One of the important parts of the Book of Mormon that many Mormons try hard to overlook or downplay is the content regarding secret combinations and their destructive role in several ancient American societies (Nephite, Lamanites, and Jaredites). I think there are some vital lessons and prophecies that need to be applied and mined for guidance in our day. I also think that viewing such content as Joseph’s response to Masonry comes nowhere close to accounting for the highly nuanced and accurate treatment in the text. I also feel that examination of the various forms and business models of secret combinations in the world over time can provide evidence for the wisdom, prophetic accuracy, and ancient origins of the Book of Mormon.
The term “secret combinations” is always negative in the Book of Mormon. That term is possibly a derivative from older brass plates material related to the Book of Moses, where the term “secret combinations’ is presented (Moses 5:51). But while Book of Mormon secret combinations are murderous groups pursuing “works of darkness,” a broader definition of secret combinations can include some secretive efforts that are noble and enlightened. In fact, China’s current success and well-being is partly due to a brilliant secret combination. I’m not talking about the one founded the Party in China, beginning with a secret pact here in Shanghai not far from where I live. Rather, I’m talking about the later secret effort where a group of brave men put their lives on the line to fight starvation, and won. That story took place close to Nanjing, home of the impressive Nanjing Branch in the Shanghai International District of the Church, a branch I have visited often. Next time I go, I’m planning to visit the site in neighboring Anhui Province of the founding of the secret combination that saved China, a little known treasure that I can’t wait to see, based on what I recently read about it rise and viral success.
One of my favorite books on life in China is Michael Meyer’s In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015). He shares his experiences living for a while in a tiny village actually called “Wasteland” in the challenging northwestern section of China. In the midst of his book, he recounts the vital story of how China overcame its problem with starvation and bloomed to becoming the booming success that it is these days, in spite of a slowing economy.
He introduces some of the challenges China faced in the 1950s, when the visions of socialism met the reality of poverty and hunger:
“Nineteen fifty-six,” I said reflexively, quoting the village Stone. By 1958 all of China’s co-ops had become “people’s communes.” The policy triggered the Great Famine, killing at least 20 million people; some estimates go as high as 45 million. Officially, the deaths were blamed on natural disasters and the period was labeled the Three Years of Bitterness.
“All our personal food was confiscated during the collective times,” Auntie Yi said. “We used to grind soybeans mixed with barley in secret at home. Everything was supposed to be for the commune. We didn’t even have money. We were paid in work points. At the end of each workday, you had your score assessed and entered into a little handbook for each family. It was casually decided, actually. It wasn’t a true commune: whoever had the power to decide the score earned the most points, or rewarded his family and friends. You knew the standard. If you did hard labor, people would murmur, ‘Give him six points.’ If it was really hard work, you could earn up to ten, even twelve. But the ‘rich peasants’ could only earn up to eight, and every night they would be reminded it was because they had exploited people in the past. That was our family, you know: my grandfather hired people after he migrated here on foot, starting out hauling grain on his back. And my father ran a granary out here. So I was marked. But really, I was lucky. The people who collaborated with the Japanese in Manchukuo got it the worst.” (p. 214)
Then comes the story from a secret combination formed in Anhui Province in the obscure village of Xiaogang:
When Chairman Mao died in 1976, so did his dream of collective agriculture. By decade’s end, farmers were allowed a small, personal plot to supplement crops raised by the village team. The work points system was abolished. “But at every turn, people were unhappy!” Auntie Yi said. “It’s in people’s nature to complain. But very few people complained when da baogan was introduced.
The term meant “the complete allocation of responsibilities,” and the policy meant that individuals, like the hungry Pilgrims, no longer had to farm as a team. The change was born not in a ministerial meeting but in a farmer’s home in the central China province of Anhui, where The Good Earth had been set. A corn-growing village named Xiaogang was starving, suffering under the nation’s quota demands. Its residents dug up roots, boiled poplar leaves with salt, and ground roasted tree bark into flour. Entire families left their thatched-roof, mud-walled homes and took to the road to beg.
A farmer named Yan Hongchang, whose studies had ended at middle school, was the deputy leader of the village work team, overseeing production. But there was no production that autumn of 1978. During the Great Famine, a quarter of the county’s residents had died. “We knew what it was like to starve, and we would rather die any other way,” Mr. Yan later recalled.
