Gail Hershatter Discusses Her New Book, The Gender of Memory

By Nicole Elizabeth Barnes

Gail Hershatter’s new book, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, is the outcome of a decade spent conducting oral history interviews of 72 women—and a few surviving men—in rural Shaanxi province. The interviews focus on farming women’s experiences of political campaigns in the 1950s, ranging from land reform to the 1950 Marriage Law to agricultural collectives. The book adds individual women’s voices—often quoted at length—to the narrative of 1950s rural reform, illustrating the taffy pull between empowerment and continued discrimination that women experienced throughout the decade. The Gender of Memory is incredibly thorough, emotionally powerful, beautifully written, theoretically innovative, and personally searching; it will have an earth-shattering effect on the study of Chinese history, calling scholars to new fields of inquiry for decades to come. In order to find out more about the making of this landmark book, I talked with Gail Hershatter and conducted the following interview:

NEB: This book is the product of collaborative research conducted with Gao Xiaoxian, Shaanxi native, research office director of the Shaanxi Provincial Women’s Federation, and secretary-general of the Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family. Can you tell us more about how you first met Gao and how the two of you decided to collaborate?

GH: Gao Xiaoxian was invited to an early conference on “Engendering China” that I helped to organize in 1992, but because of a blip in U.S.-China tensions, she and others who were then working for the Women’s Federation were not able to attend, although she sent a paper about rural women in the first decade of post-Mao reform. I met her later that year at a conference in Beijing. We quickly discovered a common interest in the years of early socialism in rural China. For me, as I say in the book, this interest was partly a response to the lack of good teaching materials about the collective era. In between Fanshen’s mesmerizing account of land reform and the reportage of the 1980s, surely many complex things had happened in the countryside, but it was difficult to get beyond policy pronouncements and cheerful posters to a more complex picture. (In the past 20 years, the scholarly picture has improved somewhat with respect to rural China.) Women far from centers of power were even less well represented in the historical record than rural men. For Gao Xiaoxian, who was deeply involved in trying to assess and improve the status of women under the reforms, it was important to understand how three decades of collective arrangements had changed people’s aspirations and capacities. While almost everyone else I met in China was talking about rupture between the Mao era and the reforms, she was curious about continuities as well. We couldn’t stop talking, and we hatched a project to go interview rural women in Gao’s native Shaanxi. Once we got started, it was difficult to stop. We were both reluctant to bring our interviewing trips to an end.

NEB: You describe Gao’s usefulness as a partner in the section “Listener” in Chapter 1, which details the importance of having local contacts, the ability to speak the Shaanxi dialect, and a local identity to get access to villages and introductions to the women interviewees. What skills did you bring to the table for this partnership?

GH: Often, believe me, I asked myself what I was contributing to this project beyond a lot of complications for Gao Xiaoxian. It was easy for her to move around the countryside alone; with a foreigner in tow, permissions and logistics got much more complicated. Once we were installed, however, no one monitored or interfered with our interviewing. Gao Xiaoxian generously says that she always learned something from how I interpreted the stories women told us. Perhaps I brought some experience with oral history interviewing and analysis. Mainly, however, I think I brought the curiosity and omnivorous interest of an outsider. If something in an interview or a village situation confused me, I usually attributed it to my ignorance. If something confused both of us, however, there were usually interesting conversations to be had about it.

NEB: I understand that Gao is also publishing a book out of this research, as a means of rewarding the effort that both of you put into the interviews. How did you and Gao agree upon a suitable division of labor in this project? Would you recommend this model for others?

