The tourist who visits the Chinese countryside for the first time has the disconcerting feeling that he is entering a different world. According to his inclinations, he may exultantly discover in it a revolution successfully carried through on a land smitten in the past with calamities, where new social structures have reestablished an ‘ecological’ balance between man and nature and a ‘socialist’ balance between man and man. Or he may make the astonishing discovery of an agrarian civilization still close to its origins. Whether he is a revolutionary, an idealist or a nostalgic conservative, the visitor will always have the impression that he has reached an unknown ‘back of beyond’—especially if the last stage of his journey has been over a dirt road that has shaken him up and thoroughly acclimatized him. And yet there are no roads so regularly frequented as these, bringing as they do the same cohorts of ingenuous visitors to the same People’s Communes (a few dozen out of 74,000) carefully chosen by the official Chinese tourist agency, Luxingshe.

What can one learn from such visits, with their ritual planned down to the last detail? There is the cursory introduction by an ‘official’ of the revolutionary committee over a cup of tea, a rushed visit to a few cattle-sheds or workshops, an interview with a family liberated by the revolution from all manner of lengthily-described evils which had previously afllicted it . . . followed by a little discussion if there is any time left. There are apparently no surprises. Indeed accounts by travellers of their visits to people’s communes strangely resemble each other from one publication to the next, if one allows for the individual style, commitment and sensitivity of the narrator.

Nevertheless, we believe these standard visits can supply meaningful information on the state of Chinese agriculture, even though the communes studied are always the same, very few in number and far more prosperous than the Chinese average. But for this to be the case, the visitor must not hesitate to upset the ritual, to interrupt the wellrehearsed speech of the ‘official’ doing the honours, to badger him with questions . . . especially with questions demanding figures.

But what questions can you ask if you are not an agronomist or a Sinologue? The following lines are aimed precisely at giving the uninstructed visitor a few points of reference, at giving him a little guidance through the standard visit to a Chinese people’s commune. In doing this, we shall seize the opportunity to raise some of the current problems of the Chinese rural economy.

For example, let us consider two communes we recently visited: Cheng Guan commune (more specifically, Da Cai Yuang brigade), in the district of Lin-hsien, Honan province, situated at the point where the great Northern plain meets the Tai-hang mountains; and Hua Dong commune, in the district of Hua-hsien, which comes under the municipality of Canton and is thus situated in the extreme south of China. We were not the first to go to these communes. Cheng Guan had been visited in May 1972 by Harrison Salisbury among others,footnote1 and Hua Dong had been visited by a delegation from the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars in the summer of 1971.footnote2 These authors made one or two interesting observations, but directly in line with their own preoccupations. Salisbury savoured his immersion in a past which is still pretty archaic, even if considerable advances have been made; the CCAS in particular recorded the appearance of new structures of production which make it possible to transform radically a hostile natural environment. But as for figures—hardly any at all!

Let us take the area of Hua Dong (Table 2): 45 per cent of it is uncultivated. Hua Dong, 47km north of Canton, is on the edge of those South China hills whose lateritic soil makes them so hard to exploit. This is just one particular case of a much wider problem which affects the country as a whole. Only 12 per cent of Chinese land is cultivated and it is scarcely possible to increase this acreage, because of the severity of natural conditions and the inherent limits to a labour-intensive agriculture where terracing is used to cultivate and irrigate. This terracing is spectacular at Lin-hsien, and yet more than 70 per cent of the land remains uncultivated there. In this respect, Da Cai Yuan brigade is not representative of the region, since its fields are all on the plain, 100 per cent cultivated and favourably situated only 3km from the small district-town.

The perpetual challenge the Chinese farmer faces is how to produce more and more on a territory that cannot be extended, in order to feed a dense and ever-growing population. Traditionally he has met that challenge partly by intensifying the yield of each crop and partly by increasing the number of crops per year. Now if we are to assess this effort, we must have more information than the single figure for the grain yield invariably offered by the official guide. It is absolutely essential to break this figure down by asking what the area harvested and the unit yield are for each crop.