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Eisenman, Joshua. 2018. Red China's Green Revolution: Technological Innovation, Institutional Change, and Economic Development Under the Commune. New York: Columbia University Press.

Felix Wemheuer
p. 60-61

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1In this book, Joshua Eisenman presents a revisionist approach to the Chinese People’s Communes era (1958-1983). One of his main goals is to question common narratives in Chinese and Western research that the communes would have been an economic failure and that only decollectivisation under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s set agriculture on the right track. Eisenman is not motivated by nostalgia for so-called Maoist “egalitarianism.” Rather, he argues strictly in economic terms, claiming that the communes were a successful model to modernise agriculture, increase productivity in grain production, and promote the green revolution, at least in the 1970s. This institution would have allowed the state to enforce household austerity in the villages, reallocating these savings for investment in machinery, irrigation systems, fertilizers, small factories, or agricultural schools.

2Eisenman introduces the reader to several changes in the commune system: For example, the period of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) (1958-61) was characterised by over-saving and unproductive investments such as the steel campaign. The Rightist Commune (1962-64) in the aftermath of the famine resulted in under-saving. According to Eisenman, the best model was the Green Revolution Commune (1970-79) characterised by high saving rates allocated to useful and productive investments. In Chapter Four, he uses neoclassic economic growth models from Solow-Swan and Arthur Lewis to prove this argument. Most of the data sets in the book are taken from official Chinese statistics published in the 1980s.

3In Chapter Five on politics, Eisenman argues that the communes would have been the “churches” of Maoism (p. 254). With rituals like songs, dance, or readings of the Little Red Book, the Party indoctrinated commune members to work hard, to be self-reliant, to consume little and to save resources. By doing so, politics contributed to the communes’ accumulation of capital. In the last part of the book, Eisenman argues that the communes did not face an economic crisis when Deng came to power after 1978. It would have been much more a political decision of the Party leadership to gradually dissolve the communes in order to bury the collectivist ideology of the Mao era.

4Red China’s Green Revolution is a thoughtful provocation and should be discussed. To combine approaches from neoclassical economy, organisational theory, history, and politics is innovative, but not always easy to follow. The author presents himself as a “young Turk” challenging the field. However, he does not engage with major academic works related to his topic and even ignores them. For example, Kenneth Walker published several books and articles on grain production in the commune era, using official statistics from the 1980s, and re-evaluating them in a critical way (Walker 1984). Robert Ash also came to a much less rosy conclusion than Eisenman (Ash 1998; Ash 2006: 993). This is also true for prominent Chinese scholar Wen Tiejun 溫鐵軍, who has argued that low agricultural prices helped the industries and cities to develop at the expense of the countryside (Wen 2000: 175-7). A key institution in this context was the state monopoly for the purchase and sale of grain, which is hardly mentioned by Eisenman.

5Some scholars have argued that late Maoism in the 1970s was quite successful in economic and social development. However, if Eisenman wants to prove that the 1970s were more successful than the decollectivisation era, he should have compared both periods. Instead, his data sets end mostly in 1979 or 1983.

6Eisenman argues that after the end of the GLF there is no evidence that commune members were “starving or too hungry to work” (xxiv). It seems to be true that no massive-scale deadly famine took place in China after 1962. I have proposed that the government had learnt lessons from the Great Leap to lower the peasants’ burden, to limit the growth of the urban population, and to import grain to feed the cities. These policies were more important to prevent famine than the slight increase in grain production per head (Wemheuer 2014: 142-7). A repetition of the Great Famine was avoided; however, several reports show that in some regions, peasants faced malnutrition and hunger even in the late commune era (Chen 1998; Fu, Hu and Feng 2008). By the end of the Mao era, peasants ate fewer fine grains (rice and wheat) and more unpopular coarse grains (sweet potato etc.) than they had 20 years before (Ash 2006: 990). By international standards, the Chinese population could not eat their fill in the Mao era. Only in 1978 could China for the first time meet the minimum level of basic nutrition of over 2,400 calories a day per person, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) (Nussbaumer and Ruthemann 2003, Vol. 1: 116).

7In Eisenman’s book, we learn little about peasants’ reactions to changes in the commune system. However, several studies show that they developed a set of strategies to hide resources from the state such as stealing, “eating green” (meaning unripe grain), and underreporting grain and land (Thaxton 2008; Gao 2013). According to Eisenman, honest peasants were working hard in the “churches of Maoism” because they were indoctrinated by the Party. However, his examples for quasi-religious rituals are mostly taken from the peak of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), and are not representative of the whole commune era. In any case, if Joshua Eisenman uses comprehensive empirical research and challenges previous research’s emphasis on resistance within the communes, he should at least mention and engage with these studies.

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Ash, Robert (ed.). 1998. Agricultural Development in China, 1949-1989: The Collected Papers of Kenneth Walker (1931-1989). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ash, Robert. 2006. “Squeezing the Peasants: Grain Extraction, Food Consumption and Rural Living Standards in Mao’s China.” China Quarterly 188: 959-98.

Chen, Dabin 大斌. 1998. 饥饿革: 一个者的经历与思考 (Ji’e yinfa de biange: Yige zishen jizhe de qinshen jingli yu sikao, A Transformation That Was Caused by Hunger: Thoughts and Personal Experiences of a Senior Journalist). Beijing: Zhonggong dangshi chubanshe.

Fu, Shanglun 傅上伦, Hu Guohua 胡国华, and Feng Dongshu 冯东书 (eds.). 2008. 告别饥饿1978 (Gaobie ji’e 1978, Farewell to Hunger 1978). Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.

Gao, Wangling 高王凌. 2013. 中国民反行研究 (1950-1980) (Zhongguo nongmin fanxingwei yanjiu (1950-1980), Research on the Counter-behaviour of Chinese Peasants). Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.

Walker, Kenneth. 1984. Food Grain Procurement and Consumption in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaumer, Josef, and Ruthemann Guido. 2003. Gewalt, Macht, Hunger: Schwere Hungerkatastrophen seit 1845 (Violence, Power, and Hunger: Catastrophes of Hunger since 1845). Innsbruck: Studienverlag.

Thaxton, Ralph. 2008. Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wemheuer, Felix. 2014. Famine Politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wen, Tiejun 温铁军. 2000. 中国村基本经济制度研究 (Zhongguo nongcun jiben jingji zhidu yanjiu, Research on the Basic Economic System of Rural China). Beijing: Zhongguo jingji chubanshe.

Zhang, Letian 张乐天. 1998. 告别理想: 人民公社制度研究 (Gaobie lixiang: renmin gongshe zhidu yanjiu, Farewell to Ideals: Research on the System of the People’s Communes). Shanghai: Renmin chubanshe.

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Bibliographical reference

Felix Wemheuer, « Eisenman, Joshua. 2018. Red China's Green Revolution: Technological Innovation, Institutional Change, and Economic Development Under the Commune. New York: Columbia University Press. », China Perspectives, 2020/4 | 2020, 60-61.

Electronic reference

Felix Wemheuer, « Eisenman, Joshua. 2018. Red China's Green Revolution: Technological Innovation, Institutional Change, and Economic Development Under the Commune. New York: Columbia University Press. », China Perspectives [Online], 2020/4 | 2020, Online since 01 December 2020, connection on 11 May 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Felix Wemheuer

Felix Wemheuer is Professor of Modern China Studies at the University of Cologne. University of Cologne, Department of East Asian Studies, Albertus-Magnus-Platz, 50923, Cologne,

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