Chinese Women’s Lives in Their Own Voices

Saturday, January 7, 2023: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Room 306

Dewen Zhang, Randolph-Macon College


Gender, Class, and Religion in the Making of a Socialist Space Engineer
Ruoyun Bai, University of Toronto

From Petit-Bourgeois Daughters to New Women of Socialist China: The Fate of Small Business Owners in Yangtze Delta, 1949–79
Dandan Chen, State University of New York, Farmingdale State College

From Unemployed Youth to Political Consultative Committee Member: Career Mobility and Political Participation Seen from the Life of an Urban Woman, 1960–2000
Shuang Chen, University of Iowa

The Trouble to Grow Up: “Hidden Girls” under the One Child Policy in Contemporary China, 1989–2021
Yu Wang, University of Macau

Comment: Gail Hershatter, University of California, Santa Cruz

Panel Abstract:

Historians of women and gender in the People’s Republic of China have often focused their research either on the Mao’s era or after; rarely have they treated the time frame from 1949 to the present collectively. This panel attempts to examine the lives of women in their own voices using oral history materials by treating this period as a collectivity with its own continuity despite the remarkable changes in the organization of social production and political rhetoric. This treatment allows the panel to discuss women’s experiences from a rather long historical perspective while maintaining a micro historical approach in its focus on the configuration of self-identities in these years as the country itself often was undergoing similar construction and reconstruction in the realms of society, culture, politics, and economy. Using gender as an analytical approach, this panel also considers the issues of the binarity between the rural and the urban, career and identity-making, women and family, technology and politics.

The panelists explore the dynamic between memory and narrative and discuss how the interviewees mobilize memory in their construction of selves and self-identities. The panel papers also reflect on the issue of “double presentations” of the interviewers who are often daughters, relatives, and friends to those who are interviewed. By doing so, the panel talks directly to the issue of “neutrality” in oral history projects. Finally, the panel discusses possibilities, opportunities and challenges of feminist oral history project while engaging with the discourse beyond the field of China studies.

Papers abstracts:

  • “Gender, Class, and Religion in the Making of a Socialist Space Engineer,” Ruoyun Bai, University of Toronto

This paper tells the life history of my mother, Shen Xiaocun, using oral history, micro history and critical interpretive methodologies. Born in 1944, she grew up in a rural family in northern China. As a single child, she was allowed to go to school by a reluctant father; blessed with her mother’s and teachers’ unswerving support, she stood out academically and became enrolled in Beijing Aeronautics and Astronautics University in 1964. From 1969 to 2004, she worked for China’s space industry first as communication and meteorological satellite engineer and then as spaceship engineer, before retiring to take care of my son born in the United States. She and my father migrated to Canada in 2014 to remain close to me and my family.

My mother’s life story might conform to that of an imagined socialist engineer who rose through the socialist education system and, having developed the two key attributes of expertise and political loyalty, successfully turned herself into a cog in the machine. But how well does the identity of “red engineer” describe my mother’s lived experience? Not well, I argue. Through multiple extended interviews with her, I recognize intersecting her professional identity as engineer are experiences of everyday life. These experiences have been inseparable from and structured in different relations to her work and workplace. They are mutually constitutive and constraining; yet it is primarily in everyday experiences that my mother anchors the meaning of her life and finds ways to deal with constraints and vicissitudes of the world. In addition to her dedication to work, I highlight the following experiences – material deprivation during childhood and impact on her later life; de-politization and reclamation of Christianity; and mother-daughter bond she had with my grandmother and with me. I will show how these experiences have significantly impacted the way she makes sense of her life story and proved to be more lasting in effect than her work as engineer.

This paper also reflects on what it means to interview one’s own mother and how the mother-daughter bond can be construed as a critical method in gender studies. In this paper, the mother-daughter bond is meaningful in two ways: it enables and empowers this research project; in my mother’s story, it is clear that the mother-daughter bond that she had with my grandmother was absolutely essential to her work as a young engineer (my grandmother moved to live with us and take care of me once I was born), and that the bond I have with her has been similarly essential to my career as an academic.

  • “From Petit-Bourgeois Daughters to New Women of Socialist China: The Fate of Small Business Owners in Yangtze Delta (1949-1979)”, Dandan Chen, State University of New York at Farmingdale

This paper defines the generation of Chinese women who were born in the late 1940s and early 1950s as “gongheguo de nü’er”(“Daughters of the People’s Republic”) and examine the interactions among state, society, family, and these Socialist new women through case studies of several women associated with a family of small business owners: The author argues that there are two levels of subjectivity as “daughters of the People’s Republic”: 1) individual subjectivity and 2) collective subjectivity, and that these two levels interact and shape each other at the same time. By analyzing the narrative and memories of these socialist new women, the paper reflects on the history of Socialist China from a micro-historical perspective: the inter-city moves of small-business-owner families before and after 1949, the internal divisions and different choices within small-business-owner families in the new society’s road to gongsi heying (joint state-private ownership) and various life experiences of family members in the city and the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. By combining oral history, micro-history, macro-history, and textual analysis of literature and film, the paper explores some fundamental issues of social change in socialist China from different theoretical perspectives, including: the interplay between rural and urban, socialist transformation, migrations and changes of various economic forms in the Yangtze Delta, the dichotomy of the public and the private in socialist China, and the birth of the “daughters of the People’s Republic” as “socialist new women” at the individual and group levels.

  • “From Unemployed Youth to Political Consultative Committee Member: Career Mobility and Political Participation Seen from the Life of an Urban Woman, 1960-2000,” Shuang Chen, University of Iowa

This paper is a microhistory of the career trajectory of Jun, a woman who lived her youth and middle age in the city of Chongqing between 1960 and 2000. China saw drastic political, social, and economic changes in these four decades. Consequently, individuals living in this period often saw dramatic ups and downs in their lives. Graduated from a science and technology secondary school in 1963, Jun initially had a job as a professional in agricultural science but later gave up the position as she saw the working environment becoming increasingly anti-intellectual. She then worked on multiple positions as a temporary worker until she finally became a high school teacher in the 1980s. Later she was recommended by her school to the District-level Political Consultative Committee as a member.

Using Jun’s case, this paper plans to explore two questions. First, how did social status, gender, and educational background interact with political climate to affect individuals’ career mobility in this period? Second, how did individuals’ attitude toward politics and their own political participation change during these four decades? As most scholarship and popular literature on this period have focused on the lives of the sent-down youths, this paper sheds light on the lives of the youths who did not go down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and instead stayed in the cities. In so doing, this paper also contributes to a holistic understanding of the generation who lived their youth during the Cultural Revolution. 

  • The Trouble to Grow Up: “Hidden Girls” under the One Child Policy in Contemporary China (1989-2021),” Yu Wang, University of Macau

This paper focuses on the women who were raised outside their natal families during their childhood in China of the 1980s and 1990s. Existing scholarship often focuses on the psychological disorder this community has experienced while overlooking the complicated roles such an experience has played in the formation of personal memory and identity. This paper adopts the methodology of oral history and analyzes the narrative the informants employed in recalling and reflecting upon their past, as well as drawing organic connections between that past and their current living conditions. The author further regards the conversation with the informants as a cooperation and explores how such a cooperative relationship influences the ways in which the informants narrate their childhood experience and eventually turn the history of “hidden women” to the hidden history of women in contemporary societies.