Handbook on Class and Social Stratification in China
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Handbook on Class and Social Stratification in China

Edited by Yingjie Guo

This comprehensive, interdisciplinary Handbook illustrates the patterns of class transformation in China since 1949, situating them in their historical context. Presenting detailed case studies of social stratification and class formation in a wide range of settings, the expert contributors provide valuable insights into multiple aspects of China’s economy, polity and society. The Handbook on Class and Social Stratification in China explores largely neglected contemporary topics such as women’s social mobility in relation to marriage and the high school entrance exam as a class sorter, placing it at the forefront of progressive literature.
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Chapter 19: A predictable end? China’s peasantry as a class, past, present and imagined future

Sally Sargeson


Theorists of class have long predicted the end of the peasantry. Marx (1954: 667–95), Hobsbawm (1994: 289–99, 415) and Bernstein (2001, 2009) have all argued that, in the transition to capitalism, peasants would be either transformed into individual specialized commodity producers (commercial farmers) or forced into wage labour by fragmentation of their land holdings, and dispossession, debt and impoverishment. On the other hand, these theorists have been uncharacteristically ambivalent about whether or not the peasantry constitutes a class. Marx (1852: 62), for example, argued that, although peasants’ economic exploitation and political and social subordination placed them in an antagonistic relationship with other classes, they lacked any consciousness of, and capacity to articulate, their common class interests, much less organize politically. Pointing to the uneven, contradictory impacts of globalized agriculture and consequent differentiation among agriculturalists, Bernstein, too, cautions that ‘“the peasantry” is hardly a uniform or analytically helpful social category in contemporary capitalism … The same stricture necessarily applies to any views of peasants as a (single) “class” (“exploited” or otherwise)’ (2001: 32). Many Chinese political leaders and scholars also have predicted the eventual end of the country’s peasantry. Mao Zedong believed that differentiation among the peasantry would be eliminated through the creation of collective ownership and socialist relations of production in the countryside. Eventually, with the transition to communism, full public ownership would efface material and political differences between town and country, workers and peasants, mental and manual labour (Communist Party of China Central Committee 1958).

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