Image of Photos of Chinese rural communes and Israeli kibbutzim
Chinese rural communes and Israeli kibbutzim (Chinese photographs, 1970s, courtesy of Professor Peter Nolan)

The rise and fall of communalism in modern Chinese and Israeli literature

The China Centre seminar on Tuesday 31 May 2022 was given by Professor Yaron Peleg (Kennedy-Leigh Professor of Modern Hebrew Studies, University of Cambridge; and Fellow and Director of Studies in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Jesus College) and Dr Huiruo Li (PhD graduate, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge).

At their peak in the twentieth century around one-quarter of the world population lived in collective farms. The seminar presented by Dr Huiruo Li and Professor Yaron Peleg provided a vivid insight into the rise and decline of rural collective institutions. Their seminar explored the history of collective institutions in China and Israel through the lens of literary works produced in both countries - two each from China (Zhao Shuli and Mo Yan) and Israel (S.Yizhar and Amos Oz). Dr Li's presentation outlined the contrasting historical context within which the four literary works had been composed. The works selected reflected the changing sentiments within each country about collective institutions and the challenges presented by collective ownership, work and income distribution, and communal life. Despite the contrast in historical circumstances the construction of rural collective institutions in both countries reflected an optimistic view about the possibilities for human beings to live collectively.

Dr Li's presentation was followed by a dialogue with Professor Peleg. The dialogue explored the reasons for Dr Li's personal interest in this topic; the conflicting views within Israel and China today about rural collective institutions; the influence of levels of literacy in the two countries upon the operation of collective institutions; and the wider context of literature about collective institutions within the two countries.

The Q&A discussion included the following topics: the influence of the Soviet collective farm experience upon the Israeli kibbutz movement; Chinese people's perceptions of the award of the Nobel Prize for literature to Mo Yan; Israel’s pre-independence Zionist tradition of anti-capitalism and romantic nationalism; the role of women in Mo Yan's story 'The Transparent Radish'; gender relations in Israeli kibbutzim; the role of collective farms in Soviet literature; the role of the peasantry in Karl Marx's writings; the contrast between collective farms in China and the Soviet Union; the influence of the Israeli kibbutz movement upon China in the 1950s; and the psychological impact of collective farms on their members.

Dr Huiruo Li is a recent graduate from the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. She read her BA of Hebrew language in Peking University, China, and then pursued her MPhil (Queens’) and PhD (Lucy Cavendish) in Cambridge, focusing on the ideological evolution in modern Hebrew literature. She has learned in Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel and worked in Middlebury College of the United States.

Yaron Peleg is Kennedy-Leigh Professor of Modern Hebrew Studies at the University of Cambridge. He published numerous monographs and edited volumes on modern Hebrew literary history, Israeli cinema and Israeli culture more generally, primarily the creation and legacy of a native Hebrew culture in Palestine/Israel at the beginning of the twentieth century. Professor Peleg is also editor-in-chief of the Journal of Modern Jewish Studies.