The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past

The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past

by Gail Hershatter
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University of California Press


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The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past

What can we learn about the Chinese revolution by placing a doubly marginalized group—rural women—at the center of the inquiry? In this book, Gail Hershatter explores changes in the lives of seventy-two elderly women in rural Shaanxi province during the revolutionary decades of the 1950s and 1960s. Interweaving these women’s life histories with insightful analysis, Hershatter shows how Party-state policy became local and personal, and how it affected women’s agricultural work, domestic routines, activism, marriage, childbirth, and parenting—even their notions of virtue and respectability. The women narrate their pasts from the vantage point of the present and highlight their enduring virtues, important achievements, and most deeply harbored grievances. In showing what memories can tell us about gender as an axis of power, difference, and collectivity in 1950s rural China and the present, Hershatter powerfully examines the nature of socialism and how gender figured in its creation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520282490
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/14/2014
Series: Asia Pacific Modern Series , #8
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 711,100
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Gail Hershatter is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of many books, including Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai and Women in China’s Long Twentieth Century, both from UC Press.

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The Gender of Memory

Rural Women and China's Collective Past

By Gail Hershatter


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95034-4



In rural Shaanxi in the 1950s, gender was everywhere an important axis of difference, and it remained so even as the content of normative gendered behavior shifted. Yet gender itself was entangled with specificities of locale and with generational differences. Other themes, too, crosscut and sometimes confound the neat sorting of women into specified roles and orderly progress through time. This chapter frames many of the stories that follow with attention to four of those themes: the importance of place, the limitations of the archive, the particularities of the listeners and speakers, and the gendered qualities of memory.


In each of the places we interviewed, we aimed to understand the specific meanings of socialism, particularly for women who remembered the period before 1949 but whose adult lives were lived largely in the collective era. Local variations in size, gender ratios, crops, community norms, leadership, and accessibility (see Table 1) served as a constant reminder that the very term "China" is a convenient shorthand, a way of organizing our teaching, writing, and understanding of history and contemporary politics. In the long 1950s these villages were governed by a Party-state in the midst of a powerful drive to make "China" uniform, to produce in every village the presence of a state, even while institutionalizing differences between urban and rural life. This state was powerful in part because it managed to reach into rural areas, chiefly by involving local people rather than proclaiming from on high. But as the late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O'Neill once famously said, "All politics is local," and here our persistent habit of talking about "China" obscures the extent to which all socialism is local. Even the most prescriptive edicts of a centralized state must be implemented in widely varied environments, by local personnel who interpret, rework, emphasize, and deflect according to particular circumstances. The working out of state policies was everywhere contingent upon geography, prior social arrangements, and local personalities.

In Weinan County's Village B, for instance, located a few kilometers south of the Wei River in the cotton-growing plains of Guanzhong (see Map 2), houses are close together and neighbors know about goings-on in the next courtyard. By contrast, in Village T, in Nanzheng County, a rice- and tea-producing district in Shaannan not far from the Sichuan border, houses are spread among the paddy fields and mountain paths.1 In Guanzhong, where Village B is located, people used to say that women in Shaannan, where Village T is located, were sexually loose, scattered as they were where neighbors couldn't keep an eye on them. In Village Z, in southeast Shaanxi's Danfeng County, near the Henan border, families who live on the main street of the market town once looked down on those who lived in the mountains (calling them "poor and backward"), and those who lived in the mountains looked down on those in the town (calling them "sleazy merchants, not honest farmers"). Situated where the Dan and Yinhua Rivers converge at the eastern edge of Shaannan, Village Z has long been a trading center for mountain products such as tong oil, walnuts, chestnuts, and medicinal plants. In Heyang County's Village G, at the northern edge of Guanzhong hard by the Yellow River, which divides east Shaanxi from neighboring Shanxi Province, deep gorges in the friable yellow earth score the landscape. Here the cultivation of cotton, the local practice of weaving, the ubiquity of local opera, and the persistent lack of water have all shaped household economies and modes of sociality.

One additional group of interviewees was linked by organization rather than location: Women's Federation cadres who had been sent to work with village women in the 1950s. Now retired, they retain a keen sense of the importance of raising women's status, a goal formally espoused by all state agencies but pursued most passionately and consistently in Shaanxi by the Women's Federation. Unlike most of the village women we interviewed, Federation cadres worked in salaried positions and moved from place to place, often managing their own difficult family situations occasioned by long absences from home. Like village women, they speak of the past in terms that highlight their commitment and hard work. They redeem in memory an enterprise—establishing collectivization in general and expanding women's role in particular—that framed their adult lives but is now regarded with public skepticism or indifference.

