Country People

By Kate Merkel-HessOctober 12, 2011

Country People

Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920-2000 by Jacob Eyferth
The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past by Gail Hershatter


Empty Stools of Rural Village Life in China (Xinhua) from All-China Women’s Federation


UNTIL RECENTLY, "CHINA" BROUGHT TO MIND for most Americans farms, farmers, and the rural countryside, not the factories and mass industrialization we think of today. This view of a more rural China is what also once dominated the most widely read books about the country, from the hardworking impoverished villagers of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, to the rural rebels of journalist Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China. It's easy to forget about the rural facets of this populous nation in the midst of its freeways and fast trains, skyscrapers and construction sites. This isn't surprising, since China has more urban centers of a million-plus residents than any other country on earth and, for the first time in its history, as many people living in cities as in villages. Last year, Chinese scholars predicted that its rural population would halve by 2030, from today's 900 million to 400 million. Meanwhile, the gap between wealthy urban areas and their poor rural counterparts grows ever wider: 99 percent of China's most impoverished citizens hail from the countryside. 

In spite of this trend, rural China continues to define the country's domestic debates and policies on topics like water use, rising food prices, corruption, and social service access. Meanwhile, a domestic body of literature and film — often created at risk to the writers and documentarians involved — is highlighting a growing concern among the country's intellectual and cultural elite for the plight of rural people. Will the Boat Sink the Water, by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, was a best seller despite a government ban; Chen and Wu's book, which shone light on official corruption in Anhui Province's villages, sold more than 10 million copies. Last year, two award-winning documentaries, Last Train Home and The Warriors of Qiugang, were widely available outside of China (the first on DVD and the second, which was nominated for an Oscar, on the internet). Descriptions of village life feature prominently in recent nonfiction best sellers on China like the acclaimed reportage of the talented husband-and-wife team of Peter Hessler, whose Country Driving (2010) has a compelling section on his time in a village north of Beijing, and Leslie T. Chang, whose Factory Girls (2009) followed contemporary Chinese counterparts from farming childhoods to life in bustling boomtowns. Two particularly strong new studies chart the lives and livelihoods of the forebears of today's rural migrants, helping us make sense of China's fast-changing present: Gail Hershatter's highly anticipated The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past and Jacob Eyferth's Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920-2000 — books that place villagers at the heart of China's tumultuous 20th century.


In The Gender of Memory, Hershatter — who is president of the Association for Asian Studies — tells the story of rural women in Shaanxi Province. She constructs her narrative around the various roles the women of this "revolution generation" assumed — "Activist," "Midwife," and "Mother" — and draws on oral history research begun in 1996 to outline how they remember and tell their stories. 

Hershatter focuses on the fifties, a decade in which the Chinese Communist Party attempted to enact its "collectivization" vision in the countryside. She places rural women at the center of her inquiry, asking, "Did women have a Chinese revolution?" Her answer is an emphatic yes: The revolution was something her interviewees created, though their role in doing so was and continues to be largely invisible. 

The Gender of Memory gives us an important new way to tell the history of the Chinese 1950s and the official campaigns that defined it, from the landlords targeted as "feudal" remnants to be attacked, to the disastrously utopian Great Leap Forward that resulted in a devastating famine. These campaigns sought to reform behavior but also to move China, step-by-step, toward collectivization. Hershatter demonstrates how — both then and now — an emphasis on top-down political initiatives conceals the labor and energies of rural women.

For instance, in pre-liberation China, textile production was often the most important economic contribution women made to their families. Income from spinning and weaving could (particularly in bad years) exceed that made from farming. As such, women's labor provided critical security against penury. With collectivization, only agricultural and physical labor "counted." Women still had to spin and weave in order to clothe their families — in fact, they had to weave more because they could no longer turn to the market to purchase oddments of cloth — but now they did it after hours, often while the rest of their household slept. 

The state no longer recognized this part of what had once been lauded as "women's work." At the same time, many women had new opportunities for leadership roles. Hershatter structures her narrative around several women who were recognized as "labor models" — individuals held up by the state (and its active media/propaganda arm) as the embodiment of a community and state-centered work ethic. In teaching and talking about 20th century China, historians (myself included) often mention increased gender equality as one of the things the Communist Party got right. Hershatter shows us that although this was true, this "liberation" came at immense personal cost to the women who struggled to find childcare and stayed up all night weaving. The state lauded labor but not motherhood, and Hershatter shows how, to honor their sacrifices, women recycled the language of an earlier, "feudal" time, borrowing imperial stories that celebrated the virtuous mother laboring at night over her loom, working to provide her sons with a better life. 

In some cases, Hershatter found that these women scrambled official state "liberation" narratives with fragments of memory, the one literally overwriting the other in their minds. For instance, some told Hershatter and her Chinese collaborator, Gao Xiaoxian, about their experiences living under the "feudal" practice of home confinement, only later to describe events that took place outside the home, whether visiting the market or hiking between villages. Hershatter sees in their stories of invented confinement and then, after 1949, liberation from it, the rejection of "a social norm that once, in a manner of speaking, rejected them." Memory, Hershatter writes, is slippery — and reveals as much about what we "have learned to forget" as about what we choose to remember. 

Many of the women Hershatter interviewed were very old. Some have died in the years since she began her interviews. Many found themselves without the extended family they worked so hard to raise while acting as local officials or labor models. Instead of an egalitarian countryside, they find their villages gutted as young people move to cities to find jobs, spouses and excitement. While acknowledging that things are better in post-economic reform China, these women look back fondly on their — and the socialist state's — youth, as a time when a promising future beckoned but traditional networks and values (such as caring for one's infirm parents or parents-in-law) had not been dismantled.

