Sannong and Sanzhi: The Base and Superstructure in Rural China

  • Author: Wen Tiejun, Yang Shuai
  • Translator: Hyungjin Cho
  • Publication Date: February / 2020
  • Publisher: Zininzin
The most original interpretation of issues facing contemporary China and concrete solution for these issues


Wen Tiejun, a prominent intellectual figure and activist of his time, synthesized his studies on Sannong (three rural issues) and Sanzhi (three-levels governance in the rural area), which are his main research interests in this book, “Sannong and Sanzhi.” He has always based critical and original interpretation of modern history and capitalist development in China on Sannong.

Sannong refers to peasants, rural society, and agriculture. The peasants still account for more than half of the Chinese population, if the migrant workers from rural areas, ‘Nongmingong,’ are counted as peasants. Official statistics also show that 40 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and most of the territory is rural in China. Moreover, more than a quarter of the working population earns a living from agriculture. The development of modern China, as Wen Tiejun has already argued, was possible because it exploited Sannong for the primitive accumulation of capital for its survival and growth and constantly passed on the cost of the development to the Sannong. The Sanzhi, the superstructure of the Sannong, has only aggravated the exploitation and the cost transfer. In a nutshell, serious problems facing China today, as well as its remarkable achievements, originate from Sannong and Sanzhi.

It was not until the 21st century that China has sought to address the issues of Sannong and Sanzhi, a generation after the adoption of the reform and opening-up policy. The Chinese government has repeatedly emphasized that the economic disparity between urban and rural areas needs to be addressed while giving top priority to reducing poverty among peasants and improving public welfare. Wen Tiejun, however, demonstrated that the logic behind the policy to resolve the issues is no different from the one that gave rise to such issues in the last century. In other words, the government policy is just an indiscriminate attempt to address the issues based on the ideas of privatization, urbanization, and liberalization, all of which originate from neo-liberalism. Such an attempt is not only unable to fix the problems of Sannong and Sanzhi, but also fails to fit into the new paradigm that pursues an ecological and harmonious society (Hexie Shehui).

Wen Tiejun revisits the role of the Sannong, which has enabled China to survive and prosper even under unfavorable or dire circumstances, in order to solve the problems and suggest an alternative to the western paradigm. By doing so, he rediscovers the village reason (Cunluo Lixing) embedded in traditional rural society, instead of individual farmers or local groups organized by the state. In addition, as the present case where the village reason is manifested, he found out the Comprehensive Cooperatives (Zonghe Hezuo) in which Chinese peasants organize themselves independently on the basis of their life and culture, rather than economic interests. Wen Tiejun presents a plan to resolve the problems facing China and find an alternative to the Western paradigm, even though it is premature, while focusing on the collective capability of the rural community, which can potentially keep political power and capital under control.