The Spiral Road: Change in a Chinese Historical Review

Updated on June 23, 2018

As with other books which are non-primary sources, The Spiral Road: Change in a Chinese Village Through the Eyes of a Communist Party Leader by Huang Shu-min has its flaws as well as strengths. It covers the story of Ye, a Communist party village cadre in Lin village in Southern China (just across from Taiwan), during the period of libealization after China's pro-market reforms, in a period stretching across several decades from the late 1980s to the 2000s. During this time, the village is immensely changed by the influence of capitalism and social alterations, and Ye is both shaped and shapes the environment around him, in a surprisingly human and complex figure. This book attempts to mark a third line between being a purely primary and being a purely secondary source, utilizing chiefly primary sources, but with the addition of secondary information from the author. However, the author admits candidly that it still contains biases, like with any book concerning people : people are after all, not machines, and are not scientific, and so studying them inevitably produces biases and imperfections. For example, he purposefully chose to not recount some of the more precise political observations of Ye, the Communist village party leader who he was studying, for fear that it might be used against him in future political shake-ups of China. 1 While certainly showing appropriate concern for the protection of those researched - one can presume that he would have passed CITI training (required for researchers dealing with human subjects to ensure that they understand how to appropriately protect the rights of their research cases) - it also reflects that the finished story is edited in some ways. This may be for political benefit, or it may be for personal reasons - perhaps the story that Ye tells is biased to reflect more positively on himself, which is pretty much an inevitability in any self-reflection - but, regardless, it does incorporate some form of exceptions in the way that he is portrayed. It also shows that the Spiral Road is written for a mass audience, one that is presumably directed at Taiwan (although it could be just a general Western audience) given that Huang Shu-min comes from there. Taiwan is mentioned variously with its relationship to the village be it through propaganda broadcasts or investment (never negatively), while a previous staple of foreign relations, the USA, is glaringly absent. These elements of international relations, political influences, and personal friendships will always leave their mark on a book about people.

Compared to Born Red, an autobiography set during the Cultural Revolution, there are some elements of historical reflection which are improved upon. In Born Red, the memoir had a bias to attempt to discredit the communist system which Gao Yuan had experienced and now was recounting to an American audience. In The Spiral Road, Ye seems to be placed in a position which enables him to be a more neutral observer. He stands between both a communist cadre and at the doorstep of a new age, without the need for him to be too biased towards one political view or another, and able to peer into both. Admittedly though, he does hold an intensely negative perspective on class conflict which colors his interpretation of PRC policy before the 1980s, and could be a source of bias.

What I believe is a picture of Lin Village, but I might be wrong. Regardless, a Chinese (or Taiwanese) village.
What I believe is a picture of Lin Village, but I might be wrong. Regardless, a Chinese (or Taiwanese) village.

Huang Shu-min writes the book from the view of an outsider, coming into Lin village from America. While this allows him to avoid most of the problems of preconceived stereotypes, these issues do emerge throughout the book. At times he is taken aback by differences in what Ye relays has happened compared to what he had learned, such as in case of prostitution or the Cultural Revolution. His portrayal of Chinese may be, despite his best efforts, still prone to clichés. To my eyes, the image that he paints of Ye in particular falls into this category. Ye is shown as a pre-capitalist (despite his financial capacity, the author still sees him as “one of the last true believers [in marxism]), soon to be crushed by the ruthless wheels of market mechanisms and individual competition.” 2 He is portrayed as a noble, powerful semi-despot who legitimately cares for his people, but still a relic of a bygone age. It isn’t hard to see this as a potential orientalist cliché. Perhaps Ye really is like this, but I’m still wary that he is being formed to fit this mold.

