February 2012

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By James Palmer

When the Tangshan Earthquake hit northern China on July 28, 1976, the country was in the midst of a tumultuous year that would grow even more chaotic with Mao’s death less than two months later. In retrospect, the massive earthquake has been viewed as a sign of trouble to come and a signal that major changes were on the horizon. In his new book, Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China, James Palmer delves into the history of 1976, tracing the developments of that pivotal year for all in China, from the leaders residing within the walls of Zhongnanhai to the coal miners of Tangshan who saw their city leveled and nearly a quarter of a million people killed by the quake. In the excerpt below, Palmer describes life in provincial but industrious Tangshan before the earthquake hit.

Yu Xuebing was one of the seven black elements, and she wasn’t happy about it. Her family had been branded as class enemies a long time ago, during the Anti-Rightist campaign of the 1950s, and the label had stuck. Being ‘black’ made it hard for her to find boys willing to go out with her–and although she was only fourteen in 1976, she liked boys. And if they weren’t too scared of her family’s reputation, they tended to like her.

Unusually, she was an only child, with elderly parents; her mother was already sixty. She had four cousins, though, who in the Chinese fashion she called sisters and brothers. Space was cramped in their house, so quite often they slept over at hers.

Her family had been harassed in the last ten years, because they had once been rich. In the 1950s they had even owned a private car, which at the time was about equivalent to owning your own yacht. Her uncle, however, had got drunk and driven it into a ditch in the early sixties. Nobody in the county had been able to fix it, and it was left to rust by the side of their house.

In the early years of the Cultural Revolution, her uncle had been driven mad after being dragged out of his home for daily public criticism and beatings. Some of her relatives were in Taiwan now, having fled in 1949; her father sometimes wished aloud that he had gone with them.

During the first few years of the Cultural Revolution, Yu had lived in constant fear. She was only a small child at the time, but she picked up on the terror of the adults around her. She was disturbed by pictures of Liu Shaoqi’s wife being humiliated in public, since the same was happening to her family. The local Red Guards broke into their house several times, looking for signs of bourgeois wealth that they could steal. They stripped the floorboards and the roof for hiding places, and came away with a gold bracelet, a gold ring and 90 yuan. They also took the family’s precious sewing machine. After Deng’s rectification of 1974, power in the village shifted, and her family was compensated for the lost cash, but they never saw the jewelry again.

Yu lived in a small village about a dozen miles outside Tangshan, with thirty-three other families. The road was still lined with crude effigies of Lin Biao, put up there in mockery after his ‘flight’ to Mongolia, along with more recent political slogans like ‘Earnestly study the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat’. For her, Tangshan was the city–it had a cinema, a library, a theatre, even a university. Going there was a rare treat. To outsiders, though, Tangshan was a backwater, overshadowed not only by Beijing but by the neighboring city of Tianjin, an hour’s train ride away.

Tangshan was indeed a backwater, but it was also a powerhouse of heavy industry, nicknamed the ‘Coal Capital’ of China. Tangshanese coal drove Chinese industry, which was recovering strongly after years of decline. The first railway in China, only 7 km long, had been built in Tangshan to haul coal. Tangshan was still a major producer of rolling stock for China’s ever-expanding rail system.

It was a mining town, founded with British and Belgian money in 1877 to exploit the massive coal deposits nearby. They, like other foreign powers, had even won the right to station troops there after the Boxer Rebellion, though only the Japanese ended up sending soldiers there. After the foundation of the PRC, nationalisation had transformed the mines from an outpost of colonial power into a symbol of the new China’s industrial might.

The Kailuan mining complex, China’s first coal company, produced 5 per cent of the whole country’s coal. It had been designed by Herbert Hoover, later to be US president, during his stint as a mining engineer in China. Tangshanese liked to boast that, with about a million people, they were only a thousandth of the population of China, but produced a hundredth of the output. Economically, a single Tangshanese factory worker or miner was worth ten farmers. Pictures of new Tangshan industrial plants were among the first propaganda images produced by the PRC.

The city centre was on a low-lying plateau. Like most of Hebei, it was dry land, and in the spring winds choked the air with sand and dust. A few miles from the centre the hills started, scored with quarries and vast slag heaps that formed an eerie grey desert. Heavy trucks trundled across worn roads, bearing Tangshan’s coal to fuel the cities and steel factories of northern China.

