10 August 2017

Jimmy Yen – left-wing Chinese Christian rural advocate

YC James Yen 晏阳初

‘People are the foundation of the nation; if the foundation is firm, then the nation enjoys tranquillity.’ So taught our Chinese ancients several thousand years ago. With how much greater truth is this teaching charged when applied to the Republic of China to-day! To build a firm ‘foundation’ for this Republic or any other republic, one of the greatest essential needs is the highest possible level of general intelligence for the people.

Go to the people. Live among them. Learn from them. Love them. Serve them. Plan with them. Start with what they know. Build on what they have.

Advocating for the peasantry a half-generation before Fei Xiaotong 费孝通, and working alongside Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 and Tao Xingzhi 陶行知 in the first movement for rural reconstruction, was YC James ‘Jimmy’ Yen, or Yan Yangchu 晏阳初.

Even though they moved in the same intellectual and political circles, and even though they shared many of the same attitudes toward rural development, Dr Fei Xiaotong was a fairly strident critic of the generation of rural advocates which preceded him. It’s been claimed by David Arkush that Fei considered the ‘last Confucian gentleman’ Liang Shuming a romantic and a ‘hopeless old reactionary’. In spite of his insistence on China’s collectivist psychology, Fei was much closer to the thought of the West. For his advocacy of rural industrial coöperatives and local government, as well as for the similarity of his thinking on technology to that of EF Schumacher, I previously claimed him as a Chinese distributist, but as a student of Bronisław Malinowski and of Fabianism in Britain, Fei had a Ruskinite approach to Chinese culture and a preference for deliberative forms of socialism in China’s development.

For related reasons, Fei was also fairly unsparing in his criticisms of earlier generations of Chinese sociology and rural activism – that of James Yen and Tao Xingzhi included. Fei expanded on the criticisms of his mentor, Wu Wenzao 吴文藻, of the Rockefeller-funded studies undertaken by Yen, Tao and others in places like Dingxian 定县: that they were lacking in scientific merit, being mere ‘collections of facts’ without providing hypothetical grounds of inquiry or valid scholarly conclusions. (Ironically, many of the same ‘scientific’ criticisms Fei levelled at the earlier generation of rural advocates, would later be aimed at him and his work in a much more extreme form, during the Anti-Rightist Campaign.)

But James Yen is well worth considering in his own right. A native of Bazhong in Sichuan (it should be stressed here that all three of the Rural Reconstruction pioneers were inland Chinese – Liang Shuming was from Guangxi and Tao Xingzhi from Anhui), and the child of a Confucian man-of-letters himself learned in the Classics, Yen started learning the Western canon (xixue 西学) at an American high school in Chengdu, run by the Protestant missionary William Aldis. Aldis’s Christianity – and particularly its Social Gospel aspect – left a deep impression on Jimmy Yen, both in his faith and in his social activism. After graduation he would attend Hong Kong University, which he left two years early due to the bigotry he encountered from the British and the local Anglicised Cantonese, and Yale.

Yen served in the Army in France during the First World War. He was originally tasked with supervising workers – northern Chinese peasants enlisted as behind-the-lines ‘coolies’ by the British. These workers were hazed and humiliated by the officers, subjected to grueling labour for pittance wages, and found themselves shell-shocked and homesick. They approached Yen and asked him to write letters to their loved ones back home. Though he initially agreed to this, he soon saw that a better course would be to educate them in basic reading and writing skills. Using a curriculum consisting of 1,000 characters, he began to teach the workers how to read and write in vernacular Chinese (or baihua 白话). In addition, he published the first vernacular Chinese workers’ newsletter, Labourer’s Weekly 《驻法华工周报》, which had a left-wing nationalist and anti-imperialist editorial stance.

Contrary to the received wisdom, Yen was not part of the New Culture or May Fourth Movements in China, narrowly considered. He didn’t return to China until 1920. He’d spent the early years of the New Culture foment in the trenches in France, and upon returning to China flung himself immediately into volunteering rather than joining in Chen Duxiu, Cai Yuanpei and Hu Shi’s scholarly polemics against the ‘Old Society’. But his work did find a strong resonance with the broader aims of the New Culture scholars. Through his work in France he came to regard vernacular Chinese literature as a necessary vehicle for mass education in China – which in turn would be the catalyst for the Chinese peasantry to advocate for themselves and their own interests against an urban capitalist élite. This was the impetus for the development of the Mass Education Movement (Pingmin Jiaoyu Yundong 平民教育运动), aimed at addressing the at that time widespread illiteracy among the peasants, which in the view of the rural advocates was holding the peasantry in a state of cultural and stagnation, as well as opening them up to œconomic and social exploitation by élites both local and distant.

