William H. Hinton

From Academic Kids

William H. Hinton (February 2, 1919May 15, 2004) was an American Marxist best known for Fanshen, a chronicle of how land reform was implemented in a single northern Chinese village. Hinton wrote several other books about the great social transformation opened up by the Chinese Revolution.

Hinton was born in Chicago. His father, Sebastian Hinton, was a lawyer; his mother, Carmelita Hinton, was an educator and the founder of The Putney School, an independent progressive school in Vermont.

Hinton first visited China in 1937. At the time, prevailing U.S. views of the Chinese Communist movement since the 1920s alternated between uncertainty and hostility. Most U.S. 'experts' on communism were baffled by the appeal of a Marxist-Leninist party to Asian peasants. Some diplomats considered the Chinese Communists "agrarian reformers" who labeled themselves revolutionaries. They were uncertain whether or how closely the Communists were tied to the Soviet Union.

Given the attention lavished on the Kuomintang (KMT) by both U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the media, especially Henry Luce's Time Magazine, the U.S. public was slow to take notice of the Communists' rise in importance in China. When the U.S. joined China and the other Allied Powers of the Second World War in the War against Japan, there had been little contact between U.S. diplomats and the CCP, even though the KMT-led United Front against Japan made the Communists an implicit ally.

At the time of Hinton's first visit to China in the mid-1930s, a handful of U.S journalists, such as Edgar Snow, Peggy Snow, and Owen Lattimore, had sneaked through the KMT blockade into Communist territory. All praised the high morale, social reform, and commitment to fighting Japan that they observed.

Along with academic colleagues, Hinton made similar observations when he served from 1945-1953 during his subsequent visit to China. Hinton was a staff member of the U.S. Office of War Information and was present at the Chongqing peace talks between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party, where he met Zhou Enlai and Mao Tse Tung. Hinton later accepted a post as an English teacher at the Northern University in Southeast Shanxi province, near Changzhi City, in a liberated district. In 1948 he asked to join the university-staffed land reform work team in the village of Long Bow in the outskirts of Changzhi.

Hinton spent eight months working in the fields in the day and attending land reform meetings both day and night, and during this time he took careful notes on the land reform process. He assisted in the development of mechanized agriculture and education, and mainly stayed in the CPC-ruled northern Chinese village of Long Bow, forging close bonds with the inhabitants. Hinton aided the locals with complicated CPC initiatives, especially literacy projects, the breaking up the feudal estates, the insuring the equality of women, and the replacement of the imperial-era magistrates that governed the village with councils in a symbiotic relationship with the landed gentry class. Hinton took more than one thousand pages of notes during his time in China.

On his return to the United States after the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953, Hinton wanted to chronicle his observations of the revolutionary process to which he was witness in Long Bow. But on his return, at the height of the McCarthyism, customs officials seized his papers, who turned them over to the Senate Committee on Internal Security (chaired by Senator James Eastland). Hinton subjected to continual harassment by the FBI, his passport was confiscated, and he was barred from all teaching jobs. At first permitted to work as a truck mechanic, he was later blacklisted and denied all employment. He then took up farming on some land inherited from his mother, and farmed for a living for some fifteen years. During this period Hinton continued to speak out about the successes of the Chinese Revolution and waged a long (and eventually successful) legal battle to recover his notes and papers from the Eastland Committee.

After the government returned his notes and papers, Hinton set to writing a documentary account of the land reform in Long Bow village in which he had been both observer and participant. The book, Fanshen, was finished in 1966. After many mainstream U.S. publishers had turned it down, it was published by Monthly Review Press and was a stunning success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, with translations in ten languages. In the book, Hinton examines the revolutionary experience of the Long Bow village, painting complex picture of conflict, contradiction and cooperation in rural China.

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