Chen Huiqin and Chen Shehong. Daughter of Good Fortune: A Twentieth-Century Chinese Peasant Memoir. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2015. 348pp. ISBN 9780295994925 (paperback).
Daughter of Good Fortune recounts the life story of Chen Huiqin, from the time of the Japanese Occupation in the 1930s up to the present day. It aims to allow the reader to take a glimpse into the changes occurring in rural China during that period specifically from the perspective of a peasant woman.
This autobiographical account of a rural life is divided into 16 chapters, together portraying Chen’s course through life mainly in a chronological fashion. She was born in 1931 as the only child of a peasant family living near Shanghai. In order to make provisions for their old age, Chen’s parents arranged a matrilocal marriage for her – with Chen’s husband afterwards moving to her parental home. While Chen herself worked in the fields, her mother was busy looking after the children and in charge of the household chores. Hard work and extreme poverty dominated much of Chen’s life, but ever since the beginning of the Reform period the family’s living standard continued to increase significantly in fact; urbanization and globalization have likewise brought changes to their daily life.
The autobiography was transcribed by Chen’s daughter Chen Shehong, an associate professor at the Department of History, University of Massachusetts Lowell. According to the book’s preface, Chen Shehong came across her mother’s “wonderful memories” (p. x) during the course of a separate research project on the transformation of rural China. She decided to interview her mother so as to become “the pen through which Mother’s personal experiences would be written down” (p. x), aiming to present an authentic narrative of Chen Huiqin’s life “without much distraction” (p. xi). Unquestionably, this approach is extremely laudable; however this special collaboration between mother and daughter also gives rise to some justified pauses for thought. How far might Chen Huiqin’s account have been shaped by the fact that she has recounted her life story to her own daughter? And – vice versa – to what extent did Chen Shehong’s personal involvement therein affect the process of compiling and editing the story for publication?
A further important question besides: What effects, if any, do Chen Shehong’s professional background as a historian and her own epistemic interests have on the narrative? This question is a pressing one, since the narrative goes beyond being a mere depiction of Chen Huiqin’s individual experience – instead her personal life is closely interwoven with the broader framework of modern Chinese history, and that in a highly reflective way. Hence, in her introduction to the book, Delia Davin praises it as “proof that illiteracy does not preclude understanding of the intricacies of economic and social change” (p. 6). But has, for example, Chen Huiqin herself subsumed her memories under labels such as “Land Reform” or “New Marriage Law” – or are these rather the interjections of her daughter, the historian? One can reasonably assume that the voices of the two women might well have meshed to a certain degree within the text, and so one should be cautious about reading this account as pure “peasant memoir”.
Notwithstanding these issues, the book undoubtedly provides readers with significant insights into the impacts of national policies and campaigns on the micro level, from Land Reform to decollectivization and beyond. For instance, when reflecting on her experience of Land Reform, Chen claims that she appreciated the basic idea behind it; however she also points to the sometimes random outcomes of the movement. Her account of the changes initiated by the policies of the Reform period is all in all a highly positive one – ultimately, the gradual improvements in her surrounding environment have enabled her to leave behind the “rustic living conditions we all tried to escape” (p. 330).
Chen’s experience of the political and social transformations occurring is illustrated through changing funeral and wedding rituals, while another recurrent theme of the narrative pertains to evolving housing conditions – which mirror the improving living standard of Chen’s family. In light of the richness of detail given in her elaboration on these issues, it appears that Chen assigns to them a broader, more general meaning – namely standing for her experience of transformation as a whole. Over the course of Chen’s life, rituals have become subject to suppression, restoration, transformation and commercialization. Though forms and practices have hence changed significantly, their relevance as central pillars of family life and the importance ascribed as such to family values remains unchallenged. Thus, in the midst of all the historical and social twists and turns unfolding, the narrative not only gives readers an idea of the ruptures but also about the continuities in Chen’s life – and indeed in Chinese rural society on a more general level.
Against this backdrop, it is also worth mentioning that Chen’s family is depicted as being extremely harmonic and loving. This is especially true in the relationship with her mother, with whom Chen – according to the presented narrative – “never quarreled, not even once” (p.132). Interestingly, she uses almost the exact same words when reflecting on her marriage, stating that she and her husband “have never quarreled with each other, not even once” (p. 331). Whether, and if so how far, this portrayal of the family might have to be understood as an idealization is hard to ascertain. Anyways, the peaceful family somehow seems to function as a kind of opposite pole to the hardships that Chen has endured – with it being the underlying constant in Chen’s life.
Compared to the extensiveness of the reflections offered on social changes and the routines of everyday life, the personal development and emotional life of Chen Huiqin play nothing more than a subordinate role within the narrative unfurled. This choice might, among other probable reasons, have been a conscious or unconscious one made by Chen Huiqin herself so as to keep her inner world mainly undisclosed. Alternatively, Chen Shehong’s intention may have been to create a book that first and foremost helps to generate greater understanding of Chinese social history.
All in all, readers of Chen Huiqin’s book are provided with much detail about the everyday life of a Chinese peasant woman during a crucial period in the country’s history. Given the paucity of Chinese female peasant memoirs currently available on the market, this autobiographical account is an extremely valuable text for scholars of modern Chinese history – and especially for those with an interest in women’s history or rural transformation.
(Elisabeth Schleep, University of Freiburg)