GH: It’s not exactly a division of labor; it’s two overlapping projects aimed at different groups of readers. We agreed to conduct the research together but to write separately. I had a non-Chinese audience in mind (though I will be very happy if this book is translated someday). I had to provide a great deal of historical background and explanation that a Chinese audience wouldn’t need—though maybe that is less true all the time, as the knowledge of that period recedes. I was and am interested in questions of gendered memory and narrative, as well as the issue of what survives in the historical record and what is knowable about the past. Gao Xiaoxian is interested in the history of women’s labor and childbearing over the past half-century, and in making that history visible to a Chinese reading public. She has also been very active in the founding and operations of an important development NGO, the 陕西妇女理论婚姻家庭研究会 ( Her scholarship is inseparable from her grassroots development work—which has also delayed her writing. We’ve talked endlessly about the interviews, the dynamics of the villages where we interviewed, and the puzzles and pathos of specific situations—and we’ve worked through our own individual approaches to issues by talking them through with each other.

NEB: This book also came out of your search, as a teacher of Chinese history for a sense of the personal, lived experiences of 1950s campaigns, something to give some individual color to political slogans and statistics. Now that you have completed your book, how would you recommend that your colleagues use it in the classroom to fill this gap in the source base?

GH: Great question. The irony is that I write the kinds of things I would like to teach, but then I can’t teach them because I wrote them, and my students are far more polite when the author is standing in front of them than is probably good for their critical skills. Still, I’ve used many of these stories over the years in lectures. I hope that people can use this book to raise questions about local variation, the reach of the state, and the meaning of revolutionary change, after it’s over, as it is held in memory and transmitted (or not) to younger generations.

NEB: You use Timothy Mitchell’s theory of the “state effect” as a means of understanding how the Communist state designated itself a primary reformer of a “society” from which it stood separate and apart, even as individuals within a community—retrained midwives, labor models, dundian cadres—embodied this state as it moved into previously untouched territory. Why did you choose Mitchells’ theory, and how would you modify it after doing this work on women’s memories of the 1950s?

GH: Mitchell is concerned, among other things, with analyzing how the categories of state and society are naturalized as separate and distinct. In the China field, we are very dependent upon these categories—many a scholarly interpretation would collapse without them. And yet “the state” in actual, messy historical time is both remote and locally embodied. I wanted to try to explore the blurry zone of social relations, discursive production, and institutional arrangements where the local instantiation of a “state” was produced, especially as women were incorporated into the process. It’s not really a question of modifying Mitchell, who is writing about a very different historical situation than the one that preoccupied me here. But his notion of the state effect is good to think with.

NEB: At the end of the Introduction, you mention that today, no one wants to hear these women’s stories; the world in which they spent their youth is long gone. In light of this, were these 72 women excited to be interviewed? Did they find it odd that you and Gao Xiaoxian took such interest in what to others is not worth mentioning?

GH: They were happy to talk—many bursting with stories to tell, others with grievances (historical and contemporary, personal and social) that they wanted to articulate. I don’t know if “excited” is the right term, though many of them were certainly very animated. What I still find astonishing is how natural it seemed to them to sit down and talk, especially given the oddity of my presence in these villages. They understand themselves and their stories as worthwhile, even when those around them don’t.

NEB: Your Introduction is remarkably personal, and feels fitting for this particular project in that it is the work of two women friends who spent years interviewing women—frequently in their own homes—about how the early Communist state intersected in their personal lives. At one point you mention your chagrin at not being able to produce foreign capital or important connections upon the requests of first village officials and later villagers themselves. This kind of research, requiring you to stay in rural villages and be known to all, seems starkly different from archival research during which one can live in a large city as a virtual stranger. Did this project feel different to you from your previous work? What advantages and disadvantages did this work have for you?

GH: There was a lot of archival work involved in this project as well, so I had plenty of chances to be lonely and buried in documents. But the time I spent interviewing in the villages was the most intellectually and emotionally intense research I had ever experienced. It was different from ethnographic fieldwork in that there was very little hanging out—I wasn’t there for months or years, but for days or weeks. The variations in accent and vocabulary from one Shaanxi village to the next were daunting. I’ve never felt so challenged or so engaged.