On the night of November 24, Mr. Yan summoned the heads of the village’s twenty families to a secret meeting. The village accountant was deputized as a secretary, and on paper torn from a child’s school exercise book transcribed a seventy-nine-word pledge to divide the commune’s land into family plots, submit the required quota of corn to the state, and keep the rest for themselves. “In the case of failure,” the document concluded “we are prepared for death or prison, and other commune members vow to raise our children until they are eighteen years old.” The farmers signed the document and affixed their fingerprints.
Thus began China’s rural reform.
Today a large stone monument to the pact greets tourists to the village But in the spring of 1979, a local official who learned of the clandestine agreement fumed that the group had “dug up the cornerstone of socialism„ and threatened severe punishment. Thinking he was bound for a labor camp, Mr. Yan rose before dawn, reminded his wife that their fellow villagers had promised to help raise their children, and walked to the office of the county’s party secretary. But the man privately admitted to Mr. Yan that he knew, since the pact had been signed, the village’s winter harvest had increased sixfold. The official told Mr. Yan he would protect Xiaogang village and the rebellious farmers so long as their experiment didn’t spread.
Villagers gossip; farmers talk about their fields. Soon neighboring hamlets copied Xiaogang’s model. News reached the provincial authorities, who were unwilling to punish farms that were, at last, producing food. Thus, they did not brand the abandonment of collective farming as counterrevolutionary but instead endorsed it as “an irresistible wave spontaneously topping the limits once enforced by the state.
In Beijing, three years after Chairman Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping was opening China to foreign trade and liberalizing the economy. Yet originally he ruled against allowing “household farms,” afraid that critics would again label him a “capitalist roader,” for which he had been purged during the Cultural Revolution. However, the grassroots movement that began in Xiaogang made the decision for him. In a series of policies issued between 1978 and 1984, China formalized the Household Contract Responsibility System (colloquially called chengbao). It allowed families to farm their own allocation of land in exchange for turning a portion of their crops over to the state. What remained was theirs to eat, and to sell at unregulated prices. China’s communes, brigades, and production teams were renamed as townships, villages, and hamlets, respectively.
Xiaogang was made into a living patriotic education base where a small museum displays a replica of the farmers’ pact, since the original was lost’ Exhibits praise the bold wisdom of its ringleader, Yan Hongchang, his cosignatories, and the Party. But not everyone bought the high rhetoric. “My father signed that paper because we were starving,” Mr. Yan’s son told me. “There was nothing heroic about it. He had no other choice. It was human instinct, trying not to die. It’s strange the leaders want to celebrate survival.”
The reforms continued: in 1984, fifteen-year leases were introduced for family farm plots—then extended to thirty years in 1993. The state stopped requiring grain procurement in 2001 and abolished all agricultural taxes in 2006. (pp. 215-217, viewable at Amazon.com)
I thought about Xiaogang and the daring secret combination tonight as we just completed a move (our 4th in 5 years) to a new apartment in China in a marvelous, lively neighborhood in Gubei, where we walked into a fruit store next to our complex and found some of the best, freshest fruit we’ve had. What abundance we enjoy in China! How much we owe to the farmers and many others who make this possible. How much we owe to the very brave, starving farmers who helped officials look at China in a new way and opened an era of prosperity.
Xiaogang was in the news recently as the President of China visited it and recognized it as the epicenter of the reforms that have made China so prosperous.
The photo and caption below come from a 2016 press release from China (originally from the government publication Qiushi):
HEFEI, April 27, 2016 (Xinhua) — Chinese President
Xi Jinping visits the family of Yan Jinchang (3rd R), who was a leader
on implementing the “household contract responsibility system”, at
Xiaogang Village of Fengyang County in Chuzhou, east China’s Anhui
Province, April 25, 2016. Xi made an inspection tour in Anhui from April
24 to 27. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)
My thanks and love to the brave families of Xiaogang who showed the world that simple incentives to produce can result in a boom in production. Amazing stuff!
Also amazing is the experience of food in China. One thing China has taught me is to value and cherish food. Food matters so much here, as it should. Food here is about more than just not being hungry. It is about relationships, joy, love, and the quality of life. Food is something to never take for granted. We need it, and it can vanish so quickly due to drought, disease, overabundance of government, whatever. Having food storage is vital to be ready for the disasters that surely will come. May your food chain remain intact without the need to risk your life with secret combinations in your own country! May we be grateful to those who have done so much to make our current abundance possible.