2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 325

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Revisiting the “Liberated Woman” -- Women’s Liberation in 20th-Century China

Organizer and Chair: Xin Huang, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA

Discussant: Lisa B. Rofel, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA

“Women’s liberation” was one of the most important political interventions in 20th Century China. This panel examines women’s liberation and its current challenges as experienced and remembered by women across different historical periods and social locations, from multiple disciplinary perspectives. The discussion starts with the pioneers of China’s women’s liberation movement, the “New Women” and their creation of a new feminine leisure culture in Republic Era Beijing, and how the liberation of woman’s body intertwined with the nationalist movement of strengthening the nation and pursuing modernity. We then move on to a comparative study of the construction of the “Maoist woman” as represented in popular visual materials during the Mao era, and in the self-representations of women workers and peasants in their personal photo albums. An oral history and documentary project about laid-off female workers from state-owned enterprises in the post-Mao era offers insights into how former female factory workers resist their ongoing marginalization and seek to reconcile their past glory and present loss. A study of NGOs’ training programs for rural female migrant domestic workers in Beijing uncovers the project of remodeling the socialist labourer with “modern” urban domesticity. This panel asks: when female workers and peasants now become the bearers of past failure and strangers in a new playing field, how can understandings of the past offer insights into current struggles over gender inequality? How might a re-assessment of past legacy help reinvigorate feminist thought today, and the future of feminism in China?

Between the State, the Individual, and the Camera: the Representation of the “Maoist Woman”
Xin Huang, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA

This paper is part of a research project that examines the transformation of the “Maoist woman” and changing performances of femininities in contemporary China, through copying and analyzing women’s personal photo albums, and their narratives about them. Based on five months of fieldwork that copied 3180 personal photos of women who lived through the Mao era in Chongqing, China, and nine volumes of “photo-autobiographies” co-edited by the researcher and the participants that tell each woman’s life story through these photos, this paper compares these women’s self-representations in the Mao era to the official representation of the Maoist woman, as shown in visual representations such as posters, movies, newspapers, and magazines. It also explores how popular photo studios in the Mao era translated and reproduced official representations into individual manifestations by creating photography formulas, often with twists and parody. By comparing and analyzing the relationship between gender signifiers such as clothes, between body gestures and objects of political and class signification, between different types of labor and social positioning, this paper demonstrates women’s adaptation as well as negotiation and subversion of the Maoist gender scripts, and explores the empowerment potential as well as limitations in the construct of the Maoist woman, as illustrated in women’s bodily representations and through a camera lens.

Family Video or Collective Memories: “Shooting” Female Workers from Former State-Owned Enterprises in Urban China
Shuxuan Zhou, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Since the 1960s, women have become the major targets of mobilization during China’s socialist transformation, and female workers in state-owned enterprises have played a key role in the modernization efforts of the P.R.C.. However, the introduction of the market economy and neo-liberalism in China in the 1990s brought the downfall of the planned economy and significant decline of state-owned enterprises. Once heroic socialist laborers, massive numbers of workers at previous state-owned enterprises, especially female workers, have been laid off, and experienced both economic and social marginalization. This paper is based on a research project that records the oral history of women from former state-owned enterprises, and films a documentary of interviews and current lives of these women, including the researchers’ own grandmother and other family members. It examines the collective memories of political mobilization, the strategies used by former female factory workers in reconciling their past and present sense of self, and the resources they mobilized to resist their ongoing marginalization. It also explores how individual circumstances and the research process influence the lives of researcher and participants, and the telling of the stories. It also reflects on the challenges and ethical issues of generating visual research materials.

The Construction of Rural-to-Urban Female Migrants as Objects of Development: An Analysis of Two NGOs in Beijing
Heather Kincaide , Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, Canada

During the last two decades, Beijing has become home to numerous NGOs that train female migrants from rural areas to work in domestic service in urban households. The need for such NGOs is premised on the understanding that rural spaces and people are distinctly different from urban spaces and urbanites. Within these NGOs, personnel analyze how the mindsets of rural women differ from those deemed necessary for living and working in urban spaces and how these perceived deficiencies may be corrected. Consequently, these NGOs are home to powerful discourses about how a rural woman may become a “city person” and come to belong in the urban space. 
This paper analyzes how personnel in two NGOs in Beijing construct female migrants as objects of development and how these discourses serve specific legitimizing functions. Firstly, the discourses legitimize an urbanization model of development, and delegitimize potential alternatives, by constructing rural-to-urban migration as the only means for rural women to experience development. Secondly, personnel deploy the discourses to establish their legitimacy as agents of development by associating themselves with validated urban knowledge. Finally, the discourses serve the Chinese state’s economic development agenda by validating ways of being that enhance a woman’s productivity as a worker in the city.