May 22, 2004
William Hinton, Author Who Studied Chinese Village Life,
Dies at 85
By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT
William H. Hinton, whose accounts of Chinese village
life helped shape America's understanding of Mao Zedong's revolution,
died last Saturday at a nursing home in Concord, Mass., where he had
been living for several years. He was 85.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter Catherine
His books "Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village"
(Monthly Review Press, 1966) and "Shenfan: The Continuing Revolution in
a Chinese Village" (Random House, 1983), about the impact of the 1949
revolution on a village where he worked, were widely read and remained
required reading for generations of university students over the
The books offered an authentic if, some critics said, an occasionally
overromantic peek at the patterns of life for the peasants in whose
name the revolution was fought. His writing offered a sympathetic
account of Communist China at a time when America was deeply
anti-Communist, which led to a 14-year delay of the publication of
Mr. Hinton captured gritty details of the impact of the revolution on
the traditional way of life and the resistance to change in Long Bow,
in southeastern Shaanxi Province. He explained, for example, the
struggles of elected councils to replace the old magistrates who ran
the village. He described how individual villagers "hopefully placed"
the family privy "at the edge of the public road in anticipation of a
contribution to the domestic store of fertilizer from any traveler who
might be in need of relief."
The books also touched on the beginning of Mr. Hinton's own gradual
disillusionment with the progress of the revolution. He summed up his
later conclusions in a series of essays, which were collected in "The
Great Reversal: The Privatization of China" (Monthly Review Press,
This disillusionment came too late to avoid the trouble he faced at the
height of the McCarthy era, which led to the confiscation of his notes
on Fanshen, the loss of his passport, his blacklisting from employment
and his being called up before the Senate Subcommittee on Internal
Security, led by Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi.
William Howard Hinton was born Feb. 2, 1919, in Chicago, the second
child and only son of Sebastian Hinton, a lawyer, and Carmelita Chase
Hinton, an educator who founded The Putney School, in Putney, Vt.
Mr. Hinton was in the first class to attend Putney and graduated in
1936. Accepted at Harvard, he postponed college and instead traveled in
the Far East, supporting himself with odd jobs. He attended Harvard
from 1937 to 1939, then transferred to Cornell and in 1941 took a
bachelor of science degree in agronomy and dairy husbandry.
In 1945 he married Bertha Sneck, a translator and editor. They had one
child, Carmelita, now a documentary filmmaker in Brookline, Mass. The
marriage ended in divorce in 1954. In 1959 he married Joanne Raiford, a
metallurgical technician, with whom he had three children, Michael
Howard, of Reading, Pa.; Alyssa Anne, of Carrboro, N.C.; and Catherine
Jean, of Arlington, Mass. Ms. Raiford died in 1986, and the following
year Mr. Hinton married Katherine Chiu, an employee of Unicef, who
survives him, along with his first wife, his four children, two
stepchildren and three grandchildren.
With high hopes for the Chinese revolution, Mr. Hinton returned to
China during World War II as a propaganda analyst for the Office of War
Information, and then again in 1947 as a tractor technician for the
United Nations. When the United Nations program ended he stayed on as
an English teacher and land-reform adviser in Fanshen, where he took
more than 1,000 pages of notes on what he saw.
When his passport expired, he returned to the United States in 1953,
and his troubles began. After the Eastland Committee held hearings on
him and pronounced the trunk full of papers they had taken from him to
be "the autobiography of a traitor," he worked as a truck mechanic in
Philadelphia until he was blacklisted, then took up farming in
Fleetwood, Pa., on land that his mother owned.
All the while he kept up a legal battle to recover his notes and
papers. When he finally won, he set about writing "Fanshen." In 1971,
after the book was translated into Chinese, Zhou Enlai invited him to
visit China again, and he resumed his work as an agricultural adviser.
Besides revisiting Long Bow, he continued to write and lecture on
Chinese and Mongolian culture, and to consult for various Chinese and
United Nations agricultural organizations.