Revolutionary China

Learn from Dazhai

Revolutionary China

Sheldon Weeks reviews the impact of the model village for Chinese rural development. The article first appeared in SACU's magazine China Now in 1977. The apparent success of the agricultural commune at Dazhai (Tachai) played a pivotal part in driving agricultural reform in Communist China. Since the writing the article in 1976 many of the achievements have been questioned - as over zealous exaggeration, but it does give some idea of the ebullient spirit of the time.

'Dazhai'. If any place name is universally known in China today it is Dazhai. All over China, on walls, on posters, above arches, on river banks, a set of five characters proclaim: 'In Agriculture learn from Dazhai.' Chairman Mao coined this slogan in 1964. In the thirteen years since, Dazhai has held the spotlight and been the centre of Chinese efforts to transform agriculture and rural life from the bottom up. Over these dozen years perhaps 15 million Chinese have visited Dazhai, and thousands of foreign visitors including numerous heads of state. In late 1975 a month-long top-level national Communist Party conference was held at Xiyang on mobilizing to develop agriculture and build Dazhai-type counties throughout the country. The report of this conference was written by Hua Guofang, now Premier of the People's Republic [This article was written in 1977].

A second conference on 'Learning from Dazhai in Agriculture' was held in Beijing late last year and the report released on December 20, 1976. It was written by Zhen Yunguai, former Secretary, Party Branch, Dazhai Brigade, and now a top man in the Party. It reaffirms the direction taken in 1975. What is this Dazhai that the Chinese people have been told to learn from? In a nation that outsiders see as gigantic and uniform Dazhai dramatizes the real complexity and diversity that exists in China. Dazhai is a small, isolated (in Shanxi in the north west) agricultural production brigade (of only team size, with 83 families and 450 people, 160 able-bodied, farming 143 acres). The Dazhai brigade is part of a commune of the same name with 12,000 people, in Xiyang County 30 miles by road south of the Yangchuan railroad station (six hours by rail from Beijing). This area is part of the once barren, desolate loess plateau, heavily eroded, an area at 3250 feet above sea level, receiving on average 20 inches of erratic rainfall annually, and marked in the past by disasters droughts, floods, famines and poverty, dependence and low productivity. Dazhai refers only to the brigade, but when the Chinese talk of 'Dazhai-type counties' they mean whole counties where agriculture and industry are organized as in Xiyang County following the example of Dazhai.

The six criteria for a Dazhai-type county are as follows: (1) The county Party committee should be a leading core which firmly adheres to the Party's line and policies and is united in struggle. (2) It should establish the dominance of the poor and lower-middle peasants as a class so as to be able to wage resolute struggles against capitalist activities and exercise effective supervision over the class enemies and remould them. (3) Cadres at the county, commune and brigade levels should, like those in Xiyang, regularly participate in collective productive labour. (4) Rapid progress and substantial results should be achieved in farmland capital construction, mechanization of agriculture, and scientific farming. (5) The collective economy should be steadily expanded and production and income should reach or surpass the present level of the poor communes and brigades in the locality. (6) All-round development should be made in agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, fishery and side-occupations with considerable increases in output, big contributions to the state and steady improvement in the living standards of the commune members. (Beijing Review, January 7, 1977, p. 17).

Dazhai village
View of Dazhai brigade

What does this small spot on the grand map of China have to teach others, especially in agriculture, and already for thirteen years? Dazhai is a microcosm of the forces at play in China. The struggles of the peasants of Dazhai in coping with the human and natural contradictions in their situation has lead them through their own efforts to achieve solutions to the problems of social organization and production that now put them in the forefront in China. Dazhai is also a window on the future as to where China is going and how she will get there. The lessons of Dazhai are the lessons of struggle, conflict, leadership, commitment, dedication, hard work, and that change in rural China is taking place from below at the team, brigade and commune level and not being imposed from above and outside. The manifesto of the 1975 conference on learning from Dazhai called for the peasants and cadres of China to confront the contradictions in their own social situation and production, to remake themselves and the face of nature as Dazhai has done by making Dazhai-type counties throughout China.

Of approximately 2000 counties in all China only 10% or 300 have followed the example of Dazhai. This means far more than merely embarking on programmes of water control, irrigation, terracing of fields, use of river beds, provision of fertilizers (compost, animal, nightsoil and chemical), orchards and forests, mechanization and dramatic increases in production. It also requires the county-wide integration of industry and agriculture, such as providing cement for agricultural construction (retaining walls for terracing, irrigation canals, run-off wells, buildings etc) and agricultural machinery for production (walking-on- two-legs tractors, tractors, bulldozers, pumps, harvesters, etc.).

In practical terms Dazhai is an expression of the proletarian revolution China is in the midst of today (in contrast to the democratic revolution between 1949 and 1966). To become like Dazhai is to confront the struggle between the two lines. In Dazhai all things are held in common, as they have already given up private agricultural plots and private ownership of animals such as pigs, but of the 650 million agricultural workers and cadres in China involved in farming the majority of them still grow vegetables for sale, and still keep a pig (which when sold can supplement incomes up to 50%). These are examples of the contradictions that still exist in rural China and why the proletarian revolution and class struggle continue, as private work and benefits or the greater profits from 'side-line' activities have a bourgeois influence and tend to support capitalist paths of development. Dazhai, as the Red Flag commune, also symbolizes the banner of socialist reconstruction.

