Guangzhou’s Peasant Movement Institute

On a warm Sunday afternoon, I visited the Peasant Movement Institute, which in Mandarin is known as nong jiang suo. Located in the Yuexiu district of the old city center, the Peasant Movement Institute is easy to find since it is a stop on Line 1 of the Guangzhou Metro. The entrance is at the junction of Zhongshan 4th Road and Dezheng Road. Admission is free and open to the public.

Inside and outside of the grounds there are signs commemorating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. It is a busy neighborhood, but once you pass through the stone memorial archway, it is like entering into a space of serenity. Upon entering, I noticed a small stone bridge and a pond. Visitors must cross the bridge in order to enter into the ground’s first courtyard. The architecture was traditional courtyard style, large roofs and tall wooden beams with yellow tiles and red walls.

Panyu Confucian School

The Peasant Movement Institute was based in an old Confucian Temple which also housed the Canton Panyu Confucian School that was founded during the Ming dynasty in the year 1370 A.D. I took note that over one thousand years of history had unfolded at this location before the Peasant Movement Institute was established. Here, Confucian philosophy would be studied, Imperial Exams were taken, and sacrifices were made in honor of Confucius.

The Imperial Examinations were a selection process that enabled people to move up as officials within the bureaucracy of feudal China. The Imperial Examinations commenced in the Sui dynasty (A.D. 581-618) and was well established by the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). However, it would be during the Ming (A.D. 1368-1644) and Q’ing (A.D. 1644-1911) dynasties that it had its greatest influence.

In Minglun Hall, there is a display outlining the Chinese Imperial Examination Culture. It organized the Imperial Examinations into three parts, which included: the History of the Chinese Imperial Examination System, the process of the Chinese Imperial Examination System, and the top scholar in Guangdong province, Zhuangyuan.

Cultural Continuity

One of the interesting observations that I made during my visit is that there seemed to be a high degree of cultural continuity in the Chinese mind down through the various dynasties into the present. This was evident to me in terms of the calligraphy, the writing system that was inscribed in wood and stone throughout the complex. Regardless of the types of character styles, ancient, traditional or simplified, it all came from the same sources of Chinese civilization that anchored the identity of the people who I saw in the museum as well as the students that I teach.

These roots, national consciousness and cosmology, still remained strong, despite the onslaught of Western imperialism and Japanese occupation. Such circumstances and conditions led me to believe that the Chinese identity was not destroyed nor fractured by these forces. Although Chinese society underwent various crises over the past 150 years, it did not make the masses or the elites to turn away from or sever their cultural or cosmological roots. I wondered, why?

Could it be that Chinese consciousness was never colonized, I pondered? While the Chinese state, like all states across Asia and Africa in the nineteenth century, was under constant attack from Western Europe, the Chinese identity has remained largely intact almost escaping the colonial burdens of partition, balkanization and national fragmentation.

Without a doubt, visiting the Peasant Movement Institute is worthwhile for students of history. Here, one can see the development of the Chinese Communist Party in terms of its critical role in organizing the peasants for political struggle. Although it only lasted three years, the Peasant Movement Institute served as an important base where cadres were trained for leadership not only in Guangdong, but across China. In short, it could be argued that the Peasant Movement Institute was the incubator for what would soon become the Red Army.

Peng Pai

An important historical figure who I learned about was Peng Pai, a native of Haifeng County, Guangdong. Peng was born into a wealthy family of landlords. Like a small number of Chinese intellectuals of his generation, Peng was educated in Japan graduating from Tokyo’s Waseda University.

Like many of his generation, Peng’s political consciousness radicalized following the aftermath of World War I. The three events that impacted him greatly were the Russian Revolution, the Tokyo Rice Riots of 1918 and the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. As a result, Peng became more conscious about the conditions and plight of Chinese peasants and saw them as an important class who possessed revolutionary potential.

Class Suicide

As a result, Peng founded the Haifeng County Peasants Society whose chief aim was to struggle and fight for land reform and social rights. Ironically, Peng committed class suicide when he led a revolt by burning the title deeds in public to his inherited land. Pai told the peasants that the land that they worked now belonged to them collectively. Consequently, Pai formed the first countywide Peasant Association in China, the Haifeng County Peasants Association.

Peng joined the Kuomintang in 1924 and became the 1st and 5th term director of the Peasant Movement Institute. It should be noted that it was Peng who suggested to the Kuomintang to establish the Peasant Movement Institute. Peng believed that young leaders needed to be trained how to organize peasants how to struggle against landlords and feudal warlords.

Peng authored a famous study titled, Report on the Haifeng Peasant Movement, which made an important contribution to Chinese Marxism in terms of the vital role of peasants. Peng, like many radicals of that period, was assassinated in Shanghai by the Kuomintang. A statue of Peng Pai sits in one of the courtyards. Peng is regarded as one of the 72 martyrs of the Chinese Revolution.

Other members of the Chinese Communist Party such as Zhou Enlai, Yun Daiying, Xiao Chun, also served as instructors at the Peasant Movement Institute. During its operation, approximately 327 cadets from 20 provinces studied the theories and methods of the peasant movement, receiving strict military training and participated in the revolutionary struggle.

Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese nationalist and revolutionary, also trained at the Guangzhou’s Peasant Movement Institute while he lived in Guangzhou. Minh also lectured to Vietnamese cadets at the Whampoa Military Academy, which was established by the Kuomintang in 1924. It attracted a number of freedom fighters from Vietnam, Korea and other Asian nations.

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong was one of the original founders of the Chinese Communist Party, which was established in Shanghai in 1921. Mao, who also worked closely with peasants in his native Hunan, was appointed as the director of the Sixth Peasant Movement Institute, sponsoring it from May to September, 1926. During Mao’s tenure, there was still cooperation between the Kuomingdang and the Chinese Communist Party.

However, by the end of 1926 the United Front coalition between the Kuomindang and the Chinese Communist Party was broken. Consequently, by the spring of 1927, the Kuomintang mounted a ruthless purge of leftists and Chinese Communist Party members, massacring thousands across China. Both Zhou Enlai and Ho Chi Minh narrowly escaped. This marked the beginning of the first phase of the Chinese Civil War, which lasted until the Xi’an Incident in December, 1936.

Note that the Peasant Movement Institute is also home to the Memorial Museum of Comrade Mao Zedong. Mao is honored as an example of public integrity. A shrine is devoted to Mao, memorializing his tireless sacrifice in assisting in the building of the Chinese Communist Party and his significant leadership role in the Chinese Revolution.

It is important to understand, that what visitors experience in this museum is the young Mao, the years before the Civil War, the Long March and the Second United Front with the Kuomintang following the Xi’an Incident. These and other chapters of Modern Chinese history, including the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, were still in the future for the young revolutionary.

After my visit, I recalled the words of historian John Henrik Clarke who noted, “When we open one door in history, ten other doors can suddenly swing open.” Visiting the Peasant Movement Institute was definitely one of those experiences because many doors opened my mind to more questions about the past.