NEB: In Chapter 1, “Frames,” you write about the gap between archival documents and rural women’s lives, concluding that, “the historian who enters the archive with questions about rural women will be made acutely aware of how Party-state agendas differ from her own.”

I have had the very same feeling in my own work. I am now in the final months of research for my dissertation on gender and public health in Chongqing during the war with Japan, and have been continually surprised by issues of striking gender inequality in public health service and employment being duly recorded as dry facts but never commented on qualitatively in the archival record. How do the oral histories in The Gender of Memory address and partially fill this gap between the aim of the gender historian and the authors of state archives?

GH: There’s lots of drama in the archives—various levels of the state apparatus were very incompletely meshed in the early years, and the local variation and profusion of problems was daunting enough that it seeps out around the dry formulaic reports people were learning to write. Neither the archives nor the memories of individuals are designed to directly address what the historian wants to know. The important thing is to concentrate on what they do want to tell you, and pay attention to cacophony, gaps, and silences. Oral history is a messy, contaminated source. So is the archive.

NEB: You discuss the differences in how women and men narrate their pasts, commenting that while women tend to mark their lives by personal and traumatic events such as marriage, childbirth, or death of a family member, men more commonly refer to “campaign time” and political events as the primary signposts. I imagine that your evening discussions with Gao Xiaoxian frequently touched upon this issue and how to interpret it. Could you tell us about what you discussed and how you ultimately chose to understand this difference in the “gender of memory”?

GH: Men and women spent their time differently, though they certainly had many shared tasks. The gendered division of labor was a constant feature of rural life, even though its content changed all the time. Men went to more meetings; women did more unpaid crucial domestic work. They remember the tasks that they performed (which differed) and the languages of political change to which they were exposed (which varied by gender, generation, location, and a host of other factors).

NEB: In Chapter 2, “No One is Home,” which covers the 1930s and 40s, you write that the women’s life stories were frequently “emotionally difficult to narrate and to hear.” Did you ever have a visible emotional response to what you heard, and if so how did the interviewee react?

GH: Both of us made it clear that we were listening hard, and that these narrations of terrible hardship and tragedy deserved a respectful hearing. We tended not to carry on much ourselves, but rather to engage with what we were being told, and to ask more questions. I can’t speak for Gao Xiaoxian, who is an astute and sensitive interviewer. But for my part, I felt that the best I could do was to listen carefully.

NEB: Perhaps because your collaborator Gao Xiaoxian was interested in women’s domestic labor in cloth (spinning yarn, weaving, making clothing), your book frequently discusses this aspect of women’s lives. Do women in your four key villages still do this work, and if so, what form does it take in the early 21st century? Do you have products of their handiwork in your own house now?

GH: In one village, handloom weaving remained common for domestic consumption and has recently made a comeback in production for the market. In another village, local embroidery of old-style wedding pillows was an important art, though it was unclear whether it was going to die out or have a resurgence as folk craft. I was given some small handkerchiefs and embroidered shoe soles, and took pictures of more elaborate embroidery.

NEB: The subject of a loved one’s corpse sometimes comes up in the stories of hardship in the 1930s and 40s: a father disappears and his body is never found; a brother dies fighting the Guomindang but his body is not recovered until 1949, etc. These comments are always inserted in passing into your narrative; did they sit apart like that in the interviewees’ original speech? Are there any clues to the corresponding feelings in the manner in which people discussed this issue?

GH: People often cried in speaking of these losses, but often these terrible events tumbled out as part of a long complex narrative. The determination to talk and to name losses, as well as accomplishments, dominated many stories.

