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January 29, 2001

Preserving the life histories of a dying generation

By Alyssa Clagg

Gail Hershatter is in a race against time. The UCSC history professor has been collecting life histories of elderly women in an effort to uncover the effect of state-sponsored social changes on rural daily life in turbulent 1950s China.

In December, Hershatter's work received a major boost from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the form of a $24,000 research fellowship. The grant will enable her to continue her project on preserving the history and memories of these women who delicately balanced politics and family.

In the midst of land reform and collectivization in the 1950s, Chinese women were celebrated in government documents for moving out of the home into factories and agriculture. Under the direction of communist leader Mao Zedong, land reforms redistributed property from landlords to peasants. At the same time, a new marriage law promised to reconfigure the family, giving women full equality with men in the matters of marriage, divorce, and land ownership.

Entitled "The Gender of Memory: Rural Chinese Women and the 1950s," Hershatter's research project explores how these rural women in the province of Shaanxi viewed the world and their place in it.

In particular, Hershatter asks several questions: How did these state initiatives change the lives and self-perceptions of poor rural women? Did they come to regard their own histories differently from before? What did socialism mean to them? What effects did their new roles have on the upbringing of their children?

Official histories of the 1950s say little about such women. Working closely with a colleague in China, Gao Xiaoxian of the Women's Federation, Hershatter has traveled to several villages in western China since 1996, completing 50 in-depth interviews with women who were young adults at the time of the revolution. Her research has been funded by UCSC's Committee on Research and by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, the UC President's Research Fellowship in the Humanities, and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation. The NEH fellowship, one of 12 awarded systemwide through UC, will help to support her writing and research during winter and spring quarters.

"In the 1950s, women enjoyed an improvement in political status, and their role in the rural economy changed in important ways. But in the household, they still made clothing and shoes for all the children--and more of those children survived infancy," Hershatter said. "The state celebrated women's collective labor, but their household labor became invisible--and this invisibility is part of a broader historical problem."

Aside from documented lists of political campaigns and official statements regarding their success, accounts of rural life in 1950s China are virtually nonexistent. "We have no social or cultural history of that period," Hershatter said. "And the possibility of hearing other kinds of stories is starting to die out--literally."

Now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, many of the women Hershatter has interviewed are aging and forgetting the past. Although some attended literacy classes in the 1950s, in general they do not write, and collecting oral testimony from such women has not been a priority for scholars. Hershatter hopes to learn what these women remember, how they reevaluate their past in light of subsequent events, and how memories are created and reworked both by individuals and by village communities.

Local memories can lend important clues about how large-scale political campaigns played out far from the center of state power. The Great Leap Forward, one the largest political campaigns of the 1950s, was a time when both women and men were called into steel production and dam construction, which the government hoped would help speed economic development. As women joined the workforce, domestic life was profoundly affected. Food production also suffered, as farmers reported inflated crop production and were required to turn most of their grain over to the state. The rural women Hershatter interviewed remember these changes well, but they don't refer to this time as the Great Leap Forward. Instead, highlighting the change that was most disruptive to them, they call it simply "the time we ate in the dining hall."

Following the Great Leap Forward were three straight years of poor harvests, severe food shortages, and industrial decline. It was after the political campaigns of the 1950s--into the 1960s and 1970s--that, Hershatter said, the women's memories become blurred. "When they narrate an account of their lives to us, they move directly from the early 1960s to the 1980s, when economic reforms began," Hershatter explained. "It is as though the 1960s and 1970s didn't happen; decades literally disappear. But if we begin to ask them about specific events from those years, memories seem to return."

Calling this act of forgetting "a wrinkle in time," Hershatter has begun to explore what this silence might mean. Is it a sign that nothing important happened in 20 years of collective agriculture as seen from the perspective of today's return to family farming? Or is it linked to the fact that women spent those decades in a blur of bearing, raising, and clothing children, while also working in the fields?

For the project, Hershatter is planning one last trip in April. Working with her colleague in China, she will conduct more interviews. Hershatter hopes to complete a preliminary draft of her book in about a year, with several essays ready for publication later this year.

"It is challenging and very exciting to talk to these women," Hershatter said. "They have an enormous amount to say and strong opinions about their past, as well as about their current situation as aging women under the economic reforms. I feel a sense of urgency that a historical source of great value is about to be lost. But retrieval is only part of the problem. What they remember and how they voice it is, in itself, an act of interpretation and judgment. The challenge for me as a historian is to pay close attention to their interpretations while developing my own."

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