William Hinton

China-watcher and author of the best-seller 'Fanshen'
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William Howard Hinton, writer and farmer: born Chicago 2 February 1919; married 1944 Bertha Sneck (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1953), 1959 Josephine Raiford (died 1986; one son, two daughters), 1987 Katherine Chiu; died Fleetwood, Pennsylvania 15 May 2004.

The Chinese revolution has been chronicled in three great works by Americans. One of these was William Hinton.

In Red Star Over China, (1937), Edgar Snow revealed the new order waiting to be born in the areas of China where the Communist Party under Mao Tse-tung had in the late 1930s already won power, and was experimenting with the social and productive forms that might release the productive energies of the peasantry. In China Shakes the World (1949), Jack Belden, another foreign correspondent "China hand" of the 1930s, described the death throes of the old order in China - a book that appeared in the United States when McCarthyism was at its height and never received its due recognition.

And, finally, William Hinton wrote in Fanshen (1966) what he called "a documentary of revolution in a Chinese village", an eye-witness account of the turbulent and often terrible impact of the rage of the peasants unleashed against their millennial oppressors - and of how the Chinese Communist Party gradually harnessed those passions into new organisational structures and attitudes which began the social transformation of rural China.

Hinton, having studied agricultural science at Cornell University, went to China in 1947 with a mission of the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration as an instructor in the use and maintenance of tractors. On the termination of Unrra in 1948 he began teaching English in a peripatetic university in Shansi, a Communist-controlled province; but was then permitted to join one of the work teams, made up of university staff and students, which were being sent out as guides and mentors to the peasants. With that assignment he became both a close observer and to some extent a participant in the initial revolutionary struggles over the ownership and use of land and associated exercise of social power, in the village he named Long Bow.

His first stay in Long Bow was not long, only some six months in 1948, after which he spent five years teaching agricultural mechanisation elsewhere in China; but it was enough to provide him with the material, masses of notes, data and photographs, from which he would distil Fanshen. On his return to the US in 1953, however, all that was confiscated by the customs authorities as being Communist-sourced - and passed on to the Senate committee on internal security. So it was that, a decade before Hinton's account could be written and published, another version of what he had seen and done in China was presented in an address to the Senate - by the fiercely McCarthyite Senator James Eastland, who entitled it "The Autobiography of a Traitor" and called for Hinton's indictment for treason.

After five years of legal struggle, Hinton regained his research material. The writing took him six years and the search for a publisher another two. Monthly Review Press published Fanshen in 1966. Probably the delays had served Hinton well, saving him from Belden's fate. By then the questioning which was to develop into widespread revulsion over the Vietnam War had begun in the US, and Hinton's book, revealing the reality and purpose beneath what had until then been generally dismissed as blind and malignant violence, became a best-seller and had wide international influence. It was translated into 10 languages; in 1975 David Hare crafted a play out of it, performed in many countries.

Hinton's intention to return to China to see how Long Bow had fared was long balked by the US government's refusal to issue him a passport. By 1967, when his legal challenges at last forced issuance, the Chinese were caught in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and would not readmit him; but in 1970 he, together with Edgar Snow and Jack Belden, received a personal invitation to return from Zhou Enlai. The Chinese had turned to old friends to foster the rapprochement they sought with the US.

That and later returns to Long Bow and other areas of rural China produced in 1983 a sequel, which Hinton entitled Shenfan. ("Fanshen" means literally "to turn over" and, in its implications, "to stand up, to throw off the landlord yoke"; "shenfan" means deep ploughing, metaphorically to lay strong foundations for the new society.) Picking up the story from the time at which he had left it, Hinton narrated the village history through the subsequent stages of the movement to introduce and develop co- operative institutions and the social attitudes which those both required and fostered. His focus is much wider than in Fanshen, ranging from accounts of individual peasant's lives and actions to analysis of the schisms and conflicts which rocked the party leadership through the 1950s, and of course the time span he covers is far longer.

The confidence which marked Fanshen, the sense that the peasants' achievements were permanent, is replaced in its sequel by recognition of their likely frailty. Long Bow's progress from its benighted beginnings was immense by then (and Hinton's interest and knowledge of agricultural mechanisation contributed now to further advances). But he recounts how the Cultural Revolution factionalises the villagers, returning them towards the physical brutalities which marked the old order. And what Hinton called "the great reversal" steered by Deng Xiaoping, in ultimate effect a restoration, saw the peasantry being turned back towards the "old principle from which hundreds of millions suffered grievously in the past" - every man for himself in the drive for riches, and devil take the hindmost.

Hinton was not among those observers who immediately recognised the underlying thrust of Deng's reforms, but by the mid-1980s his regular visits to the countryside had shown him a "great leap backward" in slow-motion progress. Not only were the co-operative and collective institutions created in the previous half-century being dismantled, but the peasantry was regressing to its old ways - strife replacing co-operation, lavish funerals and marriages dissipating wealth, the clans reasserting their retrograde power, women being relegated again.

That process Hinton charted in essays collected under the title The Privatisation of China (1991). For him the climax had come on 4 June 1989 when the People's Liberation Army stormed Tiananmen Square and killed thousands in Beijing, which he witnessed. The students, he later wrote, were not conducting an insurrection or trying to overturn the government: "They were demanding Deng's resignation because he was 84 years old, corrupt, and his policies were jeopardising China's future."

It may be argued that, because Hinton's sympathies and hopes rested primarily with the peasants, he failed to appreciate the great benefits of modernisation which "the capitalist road" brought to other areas and sections of the population, and the return to international status and respect it brought China. But the peasants still account for the great majority of Chinese population - and the Chinese government is becoming concerned at the high and mounting suicide rate among them, reflecting their increasing misery and despair.

Hinton continued single-handed working of his highly mechanised little farm in Pennsylvania, travelling, lecturing and writing into his late seventies, but in 2000 was stricken by a heart attack which left him bodily disabled, though as acute as ever.

Neville Maxwell