Mao's Beloved Model Village

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Dazhai, Mao's model village, is now generally ridiculed as a symbol of ultra-leftist zeal and for falsifying harvest reports. William Hinton, an American who worked in China for 18 years as an agricultural specialist, takes a different view. Mao chose Dazhai as a model in 1964 with good reason. Here was a poverty-stricken community tucked away in a steep mountain valley in Shanxi province with no known resources other than the drought-prone loess soil piled up on eight ridges and washing out from seven gullies on Tigerhead Mountain. By 1968, two decades after the communists introduced land reform, Dazhai, led by the chain-smoking, gravel-voiced Chen Yonggui, had transformed itself into a prosperous village with high, stable yields of grain from improved loam--humus-rich, water-absorbent sponge soil. Fruit and nut orchards, conifer plantations, a piggery, a bean noodle plant and a machine repair shop together added enough income to support an eight-grade village school, a health clinic, a cultural center and extensive experimental plots. The heart of Chen's program was making big fields out of little ones by moving the deep soil on the ridges into the gullies. Ingenious arched rock dams held the soil in place. Such ambitious construction involved the whole community. Dazhai peasants put politics in command, serving public interest first, self interest second. They practiced hard work, practical (not absolute) self-reliance and required leaders without exception to engage in physical labor. These were principles that every village in China could apply without going to the state for help. In 1980 the great reversal began in earnest. Deng Xiaoping set out to privatize farm production. He claimed that cooperation on the land could never succeed. At the time 30% of the village collectives, those who tended to follow Dazhai, were doing well. An additional 40% had problems but were viable. The remaining 30% were in serious trouble. They needed reorganization, not liquidation. Deng, however, insisted on privatizing the good, the bad and the mediocre alike. To achieve this he had to destroy Dazhai as a model. He arranged for journalists to write an article entitled Dazhai's Departure From 'The Spirit of Dazhai.' They asserted that Dazhai was a fraud. Far from being self-reliant, they said, the village had received massive aid from the state. Far from reaping bumper crops, Dazhai had falsified yield figures. Far from showing the way forward, Dazhai had wasted countless hours of labor moving dirt aimlessly from one place to another. With no public rebuttal allowed, the charges swept the country, and Chen--by that time vice-premier in charge of agriculture--lost his post. Were the charges true? No, other than some over-optimistic yield estimates released prior to harvest time. Dazhai's harvests were excellent, better than what my farm in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania ever achieved. The real fraud was the campaign to discredit Dazhai. Chen spent most of his working life making new lands out of wastelands and big fields out of little ones, opening a road to mechanization. Chen's critics, while accusing him of backwardness and fraud, took only a year or two to turn China's big fields into noodle-like strips, too narrow to mechanize. Result: per capita food production is now falling. I recall a 1982 conversation with a guide from the Shanxi Friendship Association. All around us, on farms inspired by Dazhai, were the lushest and greenest heavy-eared corn either of us had seen. I thought they trumped up their yields, she said. Maybe you should trust your own eyes, I replied. William Hinton is author of Fanshen and Shenfan, which record the nation's land reform movement