Nan Gao Village, China — The peasant, his sun-bronzed face wrinkling around the eyes, told harrowing tales of pre-1949 China with its foreign invasions and civil wars, starvation and chaos. Three times, Mr. Chang said, he barely escaped after being conscripted at gunpoint into warlord armies.
"Without the revolution and without Chairman Mao," he said, "I would have died years ago."
Propaganda? A scene from one of Madame Mao's now-loathed six model revolutionary operas? In Deng Xiaoping's post-Maoist China it came across more like dangerously straying from the party line.
During a recent two-week visit to China, this was just about the only time I heard Mao Tse-tung mentioned, much less praised. Mao's picture is still everywhere and his "Thoughts" is still on bookshelves. But nobody brings him up. You hear a lot more about Dr. Sun Yat-sen or even the terrible old dragon Empress, Tz'u-hsi.
For a peasant like Chang, there is reason for gratitude to Mao. His bad old days were the 1930s and '40s. Now, with his retirement certificate proudly displayed, he can comfort himself that, unlike his father or grandfather, he is in no danger of dying of hunger in a gutter; that if he is suddenly seized by pain he'll get at least rudimentary medical help; and that his children and grandchildren, for the first time in peasant China's history, can become educated.
For younger Chinese -- who never experienced starvation, an absence of medical care, or general illiteracy -- these things are taken for granted as the starting point for their expectations. Their bad old days were 1966 to 1976, when Mao's Cultural Revolution brought a decade of breakdown, brutality, and personal suffering.
An entire generation of young people has grown up with a lot of haranguing Red Guard zealots trying to turn them into ideological robots (and persuading all too many of us on the outside that they had succeeded). Instead, one finds Chinese youth as subtle, intelligent, civilized, and individualistic as young people anywhere else.
In the cities, these youths are preoccupied with astonishing novelties such as TV sets, girls with permanent waves, young couples smooching in public parks, and dark glasses from Hong Kong. There are movies, including "Star Wars," "Sound of Music," and "Gone With the Wind." After years of Madame Mao's six operas every day, all day in theaters and on radio and television, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara are heady stuff.
When these youngsters confide in a visitor, as they all seem to do, it is to lament a system where you work at the job and in the place the government tells you to. Low pay, dead-end jobs, poor housing, and lack of individual choice are constant themes.
Many are apologetic about their ignorance of the outside world. (Mark Twain, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway are read, but aside from Han Suyin, long on the Maoist bandwagon, few contemporary writers are known.) It seemed a supreme irony to find that the only one to praise Mao was the conservative, tradition-bound, materialistic peasant whose culture Mao tried most to destroy. Here, too, human nature seems to have won out.
A Chinese peasant village is still a peasant village. Crops, though collectively tilled, are still sown, weeded, and harvested according to specific days on the Chinese lunar calendar, such as the Clear and Bright Festival and the Winter Solstice. (In cities a Western calendar is used.)
Peasants (unlike city workers) own their own houses, with roomy courtyards enclosed by traditional walls and populated with chickens, pigs, and sheep. Fruit trees, flower gardens, and vegetable patches bedeck the plots. Most villagers also have a tiny, detached private garden plot whose produce can be sold at market each week. (These plots now cover 7 percent of the total cultivated land and may be boosted to 10 percent.)
Mr. Chang's house, built to replace his old mud hut in 1966, is about as spacious, solid, and sparsely furnished as peasant homes anywhere. He has a crude wooden bed (heated by flues in winter) piled high with gaudy quilts. A gray mosquito net entombs its frame, and a naked light bulb, a few porcelain vases and cheap glass dishes, faded snapshots of children and grandchildren, and calendars of pretty girls in Chinese opera costumes adorn the area.
Hard physical labor is still the central fact of life in rural China. Chang's village pulses to the clomp-clomp of horse-drawn carts and the jog-trot of peasants yoked with heavy loads.
But it was evident in Nan Gao and other villages that the fundamental institutions of marriage, family, and property remain. This suggests why, despite 27 years of Maoism, China's culture remains so faithful to itself.
