Utopian Frontiers: Legacies of the Commune in Twentieth-Century China

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In 1808, Charles Fourier published Theory of the Four Movements, a utopian socialist manifesto describing the emergence of a fundamental rupture between man and nature, the consequence of a metabolic disruption of material, natural, and social flows. As a remedy, he prescribed the construction of phalansteries, self-contained and economically autarkic communal structures seamlessly uniting spaces of both production and consumption, overcoming the division between town and country. The term phalanstère was a neologism of Fourier’s, a combination of “phalanx” and “monastery” intended to conjure up images of both the hivelike coordination of the Greco-Roman military machine and the spiritual purity of the isolated monastery. By the advent of the twentieth century, Fourier’s ideas had spread; the explosive growth of industrial capitalism in hitherto ‘undeveloped’ corners of the world spurred a generation of imitators, critics, and revolutionaries who, influenced by this legacy of agrarian utopianism, sought to actualize plans of their own. This thesis considers the reception and reinterpretation of utopian socialist communal movements by Chinese reformers and revolutionaries during the first three decades of the twentieth century, with a particular focus on how these figures understood the construction of experimental communities like communes and model villages as a potential solution to the geopolitical crisis of China’s subordination to Euro-American-Japanese imperialist powers. Beginning with an initial survey of Euro-American utopian movements, this thesis then turns to Atarashiki-mura, a Japanese utopian village community founded by Saneatsu Mushanokōji, an aristocratic left-wing intellectual. Through an analysis of essays and accounts published by Zhou Zuoren, a leading Chinese intellectual who visited Atarashiki-mura, this thesis then considers debates over the “New Village Movement” (xincun yundong 新村運動), Zhou Zuoren’s attempt to establish similar model communities in China. Following these debates through the following years, this project then turns to the Work Study Mutual Aid Corps (gongdu huzhu tuan工讀互助團), an experimental mutual aid society established by a Beijing-based student named Wang Guangqi during the height of May Fourth Movement-era activism. Through an analysis of the collapse of the Work Study Mutual Aid Corps, I reconsider why many left-wing socialists turned away from utopian communalism towards revolutionary mass politics. In their stead, a number of less overtly ideological rural reform programs, such as Yan Yangchu’s Mass Education Movement (MEM) (quan guo shi zi yundong 全國識字運動), were established; the architects of these projects sought to dramatically transform rural society yet avoid a revolution. Following links between these organizations and leading military figures of the 1920s and 1930s, I move a decade forward to consider the history of Xingan Land Reclamation Zone (Xingan tunken qu 興安屯墾區), a combination model village, military installation, and autarkic factory-farm that was the pet project of the warlord Zhang Xueliang (張學良). I argue that, despite the radically different political visions of their architects and the circumstances of their conceptualization, these commune projects shared a similar logic of reform: the creation of experimental, spatially-bound living facilities would make possible the emergence of a new sort of Chinese citizen-subject, an individual capable of universalizing the commune model and bringing about a new national community. But, as I attempt to demonstrate, in shifts from Zhou Zouren’s fantasies of a pacifistic and agrarian socialist movement to the weaponization of the model village ideal in pursuit of settler colonial frontier expansion, each element within this reform equation was transformed. The ideal subject at the heart of the commune space moved from urban intellectuals and students to destitute peasantry and finally conscripted soldiers, while the physical location of these experimental communities shifted from the countryside to urban metropolises like Beijing and ultimately the frontiers of Manchuria. These projects, initially socialistic in conception—seeking to produce a space outside of capitalism—would instead be bent towards the exigencies of capital’s ceaseless expansion. Fourier’s neologism is thus illustrative of the opposing social forms these communities tended to take in twentieth-century China: monastic millenarianism on the one hand and a fascistic embrace of military mobilization on the other. Zhou Zuoren had intended the communal New Village to be a space beyond the sphere of capitalist production, an alternative path to modernity, but when the dream of rural reform was seized upon by warlords and reform bureaucrats, this space “outside” of capitalism would instead become the tip of its spear, penetrating into the frontier countryside. In the hands of the Kuomintang (KMT), Fourier’s phalanstère was far more phalanx than monastery. Despite the practical failures of these projects, this thesis concludes by arguing that utopian communalism possessed an enduring legacy: though many of these rural reform schemes fell short of their goals, they were central nodes through which new narratives of nationality and modernity were disseminated.





Herndon, James Jackson (2024). Utopian Frontiers: Legacies of the Commune in Twentieth-Century China. Master's thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/31047.


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