Even though Jimmy Yen’s Mass Education Movement built on the ideas of the liberals and pragmatists in the Dewey-Hu mold (and Hu Shi himself was, briefly, one of the founders), it attracted a far more ‘enthusiastic’ social base, including many members of what would become the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Democratic League. Mao Zedong himself, in fact, was one of the volunteer workers who joined as a rural teacher, and Yen’s curriculum became the basis for the Thousand-Character Primer which Mao used to educate new Communist Party cadres.

The Mass Education Movement was never solely just about education considered in terms of literacy, but also about ‘scientific’ education (this was, after all, the age of Deweyan pragmatism and progressivism), character-building (in the more classically-Confucian sense) and political advocacy. Interestingly enough, the Chinese YMCA got on board and promoted the Mass Education Movement precisely because the Confucian element, that of character education, appealed to the missionary Christian sense of morality. More shocking to the contemporary sensibilities (but not necessarily out-of-step with Confucian tradition), Yen taught girls and women how to read as well as men and boys – and even invited Madame Xiong (whose husband Xiong Xiling had been premier of China under Yuan Shikai and was an intimate friend and partizan of Kang Youwei) to give the commencement address to his first group of graduates in Changsha. But the more difficult part of the project involved ‘going to the people’.

In this, Yen’s experience dovetails very neatly with that of the narodniki in Russia. In Dingxian, he instructed volunteer teachers to share the lives of the peasant families they taught – to eat the food they ate, to work their chores, to live in their houses – just as he had done with the workers in the trenches in France. It was difficult to do: many Chinese intellectuals found the work hard and the conditions unsanitary. But the project was in many ways a success: diseases like trachoma and smallpox were eliminated in Dingxian while many others were curtailed, crop yields boomed, infant mortality decreased, and the peasants themselves, by learning their own written language, gained a significant measure of self-respect and confidence. The Dingxian project provided a template that Mao would later use for the ‘barefoot doctors’ that replicated the medical dimensions of Dingxian’s success in thousands of other villages.

In addition, the farmers created their own credit coöperatives on the Raiffeisen model, to combat the usurious predations upon them of local loan sharks (gaolidai 高利贷) and even other, more ‘respectable’ bankers; and also coöperative ventures for buying stock and marketing produce. These were trends Yen encouraged – and the results were positive: ‘fatter pigs, better seeds, pollution control, more eggs per hen’. Farmers saw their incomes increase drastically, and their debts decrease. The project which had begun as a teaching venture to combat illiteracy had bloomed into a broader social movement – a rural reconstruction. Yen revised his own thinking based on his experiences among the peasants. Education was only part of the picture for rural reconstruction. Livelihood – the appropriately-scaled techniques for increasing yield – became another part. So too did health and civic participation (understood as Greater Chinese patriotism in addition to local community links, collective bargaining and œconomic coöperation).

Yen’s work was interrupted, unfortunately, by Japan’s invasion of China in the Second World War, and then again by the Chinese Civil War. Because of the close links of his project to the Nationalist government – a government Yen neither liked nor respected on account of its corruption and disdain for the peasantry – he had to flee China and build rural reconstruction projects elsewhere: notably in the Philippines. Rural reconstruction and Yen’s ideal of the coöperative farmer-scholar went international. But Yen never forgot about his first projects in China, and the Chinese peasants who had benefitted from his classes did not forget him. Yen was given a hero’s welcome back to China in the thawing political climate of the ‘80’s. And in the late 1990’s, several years after his death, a scholar of the Chinese New Left, Dr Wen Tiejun, took up Yen’s ideas and principles and adapted them to modern Chinese realities in the New Rural Reconstruction Movement.

I am actually somewhat upset I had not heard of him before! (I shall certainly have to give some of his works a closer look. Same with Liang Shuming.) It turns out that Dr James Yen is a highly important figure in the history of Chinese left-wing rural activism, and one to whom the Chinese Communist Party is indebted for a great number of its better success stories. He and his theories of peasant organisation, self-empowerment and education continue to be relevant particularly in an era of uneven development and neoliberal ‘reform’, which still seeks to rob the peasant of his hard-won gains.

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