The Power of Words: Literacy and Revolution in South China, 1949-95


250 pages
Contains Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7748-0611-7
DDC 302.2'244'09512709045





Reviewed by Gary Watson

Gary Watson is a former lecturer in Chinese studies at Queen’s University and is now a multimedia developer in Mississauga.


By the early 1990s, nearly 70 percent of China’s adult population were
considered literate—a situation vastly different from the early 1950s,
when the Chinese countryside was viewed as a “vast sea of
illiterates.” The course of this transformation, particularly its
social and political di-mensions, is the subject of Glen Peterson’s
study of literacy campaigns in Guangdong province.

Peterson focuses attention on three interrelated questions. What
factors informed official definitions of literacy and its role in nation
building? How did local communities evaluate literacy programs? Did mass
education reduce or reinforce social inequalities? From the 1950s on,
literacy campaigns in Guangdong, as elsewhere, were but part of larger
programs of economic reform whose direction became the focus of intense
ideological and factional struggle.

As this study makes clear, China’s extraordinary diversity strongly
influenced the outcomes of these national programs. In the case of
Guangdong, areas in the Pearl River delta adjoining Canton (among the
richest in the province) enjoyed traditionally high literacy rates. But
so too did Meixian (among the province’s poorest regions), where for
centuries popular culture had promoted literacy as an economic strategy.
Areas with nearly 90 percent adult illiteracy included counties with
large aboriginal communities, long isolated by ethnicity from
traditional sources of wealth and power.

This first volume in a new series on contemporary China provides some
much-needed perspective on the People’s Republic of China as it nears
its 50th anniversary.


Peterson, Glen., “The Power of Words: Literacy and Revolution in South China, 1949-95,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 13, 2024,