Local gentry and rural cadres: the actual link between state and peasants referat

Local gentry and rural cadres:
the actual link between
state and peasants.

final essay for the seminar:

Social Structure and Kinship System in Rural China.

Professor Guo Xiaolin

Spring Semester 2000

. Preface p. 3
. I.I The Gentry: a general outline and main features p. 3
. I.II Duties and functions of the gentry p. 5
. II.I Rural Cadres: a new status earned by peasants p. 9
. II.II Rural cadres: pivots of the agricultural production p. 10
. II.III Other important duties and functions carried out by the cadres p. 12
. III.I What is common between gentry and rural cadres p. 13
. III.II The differences between cadres and gentry p. 15
. Conclusion p. 17


The social groups relevant for the socio-political order in rural China were first the rural gentry and then the rural cadres. They had different origins, moreover the cadres' origins were diametrically opposed to the gentry's origins. But anyway these two groups can be compared for a lot of reasons among which most important was the fact that they had the same place in the socio-political framework of the Chinese state.
What I am going to do in this essay is first to give a quite simple description of what was the gentry, finding out by what kind of men constituted this class and how they could enter it . Then similarly, I am going to introduce a general outline of who were the rural cadres, their origins and how a man could become one. In the following paragraphs I will try to analyse the duties and the functions accomplished by the gentry in rural society and then the duties and the functions carried out by the cadres in the same field. Finally I will try to draw a comparison between the roles of the gentry and the cadres, first finding out what was common, actually many of their roles within society were the same, and then describing what was different between them and the reason why this difference existed.

I.I The Gentry: a general outline and main features.

China has always been ruled by an absolute monarchy and the Emperor was the only person who held the power. Theoretically the Emperor's word was law and he was the only one left outside the law itself, all the others were only subjects obliged to obey, with many duties to carry out but no rights at all. However the Emperor could not administer the country by himself, he had to rely upon a certain number of officials that he needed in ruling a so huge country. These officials functioned as servants with a certain administrative power. The number of officials was very limited, enough big to rule but, at the same time, enough small to be not dangerous for the ruling dynasty. Thus they had to rely on the social group from where they were coming from, the gentry, in order to accomplish their aims.
The main aim of the officials supported by the gentry, was to carry out the orders of the Emperor at the village level, in few words to meet the demands of money (obtained toward taxation) and of men for military purpose (obtained toward conscription). The only way to meet these demands was to shift their burden onto the common people under them. They had to obey the Emperor's orders and at the same time be careful with the people in fact if the demands were too heavy they would become the first scapegoats to be attacked.
Since it was a dangerous and very difficult task to accomplish, one could ask what was the reason why many people sought to become part of the officials. Fei Hsiao-Tung has answered this question comparing the necessity for becoming an official with the need for being inoculated , once the inoculation is over, one has gained 'protection' and can extend it to his entire family. Without any person to rely on at court it was difficult for a family to protect itself from the sovereign that could see somebody's else enrichment as his own diminishment of wealth. In this kind of perspective, the main aim of the Chinese officials was not to work for the State's sake but to gain protection at court and privileges for themselves and their relatives. When this task had been performed then they could retire. Fei Hsiao-Tung says in his essay: "This is the sort of man [retired official] I mean by gentry. The gentry may be returned officials or the relatives of officials or simply educated landowners" . In few word we can say that the gentry class is closely linked with the group of the scholar-officials and they frequently overlapped. Moreover between these two groups there was a biunivocal relationship, since the officials were coming from the gentry and then the gentry itself could exist only thanks to the official and their 'inoculation'.
This 'inoculation' could mainly be obtained passing the imperial examinations. One, who passed these exams, automatically became a member of the gentry class. However this was not the only way to enter the gentry social status, even though titles and degrees seem always to be involved. In fact a title or a degree could be bought. This different way of obtaining them determined two different groups of gentry: the 'regulars' and the 'irregulars'. The first were those who had passed the government examination, the second were those who had bought the titles. In most cases only those who gained the titles through regular examination could enter the higher levels of officialdom and had anyway higher prestige than the 'irregulars'. Beside this two main gates of access to officialdom could be mentioned other ways of entrance, although only a small number of students were admitted through these ways. Descendants of early sages were sometimes granted a title, that permitted to enter the gentry group; then another way of entrance was the yin or inheritance privilege, granted to the sons of meritorious progenitors . However this last two ways of entrance were matter of imperial discretion and the number of students that entered officialdom through them was quite small, depending on the times.

