Gail Hershatter. The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 455pp. ISBN9780520267701 (hardback).


Gail Hershatter has produced an impressive work of history and ethnography focussed on the lives of rural women in Shaanxi Province in the 1950s and 1960s. She began by asking what could be learnt by placing a ‘doubly marginalised group’ – rural women – at the centre of an examination of revolution and collectivisation in China. Her research is based on interviews with seventy-two elderly rural women and a much smaller number of rural men that she and a Chinese collaborator conducted over a period of ten years in the 1990s and 2000s.

Conscription, abduction, rape, and theft by marauding troops brought disaster and tragedy to many families in the war-torn 1930s and 1940s. The childhood memories of these women are marked by fear, flight and loss. Agricultural work, domestic labour, childbearing and rearing and marriage and family relations were all important themes in their narratives of adult life, much as they might have been for their mothers and mothers-in-law. There are great differences though. Women of earlier generations were once ashamed of working in the fields and did so only from absolute necessity. In Shaanxi in the 1950s and 60s as men increasingly worked away from home or in non-agricultural sidelines, agriculture became increasingly feminised. Although women suffered from the double burden of housework and farm work, they were also encouraged to feel proud of what they did. Some became political activists, labour models or local leaders and most began to enjoy roles outside the family.

Although the civil order established under the People’s Republic improved life in various ways, poverty and hardship continued. Some details are especially poignant or memorable. As late as 1959, the Women’s Federation reported that one difficulty of establishing ‘midwifery stations’ where women could give birth with skilled help was that many families owned only one quilt. The underfunded health stations did not supply bedding but if a pregnant woman took the family quilt with her the rest of the family would suffer cold at night!

By viewing the revolution and the Maoist period through the narratives of elderly peasants, Hershatter is able to show how important peasant women were to collective agriculture, and how deeply campaigns run by the Party-state affected their lives, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Her analysis shows that gender was profoundly important to her subjects’ experiences and the way they remembered their lives. Women’s memories were more personal than those of men and women were less likely inclined to use official terminology in their narratives. Their sense of time was built around the Chinese calendar so that they would recall that something as happening for example in the Year of the Monkey or the Snake, or know that it occurred before of after a particular marriage or birth. If they used the official periodisation based on campaigns such as the High Tide of Socialism, or the Great Leap Forward, some got the year wrong or deviated from official usage. In the language of the Party/state, the ‘new society’ began in 1949 when the revolution began to put an end to the hardships and miseries of the old society. Tellingly, however, some of Hershatter’s informants used the ‘new society’ to denote the post-Great Leap era in the early 1960s when the worst of the food shortages were over, family plots were permitted and collective food halls closed down.

The women are eloquent about the hard work they endured. Interestingly, although the post-reform one child family campaign often met with a hostile response in the countryside, some of these women feel that the younger generation are fortunate not only because they are incomparably more prosperous, but also because they can control the number of their children. One woman recalled that the state had neglected birth planning in the collective period while taking charge of everything else. She was perhaps understandably bitter that she had heard about contraception only after the birth of her tenth child.

Overwhelmingly however, while feeling that they suffered great hardship, these women express pride about the lives they had led. They are confident that they practiced both political and family virtue, working all hours to respond to the Party’s calls and the demands of agricultural production while at the same time caring for children and the elderly and keeping their families clothed and fed. Sadly, unable to earn significant sums and not entitled to any pension, some of these elderly women suffered privation even in their last years. In post-reform Chinese society the conjugal family has grown stronger at the expense of old notions of filiality. Children often offer less old-age support than their parents expect. Others continue to help their parents and some women spoke very positively of the help given by sons, daughters and even daughters in law. It is interesting that despite the fact that this generation of rural women was the first to be involved en masse in the public sphere, the way they assessed their lives and their contentment in old age seems to have depended greatly on quality of their relationships with their children.

(Delia Davin, University of Leeds)