Beyond such problems, there is also a simpler one; Ye’s Lin village in many ways seems atypical of elements of the Chinese modernization. Of course, not everything is different but there are areas where it seems quite unique. Ye - if we are to believe him at least - avoids the issues of personally corrupt party cadres, a problem which is easy to emerge in a more prosperous China where the party continues to have dictatorial control. 3 To some extent, Ye’s village avoids issues of inequality 4 , although these are starting to emerge as admitted by Ye, 5 definitely rearing their head in the later 1990s, and is prosperous and developing, designated as a model village. We are seeing the Chinese economic reforms in not only a single specific region, but also in a way that paints an intensely positive light upon it, one that should be taken into account.

The setting of the book politically is far more resilient than previously, although there are significant economic changes sweeping through China. Near the start of Huang Shu-min’s journey, the university at which he was teaching still taught the doctrine of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, in a rigid and politically-mandated fashion6, almost in defiance of the reality of what was happening outside of the classroom windows. Although economic reform pushes ahead, the party is clearly uninterested in losing power, with the education system in particular being something imperative to maintain control over. It is an amusing contrast to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, when the economic ideology pressed for communism while the political
ideology left China in chaos.

The trend of the Chinese government putting out loose directives for interpretation by those on the ground is also still present as in the Cultural Revolution. The government would send out general policy directives with no direct orders, just general guidelines. In The Spiral Road, Ye is sometimes without direct advice from the state. "...the government has recently been relaxing its control of the countryside. Many peasants have taken this to mean that they can do whatever they want to do, such as gambling, stealing, and fist fighting. They interpret my intervention as a violation of their rights, but I don’t think this is a correct interpretation of the new government policy. 7

This general interpretation of government policies thus continues themes present in earlier eras, showing either limitations of the Chinese state, or at least certain of its governing styles. There is also a continuing theme of the importance of influence and networks over the law, such as when Ye intervened to prevent the sentencing for the speeding of Lin Qishan, the landlord of the author, thus gaining influence. 8 Of course, this would be easy to ascribe to “Guanxi,” (the network of social relationships which is commonly discussed in relation to China) however, some reserve must be kept in that the battle for influence and the granting of favors is as old and as universal as time itself, with only the Scandinavians managing the delusion to imagine that their officials don’t play the same game. The Chinese too have their concerns about corrupt officials, coming out in campaigns like that of the Four Cleanups. Perhaps this direction stems from traditional Confucian attitudes about promoting honest officials, but such personal relations don’t seem to count for corruption.

The Spiral Road also focuses on the artificialities of the Chinese class structure. Wan Li, a former sharecropper, left to the South Seas to work as a laborer and earned enough money to enable purchase of land from the Lins. This is hardly the image of a brutally, exploitative landlord, and yet, if he had not returned just before the revolution and didn’t meet the time limit, he would have been classified as such. 9 In practice, class lines were not so solid, and people’s status within them could vary throughout their lives, a reality at odds with the Communist vision of an alien and entrenched feudal aristocracy. In some ways this is almost admitted, due to the ease with which it was possible to re-categorize various peasants as middle or rich. Such is the case of Lin Da being recategorized as a rich peasant by his conniving brother Lin Shan, with the assistance of a Party work team. 10 These are the problems shown first-hand in Born Red.

Not everything was as happy in the Chinese countryside as propaganda would have it during the communist era : in addition to material shortages the old "elites" of the landlords and the "rich" peasants faced systemic discrimination.
Not everything was as happy in the Chinese countryside as propaganda would have it during the communist era : in addition to material shortages the old "elites" of the landlords and the "rich" peasants faced systemic discrimination.

Ye portrays the typical Communist narrative of the Cultural Revolution; the youth of the country was “ensured” as “a few politicians fanned the frantic zeal of young people.” 11 This ignores some of the contradictions that the Cultural Revolution was fed by, such as disputes between those who had been designated with different political and revolutionary heritage. Of course, it wasn’t as though politicians were meaningless in this affair, but it still shows that even someone who has had the curtain of illusions ripped away can still often follow and believe the party line. Still, like most of the Chinese people, he is highly cynical about the Chinese government, a direct product of the Cultural Revolution.