I.II Duties and functions of the gentry.

In the previous paragraph I briefly talked about the officials and the local gentry. Each group had its definite functions: the officials were the agents of the provincial government, they were the rulers within the territory, and they received the orders from the provincial government and carried them out. They were too high to be approached by the common people. The kind of gentry that I am going to analyse was made up of families of prestige and social position on the same level of those of officialdom but, at the contrary, they were usually natives of the local community. This is the reason why they were recognised by the common people, since the officials were almost 'untouchable'.
As Chung-li Chang has explained, the gentry was a social group with a leading position and certain social functions. Among all they concerned themselves with the welfare and the protection of the interests of their community, or better, they represented the interests of their community vis à vis the government officials .
One of the most important functions of the local gentry was to interpret local needs and to assume leadership in taking measures to local problems. Consequently the gentry members had to be men of a considerable culture. They had to distinguish themselves from the rest of the people by knowledge of law and social affairs. They had also to have travelled a lot and to have met different kinds of people in order to react properly to any new situation. Thus they were recognised as social leaders and obeyed, respected and admired by common people.
A second task the local gentry had to accomplish was that of police, since China's rural communities were easily invaded and there were no policemen in the countryside. They played the role of "eyes and ears" of the provincial government, providing information about neighbours and residents. Especially when a new and difficult situation occurred and necessitated collective action. It often happened that a retired official was asked to assume a role of leadership and defender of a community against enemies. As Chung-Li Chang has explained in his book the upper gentry members materially promoted and financed local militia corps, while the lower gentry members operated within a small area as commanders of military units, often participating in actual fighting.
A third important duty of the gentry was to settle down the everyday local disputes. Except for serious criminal acts most of disputes were not settled by law. Formal actions of the government magistrates were undertaken only when the gentry mediation had failed. Even in this last case, the gentry members acted a very important role. The parties involved referred to them for advice and hints, since most of people were uncommon with legal matters and usually illiterate. Last but not the least the gentry was linked and on good terms with the officials. Thus the gentry acted as lawyer, advisors and judges. Actually they did not really act like judges. They did not deal with a case distinguishing right from wrong, but trying to work out a solution, or better, a compromise which would be accepted by both parties without "public loss of face".
The fourth duty of the gentry was their own community welfare. They tried to solve problems such as famine and epidemics organising large-scale mutual arrangements, charities and sometimes relief granaries that could serve poorer villagers . In many areas, the problem the gentry was most concerned with, was irrigation and other major development projects to benefit their communities. "The gentry seem to have felt that it was their responsibility to guard and promote welfare [.]. This sentiment was lacking among the magistrates and other local officials who were nonnatives" .
A fifth really important function of the gentry was to be a moral example for the common people, to impose norms and ideals (especially Confucianism). The gentry functioned as "guardians of the traditional moral teachings" . They helped to look after family ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals or to choose a name for the new born babies. They were themselves supposed to be examples of what men should behave: they had to live up to the norms and social conventions, otherwise those who could not fulfil these expectations would lose prestige. This is why the gentry was actively engaged in teaching and promoting the moral principles, they materially helped to establish temple schools and contributed funds and lands, the proceeds of which were utilised to subsidise students .
Using a definition by V. Shue in her essay "The Reach of the state" all those described above were roles primarily serving the community. Anyway beside these social functions of welfare we can find other important roles. Using the similar definitions of V. Shue herself: roles primarily serving the interests of the state and roles that primarily served the interests of the gentry families themselves. Among the first the most important was the collection of taxes for the government and the organisation of corvée labour services (the peasant were obliged, for a certain number of days per year, to work for the state for free, generally in public works such as the construction of dams, roads and other works of public utility).
Since the "hands" of the state did not reach the peasants' level, it was necessary to rely on the gentry to "extract the surplus production" . Given that the government's regulations limited the time an official could hold an office in a place (which certainly was not his home area) it resulted in a lack of power of officialdom. They did not have enough time to know all their subjects, and even if they ever wanted, sometimes it was almost impossible because some districts counted many thousands of people. More over the official were not encouraged to begin long term tasks and projects since they would never see the results. On the other hand the gentry members had all this sort of things and it was natural that such functions were given to them. Obviously they treated themselves well, I mean that they obtained economic privileges from the exploitation of their position. They were totally exempted from the labour service conscription thanks to their culture which would not permit manual labour, but they were not exempted from the payment of the fu (property tax) and the other land taxes. As stated by Chung-Li Chang, "even meritorious officials were exempt only from the land tax due on land which had been awarded to them by the court. They had to pay on land they purchased, as would any other person" . Anyway there were many tricks to evade taxes. The most common was the delay of payment, which was permitted by the rules, and sometimes it lasted for so long that at the end it would be invalidated by prescription. Theoretically gentry members who refused or delayed the payment of taxes could be punished and deprived of their position, but practically corruption and the net of "favours" the officials and the gentry had to return each other, was so wide that rarely somebody would be punished. More over the gentry enriched itself with the collection of taxes. For example in the Nineteenth century, during the Qing dynasty, the gentry went so far as to usurp the actual collection of taxes that should be handed over to the government or at least to "create" new taxes for their localities. As stated by V. Shue, such practices were "hard to stamp out" since every one involved in the matter had interests and "was served by the arrangement" .
Following the division of the roles carried out by the gentry members made by V. Shue the last "roles" to consider were those to serve the interests of the gentry families themselves. Actually it seems to me that we cannot make a clear distinction between all these roles. As I explained above, the gentry members, carrying out the interests of the state with the collection of taxes, at the same time they carried out their own interests. Similarly, concerning themselves with the welfare of their communities on the other side they helped the state which otherwise would have been unable to provide assistance and services to the lower level of society.
To summarise then, there was not a clear and sharp distinction of roles carried out by the gentry, but at the contrary, they were grouped together in a "system of roles" whose effects affected (positively or negatively) many social groups, among all the gentry itself.