Tangshanese prided themselves on being direct, blunt-spoken and strong. The workers of 1976 had been children during the grinding famine of the Great Leap Forward, and their growth had been stunted by malnutrition and starvation. Medical records from the Kailuan mines show an average height of only 1.57 metres, or just under 5 ft 2 in.

A stocky build was ideal for mining, and there was a strong Stakhanovite cult among the miners, with exceptionally productive workers receiving special bonuses, and a powerful sense of comradeship among the work gangs. Chinese miners had a long history of fierce leftist politics. In the first stages of the Cultural Revolution, the miners had formed their own revolutionary committees. The last five years had seen many ‘model workers’ drafted into politics or sent to universities to ‘instruct the educated youth’.

About a quarter of the city was given over to heavy industry, mostly in the eastern mining district. The whole city covered about fifty square kilometres, and most people lived in one-storey houses, with thick load-bearing walls made of brick or stone. They often had heavy concrete roofs made of cast-offs from the mines. It was a style of building pioneered by the British as workers’ housing. They had carried out seismological surveys of the planned mining area and found fault lines, but none serious enough, in their evaluation, to warrant putting up structures built to survive earthquakes. Only the houses and offices of the foreign staff were solid enough to withstand a severe quake.

Even after the foreigners left, newcomers to the mines had copied the buildings around them, throwing up weakly built, insecure houses, the roofs held up by heavy metal rods. In the fifties, new buildings, including multi-storey dormitories to house factory workers and university students, were thrown up with equal carelessness and speed.

Although regulations on earthquake-resistant building had been issued nationally in 1953, they weren’t enforced. In the early years of the PRC, construction was modelled on the ‘fraternal advice’ given by the Soviet Union. The taller new buildings, like the official hotels and university dormitories, were built using plans provided by the Soviets, as were some of the factories. As in other Chinese cities, a couple of hundred Russians had been stationed in Tangshan in the fifties as technical advisors and overseers of the aid the USSR was supplying at the time. There would prove to be a marked difference in the survivability between the buildings the Soviets directly supervised and those put together on Soviet blueprints, but with inexperienced Chinese architects.

Excerpted from Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China, by James Palmer (Basic Books, 2012).

Hershatter, Gail. The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, xii, 455 pp. $49.95 (cloth).

By Nicole Elizabeth Barnes

Gail Hershatter and her Shaanxi-native research collaborator Gao Xiaoxian (of the Shaanxi Provincial Women’s Federation) spent ten years interviewing 72 women and a few men in rural Shaanxi province in northwest China. The Gender of Memory, Hershatter’s sole-authored product of this joint effort, fills a crucial gap in historiography of the 1950s, providing the first personal stories of land reform, the 1950 Marriage Law, collectivization, and the Great Leap Forward. Moreover, through incisive gender analysis, Hershatter illustrates how gender determined not only how Chinese women and men lived their lives, but also how they remember them. Whereas male interviewees used political events as the primary signposts of their lives, women tabulated their life narratives with personal events such as marriage, childbirth, and family deaths, sometimes re-ordering or re-naming political campaigns.

Women’s narratives of the past alternately troubled and reinforced state discourse. Interviews uncovered a tension between the reality, in pre-Liberation days, of poor farming women left unprotected as they worked and traveled outside the home, and their characterization of this era as one of “feudal” seclusion within the home, in a manner coinciding with Communist propaganda of women’s liberation. Faced with this tension between the women’s self-characterization with a post-’49 vocabulary and their actual pre-’49 experiences, Hershatter and Gao concluded that women may have preferred imagining themselves as having been constrained under “feudalism” rather than left alone to fend for themselves and their children without the help of menfolk, too poor to afford the luxury of seclusion at home (p. 37). Yet other interviewees emphasized the absence of men, in both the pre-Communist and Communist eras, and hence the extreme hardships they faced as single mothers solely responsible for both farm work and housework. Regardless of whether their memories confirmed or contradicted the Communist narrative of women’s liberation, the interviews showed that rural women generally ordered their lives around family and local relationships, with political campaigns in the interstices.

Here Hershatter contributes to the long-lived state-and-society debate in Chinese historiography. Drawing on Timothy Mitchell’s theory of the “state effect” to trouble the Communist state’s self-narrative of reforming a society from which it stood separate and apart, Hershatter explores how rural women were incorporated into the state as both agents and targets of state reforms. For many rural women, relations with female labor models or dundian cadres (non-local officials residing with local families) constituted their interactions with “the state.” For the labor models and cadres themselves, taking on a state-defined role as an agent of reform both set them apart from local society and enmeshed them much more deeply in local relationships and national politics. As local embodiments of the state, these women transformed state projects into local projects, bringing national politics into village life and domestic spaces (p. 68, 210).

