Review: Prosperity’s Predicament

A revealing eye-witness account of pre-revolutionary China by the CPGB-ML’s Honorary President, Isabel Crook.

In 1940-41, the veteran communist Isabel Crook, then a young anthropologist, was employed alongside Ms Yu Xiji, a Chinese sociologist, to conduct an anthropological survey of 1,500 families living in and around Prosperity, a market village in China’s southwestern Sichuan province.

The research was funded by the National Christian Council, a ‘social evangelist’ organisation devoted to spreading Protestantism in China, through seeking ways to improve the wellbeing of the masses of Chinese people, and by the American Methodist Evangelical Mission.

Isabel’s parents were missionaries who were ultimately to conclude, once they had been able to see for themselves the results of communist-led revolution, that God had sent the communists to China to do His work.

At the time Isabel was working in Prosperity, the Japanese had taken control of much of eastern China, driving the nationalist Guomindang government inland, where they were forced to try to take far greater control of the local economies, as well as to improve productivity, in order to maintain the war against Japan, whilst at the same time fighting to prevent the better organised and better motivated communists taking control of the resistance movement.

The nationalists were committed to spreading education and health measures, as well as fostering a spirit of patriotism. The nationalist drive, however, was resisted and ultimately frustrated by the conservative power structures that had grown up in the decentralised feudal conditions that prevailed in China at the time. Both conscription and taxation by the central Chinese government gave rise to resentment among the masses that the reactionary elements were able to exploit.

The feudal forces were very strong but far too diffuse to enable China to throw out the Japanese aggressors; and Isabel’s book demonstrates the ultimate inability of the Chinese nationalist bourgeoisie to effect lasting social change.

Isabel documents how the capitalist economy was steadily intruding into rural China, with land increasingly being turned over to cash crops, and peasants becoming impoverished and trying to supplement their meagre incomes with production for the market – in particular, in Prosperity, by the production of cloth.

The book is full of fascinating detail regarding life in late feudal society, in which one can see many parallels with life in England at a similar period of development. In particular, it shows the merchant bourgeoisie, who traded in market villages like Prosperity with the support of the feudal landowners, organising themselves for self-protection against anti-social elements in circumstances where the feudal state was unable or unwilling to provide the protection that they needed to carry on their legitimate business. This protection took the form of secret societies, whose members are sworn to unquestioning loyalty, very similar to the Freemasons in Europe.

The book also shows a society where kinship organisations (typical of pre-class society) were still playing some role in politics, having not yet been completely replaced by organisations that were purely territorially based (as is typical of class society).

Where the bourgeois nationalists failed in their attempts to modernise China, the communists, of course, succeeded. Isabel documented this period of change in her book Ten Mile Inn.

Initially, her intention had been to compare and contrast the process of social change under the leadership of the Guomindang with the process of change under the leadership of the communists, but she was soon so caught up in the demands of actually effecting social change that her original plan seemed a quite irrelevant distraction from the urgent tasks at hand.

Prosperity’s Predicament by Isabel Brown Crook, Christina Kelley Gilmartin and Yu Xiji (compiled and edited by Gail Hershatter and Emily Honig) [ISBN 978-1-4422-2574-9] was published in September 2013 by Bowman & Littlefield of Maryland. It is available on Amazon for £24.95 + postage (hardcover) and £23.70 (Kindle edition).

In view of the price, it is useful to remember that you can ask your local library to obtain a copy for you.