scholars of Chinese workers, for example, have attributed the lack of mass mobilization to workers’ informal exit options, fear of repression, and the diversity of interests among them.
Connecting the function of memories and the mode of resistance and contention in Chinese villages raises the question of the mediating roles of village officials, my third point. Thaxton recognizes “two opposite modes of behavior” (p. 121) by grassroots-level village officials. On the one hand, village officials have implemented national policies and represented the brutality of the government since the GLF period. On the other hand, they have refrained from repression and have watered down extractive and coercive policies in fear of retaliation by their village neighbors inspired by memories from the GLF. If village officials oscillate between being repressive state agents and being sympathetic neighbors, how do their mediation and behavioral inconsistency affect villagers’ view about national policies and the regime? When are they more repressive or more accommodating? How does the memory of revenge affect the resistance by villagers?
These reflections are not meant as criticisms of this finely studied and deeply moving book. Rather, they are evoked by its meticulous effort to turn our attention to those who suffer silently and continuously, when the world has been preoccupied by the economic achievement and political stability of the regime.