Book Review: Land Wars: The Story of China’s Agrarian Revolution

  • Published
  • By Brian DeMare; Reviewed by April A. Herlevi, PhD

Land Wars: The Story of China’s Agrarian Revolution by Brian DeMare. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019, 168 pp.


Land is more than the ground we walk on—it is imbued with economic, political, and social meaning. Land Wars is an adeptly written history of China’s rural revolution in the 1940s and early 1950s. During this formative period, Mao Zedong secured communist rule throughout China. Brian DeMare shows how transforming the countryside was integral to this effort. Land became intertwined with dividing the population, inculcating class struggle, and achieving “Mao’s violent version of rural revolution” (p. 5). Land reform may appear esoteric to a modern audience, but this book illustrates the integral role of narratives in communist ideology.

The goal of Land Wars is to investigate “the entire process of agrarian revolution” (p. x) and explain the inconsistencies in that process. DeMare is an associate professor of history at Tulane University and draws upon extensive archives to accomplish these core tasks. First, he shows the complexity of land reform by explaining prominent narratives and describing bias of key sources. Narratives have always been critical to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but this book illustrates how those narratives are foundational. Second, DeMare offers a fresh perspective on class struggle by addressing the role of women in rural revolution. Communist leaders promised liberation but the reality of gender roles in China complicated the ability of women to achieve that end.

DeMare dedicates one chapter to each phase of rural reform—arriving, organizing, dividing, struggling, and turning. This organizational structure gives the book coherence, which is useful for an audience unfamiliar with this period of Chinese history. Each chapter begins with the narratives told at the time and then utilizes new archival sources to show where reality matched the narrative or diverged. Specifically, DeMare addresses William Hinton’s description of one particular village in the well-known book, Fanshen.1 Fanshen was “translated into ten languages, [and] no other book has had a stronger impact on the global understanding of Mao’s rural revolution” (p. 135). However, Hinton’s singular examination of Long Bow Village diverts attention from the rich variation in land reform that actually occurred. DeMare corrects this bias and shows that agrarian revolution defies any one generalization.

As the United States military shifts from fighting terrorism to great-power competition, policy makers must also avoid simplistic generalizations. A nuanced understanding of China is necessary, and practitioners should learn how communist ideology has shaped policy outcomes and the entirety of China’s political system. Communism in China diverged from the Soviet model, in part, because of the role of rural revolution. For the CCP, theory and practice had to merge. Cadres “could memorize the Marxist canon” (p. 34), but doing so was insufficient for Mao. Early land reform campaigns required learning about the proletariat, going to the countryside, and “actively siding with the peasantry in class struggle” (p. 34).

Land Wars is worth reading for several reasons. First, the narrative of Mao continues to change as China evolves. Xi Jinping’s effort to bolster his legitimacy by resurrecting Mao, requires scholars to evaluate Mao’s legacy. Second, the CCP’s relationship with land policy is vital for understanding modern China. Land reform brought the Communists to power, as DeMare exquisitely narrates, but the process took distinct trajectories throughout the country. Chinese communism has never been monolithic. Third, DeMare shows the many “contradictory messages” sent by the CCP (p.120), including debates about whether violent means or achieving land reform ends was the key component of struggle. This contribution is most clearly articulated in “Struggling: Inside the Furnace of Reform” (Chapter 4), which shows how party leaders “remained firmly opposed to any suggestion of peaceful land reform.” Party work teams, at times, mobilized “landlord intellectuals” when it helped meet the objectives of land reform, but “struggle” (斗争; douzheng) demanded violence according to some cadres (p. 104). Achieving land reform was insufficient; for Mao violent struggle, denunciation, and “settling of accounts” mattered more. Thus, the struggle that climaxed during the Cultural Revolution was a continuation of long-standing tendencies.

The violence inherent in struggle also prevented women from achieving the liberation promised by the CCP. Chinese communists offered women a stake in the PRC, and Mao recognized the “plight of rural women” (p. 16). As CCP work teams reached the countryside and “sought to bring women into the process of mobilization” (p. 62), those CCP cadres fostered “the idea of landlords as sexual predators” (p. 96). However, during later stages of rural revolution, “sexual misconduct among village cadres” surfaced as well (p. 153). DeMare notes that it seems “reasonable to assume that sexual assault was just as common as the killing of class enemies,” which could mean as many as 2 million incidents (p. 162). Precise estimates of sexual assault are difficult to confirm, but discrediting landlords became mixed with abuse by Party cadres. Class struggle offered liberation, but instead, sexual assault became one more element of Mao’s violent struggle.

The key premise of Land Wars—that “land reform campaigns comprise a critical moment in modern Chinese history”—echoes a larger point about how land becomes politicized. The CCP remains the essential organizing body for the PRC, and land is a key source of wealth. Today’s “land wars” manifest much differently, but the CCP’s efforts to assert control over Hong Kong and Xinjiang illustrates two points.2 First, the CCP has not yet secured its territorial integrity and is thus expending considerable effort to shape global and domestic narratives.3 DeMare concludes by noting that Xi Jinping, “continues to insist on clinging to Mao’s revolutionary narrative to bolster the party’s legitimacy” (p. 166). Second, control over domestic land has become intimately tied to the PRC security apparatus, using technology to monitor the physical space and its inhabitants. For US policy makers, practitioners, and scholars to fully assess these trends, we need to evaluate CCP narratives—and their reality—both past and present.

April A. Herlevi, PhD


1 William Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997). Originally published in 1966.

2 For the full text of the law, see: “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” (2020), For an analysis of the law, see: Donald Clarke, “Hong Kong’s National Security Law: An Assessment,” China Leadership Monitor: Quick Take, 13 July 2020, For analysis of the domestic security changes in Xinjiang, see: Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Domestic Security in China under Xi Jinping,” China Leadership Monitor, 1 March 2019,

3 For analysis of Chinese domestic and international narratives, see: Lutgard Lams, “Examining Strategic Narratives in Chinese Official Discourse under Xi Jinping,” Journal of Chinese Political Science 23 (9 March 2018): 387–411, For analysis of China’s efforts to shape the global media environment, see: Elizabeth Bachman, Black and White and Red All Over: China’s Improving Foreign-Directed Media (Arlington, VA: CNA, August 2020),; and Heidi Holz and Anthony Miller, China’s Playbook for Shaping the Global Media Environment (Arlington, VA: CNA, February 2020),




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