Dazhai has not only given up the private sector of production, but has also innovated in new ways of awarding work points and distributing incomes. The old system that has operated since the formation of the communes nearly twenty years ago out of the Agricultural Production Co-operatives, has been one of daily work points awarded on the basis of work done. This approach, which is still prevalent in most of China, was seen by members of the Dazhai brigade as working against older, weaker members, and women, all of whom might be less productive, and therefore be rewarded less. Today in annual meetings the peasants of Dazhai award themselves work points based on their self-assessment of their own contribution, and these are approved by discussion with the group. To them this has been seen as a step forward to the socialist principle of 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.' A capsule history of how Dazhai has evolved since 1949 will help explain its significance to China. Before World War II the people at Dazhai had suffered heavily from drought, to the point that poor peasants were forced to sell their children in order to survive. In the early 1940's during the Japanese occupation the village was burnt and 42 young people killed. Dazhai was liberated in 1945, but land reform did not take place until 1947. Then Dazhai consisted of sixty families with 200 people, including four large landlords with 60% of the cultivable land, twelve middle peasants with 22% of land, and the remaining 18% belonged to 48 families of poor peasants. In 1952 these poor peasants committed themselves to form a co-operative, and in the first year their grain production per acre exceeded that of individual production before. There was considerable struggle and conflict at this stage between the mutual aid teams, with landlords and middle peasants exerting excessive influence and supporting private production, profits from sideline activities, and migration to towns. By 1957 the co-operative had demonstrated its advantages and all had joined. In 1958 the local leadership of the Dazhai branch of the Communist Party began to criticise the procedure of awarding work points daily, and in 1960 the brigade moved towards a system of monthly self-assessment. But it was not until 1963 after a devastating flood, the biggest in 100 years, which destroyed 78 houses and damaged 8% of the land, that the need to reconstruct homes and terraces caused them to vote (with only one dissent) for the abandonment of all private crops and animals. This was a critical time when from Beijing leaders in the Party such as Liu Shaoqi were advocating what was seen later as the 'capitalist road' - the expansion of crops for private use and sale, free markets, small individual enterprises, expansion of employment in towns, use of hired labour, and the buying and selling of land. Dazhai's emphasis on the opposite, the building of socialism, caused it to be investigated and the Party branch was temporarily suspended - these conflicts between the different paths to development were and remain very real in China now.

Over the years the people of Dazhai have transformed nature. They have annually continued to work in the winter periods to remake the seven gullies and eight ridges that marked their land into terraced fields that could be cultivated, with drains to prevent waterlogging and catch run-off in wells. What was 2,900 small pieces of land in 1949 has today been made into 1,500 pieces, and the work continues to reorganize these even further so that the goal of complete agricultural mechanization by 1980 can be achieved. Dazhai's crops are winter wheat, corn, sorghum and millet.

Revolutionary fervour
Revolutionary fervour in China

Production has gone up four fold over the past twenty years, achieved mainly through planning and integration, the terracing, irrigation, and local production of different sorts of fertilizers for the different soils. Through a system of inter-planting two crops are achieved on the same area during the one growing season. In 1975 the brigade had 6 tractors, 37 trucks, 60 implements, 190 horses and cows, and 237 pigs. They also made bricks and produced noodles for the commune.

In spite of the accomplishments at the Dazhai brigade other brigades and other communes, even those nearby, were slow to learn from Dazhai. Economic consolidation and agricultural production remained low, more profitable non-agricultural sideline activities were emphasized, and people were encouraged to work in town and send back money to the communes. Traditional ideas of getting rich quickly and profiteering were still prevalent, even among people in the Party leadership. Chairman Mao's directive 'to take grain as the key link and achieve overall development' was ignored, the wrong line was followed, and capitalist tendencies were pervasive. The Cultural Revolution, the movement to learn from Dazhai, May 7th cadre schools and agricultural colleges, class struggle within the communes, all helped to speed up the process of change. Today Xiyang County is a 'Dazhai-type county' (the first in China).

Hsiyang County is a most striking place to visit as the hills, valleys, and river beds have all been recently rebuilt to serve the needs of man, with all the new stone walls supporting new terraces or drainage channels, more dramatic even than such a Chinese wonder as the Great Wall.

Dazhai suggests the China of the future, where people have given up private production, where earnings and needs are met by self-assessment, and distribution is to each according to his need while work is from each according to his ability. Whether or not this outcome of the current proletarian revolution in China will be achieved will depend on the successes of the struggles currently being fought within China.

Trees in the valley are white with hoarfrost,
And icicles hang from the cliffs above:
For while it is still mid-winter on Tiger-head Hill,
Our brigade members have already come.

They've not come to pay a friendly visit,
Instead they've issued a declaration of war!
They've brought their picks and hammers with them,
And presented Ephedra Gully with an ultimatum.

'Cliff, it's time you lowered your proud head!
Valley, come now, heave yourself up!
For here we intend to level the land, make a plain
That will stretch as smooth as the Yangtse Valley.'

At the word of command the hill lowers its head,
As its cliffs are brought low, it says,
'I'll obey you,' while the gully trembles,
Saying meekly, 'I admit defeat.'

Hammers, like battle drums, sound the charge;
like fire-crackers welcoming spring is the dynamite's blast,
Bulldozers roll along with a rumble and roar;
Spring has come early to these hills.

From 'Songs of Dazhai', by Liang Laiqeng Chinese Literature, No.2, 1976.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006, reprinted SACU's magazine China Now 72, Page 2, June 1977

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.