Review of The Gender of Memory

Chuan Xu
2018-01-29 16:00:08
2017年春天Mullaney的Chinese Intellectual and Cultural History课上交的response essay。

Through numerous interviews of village women and local cadres in several counties of Shaanxi, Hershatter garnered a significant amount of primary sources that enabled her to probe how rural women understood their worlds. By giving voice to this new group of actors, Hershatter revises our understandings of China’s Communist Revolution. The following paragraphs will first describe two key contributions of Hershatter’s book before analyzing its historiographical significance and methodological potential.
One of the book’s primary contributions is demonstrating how the Chinese Revolution localized through the embodiment of village women, especially activists and labor models. “Labor models,” she points out, “were landmarks connecting the space of individual villages to imagined regional, national, and even international spaces” (210). Activists and models, by rallying villagers to partici


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2017年春天Mullaney的Chinese Intellectual and Cultural History课上交的response essay。

Through numerous interviews of village women and local cadres in several counties of Shaanxi, Hershatter garnered a significant amount of primary sources that enabled her to probe how rural women understood their worlds. By giving voice to this new group of actors, Hershatter revises our understandings of China’s Communist Revolution. The following paragraphs will first describe two key contributions of Hershatter’s book before analyzing its historiographical significance and methodological potential.
One of the book’s primary contributions is demonstrating how the Chinese Revolution localized through the embodiment of village women, especially activists and labor models. “Labor models,” she points out, “were landmarks connecting the space of individual villages to imagined regional, national, and even international spaces” (210). Activists and models, by rallying villagers to participate in national campaigns, enabled villagers to imagine the national (or even international) community and recognize their new political responsibilities in the Maoist era. Previously, Benedict Anderson (1983) and Thongchai Winichakul (1994) have also studied the process of imagining the national community, but neither scholar takes into account how the process took place differently in different locales. Hershatter, in contrast, emphasizes that this process took place thanks to local actors who embodied not only national values but also customary norms. For example, many female labor models and activists built their moral authority by choosing not to remarry after the death of their husbands, even though the Marriage Law unequivocally denounced such “feudal” customs. This compromise with local norms was necessary because in order to succeed in their new roles, the models and activists must not only demonstrate great revolutionary resolve, but also earn the respect of local villagers. Understanding the revolution from the perspective of local villagers enable us to reassess the Communist Revolution as a collection of local revolutions, each of which proceeded differently due to local contingencies. A top-down narrative that describes how an overpowering state imposes the revolution on individuals in a benighted countryside cannot capture how the revolution took place on a local scale. As Hershatter repeatedly emphasizes, the state was never an external agent acting on the society it governed. As the nexus between the state and the society, between the national and the local, activists and labor models defied a binary understanding of state v. society as well as a monolithic understanding of the Chinese Revolution.
Hershatter’s book also makes a great contribution by uncovering the gendered effects of the revolution. Previous historiography on women in the Maoist era tends to focus on whether the regime’s policies were good or bad for women. This historiographical pattern is increasingly outdated at a time when most historians of gender, following Joan Scott, apply gender analysis to structural patterns that affect both man and woman. Hershatter’s book, for example, uncovers the gendered nature of Chinese Revolution by examining “its reconfiguration of space, its relationship to non-revolutionary temporalities, its production of an embodied state effect, even in its strategies for socialist accumulation” (287). With regard to space, for example, Hershatter demonstrates that campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward re-gendered the fields by obligating women to participate in crop production while ignoring the traditional gendered space of home. Another example examined by Hershatter was the gender of temporalities. Women not only remembered different sets of events from men, but they also subscribed to different temporal structures. Whereas women tend to remember a specific time by associating it with childbirth and their labor activities, men tend to remember a specific time by positioning it within the sequence of campaigns. The revolution helped develop or consolidate gendered understandings of both space and time.
