This review originally appeared in the “Journal of Resistance Studies.” For more book reviews and peer reviewed articles, subscribe to the journal.
“Order. Private homeowners should submit their deeds. Those who disobey this order will be killed without exception.”
The notice pinned on the doors of hundreds of thousands of Beijingers by the Red Guards was categorical: Either surrender your home and all its contents to the state or face dire consequences.
This was no idle threat. The Red Guards, Mao’s vanguard of young people recruited during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), were dedicated to rooting out anyone deemed as “counter revolutionary.” Evidence of recalcitrant acts was not needed to engage the Red Guards’ wrath – hearsay alone, no matter how flimsy, was deemed sufficient. During this turbulent and controversial period of China’s history, even contemplating acts of resistance against the state, let alone actually carrying them out, was the equivalent of signing one’s own death warrant.
Yet newly-published research provides new insights into the diverse strategies of resistance adopted by Beijingers to counteract, mitigate and on occasions, directly defy Mao’s transformational housing reforms. Senior Communist Party leaders recognized soon after assuming power, that controlling the country’s housing stock was central to distancing China from centuries of dynastic rule to pave the way for the formation of new People’s Republic. Confucian-inspired family values which had formed the bedrock of Chinese life, would need to be consigned to the past if the new Communist vision was to become a reality.
Nowhere was Confucius’ ethos more in evidence than in everyday life in Beijing’s vernacular siheyuan (courtyard) housing. These distinct dwellings, handed down from generation to generation, became one of the first targets of the new ruling elite. Dating back to the 14th century, siheyuan nestling in Peking’s hutong (alleyways) allowed several generations to live under the same roof, enabling households to maximize resources and reinforcing common, long established values. Such solidarity, imbued in every aspect of Chinese life, directly conflicted with Communist ideology which, by definition, relied on the decimation of traditional family life.
With Mao firmly at the helm, the housing campaign gathered momentum in the lead up to the 1949 watershed as new policy statements signaled the intent to firstly appropriate property occupied by former Nationalist officials. Communist officials began to seize family homes to house workers and party members. But the full force of Mao’s intentions regarding the fate of property and its occupants came during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), when revolutionary fervour was at its peak.
The new ruling regime announced three radical housing policies designed to eradicate the “Four Olds” (old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits). These policies were: (i) further powers to seize private property and mass eviction of urban residents (ii) the branding of landlords as counter revolutionary and (iii) the creation of danwei (work units). Landlords and other “capitalist roaders” (anyone who appeared to favour material gain) became demonized and subjected to public ridicule.
Verbatim extracts from Beijing residents’ detailed eye witness accounts expose the everyday realities of resistance during the first three decades under Communist rule. Significantly, the study did not set out to examine acts of resistance per se. Rather, interviewees were asked to recount their personal housing histories with minimal intervention from the interviewers. As the protagonists of their own stories, those interviewed were afforded an opportunity to unite discourses of the past and present and to find, where possible, a sense of restoration, reconciliation or even closure. For many of those who chose to share their unique story, memories of Maoism remained vivid, enduring and compelling. For others, although recollections of the realities of the period remained painful half a century later, a desire to recount their personal experiences rose to the fore. Perhaps the fear of forgetting triggered the desire to remember – and vice versa.
The extracts from the eyewitness accounts which follow reveal the distinct modes of resistance deployed by three residents (one man and two women) over space, place and time when negotiating their housing circumstances during the volatile, turbulent and politically charged Mao era. Analysis of these detailed eye witness accounts reveals previously undisclosed resistance tactics which fortified the residents’ abilities to apply personal agency as an instrument of resistance.
The study exposes many acts of personal courage including direct challenges to the ruling regime. Equally, other more nuanced acts of resistance also rose to the fore. Creativity, innovation and resourcefulness coalesced to fortify resistance. Patience, hope and resilience were also shown to empower residents in their public and private challenges to the new ruling order. Furthermore, serendipity, speculation and intelligence gathering also contributed to the respondents’ diverse arsenal of resistance.
The analysis suggests a new way of framing resistance, a more nuanced, flexible and subtle typology designed to further understanding of how and why people engaged in everyday acts of resistance when negotiating the despotic Mao period. This new tripartite typology proposes that agency as resistance may be framed as: agency through deferment, agency through acquiescence and agency through protest.
Three untold stories of resistance
Liu Xia-hui, the astute apprentice tailor: agency through deferment
Liu Xia-hui’s story begins when had just left his family siheyuan aged only sixteen. Born in 1933, he was one of thousands of young men who became apprentice tailors in Beijing’s (then Peking) to Qianmen, China’s renowned epicentre for merchants and traders. In lieu of remuneration, the apprentices were provided with food and shelter by their apprentice masters. As Liu Xia-hui recalls, accommodation was minimalist and closely monitored: “All the apprentices were staying under one roof…It was the workshop of the capitalists.”
The apprentices were ruthlessly exploited by their employers. Daily factory life reinforced the strict hierarchies which existed between servant and master. Liu Xia-hui married in 1956 (aged 23) and had four children (two boys and two girls). Motivated by a desire to safeguard his family’s welfare, he began to gather local intelligence regarding housing availability. By adopting the combined tactics of invisibility, assimilation and observation, he calculated that he would be offered accommodation in a new guild housing development he observed being built.