In addition, the book provides a good general overview of many of the events which occurred in China, both through discussion between Ye and the author, and also in the author’s own writing upon the subject. In this regard, the book relates most closely to Blood Road, which also provided a steady categorization of political events. The problems of the Great Leap famine is particularly well covered, with its excessive enthusiasm, food over-consumption and politically-induced under-production, as well as propaganda cover ups, differing levels of famine per population densities, and the folly of the backyard steel furnaces - although this neglects to mention some of the price systems that drove their adoption by making them profitable.12 So too is the period of reform and opening, as Ye details the various changes that took place in peasant agriculture. 13

Despite the momentous political changes that have characterized China in the twentieth century, in some ways the social outlook and customs of the Chinese people remain curiously unchanged. For example, Ye, despite being a Communist party official, believes in various superstitions that seem incongruous coming from a party which had so vociferously tried to stamp out thought such as the “Four Olds.” He has significant interest in “geomancy,” the proper siting of Chinese burials and therefore attributes plagues and female barrenness to damages to tombs. 14 This is especially amusing given that Ye does stick to his household - despite being married to a Communist party member. It is easy to see the tensions that would gather between these different ideas of the role of women.

A Feng Shui compass used in geomancy to appropriately site buildings in line with mystical principles.
A Feng Shui compass used in geomancy to appropriately site buildings in line with mystical principles. | Source

It is ironic that Ye has the aforementioned interest in geomancy, when alternatively he thinks of himself as a materialist and secularist who doesn’t follow the same superstitious beliefs of the other villagers. When pressed upon this issue, he parrots the party line, stating “It is an idealist nonsense that we, the materialists, strongly object to. I am against feudalistic superstitious.” 15 His actual actions however, are quite different. Humanity has an incredible ability to reconcile competing information such as this.

Another element revealed in the narrative was how the attitude towards women differed in the countryside vis-à- vis the standard party image. The Chinese communist party promoted equality of men and women, sometimes at significant political cost to itself. This was often brought into practice with the participation of women in party work, such as a young woman in a work team during the 1960s. 16 Ye’s wfe, Baozhu, is still silent and submissive, 17 at least in public. Woe betide the husband who annoys the woman who manages his household. If there can be an overall theme of the book, it might be that despite the tremendous upheavals which gripped China throughout the 20th century, at the end in many ways it remained
curiously unchanged. Certainly, this is not a stereotype of an unchanging orient counterposed against a fluid and dynamic occident - things did change in China. The country developed rapidly economically, however, celebrations like the birthday of the Holy Benevolent Emperor, the most important local deity, was not especially out of place up to the turn of the 20th century. The communists might not like it, but they tolerated it, and the peasants found solace in it.

Of course, the book happens under the backdrop of reformation and opening up of the Chinese economy as the government starts to liberalize agricultural holdings 18 and allow in Westerners. 19 The development of rural industry, a key part of the early Chinese economic development after the reforms, is prominently present. 20 This also includes noticeable importation of “advanced” technology from overseas, such as mechanized brick production which came from Yugoslavia or from Poland. 21 The opening part of reform is an aspect which should not be easily overlooked. The tremendous developments that derive internally from China should be placed in pride of light of course too; Lin village well represents the effective model of rural industry that helped to propel the initial development of the Chinese economy. 22

The incompleteness of the previous planned economy system is obvious, rarely
completely fitting to the people whom operate under it. Ye noted that petty theft and stealing was endemic, as workers would simply pull up agricultural crops from the field, viewing it as being in common and hence their own. 23 The problem extended to other materials, such as lumber, stone, and tools. For this, the state distribution system and the system of property rights drove these as ways to circumvent scarcity. So too, despite prostitution being formally eradicated, it quietly still existed. 24 The limits of the state’s management of economy are clearly shown.

