Summer 2016 Bulletin

Oral Narratives and the Disappearing Past

Gail Hershatter

Twenty years ago I set out with a Chinese friend and research partner, Gao Xiaoxian, to seek from elderly women in northwest Chinese villages their memories of socialist collectivization in the 1950s.1 We wanted to hear from them before advancing age and death silenced their stories. Between 1996 and 2006 we recorded life histories of 72 women and a much smaller number of men. (Our main interest was in women’s gendered memories, but in any case far fewer men than women were alive and able to talk by the time we did our interviewing.) Some women had been famous labor models; others had been local cadres; many were ordinary village women. We asked very basic questions about daily life and family history: what sorts of labor had they performed, within and beyond the home? What aspects of life had changed the most, and when, over the course of their lifetimes?

Gao Xiaoxian was interested in how collectivization had addressed or not addressed the particular needs of rural women, and how insights from that process might help to inform economic and social policy today. My interest was in the intersection of Big History – the events that structure our syllabi, such as wars and revolutions – and daily life. In my teaching, I could refer to a richly elaborated list of state political campaigns, but I had little material to draw from in understanding the cultural and social history of early Chinese socialism.2 I wanted to learn how a vast and ambitious state project – land reform, collectivization, and the mobilization of women for year-round fieldwork – had changed life (or not changed it) far from the center of state power in Beijing.

In rural communities, the daily lives of girls and women did not look like those of boys and men, even within the same households. State policies targeted women in specific ways, reworking gendered village space through literacy classes, newspaper illustrations, choral singing, opera performances, and, most centrally, the mobilization of women to participate in fieldwork on a regular basis. Across the years of collectivization, from the 1950s to the early 1980s, the specific content of gendered work and behavior kept shifting, as the state mobilized women for new farming tasks and participation in local leadership. And yet, gender difference itself remained a central organizing principle of rural life, accepted by officials and ordinary rural dwellers alike. To paraphrase historian Joan Kelly’s famous question – did women have a Renaissance? – I wanted to know, did women have a Chinese revolution? If so, when, and what sort of revolution?

Doubly marginalized by virtue of rural location and gender, women were nonetheless key to the success of changes in agriculture during the Mao years. As men were increasingly drawn out of agriculture into infrastructure projects, small-scale local industry, and contract labor in the cities, women in many northwest China villages took on much of the burden of farm work. The feminization of basic agriculture began early in the socialist period. Women’s labor, in the fields and at home, fueled what some analysts have called “primitive socialist accumulation” – the process by which the Chinese state drew resources out of the countryside to build up national infrastructure, industry, education, and public health. The problems and catastrophic failures of this process must not be minimized, but by many measures China in the early 1980s was far better off than China in 1949. The post-Mao economic reforms then proceeded to build upon the changes of the Mao years, even as collective institutions were dismantled and criticized. To note these achievements is not to engage in nostalgia for the difficult living conditions, inequalities, and injustices of the collective era. It is merely to recognize that the gendered labor of some of China’s poorest citizens helped to underwrite economic development both before and after the economic reforms. Rural labor in general, and women’s labor in particular, was an important component of that success. Rural women did have a Chinese revolution, in the sense that space and time, as they lived and understood them, were profoundly reordered in the 1950s. The revolution they had, however, was shaped in particular ways by gender.

Half a century after the fact, aging village women recalled all this labor and social change with a combination of satisfaction and indignation.

Even as the state exhorted them to come out and work in the fields in the 1950s, they remained responsible for domestic work, which was theorized in state discourse mainly as a remnant destined to disappear in the indefinitely receding communist future. Women remembered very clearly staying up most of the night, making by faint lamplight (in the years before electricity came to the villages) the cloth and the clothing and the shoes their families needed. The problem was compounded by the growing number of children in rural families. The state’s very success in lowering infant mortality, combined with its inattention to birth planning before the 1970s, contributed to women’s general exhaustion. One woman observed, When we were working in the collective, the state was in charge of everything. They took charge of telling us to grow the grain properly, harvest more, and eat more. But they didn’t take charge of births. They did not control childbirth. To have more children means to suffer more, to be worn out. I have 8 children and you might think it’s too funny, 2 sons and 6 daughters. I had lots of children, I starved, I endured extreme bitterness. After Liberation, I had so many children that I got angry. Why didn’t they control it and tell people not to have more children? It was pitiful. The oral narratives of village women were punctuated with tales of children injured, frightened by animals, left tied to the kang [brick platform bed], drowned, or dead of diseases not treated in time. And the childbearing and child rearing experiences of this generation ensured that when the single-child family policy was announced in 1979, they were often its most enthusiastic proponents – responsible for mobilizing reluctant younger village women, who were coming of age in a very different time, to terminate pregnancies.

