The Origins of Chinese Social Revolutions

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2012
10 Pages, Grade: "-"


The Origins of Social Revolutions

“I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass. Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?[1]

Carl Sandburg

Calling for public support and mobilization are generally considered taboo in authoritarian regimes. Yet, during the course of his February 1989 visit to Ukraine, Gorbachev (1931- ) appealed to his public supporters to help fight the enemies of reform and accelerate political and economic reformist programs, “You keep up the pressure. We [the Party] will press from the top, and you keep pressing from the bottom. Only in that way can [social transformations such as] perestroika succeed.”[2] This essay argues that in China, social transformations originate from the mass peasantry, but in order for social transformations to be effective, they need to be transformed into political dogma through effective leadership and party organization. The Rousseauist belief that the “goodness of simple men” can change mankind is not sufficient to revolutionize society, and rule out or alleviate the unilateral class divisions of the old régimes.[3] This essay aims to analyze the role of leadership and the role of the masses in producing social changes in China and addressing regional concerns, and compare the French, Russian and Chinese revolution—of 1949—to illustrate how social transformations are sustained through the coordination of the leadership and mass mobilization. Finally, this essay will also examine how social transformations in China today have exclusively become an affair of party elites, casting aside the role of the masses in social revolutions.

History demonstrates that social transformations come from the revolutionary fervour of the mass peasantry in China.[4] During the May Fourth (1919-1921) movement, intellectuals such as Yan Yangchu (1903-1990) and James Yen (1890-1990) advocated educational reforms through the mass mobilization of farmers and workers to free the Chinese people, especially the mass peasantry, from foreign price manipulation, and industrial exploitation.[5] Organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association, Mass Education Committees, and the National Association of the Mass-Education movement headed by Madame Hsiung His-Ling all aimed to educate the youth and peasantry and prepare them to effect positive social change in China.[6] Li Dazhao (1888-1927), co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, founded in Shanghai in 1921, also emphasized a kind of democratic populism: a majority, the peasantry, should decide what is the main problem society should be addressing, how it should be resolved, out of “its collective sense of dissatisfaction.”[7] Mao Zedong (1893-1976), Li Dazhao’s protégé, believed as well that the course of history was determined by what the majority of Chinese, the peasants, thought and their willingness to engage in revolutionary struggle. But Mao was distrustful of intellectuals and retained a populist-type faith in popular spontaneity, “believing that a cultured people would emerge from the revolutionary—activity of the masses and thereby realize his vision of a nation of socialist, conscious, cultured laborers.”[8] Maoist revolutionary strategy took the form of mobilizing peasants to “surround and overwhelm” the urban cities.[9] The breeding ground of the social revolution was in the countryside, amongst the masses, where most of the Chinese population learned the “true repository of social and cultural creativity [and revolution].”[10] In 1927, in Hunan, Mao declared how the force of the peasantry “smashed the tu and tuan, the old organs of political power,

The masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves [the Party leadership] are often childish and ignorant, and without this understanding it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge. Twenty-four years of experience tell us that the right task, policy, and style of work invariably conform with the demands of the masses ... and that the wrong task, policy, and style of work invariably disagree with the demands of the masses. Nothing could stand in the way of the peasant movement for it was as natural and elemental as the rise of “a tornado or tempest, a force so extraordinarily swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to suppress it.[11]


[1] “The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement,” last modified April 13, 2012,

[2] Russell Bova, “Political Dynamics of the Post-Communist Transition: A Comparative Perspective,” World Politics 44 (1991): 120, accessed April 12, 2012,

[3] Maurice Meisner, “Leninism and Maoism: Some Populist Perspectives on Marxism-Leninism in China,” The China Quarterly 45 (1971): 6, accessed April 12, 2012,

[4] “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” last modified April 13, 2012,

[5] James Yen. The Mass Education Movement in China. (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1925), 10.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Peter Zarrow. China in War and Revolution, 1895-1949. (New York: Routledge, 2005), 156.

[8] “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Blecher, Marc, “Consensual Politics in Rural Chinese Communities: The Mass Line in Theory and Practice,” MODERN CHINA 5 (1979): 106, accessed April 12, 2012.

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The Origins of Chinese Social Revolutions
McGill University
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De Zhong Gao (Author), 2012, The Origins of Chinese Social Revolutions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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