In the early years of socialism, directives from a faraway national state authority, such as "Collectivize!" or "Don't treat marriage as a commercial transaction!" or "Give up sideline activities [such as weaving] and work for the collective!" were transmitted by a variety of Party-state actors, landing in myriad social environments and producing multiple effects. The state effect, with its rearrangements of space and recalibrations of time, was worked out through local relationships and practices and held in place by local understandings. The terms that come so easily to historians—"the rural," "the revolution," the names of individual government campaigns—are order-making devices imposed on an intractably varied landscape. Rather than presenting four distinct local studies, subsequent chapters draw material from all the villages where we interviewed, but the stories in each chapter retain the specifics of local geographies, relationships, and gendered work, reminding us that 1950s China was not a homogeneous place.


Historians do not write under conditions of our own choosing. When the time is long ago and the subjects are dead, we rely on written records and material artifacts. When a possibility exists of talking to those who witnessed or participated in past events, the project of "making the invisible visible" by simply asking and recording is seductive, but chimerical. Oral and written sources are both fragmented; neither is wholly reliable. Both are essential to this project, not because combining them offers a definitive account of the past, but because each type of source bears different traces of the circumstances under which it was generated. Different types of sources talk back to, ignore, or interrupt one another, and awareness of this is crucial to the crafting of a good-enough story that does not smooth over such dissonances.

The archival record on 1950s rural Shaanxi is seemingly wide and deep, but it is sobering to see how little it helps with the questions that concern us. Published sources on the collective period—government announcements, press reports, and late twentieth-century compendia of local history known (like their historical predecessors) as gazetteers—offer much detail about the timing and content of state initiatives. They are most useful when we know something about how they were compiled. Talking to Women's Federation officials, for example, helped us understand how tales of the heroic deeds of labor models were developed for publication, with the assistance of Federation cadres who resided in villages for long stretches of time in the 1950s.

In using village, county, and provincial archives, we paid close attention to the classification and ordering of preserved materials: directives, exhortations, demands for reports, and stacks of internal memos. In the Shaanxi Provincial Archives, what the documents do most clearly is trace particular circuits of governmental activity. Chronology is one principle of organization here, but it is trumped by hierarchy. If the subject is directives issued by government agencies about the Marriage Law, for instance, one is apt to find all central government documents at the beginning, then regional government documents, then provincial, county, and so forth. The archives offer a clearer sense of the communications each government level generated than of what transpired when a communiqué hit the ground. As with all archives, any sense of interaction between the levels has to be assembled outside the logic of the file.

State classifications fragment the subjects they aim to govern, sometimes obscuring the workings of the Party-state itself. The Civil Administration Bureau was concerned with, among other things, the Marriage Law, but there is no discussion in the Bureau's files of the literacy classes conducted at the same time. No matter that literacy classes and the Marriage Law were, in combination, two of the most important institutions affecting the lives of young rural women in the early 1950s, and that the ability to read helped make awareness of the law possible. The Agriculture Bureau was in charge of the technical aspects of agriculture, so in its thousands of pages of documents about the Great Leap Forward one can learn how many tons of fertilizer were applied to each ITLμITL of cotton-growing land in every county. But there is nary a word about the communal dining halls, even though every farmer in the province was supposed to be eating in one at the time. No sustained account of social life emerges here, just a series of governmental prisms through which human activity is refracted. Although the same might be said of all archives, the absence is particularly surprising given the Party-state's explicit goals of creating and addressing new social subjects, such as peasants and women, and transforming the entirety of rural social and economic life through collectivization.

The fragmenting of social life into bureaucratic records becomes particularly striking when researching the three grim years that followed the Great Leap Forward. The desperation of China's farmers at that time has been well documented; the figure most commonly heard is that 30 million farmers died of hunger. Although by all accounts Shaanxi was not one of the provinces most devastated, the Civil Administration files from the years 1960–62 overflow with frantic activity occasioned by drought, flooding, and insect pests. The quality of the paper on which these documents were written underscores the content: the smooth cream-colored stationery inscribed with the name of each government agency has been replaced by gray sheeting similar to that used for egg cartons. Most striking, however, is the lack of connection between the urgent distress that emerges from these pages and the upbeat accounts of meetings of cotton producers recorded in the contemporaneous files of the Agriculture Bureau. Scholars have explored at length the disconnect between central government decisions and local realities in this period. Here it appears that lateral in-state communications, even those required to provide relief, may have been ruptured as well, or at least not captured by Party-state archivists. The historian who enters the archive with questions about rural women will be made acutely aware of how Party-state agendas differ from her own.