Many women structured their stories around a recitation of how they had met every life challenge with hard work and virtue. These enduring themes are prominent in traditional accounts of women across Chinese history, and also punctuate revolutionary narratives. Women told us how they worked, suffered, provided for their families, cared for their aging in-laws (in a patrilocal society, this task continued to fall to the daughter-in-law), and helped increase production of cotton and grain. Even those who characterized themselves as marriage rebels and village activists were proud of having fulfilled family obligations that would have been completely legible to the mother of Mencius (he lived ca. 372 – 289 BCE; we don’t, of course, know his mother’s date of birth, though her death date is recorded as 317 BCE). Although norms and expectations for village women changed dramatically across the 1950s and 1960s, they themselves saw continuity in how a virtuous person was supposed to behave, and they expressed satisfaction with having exceeded those standards.

At the same time, women were very aware that the collectives for which they had labored were now a repudiated form of social organization. They knew that their own children and their children’s spouses, facing new economic pressures, were unlikely to support them as they had supported their own elders. They praised the relative material abundance of the present and did not mourn the lost collectives, voicing both direct and implicit criticisms of the inequities and poverty of the collective era. But their stories were also suffused with indignation at the contemporary shape of family relations. The desire to be valued for who they had been and what they had accomplished animated many of their stories.

Working with oral narratives poses particular dilemmas for a historian. Chief among them is the ethical imperative not to create difficulties for the people we write about. Here anthropologists have clear protocols: change all names, in order to protect places and people. For historians, the imperatives are mixed. We want to give as complete and accurate a picture as possible, and in the case of non-elite women, we hope to restore an occluded past to visibility. With this particular research project, it was also evident that many of our interlocutors were longing to be heard and recognized; all of them consented eagerly to use of their real names. (Fear of political fallout did not seem to be a factor. Although I did not record her exact words, one woman snorted at the idea, saying something like, “What could anyone do to me – send me down to the countryside to be a farmer?”)

Nevertheless, the stories women told us often involved many others in their families and communities who had not consented to speak to us, involving painful details of past conflicts and present injuries. We were also conducting this research at a moment when the boomerang effects of the Internet were just becoming evident. We worried that stories, circulating back, could do unforeseen personal damage to aging women whose vulnerability was evident. So in the end we chose to identify only the labor models who were already public figures, and to assign pseudonyms to all other women and their communities, regardless of consent.

Although the term “oral history” has a venerable pedigree, I no longer use it. The practice of “History” requires sifting and weighing many kinds of sources, shaped unavoidably by professional conventions that shift over time, in pursuit of a definitive reconstruction of the past that endlessly eludes us. History is not fixed, but it is slippery in different ways and for different reasons from those that shape individual and community stories about the past. Although I am never absent from the picture when I write history, it is (hopefully) not primarily or directly about me. The women who spoke to us, in contrast, were directly and eloquently representing themselves and their pasts, talking back to a contemporary world that neglects them and a posterity that may well acknowledge no trace of their lives. For me, “oral narrative” better captures the composite nature of their memories of the past, recalled many years after the event, in light of everything that has happened since, under current circumstances that engender new significance in how those stories are spoken and understood. The listener should be aware that when people are recounting past unsettled controversies, or ones that continue to ramify into the present, they often draw the researcher into the case they are making, in conversation with their former opponents (alive and dead) and with posterity. In a single community there may be people with many kinds of stakes, political and personal. Those who draw upon oral narratives need not just to listen but also to discern; this is one of the biggest challenges of this sort of work. Collecting oral narratives is not a matter of “listen and it shall be revealed.” It is more like “ask, and every answer will raise more questions, some of which are unanswerable.”

Oral narratives are thus a hopelessly complicated – one might say contaminated – source. But they are no more contaminated than the archival documents I collected in many months of research in Shaanxi, which told me a great deal about state goals, the obstacles to achieving them, and (sometimes) the pressure to lie about whether they had been met. Like archival documents, oral narratives are nodal points in the complicated itinerary of historical facts. Each fact carries with it the traces of its own construction. Each acquires new significance over time. Each requires careful reading, listening, decoding, cross-checking, and a hefty dose of humility that you may not have gotten either the fact or its meaning right and that your own work is, like the sources, ephemeral. In telling us their stories, rural women in Shaanxi let us glimpse the process by which they made meaning out of their personal and collective past, a world that has now all but completely disappeared. Their accounts do not provide everything a historian might want to know, but they convey lessons – about enduring social inequities in China, and also about what counts as a historical event, in memory and in retelling – that we need to hear.

Gail Hershatter, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2015, is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a former President of the Association for Asian Studies. Her books include The Workers of Tianjin (1986, Chinese translation 2016), Personal Voices: China Women in the 1980s (1988, with Emily Honig), Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution in Twentieth-Century Shanghai (1997, Chinese translation 2003), Women in China’s Long Twentieth Century (2004), and The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past (2011; Chinese translation forthcoming). She is writing a history of women and China’s revolutions, 1800 to the present.

© 2016 by Gail Hershatter



1. This essay draws on a number of my earlier publications, including The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2011), and “Disquiet in the House of Gender” (Presidential Address, Association for Asian Studies), Journal of Asian Studies 71 (4) (November 2012): 873 – 894.

2. Because we had overlapping interests but diverse questions and readers in mind, Gao Xiaoxian and I decided to interview together but write separately.