We have come to look back with a cold eye on this period because we know what follows: the Cultural Revolution's violent parody of a socialist remaking of society; the unmasking of Mao Zedong as a corrupt and vindictive politico; the reversal of the whole enterprise after Mao's death. But Hershatter's interviewees do not view the period cynically; they recall their youth, and their own role in the construction of modern China, with nostalgia for the possibilities and excitement of the modernization project, a project that has now marginalized their labor, contributions, and sacrifices.


Other historians demonstrate just how destructive these campaigns were in mid-20th century China. The same "productivism" that led state officials to value field labor over weaving also disrupted handicrafts of other sorts. Across China, "sideline" industries, from woven reed mats to embroidery, were an important part of the rural economy. The Communists, in their effort to wrench people away from a market economy, attempted to force all rural people into agricultural labor. Like the women in Hershatter's account, the Sichuan highland villages that are the focus of University of Chicago historian Jacob Eyferth's Eating Rice from Bamboo Rootsexperienced the disruption of these Communist efforts to reshape rural labor and economy.

Eyferth, whose study won an Association for Asian Studies book prize for the best work on 20th century China, is particularly concerned with tracking how workers shared, preserved, and passed on "skill:" in this case, the skill to produce paper. Agnatic and village networks sustained the Jiajiang county paper industry — perhaps the most productive and famous papermakers in China — by acting as mediums for the transfer of the immense technical and managerial knowledge necessary to run even a small papermaking workshop. These networks, built mostly around family relationships, came under attack during the post-1949 years, but Eyferth demonstrates how they survived and reasserted themselves in the Jiajiang paper industry in the post-1979 period. Situated in the broader sweep of the 20th century, Eating Rice from Bamboo Shoots sheds important light on what this transition can tell us about the process of modernization and the "deskilling" of industrialization. 

Eyferth describes, in enormous detail, the complicated and lengthy process of turning fibrous bamboo into paper fine enough for emperors to write on, confounding arguments that Chinese "peasants" are backward, unskilled, and in need of reform — arguments that first circulated widely in the early 20th century and continue today. These assumptions undergirded proposals for planned economic transformations of the countryside in the thirties and then, most dramatically, the violent attacks on rural handicrafts and industry under the Communist regime. 

The Sichuan countryside that Eyferth investigates was not a utopia prior to the intervention of techno-elites, who were bent on reforming the rural economy. Eyferth demonstrates that papermaking was embedded in the social inequalities of gender, class, and geography. For instance, papermaking was often a family business, but since daughters eventually married into other families, it was considered a waste of time to educate them in the most highly skilled aspects of the trade.

Communist policymakers, reliant on the theories of 19th century Europeans who saw the peasants as an unskilled mass, moved forward with rural reform without acknowledging the socially embedded skills of rural people. The countryside was treated as a blank slate in need of technical assistance and control by urban elites, its people constructed as deficient, despite the fact that China's economic growth was built on a foundation of rural industry and skill.


Confucian thought placed those who worked the land near the top of its social hierarchy — a distinction encouraged by imperial rulers in part because agricultural occupations kept people scattered and stable (and thus less likely to foment rebellion). Early 20th century policymakers wanted to "modernize" the countryside, an interest that sometimes took the form of helpful infrastructure development like electrification or water control, but meant violent attacks on local culture and increased taxation by the state. Then the Chinese Communist Party rewrote Marx, making the proletariat a peasant, and built its political fortune on rural peoples' endorsements.

This last point explains, in part, why even as rural constituencies shrink, the CCP continues to court rural people, or at least to put on a good show of doing so. In the last decade, CCP policies have included an initiative to create a "New Socialist Countryside" (a campaign that hearkens back to the fifties' golden years) and the 2006 effort to ease rural economic burdens by abolishing agricultural taxes, a tax that whoever happened to be ruling China has been collecting for more than 2,000 years. Though the CCP's political power bases have been in the cities, its political legitimacy continues to be grounded in the condition and disposition of rural people. 

Still, China's face to the world is its cities: Since 1979, when Deng Xiaoping initiated the economic reforms, creating vast Chinese wealth and lifting millions out of poverty, China has made its cities into showcases. The wealth of those cities — a spectacle of Western luxury brand storefronts, streets full of cars, and glassy skyscrapers that repeatedly capture the Western press's attention — was created and is sustained by rural migrants streaming into urban areas. They leave behind them immense poverty: Almost 10 percent of the rural population, according to the World Bank, lives in "absolute poverty" (in other words, a little more than one in every 20 Chinese citizens). 

Current historical research shows us that the urban-rural divide did not just happen: it was the result of specific, historical processes by which the state and policymakers deemed the countryside "backward" and its industries in need of remaking (or elimination). In an attempt to recreate what were believed to be Western conditions for modernization, state investment in industrialization and development went to the cities while the countryside was forcibly "agrarianized." Hershatter and Eyferth remind us of the human cost of these policy shifts by highlighting what has been forgotten: the depth of skill, knowledge, and capability of rural people. 


LARB Contributor

Kate Merkel-Hess teaches in the history department at Penn State University. She is a regular contributor to The Times Literary Supplement and was a co-editor of the anthology China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance (2009).


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