Ever since the 1920s, the nature of rural society and the position of the peasant in modern China have been the subject of highly controversial debate. This debate also touched on general issues relating to the analysis of agrarian social systems. The article traces the various stages of the controversy from the discussion on "moral economy" versus "peasant rationality" up to the most recent contributions. In the 1980s, the highly original work of the American historian Philip C.C. Huang has opened up new vistas and has transcended the old battle-lines. Huang’s approach and his empirical results are critically examined. They are contrasted with a recent study by the British historian David Faure which starts from a theoretical position far remote from that of Philip Huang, yet ending up by unwittingly corroborating several of Huang’s conclusions. Finally, a new anthropological study by Shulamit and Jack Potter is discussed. It contributes, as does Philip Huang’s most recent book, to an assessment of current changes in rural China in the light of long-term historical analysis.