Oral narratives are the only accounts we have for many aspects of early rural socialism in China, and this book would not be possible without them. Just as we ask about the circumstances that gave rise to archival materials, we need to note the context in which these narratives were heard and collected.

Among many contextual factors, my status as a foreigner should not be forgotten. "It builds humility as well as impatience to contemplate what it took to get me here," reads the first line of my first fieldnote entry in August 1996. Prior to my arrival, Gao Xiaoxian and I would discuss the kind of place that we would like to visit: a place with a labor model, a place where women had played a prominent role in cotton growing or weaving, a place far from any urban center. Drawing on her intricate knowledge of rural Shaanxi, she would contact her counterparts in a district or county Women's Federation branch, and settle on a village in discussion with them. The local Women's Federation officials would then obtain approval from the county government, a process that usually went smoothly but could be derailed by unexpected concerns. During the summer of 1997, for instance, several counties were reluctant to host us because Hong Kong was being "returned to the ancestral nation," and local officials far from Hong Kong were unsure whether a foreigner's presence was appropriate at this moment of national celebration.

We never went from Xi'an directly to a village. We always passed through the district capital or the county seat (sometimes both), stopping to call on and be hosted by local officials, and picking up a Women's Federation cadre or two to accompany us to our introduction into the village. I came to think of this process as a cumulative accretion of legitimacy, so that by the time a carful of us arrived in a village, all the relevant people knew why we were there and what degree of responsibility they had for us.

Our arrival in a village was always put to local use. In Village T, the Women's Federation spent three hundred yuan to repair a rain-damaged road the day before our arrival. In Village B, the village leadership welcomed us, partly because they regarded their resident labor model as an uncontroversial icon of local pride. They mobilized the residents to haul away a huge pile of garbage in honor of my arrival. They were exquisitely attuned to the pragmatic advantages of having the first-ever foreigner reside in their village for a few weeks. Wouldn't it be a good idea, they asked the county transportation department, to repair the road leading to the village before the foreigner had to ride on it? When we stopped for lunch with various officials in the county seat on our way to the village, I watched a woman from thecountyWomen'sFederationskillfullyimportunethecountyforeignaffairsofficer to make sure the electricity stayed on in the village during my stay. The officer promised to phone the generating plant and explain the "special circumstance" to them. Since the temperature averaged 100 degrees Fahrenheit during our stay, and the continuous power allowed everyone in the village to run their electric fans, I felt marginally useful.

The ease with which people greeted and talked to us was a product of Gao Xiaoxian's standing in the Women's Federation, her many years of work in rural areas, and the fact that our arrival had received official permission. Contrary to the romance of the unscripted encounter that pervades much writing about China, had I shown up alone, or had Gao Xiaoxian escorted me without advance notice or approval, it is likely that people would have been more guarded about talking to us. In our rural interviews, we usually talked to women alone, occasionally in pairs or small groups. Interested neighbors, mainly children, sometimes loitered in the vicinity, moreto geta look at me thanto listen to the proceedings, but this curiosity abated within a day or so. I seldom led the questioning, although I intervened actively, conferred with Gao Xiaoxian during and between interviews, and spent most evenings walking with her while we puzzled over the day's conversations. At the beginning of an interview, it was not just my limited dialect competence that made me hang back. We wanted the old women with whom we spoke to be comfortable, and it seemed more prudent (although I was there in plain sight and far from silent) not to remind them incessantly how unprecedented the occasion was. Usually, after an hour or so, my foreign face seemed not to matter anymore.


Excerpted from The Gender of Memory by Gail Hershatter. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Maps

1. Frames
2. No One Is Home
3. Widow (or, the Virtue of Leadership)
4. Activist
5. Farmer
6. Midwife
7. Mother
8. Model
9. Laborer
10. Narrator

Appendix: Interviews Notes Glossary References Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A landmark in women's history and the history of China."—London Review of Books

"Remarkable. . . . Hershatter has a complicated story to tell about women's experiences in mid-twentieth-century China."—Ms Magazine

"If you want to be reminded of how moving history can be, then read this book."—New Books
In Gender Studies

"The Gender of Memory is not only a story of China's past but a gift of restless questions for the present."—China Quarterly

"Hershatter offers a breathtaking interrogation of her sources and methods, rendering elegantly transparent the thought processes behind her book's production."—Cross Currents: East Asian History & Cultural Review


For students, including undergrads, and scholars of China and gender studies.

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