Obituary for Professor Gao Wangling
Policy Above Meets Counter-Policy Below (上有政策，下有對策)
by Professor Felix Wemheuer (文浩)
The death of Professor Gao Wangling on August 24, 2018 at the age of 68 is very sad news for the field of Chinese history, but also for me personally. When I was a foreign student at Renmin University in Beijing from 2000 to 2002, I took several of his courses on the history of collectivization and peasants. Professor Gao was a well-known expert from the Research Institute for Qing History, but he also felt compelled to do research to understand the fate of Chinese peasants under Mao. His own experience as a “sent-down youth” in Shanxi during the Cultural Revolution deeply affected him so that he could not turn his back on rural China. I learnt from him that peasants in the Mao era were not naïve objects of party policies. Below the surface, they carried out “counter-actions” (反行為) such as underreporting of production, theft, organizing black markets or hiding “black land.” During the great famine (1959–1961), they lost the battle against a state that forcibly took too much grain from their villages. Professor Gao argued that peasants in the era of the People’s Commune were forced to react with “counter-actions” against state policies simply to survive. His research helped deconstruct the official myth of unity between the party and peasants.
I remember that during my stay at Renmin University, there were never more than a handful of students in his classes. Professor Gao did not care whether his arguments would please the mainstream or school officials. He encouraged all of us to go to the countryside to carry out interviews with peasants by ourselves. In the villages, we could find parts of society and history that were not mentioned in books. At that time, very few scholars in China would use oral history to conduct research on the Mao era. Following his advice, I started to do interviews with eyewitness regarding the great famine. Without knowing it at the time, I would publish several books on this topic. Professor Gao also encouraged one of his students to do field studies on the extraordinary degree of violence and terror during the Land Reform (1947–1952). This was long before the mainstream in the field started to discover the dark sides of the early 1950s.
Despite his academic proficiency and intellectual brilliance, it took a long time for him to get some recognition in academia. Many of his manuscripts, dealing with sensitive topics such as the great famine and Land Reform, could never be published on the mainland. Renmin University awarded him with the position of full professor only in 2009 nearing his retirement in 2010. One version of this book, Counter-Actions of Chinese Peasants in the Age of the People’s Commune, finally came out with Zhonggongdangshi chubanshe inside the PRC in 2006. Needless to say, in this version, Gao could not include some of his major arguments. A new version (中國農民反行為研究，1950–1980) was published by The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press in 2013. No one should call himself or herself an expert on rural China without studying this book.
With the passing away of Professor Gao, the field of Chinese history has lost one of its outstanding and intellectually challenging scholars.
Felix Wemheuer (文浩) is Professor for Modern China Studies at the University of Cologne. He has published 饑荒政治：毛時代中國與蘇聯的比較研究 (Famine Politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union) with The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press in 2017. and Together with Kimberley Manning, he published an English translation of an article by Gao Wangling, “A Study of Chinese Peasant Counter-Action,” included in Eating Bitterness: New Perspectives on China’s Great Leap Forward and Famine (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011).
他的英文著作 Famine Politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union 由耶魯大學出版社於2014年出版，出版之後廣受好評，中文版《饑荒政治：毛時代中國與蘇聯的比較研究》於2017年由中文大學出版社出版。他還有數部著作，包括德文版的《毛澤東傳》。