Of course, capitalism has its own institutional relationships that aren’t quite official, and Ye goes to great lengths to elaborate upon them. The gasoline industry is what strikes one as the most unconventional method, with the state supplies being carefully secured to avoid purchasing from a more expensive market. 25 However, this isn’t strictly illegal per se. It does however, show some of the potential avenues for corruption that can exist in a society which still continues to employ substantial state-price systems alongside the emerging market-set system; the temptation to use low-priced state supplies for private industry is very high.

There are also signs from the past of environmental changes. As China’s population started to run up against land scarcity in the Qing-era expansion, farmers were increasingly forced to cultivate more marginal soils. This was the case in Lin village as well, with the inhabitants - the Lins - moving into the region some two hundred years prior. 26 One example of the focus frugality is seen in Ye’s reaction to wasted food, when some rice cake which had spoilt. Ye is shocked and angered by this, sending him back in memory to the terrible days of the Great Leap Forward. 27 Peasants also utilized the incompletely burned coal dust from a Xinglin power plant - an otherwise useless byproduct - to provide a slow-burning substance that could be used for keeping fires going overnight and hence reducing the need for cooking fires to be restarted in the morning. 28

The vast clouds of pollution from China spiral off its coast into Korea : during the pre-capitalist era, China was too poor to produce such a huge amount of noxious fumes.
The vast clouds of pollution from China spiral off its coast into Korea : during the pre-capitalist era, China was too poor to produce such a huge amount of noxious fumes.

Naturally, a plate of food is not representative of an entire economy ideology. Doubtless, there was significant waste in the factory-industrial sector due both to inevitable production of pollution and malinvestment of a command economy, however, it still shows a peasantry that was highly resourceful and efficient. As they grow more prosperous and as the memory of famines like the Great Leap Forward recede, their consumption and waste will naturally increase.

China is not a static and immobile society. In the 1980s, it was undergoing economic change the likes of which had rarely been seen in world history, married to tremendous political changes over the previous few decades. It had seen a century in which it had utterly changed, starting out as a traditional empire, then becoming a warlord regime, then an authoritarian republic, a communist state, and ultimately a capitalist transformation. It would be foolish to deny these changes, and to see China as only being a society dictated by what does not change. However, the continuation of traditions and the shedding of communism reflect a trend of continuance in China that does not bend easily in the wind. Perhaps the Chinese would say that a civilization of 5,000 years does not easily change. Regardless, this sociological work is an enlightening study of rural China during the first decades of its economic transformation. It shows the lives and concerns of daily people, how they changed, and what they gained and lost. Constantly the book will surprise the reader with new changes and developments, as another change and modification happens to China, just when one thought that one had safely arrived at the present. For anybody interested in modern China, in the capitalist transformation, in village life, a good sociological study, traditions in China, or a host of other things, this makes for a wonderful book, one which reads more like a novel than a simple dry historical work.


Shu-min, Huang. The Spiral Road: Change in a Chinese Village Through the Eyes of a
Communist Party Leader (Long Grove: Waveland Press, 1998).


1 Huang Shu-min, The Spiral Road: Change in a Chinese Village Through the Eyes of a Communist Party Leader
(Long Grove, Waveland Press, 1998), 14.

2 Shu-min, The Spiral Road, 225.
3 Ibid.,225
4 Ibid., 149-150.
5 Ibid.,194.

8 Ibid., 69.
9 Ibid., 47.
10 Ibid., 72.

11 Ibid., 92.
12 Ibid., 59-60.
13 Ibid., 137-140.

14 Ibid., 28.
15 Ibid., 35.
16 Ibid., 76.
17 Ibid., 78.

18 Ibid., 25.
19 Ibid., 12.
20 Ibid., 26.
21 Ibid., 192.
22 Ibid., 199.
23 Ibid., 115.
24 Ibid.,124.

25 Ibid.,147.
26 Ibid., 27.
27 Ibid., 56.
28 Ibid., 105.

5 stars for The Spiral Row

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