II.I Rural Cadres: a new status earned by peasants.

The term cadre (ganbu) referred first to the activists against the Japanese or the Guomindang and to the leaders of the revolutionary movement, those people with a certain level of political consciousness that permitted them to assume responsibility and a role of political leadership. Then, when the CCP became the ruling party, the meaning of the term "cadre" expanded to include also all those who were paid by the state but were not engaged in manual labour. Thus the current Chinese concept of cadre includes two distinct categories: (1) the political elite, correspondent and evolution of the former revolutionary leaders (2) all the functionaries of the huge state apparatus.
The original revolutionaries were recruited among the poorly educated peasant class and they brought a "rural orientation" to China building after 1949, continuing to recruit cadres from the lower layers of society. We can take as an example P.S. Ye, the main character of the biographical book by Huang Shu-min "The Spiral Road: Change in a Chinese Village Through the Eyes of a Communist Party Leader", who can be considered an average cadre and says about his origins: "My father lived a miserable life! He worked so hard his entire life that he was no better then a blind water buffalo [.] by the time all his sons had become independent and well-to-do and able to give him good things to eat and use, he passed away" . Then P.S. Ye, talking about his grandparents says, "My grandmother was the only child of her family. Her parents [.] decided to keep her at home [not to marry her outside the family as usual]. My grandfather was brought in to marry my grandmother" . In fact this practice, called zhaozhui, "adopt a son-in-law" was known to be very common among poor peasant families that could not even afford to grow their own son and were obliged, against the common custom of patrilocal residence, to "sell" their son to other families. We can say that the status of rural cadre was a big challenge for the peasants, for some of them capable, represented the possibility to acquire for the first time a certain grade of responsibility within society. They were chosen by the Communist Party because they met some requirements: the first, and most important, was that they came from the "right class background" (the poor peasantry) a perfect base to build the new revolutionary socialism on, socialism that was itself in the service of the peasants. The cadre status was something earned "through personal talent and effort" but only if supported by the approval of the party-state, which granted a kind of dependence on the state for legitimacy.

II.II Rural cadres: pivots of the agricultural production.

