When we consider microhistory, it is almost always in an analytical and academic context. While it is obviously impossible to escape some degree of bias, the historian is only human after all, an attempt at objectivity is the order of the day. This does not mean that this approach is universal, however. In this post, I will discuss one of the most famous works of what could be considered micro-history, and one that resists strongly the idea that microhistory must inherently be an academic and non-partisan affair.
Fanshen was published in 1966 by William Hinton, a Marxist sinologist. Having come to China to act as a tractor technician for the United Nations relief effort, Hinton experienced the victory of the People’s Liberation Army over the Kuomintang first-hand. He went on to write a history of the revolution which followed Mao Zedong’s victory and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. This all seems to be interesting but not entirely relevant to the subject of microhistory. However, the relevance of Fanshen to the discipline is revealed by its tagline A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village. Hinton explained the effects of the total reorganisation of Chinese society through the prism of the village of Zhangzhuangcun, which he referred to as “Long Bow”.
The book details first the privations of rural existence in China before the revolution along with its inequalities. Along with statistics about the region, Hinton uses many anecdotes to illustrate the scale of inequality, such as that peasants were forbidden from relieving themselves in their own fields but instead had to do so in the fields of their landlord. The subsequent revolution is similarly described, with breathless descriptions about the many meetings and changing laws that characterised the change from feudalism to CPC rule. Key to the particular relevance of “Long Bow is that it was occupied by the Japanese, and so did not experience the pre-war efforts at land reform, and so experienced the greatest change following the victory of the communists. It is for this reason that Hinton named the book “Fanshen”, which literally means “to turn over”. This allowed Hinton to, through careful study of a single village, reveal a great deal about China’s condition as a whole, especially how it had changed thanks to the revolution.
Fanshen was one of the most popular books about the Chinese Revolutions, and one of the most popular microhistories, published. However, it was not a non-partisan work. As has already been mentioned, Hinton was a Communist, and would go on to live in China for much of his life, becoming a vocal critic of the Dengist transition to “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” by the end of his life. He thanks in the acknowledgments the “Communist Party and the People’s Government of Lucheng County”, as well as a host of leftist American intellectuals. Amusingly the acknowledgments also include a Milton Friedman, although this refers to Hinton’s attorney, who secured the release of his papers from the Senate Committee on Internal Security, not the libertarian economist. The book was one of the first glimpses of what life inside the PRC was like and had an impact comparable to Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China. It is clear that microhistory can be written, and can in fact be incredibly successful, outside of a purely academic context.