Will the Boat Sink the Water?
a review by Göran Leijonhufvud


Göran Leijonhufvud worked as the China correspondent of several Scandinavian newspapers for over twenty years. He is now researching village elections in minority nationalities areas in Yunnan. His PhD disseratation dealt with the history of dissent and freedom of expression in China. He can be contacted at

It caused a stir when it appeared in 2003 and it is still dynamite. The profoundly revealing Life of Chinese Peasants (Zhongguo nongmin diaocha) had party bureaucrats at all levels running for cover. Propaganda officials almost immediately banned the report by writers Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao.

Before the ban was in place, the book sold 250,000 copies. It then went on to sell almost ten million pirated copies. I myself bought a copy on a street corner in Kunming last year.

The book is now out in English under the title Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China's Peasants (PublicAffairs, London 2006, available on Amazon) and it is still essential reading. Although some conditions have improved for the farmers, notably the lessening of their tax burden, the basic problems are still there. Impoverished peasants are treated like dirt by township and county cadres, and often even by their own village cadres.

Yet, in the bigger scheme of things, it is the peasants that support industrialization, urban construction and the much talked about rising middle class. The peasants are supporting urban and industrial expansion not only by the added value created by their agricultural work, but also by being the actual workers in all construction projects. At the same time they are systematically discriminated against by the household registration system, and largely kept from enjoying the fruits of China's stunning growth. The authors use the expression One country, two 'nations' to describe the institutionalized disparity between the urban and rural population.

Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao are both from the countryside. They investigated conditions in 50 villages in Anhui province, one of China's poorest.

Much of the report is devoted to detailing the brutal and arbitrary ways in which local leaders collect taxes, fees and charges. Overburdened beyond endurance, the peasants in many villages protested - only to be further harassed by higher level leaders.

In Zhang village, Tangnan township, the enraged village bully who also happened to be the village deputy head, killed four villagers who wanted to audit the books.

In Baimiao township the village cadres made off with their belongings when they did not pay unreasonable or even illegal fees. The township party secretary sent more than a hundred armed men to beat up the villagers, almost creating a war zone. It took five trips to Beijing by an increasing number of villagers before they could get redress from the central government. The book is full of such stories.

One conclusion from the authors' investigation is that in quite a few cases the provincial or central authorities actually support the peasants against their local leaders, once the conditions are known. What we do not know is how many cases that go unnoticed.

Since the book was first published, the Chinese government has cancelled the agricultural tax. This is a remarkable departure from a 2,500 years old practice, and the consequences are not immediately clear. Furthermore, township and village cadres are forbidden to charge other fees. This time, the policy seems to be more strictly implemented than earlier such central directives, which have gone largely unheeded.

The intention is obviously to relieve farmers from those excessive financial burdens, which have led to so much unrest in the countryside. Another, more cynical interpretation of recent developments would be that suddenly the farmer are needed as consumers to keep the economy running at high speed, so their conditions are improved.

At any rate, conflicts with peasants these days instead typically revolve around illegal land seizures and blatantly insufficent compensation when land is occupied for anything from necessary road projects to luxury villa developments or golf courses. Another reason for forceful farmer protests has been toxic emissions threatening not only their crops but also their very lives,

The authors point out that "the sheer numbers of Chinese peasants could make them overwhelming, but they are scattered, and have no organizational resources to counter oppression. The rural cadres, on the other hand, are highly organized..."

I recently interviewed peasants and village and township leaders in Yunnan for a research project. The tax reform is obviously welcomed by the farmers. But it has left township and village governments with very insufficent funds for public projects such as better roads or improved irrigation. With villager committees loosing their last few remaining tees, the farmers interest in the village elections reach a new low point.

Village cadres complain that the office fund of a few thousand yuan per year, which they receive from the county government, does not even cover the cost of electricity, telephones, stationery and sundries.

Whatever the case, the one thing which has not changed is local cadres constantly eating and drinking with the help of public expense accounts, and with the compliance of local restaurant owners anxious to keep up good relations with the leadership. In their book, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao refer to Mao Zedong's famous statement that the 'revolution is not a dinner party'. They conclude that on the contrary the revolution is a dinner party. For certain people.

The growth of township bureaucracy over the last two decades caused a ministry of finance official to point out: "In the Han Dynasty, eight thousand people supported one official; in the Tang Dynasty three thousand people supported one official; in the Qing Dynasty one thousand people supported one official; right now we have forty people supporting one public servant."

The English title Will the Boat Sink the Water is a play on a few words of warning from the Taizong Emperor of the Tang Dynasty more than one thousand years ago: "Water holds up the boat; water can also sink the boat." Water refers to the peasants holding up emperors and officials in the boat. The Tang Dynasty emperor never imagined that the boat could actually sink the water.

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There are currently 4 Comments for Will the Boat Sink the Water?
a review by Göran Leijonhufvud.

Comments on Will the Boat Sink the Water?
a review by Göran Leijonhufvud

This is not a complete translation. A number if sections in the original were eliminated, probably for reasons of space.

I was lucky to travel to Anhui while I was living in China. Ting Li and her family and friends were very kind to me and I will never forget that. I wish we were still in contact more often...

I found the people very warm and friendly in Anhui, but it was noticeably poorer out and about than other places I had visited. I also stayed in a much smaller town than in the big cities I had visited mostly. So it is saddening for me to read that things are tough there.

I climbed Yellow Mountain while in Anhui and it was one of the highlights of my time in China. A lot of effort has gone into commercializing Yellow Mountain but I hiked it in the winter, it is an amazing place that will only draw more visitors which will ultimately see more dollars enter Anhui but I'm not sure it will trickle down to the farmers.

I had some good noodles while I was there too. I also saw a lot of the country side due to long train and car rides. I don't think I saw another foreigner at least a white foreigner, I met Koreans and possibly even some Japanese in the mountain tops.

And the relevance of your trip to Anhui to the book is what?

Well, I talked to a lot of people and saw even more, and I can vouch that people seemed to have a harder life than they did in the big cities or even some other more rural areas I had visited.

Plus this blog posting reminded me of my trip to Anhui and the people I met there.

If I need to take my comment in a more literary venue. I still think the best book I've read written by a Westerner about China is Peal S. Buck's "The Good Earth". If you want something more contemporary... also while I was in China I read "Shifu You'll do anything for a laugh" and "The little Chinese seamstress". Both deal the lives of common Chinese people rather than Emperors or mythical heros.

These are all fictional accounts of life in China in the not too distant past, but as you can see real life in China hasn't improved that much for a large portion of the population.

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