SHAO Xiaorong

A small rural community in northern China, Dazhai was known as Mao’s model village. Acclaimed for its transformation to a prosperous area that turned barren hills into fertile terraced farmland, it was immortalized in the Chinese slogan “Learn from Dazhai in agriculture.”

Dazhai ??, located at the foot of Hutou Hill within the Taihang Mountains, is a village in Xiyang County, Shanxi Province. Before 1964, Dazhai was just a poor rural community of four hundred people, unknown to the outside world. But during the 1960s and 1970s, Dazhai attracted world attention because of the public recognition given by Mao Zedong (1893–1976) for its efforts to transform barren rugged hills into productive terraced farmlands. In 1964 Chairman Mao directed the whole nation to “learn from Dazhai in agriculture” (nongye xue dazhai, ?????), praising its production model as well as its great courage against hardship. The high yield produced on poor land was hailed as a miracle of agricultural development, and the spirit of “taming and fighting nature” (zhantian doudi, ????) was highly praised. “Learn from Dazhai in agriculture” soon became a national slogan, and in the following fifteen years, Dazhai served as a rural development model for practicing cooperation and self-reliance.

During 1940s and 1950s Dazhai had undergone land privatization and collectivization. It was liberated in 1945 from Japanese occupiers. In 1946 the village established mutual-aid teams ??? and later organized producers’ cooperatives ??? in 1953 to enhance agricultural productivity and equitable distribution of resources. In mutual-aid teams, members assisted each other during planting and harvesting, and in slack seasons, they worked on their own plots. The cooperatives system was considered an advanced form of collectivization; members gave up their land and livestock as ownership changed from private household to collective, and they worked together in the fields and shared the produce equitably. Collective farming was considered better than the single-household farming system as it was able to unify village resources and wisdom for combating the adverse conditions facing farming and living.

All the farmland in Dazhai was scattered over the ditches, patches, and slopes of Hutou Hill, and the harsh natural conditions were aggravated by natural disasters such as floods and droughts. Soil erosion had beset them for years. From 1953 to 1962 the farmers in Dazhai used rocks and soil to build stretches and then terraces. By using this method they were able to turn 120 acres of barren hillside into fertile grain fields. Even with the absence of irrigation and mechanical plowing, the grain yield increased over that ten-year period from approximately 400 kilograms to 2400 kilograms per acre. People were fed, and at the same time, they sold the surplus to the state.

In 1963 Dazhai was hit hard by a nonstop seven-day torrential rain, and the storm destroyed crops and residential homes. The residents also lost some grain in storage; the governments and neighboring villages offered help, but the people of Dazhai refused to take aid as they believed they could rise up again through collective power and self-reliance.

From 1964 to 1978, a time period that closely paralleled the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Dazhai was a highlight in media outlets and political propaganda, and it attracted millions of visitors from home and abroad, including China’s premier Zhou Enlai and many other state leaders. Dazhai drew about 5,000 to 10,000 visitors daily, which affected the villagers’ normal lives significantly. They had to organize Red Guards to maintain the order of production, which fortunately was not interrupted too much. The people knew their livelihood relied on the land and farming, and they could not afford to take it lightly.

The standard of living in Dazhai continued to improve even during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Dazhai built better housing for each family and provided education and medical care for all using revenues generated from farming and other sources.

When China initiated reform and an open-door policy in 1978, rural areas were in the forefront of its implementation. With land reform, farm ownership changed from collective to individual households, or the so-called single household responsibility system. In the 1980s, many villages in China were undertaking huge changes due to economic reform policy, but Dazhai seemed lost and left out of the mainstream economic development. Dazhai’s “glorious history” seemed just a memory.

After a decade of silence and no major development, Dazhai was back in the spotlight with the return of Guo Fenglian ??? in 1991. Guo had been a member of Dazhai’s famous “iron girls” work team, leading the village during the 1960s, building terraced fields and harvesting crops, defying hardships, and overcoming poor farming conditions; she became the village head in 1965 at the age of eighteen but left Dazhai in 1980 for an administrative position in the Xiyang County commission. After Guo returned in 1991 and again became the village head, she worked to improve infrastructure, the water system, and the efficient use of collectively owned machinery in the village. Under Guo’s leadership, Dazhai established a number of enterprises to absorb the agricultural labor force freed up by mechanization, including coal mining and the manufacture of construction materials, clothing, and chemicals. The village’s revenue in 2005 totaled 116 million yuan, and the yearly per-capita income reached 5,500 yuan, higher than the average rural income of the country.

If Guo Fenglian is considered a contributing factor to Dazhai’s current prosperity, then Chen Yonggui ??? should be regarded for its past glory. Chen was the Dazhai village head during 1950s and the commissary with Xiyang County in the 1960s. He led the people in Dazhai to “remake” nature; Chen was the national model farmer (laodong mofan ????) several times and made huge advances in his political career because of his work in Dazhai. In 1973, Chen became a member of national political bureau committee of the Central Communist Party, and in 1975, he was promoted to vice-premier in charge of agricultural and rural development. But he had little formal education, and the job was just too difficult; he resigned from the post in 1980. But in all his years, Chen appeared never to forget he was a farmer; he returned often to Dazhai to work together with the people in the fields, even after he became vice-premier. Chen died in 1986 at the age of seventy-three. His life and what he accomplished for Dazhai are still remembered by people today.

Further Reading

Hinton, W. H. (1988, March). Dazhai revisited. Monthly Review, 39(10). Retrieved on February 16, 2009, from;col1

Jin Zhong. (2000, January 31). Dazhai forever young. China Daily, p. 8.

Sun Xiaohua. (2005, July 26). Agriculture ex-model grapples for new “spirit.” China Daily, p. 2.

Source: Shao, Xiaorong. (2009). Dazhai. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 586–587. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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