Hershatter’s book has great implications on historiography, especially the status of authenticity. Most historians, including oral historians, regard their projects as the search for what actually happened. Hershatter, however, declares that she only wants a “good-enough story,” i.e., “a story that does not provide a complete understanding of the past, but instead surprises and engenders thought, unspooling in different directions depending on which thread the listener picks up” (3). A story is “good-enough” if it challenges our current understandings of history and drives us to develop new thoughts. Since the “goodness” of the story depends on how the listener receives it, interpretation is highly important. Hershatter allows no story to speak for itself. She especially enjoys interpreting stories that are clearly false, e.g., how an air raid in 1948 allegedly took place in 1944 and how de-collectivization allegedly followed the failure of the Great Leap Forward. These instances present great opportunities for analysis. Hershatter recognizes that psychological speculation is sometimes inevitable. The exact reason why the woman mistook 1948 for 1944 cannot be ascertained since the subtle changes in her memoryscape are never accessible to historians. Hershatter’s accounts, similar to the life accounts by the village women she interviewed, are simply “good-enough stories.”
As Hershatter demotes the notion of an authentic past, she also demotes personal interiority. Biographers of historical figures often seek to unearth the internal thoughts of individuals, especially in totalitarian or authoritarian regimes that supposedly sought to control this internal realm. Memoirs of the Maoist era, such as Rae Yang’s Spider Eater, focus on portraying the evolution of the authors’ psychological worlds, thereby affirming the existence of an accessible internal realm untainted by political manipulation. Hershatter, in contrast, argues that this internal realm is inaccessible if not nonexistent. This point crystallizes most clearly in the section on labor models. No labor model can talk about her activities in the 1950s without subscribing to particular narrative modes, which are contingent historical products. The effects of these narrative modes must be removed in order to distill some “pure interiority,” but the only way to get rid of their effects is to get rid of the narrative. For example, when dundian cadres first encountered Zhang Qiuxiang, Zhang could not make a speech or “sum up her experience” (216). She only learned to narrate her experience after the cadres from the Women’s Federation taught her how to “speak in public, explain policies, hold people’s attention, and fire their enthusiasm.” Before Zhang learned these narrative tactics, she could barely give a narrative. As Hayden White argued in his Metahistory, there is no narrative that precedes narrative modes. The organizational structure of Hershatter’s book shows that she embraces White’s argument. Most chapter titles (Widow, Activist, Farmer, Midwife, Mother, Model, and Laborer) are well-defined social roles associated with specific narratives in the Maoist era. Just as there was model-making in the case of Zhang Qiuxiang, there were also widow-making, activist-making, farmer-making, midwife-making, mother-making, and laborer-making. Each of these processes involves instilling particular narrative modes. Despite the significant variations in their lives, widows, for example, learn to demonstrate her moral probity; activists learn to emphasize her revolutionary passion and organizational genius. Hershatter’s decision to structurally preserve these contingently determined social roles in her book demonstrates that she has no interest in a pre-narrativized interiority.
It is important to note, however, that appreciating the inextricability of narrative modes should not lead the oral historian to encourage the interviewee to adopt certain narrative modes at the cost of others. Zhang Qiuxiang, though primarily known as a labor model, was not just a labor model; she was also a mother and a widow among others. By accompanying Gao Xiaoxian, a former Women’s Federation cadre, to interview Zhang, Hershatter might have predisposed Zhang to speak as a labor model. The two interviewers might have compounded this problem by posing the question in specific manners. As Hershatter realized, the interviewees’ answers often varied widely depending on the questions she posed. Since the book leaves out these questions, it is impossible to know whether Gao and Hershatter had inadvertently imposed certain narrative modes on their interviewees.
Despite this potential problem in source collection, Hershatter’s book represents a stellar example of how to turn oral history projects into monograph forms. The textual structure of interspersing background information with long direct quotes from the interviewees enables Hershatter to both perform meticulous analysis and preserve the interviewee’s original voice. Moreover, as a historian using primarily oral sources, Hershatter also conducts archival work, which enables her to check the interviewees’ accounts. Her familiarity with the local cultural landscape in the 1940s and 50s was indispensable for the success of her project. A good oral historian should, therefore, also be good at traditional disciplinary practices of History.
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