Memory, Gender and Reconciliation

“Memory, Gender and Reconciliation: Rural and Urban Women in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-Present”

Hilton Union Square, Union Square 19&20

Chair: Dewen Zhang, Randolph-Macon College


Memory, Trauma, and Reconciliation: A Peasant Woman’s Journeys from Mao to Now

Qiong Zhang, Wake Forest University

From Mao’s Campaigns to Deng’s Reforms: Memory, Education, and Gender

Aihua Zhang, Gardner–Webb University

Visibilities and Invisibilities of Women’s Work and Bodies in Socialist China

Qin Fang, McDaniel College

“From an Internal Immigrant to a Local Leader of Women”: An Odyssey of Chen Yingmei during China’s Dramatical Transition

Patrick Fuliang Shan, Grand Valley State University

Comment: Dewen Zhang, Randolph-Macon College

Panel Abstract

Treating the history of the People’s Republic of China before and after Mao as a collective whole, this panel traces ordinary women’s lives which span those decades of dramatic transformations in the spheres of national politics, economy, society and gender. Using both rural and urban women’s life experiences as windows to look at the unfolding of national history, this panel is concerned with the intersectionality between macrohistory and microhistory. It also raises new questions on the periodization of the People’s Republic of China by treating the Mao and post-Mao era as a continuous background in these ordinary women’s lives.

This panel also attempts to address the issue of possibilities and constraints faced by historians treating their mothers as subjects of research. These papers experiment with oral history methods and interrogate the relationship between gender and memory. Together, the panel explores questions such as gender-specific memory that informs Chinese women’s common and unique experiences in the history of the PRC. In the meantime, these papers inquire into the roles of emotion and intimacy in historian’s intellectual labor. 

Paper Abstracts

Qiong Zhang, “Memory, Trauma, and Reconciliation: A Peasant Woman’s Journey from Mao to Now”

At 77, Yingzhen lives with her husband in a newly developed neighborhood of XX town, the seat of a rural district (formerly a county) within Guilin Municipality in Guangxi Autonomous Region.  Like many of her neighbors here, she is a rural migrant; her official residence belongs to a farm village that lies in a remote corner of the district hours of bus ride away.  She left the village to join her husband in the mid-1990s, after their three children all graduated from college and settled in the cities. Until then, they had lived apart most of the time, as her husband worked for a county office as a temporary worker and was stationed in a different rural town of the county every several months, while Yingzhen carried on farm work at home and raised their children.  Yingzhen looks on her life today with a modest sense of contentment and triumph. Yet deep in her heart there is a wound that remains to be healed.

Born to a pair of diligent and enterprising parents who would soon be classified as “landlords”, this “daughter of the Republic” experienced Mao’s political campaigns as a victim.  She lost her parents and two elder brothers during those campaigns, and her “bad” family origin subjected her to constant abuse within the village and her extended family, which compromised her authority over her own children. The transition to the Reform Era meant true liberation, but the memories from the past continue to haunt her. This paper presents Yingzheng’s recollections of farm labor and village life under Mao and her continuing struggle to reconcile with that history, while also exploring the challenges and limitations of doing oral history with an illiterate subject.

Aihua Zhang, “From Mao’s Campaigns to Deng’s Reforms: Memory, Education, and Gender”

My mother was born to an urban clerk’s family. Upon graduating from a normal university in 1960, she started her teaching career and had stuck to it for more than thirty years until her retirement as school principal in 1993. She witnessed and experienced China’s momentous events in the latter half of the twentieth century. This paper records her memory of how the mass campaigns Chairman Mao launched affected her life, marriage, and work, and how Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms brought her new opportunities and challenges. As a female teacher, education and gender played a crucial role in her life. She benefited from her education backgrounds, which ironically led to her maltreatment during the Cultural Revolution and put her in a tension with those colleagues who received their degree as Work-Peasant-Solider graduates. Her gender contributed to her promotion to the school’s leadership, a position that sometimes required her to go beyond her administrative duties to intervene in teachers’ personal lives. In contrast, she was affected by the traditional gender bias. As a result, she had to juggle the responsibilities as a wife, mother, daughter-in-law, teacher, and leader. Her personal life’s ups and downs were closely linked with China’s shifts and turns, reflecting the interlocking relationships among state, career, family, and gender on a micro level.      

Qin Fang, “Visibilities and Invisibilities of Women’s Work and Body in Socialist China” 

In the 1950s, women in both rural and urban areas of China were motivated to break away from the obstacles of traditional society and help build a new China. Li Kexiang (1947- ) was one such woman who dedicated her youth to the country and the factory. Kexiang graduated from middle school in 1963 and was immediately recruited to work in a textile factory. She was proud of her working-class identity and was selected to be trained as a statistician. Later, she became the only female electrician in the factory. Kexiang’s gender views aligned with the ideals promoted by new China, as she often mentioned that “men and women were equal” and “both women and men could excel in science.” Additionally, she was proud to be a mother of two daughters. 

However, Kexiang also expressed discomfort in her factory work, including tensions with colleagues, difficulty with three or four shift schedules, and insomnia problems. She also struggled to have her daughters included in the state’s medical welfare. Kexiang’s memories were often conflicted, revealing both the possibilities and limitations of socialist China’s gender equality ideals and the complex intersection of gender, class, work, and family.  

The memories of Kexiang provide valuable insight into the experiences of ordinary women in new China and how they navigated the challenges and opportunities of this era. By examining Kexiang’s memories and narratives about her workplaces, marriage, housing, and child upbringing, this paper explores the ways in which the history of new China and the memories of Kexiang were interconnected and have shaped our interpretation of socialist China. The paper aims to investigate the extent to which Kexiang’s memories can inform us about her understanding of new China and the ways she dealt with the various challenges she faced in her life and work. Furthermore, the paper explores the ways in which the visual and invisible aspects of women’s bodies and work are embedded in their daily lives. 

Patrick Fuliang Shan, “‘From an Internal Immigrant to a Local Leader of Women’: an Odyssey of Chen Yingmei during China’s Dramatical Transition”

Chen Yingmei was born in 1937 when the Japanese invaded China. When she was young, she witnessed China’s dramatical changes, including Japan’s invasion, China’s civil war, and the communist takeover of the country. Because her family engaged in local business, she was able to gain her education from primary school. Then, the Great Leap Forward forced her family out from the original prosperous commercial town to a remote rural area, because her town along with the entire region would be removed in order to build a huge man-made lake. It was a project of the Great Leap Forward. Thus, she became an internal immigrant and had to settle down in a faraway location. Needless to say, the relocation ruined her prosperous family life. After that, fortunately, she landed a job at the local Supply and Marketing Cooperative (gongxiaoshe) where she worked for decades. In the early 1980s, she became the chairperson of the local township women’s association. She had tried hard to protect local women for decades, for which she got many awards including the one from the provincial government in Henan as a model leader for women. This paper is intended to trace her life which paralleled the history of the People’s Republic of China from the 1950s to the new century.