Allowing her interviewees to speak for themselves in frequent and often long quotations, Hershatter illustrates that women were incorporated into the state in moments, spaces, and modes that differed from those of men. Women earned fewer work points than did men for the same labor; agricultural collectivization effaced and discounted women’s reproductive, domestic, and handicraft labors; reforms in midwifery left farming women thoroughly exhausted with more children surviving gestation and infancy; political reforms hewed generational cleavages between mothers and daughters as younger women were more likely than their elders to fight gender discrimination in work point allotments or to resist arranged marriages; female labor models who attended mixed-sex meetings came under intense scrutiny even while exercising extreme caution to protect their chastity. As narrated by the women themselves, political campaigns touched women’s lives in very personal ways that tell of continued gender discrimination within the very legislation that has nearly eradicated the greatest threats to women’s wellbeing: chronic poverty, banditry, illiteracy, and disease.

Hershatter’s analysis of these narratives, with gender at the center, uncovers an entirely new picture of 1950s China. Moving beyond her first question, “Did women have a Chinese revolution?” (p. 7), she troubles the narrative of progress and reveals the gender-contingent contours of China’s socialist reforms. Her gender analysis of land reform and collectivization illustrates that rural women’s agricultural and domestic labors enabled the success of the Communist revolution, the very revolution that in many ways left this generation of rural women behind. Hershatter shows convincingly that we cannot understand twentieth-century China without appreciating the particular contributions and social position of these women (pp. 264-65, 287).

This book is powerful in yet another way: it is startlingly frank about the historian’s positionality in the production of (oral) history. Hershatter challenges the myth of uncovering a raw and unmediated history via interviews with “the subaltern who speaks” (p. 204), and occasionally shares interview segments with the reader that strained her and Gao Xiaoxian’s interpretive powers. She thereby identifies herself as simultaneous consumer and co-creator of the documents (in this case, oral history interviews) from which she crafts her own historical narrative. Such honesty carries the historian’s craft far beyond the linguistic turn and brings Hershatter into dialogue with theorists and scholars who are shaping the future of the field.

Because so many men died in China’s twentieth-century wars (between warlords in the 1920s and 30s, with Japan from 1937 to 1945, and between the Communists and Nationalists from 1947 to 1949), Hershatter and Gao were only able to interview a small number of elderly men. Therefore the book’s comparison between male and female narrations of the past relies on a sex-skewed interview sample that may beg revision if future scholarship applies it to a different source base. Nonetheless, Hershatter’s gender analysis of memory, her introduction of personal narratives of rural life in the early Communist era, her theorization of the gendered inflection of state-society relations, and her refreshingly candid model of oral history make The Gender of Memory a path-breaking work in Chinese studies.

Nicole Elizabeth Barnes is PhD candidate in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine.

© 2012 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

By Sarah Tynen

“You must be so homesick! Aren’t you going home to celebrate chunjie?” asked the Auntie who sells tofu on the back of a freight tricycle in the old city of Nanjing. Auntie rides down the narrow, winding alleys of Old Nanjing several times a day to emphatically announce her price of tofu at 500 grams for 1.5 yuan (that’s about a pound for 25 cents). Standing at my doorstep the week before chunjie, or the Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year in the West, she told me to stock up. It was the last day of business and she would be taking a weeklong break to celebrate the lunar new year.

The residents of Old Nanjing accumulated food as if they were preparing for a blizzard. Their pantries were stuffed with rice, potatoes, carrots, and other staples in preparation for the 15-day long chunjie from January 23rd to February 6th, when most businesses across the city shut-down for at least a week.

Home to some of Nanjing’s oldest housing structures and poorest residents, Old Nanjing is a small, historic neighborhood located near the center of the city, a provincial capital with a population of 8 million about 150 miles west of Shanghai. The meandering alleys are too narrow for vehicles and lined with old homes, or laofangzi as the locals call the one-to-two story dilapidated houses with the fading traces of traditional courtyard architecture. The laofangzi here may date back over 500 years to the Ming Dynasty. The native Nanjingese of this community are currently awaiting eviction and demolition. Many of the residents expect their homes to be relocated within the year.