As I explained in paragraph I.II the cadres were originally the former political activists and were generally recruited among the poor peasant class. In this sense it was a goal earned by some deserving peasants, since now they had more possibilities to increase their own social status level, becoming part of the ruling class. After recruitment they had to be "cultivated" and trained, then if they passed some tests finally they were thrust into "the tasks of mass organisation and local governance" . After liberation it can be seen that two different categories of cadres were born, first the cadres who were on the state payroll and then those who were not : brigade and team cadres. The "kind" of cadres analysed in my essay are the last ones, in fact they were the actual link between state and peasants and they are those that can be somewhat compared to the gentry members.
The new Chinese state depended on them because they carried out some essential functions. The first one to be remembered is the help to the state in the surplus extraction, therefore the collection of taxes and conscription of labour forces. They were the pivot of the grain collection in the system of communes that mainly consisted in delivering of a certain grain quota, what should have been the surplus of production to the state.
Jean C. Oi in the book "Peasant and State in Contemporary China" has pointed out the duties the rural cadres had to accomplish, especially within the field of agricultural production, revealing how the system worked and the tricks used by the cadres to meet their communities' needs. Basically now the peasants were divided in work teams that together formed a brigade that was part of an higher level commune. Therefore the administrative asset of China had changed, but what did not change was the basic issue of the peasants: the harvest. Now the agricultural tax was paid at team level, not by single individuals, it mainly consisted in a percentage of the total annual grain production of a team (the so called annual "quota"). The harvest had to be divided at the team level in order to fulfil the state demands and the peasants' needs. Thus the rural cadres had this difficult duty: to manage the grain production and make both parties happy. In theory the production team was the owner of the harvest but officially speaking, it did not have any kind of autonomy over its disposition. In practice anyway the rural cadres had many strategies available to meet their community needs. Jean C. Oi has well explained these options faced by the cadres, dividing them between legal and covert strategies. Among the legal ones were common loans from other neighbour teams or rich peasants, but often these were not enough to cover the actual expenses of the team, that varied from the taxes to the peasants' grain rations, and last but not least, to the continue and necessary improvement of production which necessitated money. Thus some covert strategies were more or less necessary. Hiding part of the harvest was the most common and obvious thing to do, then secondly the accounts could easily be falsified and thirdly the policies of the government could be manipulated and interpreted in order to achieve some economic benefits. Moreover, there was little control over them and inspections to check the real production. They often closed one eye, thanks to their "relationships" with other lower level cadres, part of the clientelistic system typical of China, then, on the practical side, as long as the brigade and commune cadres largely depended economically on local remittances they often hesitated to punish abuses heavily because otherwise the would cut off the majority of their income.
Generally speaking the rural cadres were not merely "tax collectors" at the contrary they were responsible of every single organizational aspect within their own team. They supervised the grain production and the groups of labourers' efficiency, giving points for the various jobs assigned to the peasants. If the team owned factories or other facilities, the rural cadres organised the whole asset of production within their own community. In few words they were responsible of everything concerning economy in their own teams.

II.III Other important duties and functions carried out by the cadres.

Other important duties of local cadres had been explained by Huang Shu-min : he dedicated several pages to the role of "security head" in the village (which most of times corresponded with the team). As man in charge of the security and safety of his team members the rural cadre examined by Huang, P.S. Ye, had to face with many problems and situations, in his conversations he clearly revealed that the major type of crime committed in the village was petty theft of goods or tools, in addition to sex related crimes and gambling. They acted as intermediaries in local disputes and crimes. Then side functions comparable to those of "security head" were those of organisation and command of local militia in case of military need. The cadres were also committed with the welfare of their own community, taking again P.S. Ye as an example of an average cadre, he organised a medical insurance system, in order to assist peasants and cover their medical expenses in case of need. The rural cadres were also responsible of the local granaries, also used as local food reserves in case of necessity.
But among all, the basic function of rural cadres was that of being the actual link between the peasants and the central government. They represented the peasants' requests toward the central government and at the same time they were the official representative of the government in the countryside and thus responsible of implementing its policies. Huang's book has been a great help for me to understand how these cadres have not merely actuated the orders given to them from Beijing, but have actively determined the success or the failure of a given policy, thanks to their own attitude toward that specific policy. I am talking for example of the child birth plan or the rules about marriage, that have been sometimes seriously affected by the sympathetic attitude of the rural cadres toward their peasants, in fact it was not so rare to see that one cadre implemented the government policy only as so far as he could not be accused of having disobeyed the orders. The policies were carried on only for the strict necessary.

III.I What is common between gentry and rural cadres.

