Rewriting History7 min read

Ting Guo reviews Women and China’s Revolutions by Gail Hershatter

Despite its revolutionary and socialist origins – as women in the garment industry marched through New York City in 1908 demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights – International Women’s Day on March 8 has become a rather commercial holiday in many places around the world. That includes China, my socialist motherland. Taobao, the world’s biggest e-commerce website, uses the day as a shopping festival, and was able to hit 30.8 billion yuan (approximately $4.5 billion) in gross sales for women’s fashion, accessories and cosmetics in 2017. This year, however, a 1949 speech delivered by the socialist writer Ding Ling (1904-1986), a winner of the Stalin prize for literature in 1951, went viral on Weibo.

This speech, entitled ‘Thoughts on 8 March’, was delivered in the Communist heartland of Yan’an on August 3, 1949, a few months before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. As Ding Ling wrote:

“Aware, modern women should identify and cast off all their rosy, compliant illusions. Happiness is to take up the struggle in the midst of the raging storm and not to pluck the lute in the moonlight or recite poetry among the blossoms.” 

Female netizens applauded her sharp tongue in urging fellow women to wake up as modern citizens, and to be prepared for the hardships of doing so. It is telling that in China today, a historical revolutionary such as Ding Ling, rather than contemporary “fashionable” figures such as Sheryl Sandberg, became a role model for women.

This anecdote could be seen as an indicator of how those no longer content with neoliberal models are looking beyond the capitalist, neoliberal narratives and finding strength and understanding from the past. More importantly, it shows how historical material, however scattered or peripheral it might be, can inspire a new generation.

This also constituted my feelings upon reading Gail Hershatter’s latest work Women and China’s Revolutions. With refreshing perspective, Hershatter brings to life the stories of those women, including Ding Ling, who were usually in the footnotes of grand writings of Chinese history. In public discourse, the historical status of women has been repeatedly invoked as a sign of China’s weakness. However, women were also teachers, soldiers and factory workers, and recently hold more dynamic multiple identities, as we see in the case of Fan Yusu, a migrant worker who became wellknown for her writings.

Hershatter asks: “If we place women at the center of our account of China’s past two centuries, how does this change our understanding of what happened?” Chinese history, she writes, in spite of our habit of telling it as a single unspooling story, “did not look or feel the same to an elite man in the prosperous Yangzi Delta and a poor peasant woman in the north.”

Despite the difficulty of obtaining historical materials, Hershatter does a remarkable job reconstructing history. In the chapter ‘Gendered Labor of Empire 1800-1840,’ for instance, she narrates the biographies of women with footnotes from documents and historical works. Albeit limited, the focus on women and gender provides new insight into some best-known moments of Chinese history, such as the Taiping Rebellion.

The Taiping rebellion is often referred to as radical and revolutionary, and taken for granted to be egalitarian regarding social issues. However, Hershatter shows that Taiping kings built up extensive collections of consorts. Some were reported to have had two hundred wives, as well as sexual access to several thousand women officials and maids. There was also clear unequal division of labor, according to an 1850s proclamation that men were to engage in scholarship, farming, labor and commerce, while women in needlework and cooking.

In treaty ports such as Shanghai, while most scholarship attributes progressive gender dynamics from western influence, Hershatter shows the other side of the picture: when male elites found new prospects in business, journalism, literature and politics, women’s new careers would include courtesans for male literati and merchants, so that men could socialize among each other and talk about building a new society.

Hershatter asks: “If we place women at the center of our account of China’s past two centuries, how does this change our understanding of what happened?”

Women – or any other marginalized group – were not only victims of crises and targets of reform in China, but also participants in every major state-building project and social development of the past two centuries and more. In the book we learn about how women contributed to the economy in late imperial China by managing multigenerational households, educating daughters, arranging marriages and hence securing financial futures, weaving and spinning. We also learn how taxes, morals and social orders were made, as girls and women with bound feet would stay home and weave, while imperial officials desired well-ordered households full of virtuous subjects prosperous enough to pay their taxes on time.

Hershatter discusses women’s hidden labor, including reproductive labor, and examines how division of labor restrained women’s social compatibility and visibility, eventually erasing their contribution to China’s progress from the public understanding altogether. For instance, she points out that although merchants – competing with one another for women’s labor – regularly supplied female sewers with raw cotton and yarn, and purchased their finished woven textiles. This kind of subcontracting prevented women from marketing their own products.

The book also shows how women became the subjects of state reform under the Opening and Reform policy of the 1980s. As reforms began in the countryside in the late 1970s, and the Party-state privatized and contracted land to households, farmers were still held back by their rural hukou registration, with no access to state welfare as their urban counterparts did. The state encouraged millions to leave the countryside to take up new jobs in the cities, without an accompanying development or welfare plan for the millions – many of them women – left behind in rural areas. Similarly, the single-child policy, instituted in 1980, took total population size as its only relevant datum and was rushed into place without much consideration of overall population structure, public opinion, or women’s reproductive health and rights.

Women and China’s Revolutions shows the flaws of such reform policies and developments. It is a longstanding Chinese Communist Party slogan, originally a quote from Mao Zedong, that “women can hold up half of the sky” – but in reality many of them could barely access the universal rights of healthcare, education, work, pension, dignity and love.

There is far less written history about women than about men”

Women in China have also transformed their circumstances with talent and resilience. As Hershatter notes, the value of Fan Yusu’s writing does not always come from her sharp accounts of hardship; instead, her work shines with the joy she takes in words, perhaps thanks to the literature class she attended at Picun Workers’ Home in Beijing. Fan does not see herself as a disempowered figure, but as a strong individual whose curiosity pushes her to understand, observe and question the world around her. As she writes, “The so-called high and low classes still share the same soul.”

Writing history from the perspective of women also helps us reflect on contemporary issues, to see how far, or indeed how little, we have progressed. For instance, thirty years since the Tiananmen protests and the Bejing massacre that put an end to them, Hong Kong – the only place on Chinese soil that can commemorate what happened in 1989 – nonetheless remains conservative in gender terms. The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the organization that has kept alive the flame of memory for the past three decades by organizing the annual candlelit vigil in Victoria Park, has chosen an all-male panel this year, with thirteen male speakers as if women’s struggle is an afterthought of freedom protests. Democracy without feminism is not democracy, as Ilaria Maria Sala remarks.

There is far less written history about women than about men. This is as true of China as it is anywhere else, and makes it all the more important for us today to discover and record the more heterogeneous stories which were prevented from being told in the past. ∎

Gail Hershatter, Women and China’s Revolutions (Rowman & Littlefield, September 2018).