Not all landlords are evil, says CCTV

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 a political concept. 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. And the financial resources that allowed Liu Wenhui to gain possession of so much land obviously had to do with the public power he held. 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—landlords were not like the bosses of the illegal brick kilns in Shanxi who restricted the liberty of their workers. 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: finding ways to be lazy is not difficult. Later on, the People's Communes were unable to use the force of the state to resolve the problem of farmers going out to work without actually exerting any effort, so what was an ordinary landlord to do? 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. My grandfather, who spent his entire life without ever leaving the mountains, could never understand that great social change sometimes require that some people must kill others to demonstrate their authority, and that this has nothing to do with the character or reputation of the victim. From the second story, I learned that even the lowest of landlords respect common law. A master may not revoke a lease at will unless the tenant has done something to violated the lease—if, for example, there have been no disasters yet the tenant still does not pay the rent in full and on time. 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.
Note 2: Huang Shiren was the evil landlord who beat to death the father of the White-Haired Girl.
Note 3: The story goes that after Lei Feng was orphaned he went to live with his uncle's family. He helped out by cutting firewood in the mountains, but the land was owned by a landlord, and one day the wife of Landlord Xu discovered him and tried to wrest the blade from him. Lei Feng resisted, and the woman slashed his left arm three times, and the blood ran down his arm and dripped off the end of his finger on to the mountain road (Baidupedia link).
Note 4: In the CYD version, the start of this paragraph reads: "It is obvious that in traditional Chinese society, landlords did indeed play the role of the exploiting class. But sometimes, landlords were a force that sustained social order. Except, perhaps out of the need for propaganda,..."

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Comments on Not all landlords are evil, says CCTV

The publication of this article in China Youth Daily represents another triumph by the state media to ensure its position at the forefront of public discussion.

Of course, we all knew it was inevitable for this issue to enter official discourse. Perhaps most impressive is that China Youth Daily would publish the claim that prior to the advent of the CCP, government landlords like the Liu Wencai were the exception, since it's common knowledge (which the article discretely leaves unmentioned) that a disproportionately large number of current landlords are cadres. By admitting Liu was an exceptional case, the government calls its own mandate into question; by justifying itself with his behavior, it does the same. This illustrates the power of propaganda.

Let's see... the article asserts that the majority of landlords prior to the advent of socialism were hardworking farmers, who through necessity behaved largely in a responsible way to the community. Those immune to this responsibility were the ones who had used "non-standard means to accumulate wealth": namely, those whose power comes from the government.

In case a particularly slow reader might somehow fail to get the message, the conscientious editors at the China Youth Daily added the sentence "It is obvious that in traditional Chinese society, landlords did indeed play the role of the exploiting class," to clarify precisely why contemporary cadres have been so quick to fill this position.

All in all, a good laugh.

While China got rid off the prosperous farmers, some with exloiting tendencies, by making everybody poor and stupid, the West developed a clever way to control them; taxes, reporting and weath distribution. The current gov is racing to build up similar system, before the 800 million farmers come and get it by themselves.

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