Econ-Atrocity {special History of Thought series} Y.C. James Yen and His Rural Reconstruction Movement

By Zhaochang Peng

Y.C. James Yen (1893-1990), a Chinese educator and social activist, developed a fourfold “rural reconstruction” approach to rural development in China during the 1920s. A resurgence of interest in his approach to development is currently underway in China, while his work has been continuously promoted by the institute he established in the Philippines in 1960.

James Yen’s Rural Reconstruction Movement promotes an integrated program of education, livelihood, public health and self-governance, which targets the interlocking problems of illiteracy, poverty, disease and civic inertia found among peasants in developing countries. While the four aspects of the program could be designed to address the problems in a one-for-one way, James Yen intended them to be an organic whole, to be carried out in close cooperation with one another.

Yen’s first experimental project, which began in 1926, was in rural Ding Xian (in China’s Hebei Province). With the help of external funds and volunteers, the reconstruction unfolded over a ten-year span. In the first three years, illiteracy was eliminated; for the next three years, more productive farming methods were disseminated and the local public health system was established; and finally, on the basis of the cultural, economic and social improvements already achieved, peasants were able to set up a local system of self-governance. The results of this experiment were positive and encouraging, and had begun to impact other parts of China.

From 1950 till his death in 1990, James Yen devoted his life to adaptation of this approach to peasant communities in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. His lifetime pursuit of the betterment of the life of peasants in developing countries won him world reputation and numerous awards, including the Copernican Citation as one of ten outstanding “modern revolutionaries” of the world together with Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, John Dewey and others in 1943, and the U.S. Presidential End Hunger Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1987.

However, there is one major limitation inherent in James Yen’s Rural Reconstruction method: its local approach relies on the prevailing political, economic and social relationships that already exist, rather than transforming them. For example, it provides aids to peasants, and to
some extent even organizes local peasants into cooperatives in order to make them more competitive in the market, but it does not attempt to abolish market forces, thus keeping rural economy in a structurally disadvantageous position to be subject to unfavorable market vicissitudes. Another example is that the “experiment sites” of James Yen’s approach are restricted to peasant communities dominated by self-employed households. Thus, in rural localities where feudal landlords and capitalists exploit poor peasants, problems of underdevelopment for those poor peasants persist.

In contrast to James Yen’s “rural reconstruction” approach, Mao Zedong’s “rural revolution” approach provides a better solution to rural development issues in developing countries. Under Mao’s leadership, feudal and capitalist forms of peasant exploitation were abolished through land reform, peasants were organized into cooperatives through guided and voluntary rural collectivization, and the rural economy got extensive aids from the state in a planned economy context where market forces were limited or completely eliminated.

In the past quarter century, the return of the market economy to China, the degeneration of the state into a predator on peasants, and the increasing integration of China with the capitalist world economy have subjected Chinese peasants to higher market risks and exploitation rates. In this context, an increasing number of Chinese social activists and expert volunteers are getting involved in reviving James Yen’s approach, with the hope that organized peasants will be less vulnerable to market risk and state coercion. Although it may still be some years before we can assess the influence of the revival of James Yen’s approach on Chinese peasants, we know from historical experience that there is a better solution to problems of rural development.

Sources and Resources:

The International Institute of Rural Reconstruction

James Yen’s biography by the Magsaysay Award

The Hunger Project’s brief comments on James Yen

“James Yen-inspired new Rural Reconstruction Movement in China” (in Chinese)

(c) 2004 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.