NEB: Interviews with one of your labor models Cao Zhuxiang raised “larger questions about what we used to think was an uncomplicated source, a source we all yearned for: the face-to-face interview with a subaltern who speaks.” You break the usual historian’s pretense to objectivity and report to the reader that Cao’s flat and rather emotionless narrative of her post-49 life greatly confounded you and Gao Xiaoxian, particularly in comparison to her animated narrative of pre-49 hardships. Ultimately, you the researcher and we the readers can only speculate as to the cause of this flatness. This serves as a good cautionary tale for the researcher who yearns for a complete picture of the past. You mention at the end of Chapter 8 that both you and Gao Xiaoxian do have the desire to keep going back for further interviews in an attempt to answer those unanswerable questions. How did you ultimately cultivate satisfaction with what you term a “good-enough story”?

GH: I don’t think satisfaction is the right term. Maybe resignation. We both felt that if we knew at the beginning what we knew at the end, both about Cao Zhuxiang’s life and community and about interviewing more generally, we could have drawn her out more skillfully. But it’s not a perfectly iterative process with infinite retakes. Still, we both learned so much (in my case, sometimes in spite of clumsy questions and clueless approaches) that I can’t complain. These stories are more than good enough. They’re magnificent.

NEB: These women have overcome struggles and privations that are heartbreaking even to imagine. Do you feel that you learned more than you had bargained for in a decade of this work? Did these women touch you personally?

GH: Yes and yes. These are everyday haunting stories. Whatever the terrible shortcomings of revolutionary change—and there are many—the kinds of catastrophe that were absolutely commonplace during these women’s younger years are no longer routine or even comprehensible to their grandchildren. That’s important.

NEB: Your book uncovers many grey areas of 1950s reforms and troubles the statist narrative of progress: although the lives of farming women improved in many significant ways in the 1950s, most of the reforms stopped far short of gender equality. Women never got as many work points as did men; collectivization completely effaced women’s domestic labor and motherhood; reforms in midwifery gave farming women more children to look after and left them exhausted. You tease your way through these layers of complexity by, for example, examining “work points as a category of gender analysis.” If the interviewees themselves often did not understand work points in this way, what advantages are there for us as researchers in applying this level of analysis?

GH: Oh, but they did. Some found it natural that women should be paid less than men, and had complicated reasons why. Others thought it was unjust, and had a lot to say about that. Some expressed their opinions in language provided by the state, though they used official terminology creatively. The term “feudalism,” for instance, was used by both men and women to describe behavior specific to women, which was not the way it had first been deployed. I didn’t import gender as a category of analysis—it’s a fundamental structuring device for rural Chinese. Everything I know about how gender worked in the rural Chinese 1950s, I learned through listening to stories that even an outsider could understand. What astonishes me is how anyone could think to give an account of the 1950s without attention to gender.

NEB: Are there any last words you would like to leave your readers with before they immediately pick up your book to read your fascinating account of China’s 1950s?

The Chinese countryside (like many other places, no doubt) is bursting with untold stories. One or two or a hundred researchers can’t begin to make a dent. If reading this book whets the curiosity of readers, and inspires some of them to go ask questions and to think hard about what they hear, the book will have served its purpose.

NEB: Well then I must ask for some more last words: what advice might you give to a scholar who wanted to undertake such a project? Is it best to partner with a local Chinese? Would ten years of interviewing time—as you and Gao had—be necessary? How does one best avoid getting into trouble with authorities?

GH: I’m in favor of all sorts of collaborations. I am very encouraged to meet more and more Chinese graduate students in the PRC whose training is beginning to include research projects in the countryside. For U.S. graduate students, who often have the flexibility to stay longer in a research site than faculty, ten years is not practical or necessary, but I’m glad I had the luxury to reflect and regroup between research trips. As for the authorities, what is sensitive and what is not changes all the time—but talking to octogenarians does not seem to be on anyone’s list of dangerous activities. Local authorities were unfailingly courteous to us, but they didn’t linger to listen.

NEB: Lastly, thank you for contributing this stupendous book to the field of Chinese history!

GH: I was lucky to have the chance to do this work. I look forward to what other researchers can tell us about the Chinese countryside, which deserves a larger place in our narratives of recent history.

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

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