What’s past is prologue

Issue: 133

Sally Kincaid

Gail Hershatter, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past (University of California Press, 2011), £34.95

Everyone has a regret that they didn’t ask elderly relatives to tell their story before they died.

Hershatter had the same realisation about the generation of rural women who were young during the 1950s in China. She quite rightly believed that the official state version of this period was not the reality for rural communities, and therefore decided to record their stories before advancing age and death silenced them forever.

This is an extensive piece of primary research. Hershatter interviewed 72 women over a ten-year period. All but one were over the age of 60 at the time of the interview and many were in their late 70s or older. All the interviews took place in four villages in the province of Shaanxi. But the stories and experiences from this time could be repeated throughout rural China.

These are the real human voices of peasant women who lived through the revolution of 1949 and then the effects of the
top-down state campaigns that followed.

The fact that the only women who are named are those who were or are Communist Party cadre, and that villages are left unnamed, shows that there is still a real fear of the consequences of discussing “bitterness” about this period.

Although this a well researched and detailed book, the main flaw is Hershatter’s political starting point, which is that China is a socialist state. In fact the 1949 revolution was a nationalist revolution which did not create a socialist society but initiated a process of building a strong and independent economy that could compete on the world stage. This meant that the needs and aspirations of workers and peasants were subordinated to that aim.

Hershatter’s conclusion is that China is socialist and therefore socialism not only does not liberate women but it can make their lives more difficult.

She recognises that 1949 did see real change in the conditions of women, such as the banning of footbinding and child brides. However, this was neither liberation nor emancipation. What revolution did for rural women was to remove the stigma traditionally attached to with “outside labour”. This labour was no longer associated with family disaster, hardship and instability.

One expression summed up the status of women prior to 1949: “No matter how good a woman, she will circle the kitchen stove; no matter how inferior a man, he will travel the world.” It was common for someone who comes to a house to hear a woman shout out, “There is no one home,” ie there are no men at home.

One of the most harrowing sections of interviews is the description of pregnancy and birth before 1949. After this there were massive improvements in maternity care, fewer women and children died as a result of childbirth, and midwives were trained to sterilise the equipment they used.

Hershatter interviews women cadres who were clearly committed to liberation. This meant reducing women’s dependency on men by bringing them out to work in the fields and raising their economic and social status. The problem is women still had the double burden of both working and also raising children.

During collectivisation the only way to eat was to work in the fields and earn work points. This forced women to go to work too soon after giving birth and resulted in many long-term medical problems. Collective childcare was never a reality for most communities. At best the old people would look after the younger children in exchange for work points; at worst the children, and even babies, were left alone. One woman describes how her son died in a vat of urine, another told of how she tied her children to a window frame in a row and then cleared up their shit on her return from the fields.

The book bears witness to the expectations that the revolution would bring change. But these hopes were not backed up with the material basis required to improve the lives of rural families, and within that the burden carried by the women of the community.

There is of course a concern about what will happen to this generation of women. Their mothers were cared for by their sons and daughters in their rural communities but now most young people have left the villages and are living in the cities. As one woman says, “The world is much better for women, but individual women are less worthy than we were.”