Posted by Joel Martinsen on Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 4:16 PM
Decent landlord Zhu Kaishan
The latest major television event to come to CCTV is the period drama Journey to the Northeast (闯关东), which tells the story of a family from Shandong that moves to Manchuria in the waning days of the Qing Empire. Li Youbin, a well-known television actor, plays Zhu Kaishan, who leads his family through innumerable hardships to start a new life in the northeast, where they prosper until the Mukden incident in 1931.
The first half of the 52-episode series has already set viewership records on CCTV, which ought to make investors happy: when the production was launched in mid-2006, it was said to be the year's costliest TV series.
Zhu Kaishan and his family were fairly poor when they started off from Shandong, but in the northeast they are able to prosper, to the point that they employ outside workers to farm their land. However, Zhu is certainly not depicted as an evil landlord.
Blogger and popular historian Ten Years Chopping Timber noted this seeming contradiction and wrote up a response that ran in the China Youth Daily yesterday. Translated below is the version he posted on his blog; notations have been added where the newspaper version was edited.
What are landlords like?by Ten Years Chopping Timber / CYD
"How could a landlord be so benevolent and hardworking? How could he behave so cowardly toward his farm-hands?" Questions like these were voiced by netizens after watching the series Journey to the Northeast, now showing on CCTV.
In Drawn Swords (亮剑), Li Youbin portrayed an "alternative" hero—the thuggish, cagey Li Yunlong; in Journey to the Northeast he plays the "alternative" landlord Zhu Kaishan. This farmer who takes his entire family from Shandong to Manchuria is industrious and sticks closely to a code of personal loyalty. He wins property for his family and treats the lazy farm hands with justice and mercy.
Rascally heroes and virtuous landlords are actually the norm. Without a trace of gutsy hooliganism, distinguishing oneself from the ranks is difficult, and landlords who are too shortsighted and inhuman will not bring prosperity to their families.
People born in the 1970s, or perhaps even earlier, have never personally witnessed what a landlord looks like; their impression of a landlord relies on what they've been told in textbooks and works of art: Liu Wencai,* Huang Shiren,* and that landlord's wife who slashed Uncle Lei Feng's arm three times with a machete.*
This sort of landlord may be less of a real person than an embodiment of aconcept. So long as someone bears the label "landlord," it seems that he ought to be inhuman, just as bandits ought to be like vultures.
China was for a long time a country with a small-scale agricultural economy. People were abundant but land was scarce, and the economy remained underdeveloped. In most places, particularly in the South, landlords were generally moderately well-off families who had scraped together enough money to buy a few mu of land. Naturally, there were some landlords like Liu Wencai who controlled large expanses of land, but they were relatively rare; without using non-standard means to accumulate wealth, it would have been impossible to gain possession of very much land. Liu Wencai was actually just a steward. The land was owned by his brother Liu Wenhui, who was Governor of Xikang Province [beginning in 1939], but because Liu's peaceful uprising was democratic, having a landlord as its representative did not present a good image.In order to sustain their family business, most landlords and rich peasants had to be hard-working and thrifty; they had to be sympathetic to the people around them and could not be too merciless to their underlings.
Looking at things from an economic perspective, we know that most of the land in China's countryside was privately-owned before 1949. Naturally, there were times when property was bought or sold under forced conditions, but for the most part trade in land was conducted willingly by both parties. And because of the swiftly-rising population, land was limited, and it became difficult for families to enlarge their land holdings. Frugal living needed luck's assistance and an absence of natural and man-made disasters. After a family obtained land, the workers they hired did not lose their individual rights—Small-scale agriculture meant that production relied on the workers' own self-awareness. Landlords could not simply apply the whip to people working in the fields to make them work harder: So the landlords had to gather long-term help in order to better profit from their land.
From a sociological perspective, landlords and rich peasants lived in a society among people they know. Among social acquaintances, moral and ethical bounds are quite strong. On Mount Liang, Li Kui could be brutal to strangers, but when he returned to his hometown he became the well-behaved Iron Ox Li. Would a landlord whose family resided long-term in a certain village be any different? Landlords needed a good reputation to guarantee the success of their family.
When this writer was young, my grandfather, who had worked for many years as a steady farm-hand, told me two stories. The first story told of how he had carried the sedan chair for a landlord of the same clan. This landlord was educated and polite and was a district mayor in the Republican government. For the sake of dignity, he rode in the sedan chair in town, but once they reached the mountain roads he would get off and walk to reduce the load on his attendants. During the land reforms, that landlord was shot to death. The second story told of how my grandfather had rented land from another landlord. After the harvest the landlord came to collect the rent. My family was too poor even to cook a decent meal, and my grandfather insulted him. In a fit of pique, the landlord declared that he was canceling the lease. But after he did so, no other tenants were willing to rent that plot of land, and since he did not wish the land to remain uncultivated, he returned and begged my grandfather to resume the lease.
I was still being educated in class struggle when I heard those two stories, so in the first story, I assumed that the landlord was pretending to be righteous and kind to cheat my grandfather, and in the second, I felt that my grandfather was just blowing smoke about the landlord's capitulation. My grandfather has been dead for many years, but as I look back on those two stories now, I am finally convinced that he was not just talking nonsense. The first landlord was an outstanding individual among the ranks of my ancestors. He needed the respect of the villagers, so he had to treat them with justice. My grandfather could not understand why he was execution later; he felt that a good man had been mistakenly killed.. From the second story, I learned that even the lowest of landlords respect common law. . Otherwise, social order in the whole village will be thrown into chaos. Therefore it is impermissible for a lease to be revoked simply because a tenant has clashed with the landowner. Anyone who takes over the lease without understanding this will come under immense pressure from public opinion.
It is obvious that in traditional Chinese society, the common people were most at risk from the government and bandits—that is, tyranny and the mobs brought about by tyranny. Landlords, on the other had, were a positive force that sustained social order. Because of the need for political propaganda,* the image of the majority of landlords like Zhu Kaishan was smeared, while a minority like Huang Shiren became the symbol of the entire class.
For the Chinese people, the 20th Century was a century fraught with catastrophe. After undergoing all those great catastrophes, there have been no novels like Uncle Tom's Cabin or War and Peace, and no movies like Gone With the Wind. Examining how the image of landlords became a label may provide a peek as to why.
Note 1: Liu Wencai was a landlord in Sichuan who died in 1949. During the campaigns of the late 50s, Liu became a symbol of the evils of the old society and was immortalized in the sculpture series "Rent Collection Courtyard" (收租院). His family manor in Dayi, Sichuan, opened to the public in 1959.
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+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!