Communist Takeover of Hainan Island


A review of Culturing Revolution: the Local Communists of China’s Hainan Island, by Jeremy Andrew Murray.

In Culturing Revolution, Jeremy Murray provides a history of the Communist takeover of Hainan Island. His dissertation, which spans the period from the late Qing until the early 1950s, emphasizes two complementary themes, while also connecting to the wider history of East Asia. Firstly, he draws attention to the importance of local studies of the Communist revolution, and in doing so contributes to a body of scholarship that is gradually teasing out the complicated history of how the Chinese Communist Party came to power. This, as he rightly notes, is something Suzanne Pepper felt was necessary as early as 1978 (pp. 254-256). The truly mammoth task has been taken up by several scholars, including Joseph Esherick, Stephen Averill, and James Gao, whose study of Hangzhou provides a localized history of the revolution in an urban context. In joining these works, Culturing Revolution describes the difficulties of making revolution, while exposing tensions between center and locality. The second theme running through the dissertation is the historical relationship of Hainan with China itself. This addresses how the island has been incorporated into the nation discursively, politically and economically. An undercurrent in this is the place of the Li minority in the history of China, and this story is skillfully narrated throughout. In doing so, the dissertation addresses issues of nationhood that have been interested scholars including Prasenjit Duara, Peter Perdue and Thomas Mullaney among others.

The dissertation begins with an introduction that dwells on these two themes, as well as connecting the history of Hainan with that of East Asia more generally. The first chapter then provides the late Imperial context, one in which Hainan, together with much of Guangdong had an uneasy relationship with Beijing. Officials often complained of the indigenous population, and how periodic uprisings meant the island was perceived as a wild and dangerous place. Using an early Republican survey of Hainan from 1920, Murray traces the long history of the Li, and rescues them from the disdain in which they were held by officials. Despite this, they formed the focus of elite attempts to modernize the island, although infrastructure expansion into the tree-covered interior was largely a failure.

Chapter 2 concentrates on the island’s history during the Republican period, when the theme of localism comes to the fore. Murray’s description of the island under the Nationalists initially concentrates on Lin Wenying, who spent much of his life abroad, and whose revolutionary activity consisted largely of fundraising tours and writing articles. Liu returned to Hainan after the 1911 revolution and, despite meeting an early death (he was killed in 1914), he clearly holds an important place in the island’s history. Hainan applied unsuccessfully for provincial status, and was incorporated loosely into the Nationalist bureaucracy, but its revolutionary course became more localized as it was cut off from the center. Murray introduces us to Feng Baiju, the leader of the Communists on the island, who remains the key figure throughout the rest of the dissertation. Initially, the party built up a significant following, but after 1927 insurgents had to retreat to the interior, and over the next two decades they often remained out of contact with the mainland movement for months on end, which only increased localist tendencies.

The next chapter combines the history of the early Communist movement with that of the Li people more generally, and sets it in the context of the Japanese invasion, while the island’s experience of occupation is dealt with in Chapter 4. Nationalist attacks forced the Communist guerillas to retreat to the interior of Hainan, where they found shelter among the Li villages. In this respect, the revolution on Hainan mirrors that of the mainland, where bases were set up in remote areas, and the line between guerillas and bandits was sometimes blurred. The chapter concludes with the Baisha uprising in 1943, a major Li revolt, which was aimed at the Nationalists rather than the Japanese. This illustrates not only the brutality of the Nationalist presence on the island, but also the importance of the Li-Communist alliance in empowering the minority to assert their rights in the face of successive attempts to nationalize them from Beijing. Despite this, the experience of Japanese occupation only served to increase the isolation of the Communists on Hainan, and this meant that during the civil war they felt able to disobey orders from the mainland.

This divergence is described in Chapter 4, which sets the scene for the final two chapters of the dissertation that concentrate first on the period surrounding the revolution itself in 1949, and then on how through enforcing harsh land reform policies the central leadership in Beijing sidelined local leaders, among them Feng Baiju, who ended his career in Zhejiang. Since Feng had virtual unchallenged authority on Hainan for over two decades, his fate is perhaps unsurprising given Beijing’s drive to centralize control during the 1950s. These two chapters are particularly lucid, with Murray combining interviews with printed sources to describe the respective roles that local guerillas and PLA forces from the north played in the conquest of the island in 1950. The tension between the two forces symbolizes that between the center and the island more generally.

This is a tension that has been a major theme of Hainan’s history for centuries. Although it finally achieved provincial status in 1988, such recognition hides a strong local identity that has shaped its history. Jeremy Murray’s dissertation reveals how this localist streak has also shaped the course of the 1949 revolution on Hainan, and in doing so adds greatly to our understanding of how the Chinese Communist Party came to power.

Toby Lincoln
School of Historical Studies
University of Leicester

Primary Sources

Wenshi ziliao
Published archival reports and gazetteers from Hainan province

Dissertation Information

University of California San Diego. 2011. 357 pp. Primary Advisors: Joseph W. Esherick, Paul G. Pickowicz.


Image: Photograph by Jeremy Murray.

  1. As a foreigner who has lived on Hainan for several years and has a passion for the island’s history – this thesis is truly welcomed. It brings to life so many of the island’s locations and lore.
    It is poignant that it starts of with Feng and his statue at the People’s Park in the centre of old Haikou – his narrative and life work remain constant to this day …
    The importance of the island in the greater context of China and the region’s geopolitical developments are often underplayed yet if we recall Chiang Kai Shek’s remarks at the fall of the island to Imperial Japan, 1939 – he felt it was the most significant event of the Pacific War to date…
    Murray’s PhD serves to correct this historical under representation and
    also aligns with the recent development of “Red Tourism” on Hainan.

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