His patience was finally rewarded. He was given first refusal on not just one but two offers of guild housing. Having protected his family’s housing interests, he felt comfortable in rejecting an offer of state housing with impunity. The two properties went some way, albeit modestly, to restore some symbolic and financial capital which had become eroded during his many years as an apprentice tailor.
The research characterises the approach used by Liu Xia-hui and others who opted to bide their time during Maoist driven housing reforms as devising a strategy of resistance as using “agency through deferment.”
Qing Hong, the fearless mother: agency through protest
Qing Hong was born in 1931, the year Japan invaded Manchuria. Upon marriage aged 15, she left the siheyuan where she lived with her extended family to take up occupation of a privately rented property in the Chaoyangmen district. Qing Hong recalls how, seven years after the revolution, the new ruling elite tried to force her to her move with her husband and children more than 1,000 kms west: “In 1956, the private housing was made into public housing by the authorities. We were told to move to the Ningxia province.”
Urging her to adopt a discourse of rightful resistance to challenge the state eviction, Qing Hong’s landlady advised she fought the imposed state move. Significantly, Qing Hong’s resistance would also have benefited the landlady by protecting the landlady’s property from falling into the hands of the government.
When it was clear she was resisting eviction, Party officials escalated their campaign to oust Qing Hong and her family. It was then that the state driven public humiliation campaign began. She recalls how she, her husband and children were “treated badly after a public meeting with authorities – they insisted we moved away.” Public or “mass struggle” meetings, convened to humiliate those who resisted state policy, were commonplace during the early years of Communist rule. Those who opposed the Party line were verbally and physically abused in full view of family members and neighbors. Many died at the hands of officials or plummeted to such depths of despair that they committed suicide.
Despite the potential fatal consequences, Qing Hong maintained her resolve to protect the family home. State officials finally left her alone. “…we were threatened with eviction from the house on three occasions but we fought to stay. I told them we would never give in and please don’t come anymore. They didn’t come again.”
The realization that her landlady was not intending to undertake essential housing repairs proved a critical juncture for Qing Hong. She secured a job with the housing authority. This strategic move enabled her to lobby for state housing on behalf of herself and her dependants. Eventually, after several years, Qing Hong was offered state housing. But she rejected the offer. Instead, she negotiated a mutual exchange with a household in nearby Honglou, a move from which both families greatly benefited in the longer term.
The research describes Qing Hong’s form resistance as “agency through protest.” Successful direct challenges to the ruling elite were rare during the Mao period, least of all initiated by a lower class woman. Qing Hong’s account shows how agency may become apparent in the most adverse of circumstances.
Fan Zhang, the impression manager: agency through acquiescence
For Fan Zhang, mother of seven children, was born in 1929. Her Beijing siheyuan which accommodated twenty people, had been in her family for generations. But during the Cultural Revolution, the family’s hutong haven was seized by the government. She reveals how her parents were required to surrender both the property’s deeds and blueprints to the state. Party officials then issued them with a new agreement which diminished their security of tenure from owner occupier to bare licensee in one fell swoop. Fan Zhang recalls: “During the Cultural Revolution…you needed to have a housing contract. The original ownership certificate of the property, it needed to be handed over to the housing authority.”
Fan Zhang’s account reveals the power of the prevailing Communist narrative of the time in minimising personal agency: “By the end of the 1950s, the government called for more rooms because of the growth in population…we gave away our rooms in the east and west.” All three rooms in the south and east of the siheyuan were then allocated by the state to workers in a nearby pharmaceutical factory, consigning the entire family of twenty to the east courtyard.
But Fan Zhang’s spirit of resistance was not entirely eclipsed by the new ruling regime’s stamp of authority. The provision of food and shelter were her strategic priorities. Her focus shifted to safeguarding those basic needs. Moreover, the realisation that local Communist officials seemed equally bemused about the rationale for the “Four Olds” fuelled her resistance and resilience capabilities.
Significantly, local Party confided in Fan Zhang and her family that they felt far removed from the epicentre of Communist senior leadership. Discussions between Fan Zhang and local officials created latent communities of discourse underpinned by a shared sense of solidarity and powerlessness. Ultimately, these discussions away from the ruling elite’s gaze generated further layers of resistance in their own right. When negotiating Maoism, she gave was therefore able to give the impression of both resistance and compliance.
Fan Zhang’s distinct resistance approach has been characterised by the research as “agency through acquiescence.” This distinct form of resistance is far from passive. Rather, by drawing on available resources, agency through acquiescence enhances the resistor’s resistance capabilities allowing him/her to focus on basic essentials of life.
These three unique accounts reveal the realities, complexities and nuanced nature of resistance during an unprecedented period of political upheaval in the years immediately following the Communist revolution in 1949. The need to provide family members gave all three resistors featured here the courage and tenacity to question, in different ways, the claims made by the new Communist order. Even in the most adverse of circumstances, the human spirit rises to the fore.
Resistance fueled by agency in the form of deferment, protest and acquiescence provides a continuum through which the negotiation of oppression may be viewed. The three accounts featured here are a salutary reminder of the importance of documenting verbatim accounts regarding the realities of resistance, specifically its power, potential and potency. As the Chinese proverb says, “Even the faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.” The extracts from the accounts presented here serve to preserve a vital window in China’s history for generations to come.
Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies.
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