The gentry members can be compared to the rural cadres on many aspects. Among all they had in common a basic feature: they were both the actual link between the central government and the peasant. In fact with the foundation of the republic first and then the liberation, one thing did not change: the nature of the large mass of the Chinese people, in fact they were, and still in some way remain, basically peasants, and they had to be ruled by somebody. The ruling class changed, the old monarchy was dismantled together with the intermediary class of gentry. But some kind of link was anyway needed and that is why the cadres perfectly fitted the "hole" left by the dismantled gentry. They answered the requirements of the new communist government, in fact they were party activist and they were also accepted by the peasants thanks to their humble origins.
Gentry and cadres were both concerned with the protection of the interests of their locality, representing it among the higher officials, either state cadres or imperial officials, they were both active in promoting welfare initiatives, such as granaries for emergency food supplies, works of public utility and development projects, organisation of public schools etc.
Common feature was their role in the collection of the surplus of production: thus to meet the state's demands on matter of taxes and requests of conscripted labour forces for public works. Then a common function between the gentry and the cadres was also that of policing in the countryside, maintaining the public order and acting as intermediaries, settling out local disputes and organising and commanding local militia corps.
Then they were both necessary, first to the Emperor and then to the Communist Party, for the implementation of policies in the countryside. Without their collaboration some of the policies would not had ever been so successful as they were.
Moreover, what was common between cadres and gentry, was their attitude toward the behaviours of the peasant even if through a different key of reading: the gentry members were the guardians of the traditional Confucian teachings and were themselves (or should have been) real "Confucian" examples. They had to check whether the peasant behaved like they were supposed to (obeying and paying taxes) and also they had to maintain the status quo. Similarly the cadres were the representative of the Communism among the peasant, had to be examples of good communism themselves, and organised mass struggle meetings to avoid counter revolutionary behaviours.
The last similarity I have found between the rural cadres and the gentry is one that I have only lightly hinted at in the previous paragraphs, and can be conducted to the Chinese system of politics: the patron-clientship that characterized these two classes that stayed between government and peasants. With patron-clientship I mean a net of non official ties that linked first the government-gentry-peasants and then the government-cadres-peasants, net in which gentry and cadres can be both patrons with the peasants and clients of the government. The main aim of this patron-client system is to allow individuals to pursue their own interest toward personal ties with the "right person in the right place". As has been stated by Jean C. Oi it was (and sometimes it is) almost legal to use one's connections to obtain privileges. Privileges that for example could have been a good plot assignment for a peasant o some kind of help among higher level cadres for a rural cadre or again protection at court for a gentry family.

III.II The differences between cadres and gentry.

The difference between the rural cadres and the gentry is the social background, therefore the peasants by one side and the landowners on the other. The first one was that the gentry members had to be educated men, on the contrary the rural cadres were not necessarily very deeply educated. Of course they were not totally illiterate, they had a some kind of education and had to pass many tests before becoming cadres (similar to the imperial exams to become officials), but after all they had to be men of practical and organisational skills rather than literacy.
Another difference was their attitude toward the land: the gentry members were generally the owners of the land and their main interest was to get rents paid. Instead the cadres were only those who controlled the land which was owned instead by the state, who gave the orders about the kind of agricultural production, how to conduct it and how much surplus to pay for it, but at least they were peasants and their main aim was a good harvest. I do not mean the gentry had totally no interests in organising the agricultural production, on the contrary, as I explained in paragraph II.I they concerned themselves with public works that would help agriculture (since they lived thanks to that production) but generally speaking, as long as the peasants paid, it was enough. This because the central government did not require any particular kind of production, they too, as long as got paid, it was enough.
Generally speaking the cadres did not enrich themselves by tax collection, at least it was enrichment of the whole team or brigade, on the contrary the gentry members did it, living "on the peasants' shoulders".
Finally their economic and social background played a role within the range of powers that they both had. It is not my duty here to establish who was the powerful between the two but anyway, in my opinion, even though the pattern of patron-client relationship that tied them to the upper and lower layers of society is similar, the cadres had more power "under them" and, on the contrary, the gentry had more power to affect higher level decisions. It happened that a cadre could decide the income (and consequently the kind of life) of a peasant family, but could not influence the government decisions (his influential power reached up to commune or maybe some higher level cadres but just for favours determined by personal ties). On the other hand it happened that some gentry families were really powerful and influential toward some higher officials and could affect even some of the court's decision.


In my description of the gentry and the rural cadres I have pointed out who were the gentry, who were the cadres and focused on their functions within the rural communities. In my description it is clear from the beginning that there was a great number of similarities between these two social groups, due to the fact that they occupied the same position in the social scale and framework and therefore they had to accomplish similar duties and functions. Then in my opinion the differences that I have found, as I tried to explain in paragraph III.II, can be entirely attributed to the different social roots in which both had taken their representatives.
Studying all the books involved in this topic and then writing this essay it has been clear to me that in China, with the dismantlement of the absolute monarchy and then the Communist/Socialist revolution, the peasant point of view did not really change even though some of them had the possibility to increase their social status by becoming cadres. The organisational framework of society too did not change. It remained a "three storey building" with the one in the middle connecting the other two and unavoidably involved in the communication between them.

Marco Bresciani Århus, May 2000.


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