Exaggeration is easy. Privation is one thing, poverty to the point of wretchedness—‘la misére’—another. A sturdy self-reliant stock may grow in a stony soil. But, when due allowance has been made for the inevitable misconceptions, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that a large proportion of Chinese peasants are constantly on the brink of actual destitution. They are, so to say, a propertied proletariat, which is saved—when it is saved—partly by its own admirable ingenuity and fortitude, partly by the communism of the Chinese family, partly by reducing its consumption of necessaries and thus using up its physical capital. . .
A population which has no reserves is helpless against calamity. Calamity is more frequent in China than in the West, even when allowance is made for the different forms which it assumes in the latter. . . Over a large area of China, the rural population suffers horribly through the insecurity of life and property. It is taxed by one ruffian who calls himself a general, by another, by a third, and, when it has bought them off, still owes taxes to the Government in some places actually more than 20 years taxation has been paid in advance. It is squeezed by dishonest officials. It must cut its crops at the point of a bayonet, and hand them over without payment to the local garrison, though it will starve without them. It is forced to grow opium in defiance of the law, because its military tyrants can squeeze heavier taxation from opium than from rice or wheat, and make money, in addition, out of the dens where it is smoked. It pays blackmail to the professional bandits in its neighbourhood; or it resists, and, a year later, when the bandits have assumed uniform, sees its villages burned to the ground.
The indirect effects of the chaos are as disastrous as the direct. Expenditure on war absorbs resources which should be spent on elementary improvements, such as roads and primary education. Trade is paralysed, and such communications as exist are turned by the soldiers who seize them from a blessing into a curse. Capital flies from rural districts, where it is urgently needed, to be buried in the Concessions. Population flies with it; here and there whole villages are on the move, like animals breaking from cover as the beaters advance. When human enemies are absent, the farmer must still reckon with a remorseless nature. ‘What drove you to settle here, so far from home?’ a peasant was asked in the presence of the writer. The reply was ‘Bandits, soldiers, and famine.’
The number of deaths caused by famine has been variously estimated. That of 1849 is said to have destroyed 13,750,000 persons; the Taipeng Rebellion, with the widespread economic ruin which accompanied it, 20,000,000; the famine of 1878–79, 9,000,000 to 13,000,000; that of 1920–21, 500,000. In reality, however, to concentrate attention on these sensational catastrophes, as though life ran smoothly in the intervals between them, is to misconceive the situation. Famine is a matter of degree; its ravages are grave long before its symptoms become sufficiently shocking to arouse general consternation. If the meaning of the word is a shortage of food on a scale sufficient to cause widespread starvation, then there are parts of the country from which famine is rarely absent. In Shensi, stated an eminent Chinese official at the beginning of 1931, 3,000,000 persons had died of hunger in the last few years, and the misery had been such that 400,000 women and children had changed hands by sale. In Kansu, according to Mr Findlay Andrew, one third of the population has died since 1926, owing to famine, civil war, banditry and typhus. There are districts in which the position of the rural population is that of a man standing permanently up to the neck in water, so that a ripple is sufficient to drown him. The loss of life caused by the major disasters is less significant than the light which they throw on the conditions prevailing even in normal times over considerable regions. . . Famine is, in short, the last stage of a disease which, though not always conspicuous, is always present.
R. H. Tawney, Land and Labour in China, 1932footnote1