The doorway of a laofangzi in Old Nanjing

Due to skyrocketing property values, business deals between local governments and private land developers, and the increasing popularity of privately run, gated high-rise compounds, China is razing old cities and displacing the residents to faraway suburbs at an alarming rate.

Although reliable statistics for Nanjing are unavailable, Beijing’s Old Dilapidated Housing Renewal (ODHR) program evicted more than 500,000 residents from 1990 to 2003. As reported by Michael Meyer in his book The Last Days of Old Beijing, some unofficial estimates even go as high as 1.25 million residents. According to data provided by the Beijing Academy of Urban Planning, while the number of hutongs, or alley-ways, in Beijing exceeded 7,000 in the early 1950s and was reduced to about 2,000 in 1990, today there are only an estimated 900 hutong left in Beijing.

While the pace of urban redevelopment has supposedly slowed in Beijing since the end of the 2008 Olympic Games, in Nanjing the pace of demolition is quickening, as the city and provincial governments gear up for a wave of demolition in advance of the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Signs around the city urge: “Stage a Good Youth Olympics, Build a New Nanjing!” and “Promote Harmony, Renew the Old City, Welcome the Youth Olympics!” A government official who requested to remain anonymous revealed to me that 100 billion RMB (15.7 billion USD) has been approved for urban redevelopment projects in preparation for the Youth Olympics.

A house marked with the characters "banqian," or "relocate"

Big red characters reading banqian, or “relocate”, are spray painted on the outside of many of the homes in Old Nanjing. The residents, however, have not been given notice of compensation or official orders to move out yet. Torn and faded posters around the neighborhood read, “The Earlier You Move Out, The More Rewards You Will Get” and “Cast Away Illusion and Make Practical Negotiations.” Residents say the posters were put up over two years ago, but no one has forced them to move out yet.

Two months ago, while eating lunch with a family in Old Nanjing, I stumbled upon the opportunity to move into a laofangzi with a 19-year old Chinese veterinarian student. I am conducting field work in Old Nanjing during my 10-month research grant from the Fulbright US Student Program to explore the relationship between urban redevelopment, socio-economic segregation, and concepts of local identity. I immediately took advantage of the opportunity to live in the neighborhood I am studying.

My new roommate, Little Sister Xie Rui, confided, “I would hate to part with this laofangzi. I will miss my neighbors so much when we’re demolished and relocated.” Although the rest of her family moved out of the laofangzi after her grandmother passed away three years ago, Little Sister Xie Rui refused to move into their new apartment. She still makes the one-hour commute from vet school to return to the laofangzi every other weekend. “My fondest memories from childhood are celebrating chunjie on our street: making dumplings, setting off firecrackers, watching the red lanterns go up, and getting money in red envelopes from the relatives. Though I still treasure this neighborhood, now I really couldn’t care less about chunjie, except I have to say I like getting a month off from school so I can sleep in until noon everyday.”

Many of the adults in the neighborhood express dislike for the New Year holiday. “There’s nothing interesting whatsoever in celebrating chunjie,” said Uncle Cao, who has converted his kitchen and living room into a noodle restaurant. His daughter poked her head out from the bedroom periodically to stare and giggle at me while I slurped my noodles. “The holiday has turned into one focused on consumerism, and it’s all just about how much money you can spend.”

“Chunjie doesn’t mean anything to me,” declared the kindly Grandpa practicing tai chi at the local park nestled between the ancient city wall and the Qinhuai River. He rubbed his fingers together in a gesture indicating the need for money. “I don’t have any money to spend to go out and play. I’m retired, you know, and my pension is practically nothing. I have no money! What’s fun about chunjie? Eating and drinking, but I don’t have the money for this. If I had enough money, then chunjie might mean something.”

Some of the residents do not understand why I am still conducting field research during chunjie, and insist that I return home for the holiday, or at least go traveling. My next-door neighbor Big Brother Guo insisted, “You’re wasting your time! Chunjie is so boring. Most people return home for the holiday, and everything shuts down. The taste of the New Year celebration is gone in Old Nanjing since everyone is westernized. No one bothers to celebrate. The kids love it, but the teenagers aren’t willing to participate, the adults are indifferent, and the old people are too tired and poor.” Still, Big Brother Guo invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with him and his family.