Indeed, the peasantry seems to have fared much better than urban workers who, though they get pensions at 55 to 60 years old, often live in terrible slums, whole families packed into tiny rooms in squalid, decaying pre-1949 housing.
Throughout history, any state has had only three ways to draw off a peasant's surplus: religion, rent and tools, and taxes. Mao abolished religion, pushed tool- sharing among villagers, and limited their food in common mess halls. Cooperatives, which included 800 persons by 1958, ballooned into 24,000-man "people's communes," and there were 26,000 of the latter at the height of the Great Leap Forward.
Food production fell so alarmingly that the Chinese began what remains a steady retreat toward the family farm. The peasant got back his own house, private garden plot, and kitchen utensils in 1960; the communal mess halls ended in 1961. Today some 80 percent of China's 1 billion people live in 50,000 communes, which are now usually communities of more than 10,000. They are often based on a small old market town and the cluster of traditional villages around it. Most villages coincide with a "production team" of about 100 workers each, small enough so members act together.
The teams gets their income in "work points" -- a share of the commune's eventual income -- plus the proceeds from the sales of privately owned pigs, fruit, poultry, sheep, and vegetables as well as of high-yield wheat and rice.
There has been some debate in the Chinese press lately that communes as big as Mr. Chang's (32,000 people) result in managers getting too far removed from the problems to be solved. Officials have admitted the central problem of collectivized farming is to link the interest of the individual with that of the group.
The Chinese argue on economic grounds against any major handing back of land to individual families. They claim that in the initial stages of the 1953-54 land reform movement (before everything became state owned), families prospered unequally, and the overall production of a village (now a production team) was low.
Yet it is noticeable throughout China that the individually owned village houses are much better maintained than, for instance, collectively owned dairies , duck farms, and machinery sheds. Most public property looks ill kept. I asked the manager of Chang's commune about this, quoting what Aristotle once said -- that the stimulus of private ownership is needed for care, just as the stimulus of gain is needed for hard work.
He asked who Aristotle was and seemed a bit irritated that I was dragging in some Greek who died 2,300 years ago. His reply: "In China we give education to the people so they will love and pay attention to common property."
Yet Deng Xiaoping's pragmatists in Peking seem prepared to try anything that does not violate their two main principles: public ownership of the chief (but not all) means of production, and payment "to each according to his work" (a radical departure from Lenin's "to each according to his need").
The commune manager seemed more at home talking about material incentives. "We have two guiding principles," he said. "'The more you work the more you get' and 'Same work, same pay.'"
He was disbelieving when I reported that many US farm scientists (and economists) regard China as making the developing world's most successful transformation from subsistence to modern agriculture, especially in expanding irrigation, planting multiple crops, using organic and chemical fertilizer, and recycling waste.
The manager protested that Chinese agriculture was still very primitive. He was also unaware that his commune was growing high-yield dwarf strains adapted from wheat and rice developed in Mexico and the Philippines, and that a Chinese now sits on the board of directors of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos near Manila.
This combination of ignorance and a feeling of inferiority of the outside world seemed oddly characteristic of several officials, presumably party members , interviewed.
Common people in the cities and countryside seemed more open minded, sharper, more confident, and better prepared for change. Mr. Chang, for instance, agreed that the Confucianist concept of filial piety was still a force in the village. In contrast, the commune manager said, "Of course, we believe the son must respect the father. But this is not Confucianism. It is a kind of social morality."
Whatever name you give it, a traditional Chinese mentality based on a culture , language, and state structure going back more than 2,000 years has miraculously been preserved and nourished in rural China.
Yet China still faces hard times. Grain production has risen by more than 2 percent a year for the past 20 years, but China now has nearly 1 billion mouths to feed, and its cities still rely on imports for 40 percent of their grain. Economic failure could mean a Maoist revival, which wouldn't solve anything.
Young Chinese seem to be trying to pass along an urgent message to visitors. Said one in Peking: "It is one thing to volunteer to go to the countryside and another to be forced to go."
Said one in Canton: "I had to join the Red Guards but I never destroyed anything or hurt anybody."
They want to be themselves, to be individuals, and they know this requires US economic and technical support. To anyone who meets them now, their China and the fourth of mankind it represents will never look the same again.