Return to Main Page
4 of 10

Traditional Chinese society was based on an agricultural economy.  Historians refer to the rural Chinese social structure as an example of "moral economy," meaning that people in rural villages pooled resources, and that there was a built in safety net and mechanisms of redistribution to assure that no one fell below a level of subsistence (except, of course, in times of famine when starvation was unavoidable).  "Moral economy" is typical of traditional rural socieities around the world, but it does not mean that social inequalities did not exist in these societies.  In fact, those inequalities were often quite wide, as in the case of traditional, pre-revolutionary China.  This diagram on land concentration in refers to a community in Northern Jiangsu prior to the revolution, but is typical of much of China prior to the Land Reform carried out by Mao's new communist government in the early 1950s.  We see that a very small number of landowners (about twelve families) owned the overwhelming majority of the land (436,000 sq. mi.) in Northern Jiangsu.  There were a few rich and middle peasants who owned their own land and livestock, but the overwhelming majority of the population (about 850 families) were poor peasants who owned no land and very little livestock.  Landless peasants rented small plots of land from the wealthy landowners and/or rich peasants and hired themselves out as laborers to work the land of others.  Rapid population growth in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to ever-increasing pressures on the land, and control over land ownership was one of the main issues driving the rise of communism and the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Source:  Keith Buchanan, China:  The Land and the People (New York:  Crown Publishers, 1980).