For some, however, chunjie is significant because it means spending time with family. Uncle Shen was born and raised in Old Nanjing. He lived with his parents in a laofangzi for 30 years before he moved out to Shandong Province to work as a car salesman while his wife stayed behind to care for their son with his parents. He comes home to Old Nanjing to see his family once a month. He explained, “It was fun for us when I was a kid because we were so poor, and chunjie was one time of year we could eat meat and wear new clothes. Heck, now we celebrate chunjie every day with the life we lead. So chunjie isn’t anything that special anymore. But it’s good to see family since we all work in different places now, and we’re separated most of the year.” Uncle Shen’s situation is not uncommon in China, where children often stay behind with their grandparents when parents move to other provinces, or even countries, to work.

For the small, family-owned businesses in Old Nanjing, chunjie can mean either bad business or good business. For Uncle Cao’s noodle restaurant, chunjie is busy with the tourists coming to see the nearby Confucius Temple and city wall. He explained to me, “Business is a little bit better around the holidays because people don’t feel like cooking food at home, so they’ll go out and casually eat some food at a restaurant. Plus we have the lantern festival at the city wall soon, which will attract people.”

A few of the laofangzi on my street have been converted into thrift stores overflowing with inventories of used boots, sweaters, jackets, and handbags. Grandma Wang, a 75-year old owner of one of the second-hand clothing shops, remarked that business is terrible during chunjie. “Everyone wants to buy new things for chunjie, no one wants to buy used things on the holiday,” she sighed, shaking her head with disappointment, “I’ve completely lost hope.”

Grandma Wang's thrift store

My 16-year old neighbor, Little Sister Li Jun, will spend her winter break from school working everyday at a chain megastore similar to Wal-Mart, the one store in the area that will remain open everyday during chunjie. She earns 88 yuan for each eight-hour shift (about $1.75 per hour). She will give half of her earnings to her family and keep half for herself as spending money. Meanwhile, her mom, aunt, and grandma sell kabobs every night for seven hours from a street cart to pay for her beauty school tuition. Auntie Li said they make about 40 to 50 yuan ($6 to $8) per night, depending on the day. When they ask me how much I could make an hour if I tutored English, I do not dare respond with the truth: native English speakers can make between 100 to 150 yuan ($16 to $24) an hour.

The week before chunjie Auntie Li told me, “We’ll be working everyday during chunjie. Business is always a little better during the holiday!” One night, though, I did not see them in their usual corner by the city wall and I went to their home to inquire after them. Auntie Li admitted, “Since the cross-strait cooperative lantern festival is going on for chunjie at the city wall, the city management team told us we weren’t allowed to sell kabobs until after chunjie was over.”

The lantern festival was a mutual cooperation and cultural exchange effort between Jiangsu Province and Taiwan with the slogan of “The auspicious dragon leaps over the Taiwan Strait, and the golden age will be shared harmoniously.” Government officials from across China and Taiwan were in attendance. Although local residents were not allowed to attend the ceremony, we watched the rehearsals of various traditional Chinese drumming, martial arts, singing, and dancing performances during the week leading up to the event.

A couplet welcoming the new year adorns the door of a laofangzi in Old Nanjing

The penetrating sound of Auntie’s voice selling tofu usually wakes me up in the morning, but this week the streets are quiet. For New Year’s Eve on Sunday, January 22nd, perhaps the most important day of the Spring Festival, I made spaghetti and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Big Brother Guo’s family, who requested that I bring American food. I spent the afternoon helping his wife, Big Sister Chongyang, make spring rolls, chicken feet, and pig’s tongue. Before dinner, Big Brother Guo set off firecrackers near the front stoop. We ate heartily, drinking corn juice—the latest health fad in China promising weight loss—out of soup bowls and making wishes for each other for the coming New Year (mostly for higher salaries). Afterward, we snacked on sunflower seeds and watched the New Year’s Special on CCTV, the most widely watched television program in China. The holiday was a relaxing, simple, and peaceful one that reminded me of celebrating Christmas in the U.S. at home with friends and family. The peace was broken at midnight, when we joined the rest of the country in setting off firecrackers. Little Sister Xie Rui complained, “The fireworks last for days on end. It kills me it’s so loud!”

This is what chunjie means for the urban poor of China, the forgotten native Nanjingese that are waiting eviction and demolition. They are the ones that have been left behind by the city they call their own.

Sarah Tynen is a 2011 graduate of George Washington University currently in Nanjing, China on a 10-month research grant from the Fulbright US Student Program to conduct an ethnographic case study on the old city of Nanjing. Her fieldwork involves participant observation, interviews, and mapping to explore the effect of urban redevelopment on socio-economic segregation and concepts of place-based identity.

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