2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 26

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“Progress" Revisited: China in the 1950s

Organizer: Xiaojia Hou, San Jose State University, USA

Chair: Brian J. DeMare, Tulane University, USA

Discussant: Neil J. Diamant, Dickinson College, USA

During the decade after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Chinese society underwent a series of rapid and dramatic transformations. These changes, generated by various state policies and programs, were commonly understood through the twin rubrics of “progress” and “liberation.” Existing literature largely describes progress and liberation within the context of political and economic development, but their implications for the day to day lives of ordinary people are much less documented. Drawing on oral histories and newly available archival materials, this panel elucidates the human drama experienced by “revolutionary” peasants, “liberated” female dramatists, “feminized” Shanghai men, and “born again” businessmen during the first decade of the PRC. Together, our presentations demonstrate how the everyday lives of these Chinese citizens were affected by the “progressive” changes wrought by the PRC state. Each case study examines a different subset of Chinese society, examining diverse responses to social transformations and discussing how Chinese people were categorized and re-conceptualized through interaction with the rhetoric and programs of a “progressive” and “liberating” state. Our studies detail obvious and subtle changes in daily life, as well as elaborate on local strategies of both survival and development. In sum, this panel seeks to explore the multiple meanings of progress and liberation in the 1950s for the Chinese people, and in turn cast a critical eye on the meanings of these often-employed concepts.

Under Direction: Female Actors on Mao’s Stage in the Early PRC
Brian J. DeMare, Tulane University, USA

For many Chinese citizens, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 promised an era of progress and emancipation; this was assumed to be particularly true for women, long believed to be suffering under feudal and patriarchal rule. And indeed, during the 1950s women were increasingly moving into public and political roles, a phenomenon nowhere clearer than in the emergence of female actors. Previously barred from the stage in favor of male actors dressed in drag, women were now free to stake claim to a public and political role. In their dramatic productions, furthermore, women were able to promote pro-female state policies, most notably during the campaign for the new Marriage Law during the early 1950s. Yet by ascending to the stage, female actors were paradoxically drawn closer to a coercive and authoritarian state system that sought to use their talents to promote a host of policies that adversely affected Chinese women; in many cases, these female actors were in fact acting against their own interests. The state supported patriarchal drama troupe system, moreover, was dominated by male directors who severely limited the authority of their female actors. By questioning the assumption that public performance is a form of emancipation, this presentation seeks to balance the search for female agency and the real liberation found by women actors on stage with a contrasting narrative of encroaching authoritarian state power to better understand the lives of female actors during the 1950s.

Under the Shadow of Progress: Making Chinese Peasants Backward in the Early PRC
Xiaojia Hou, San Jose State University, USA

Chinese peasants were the backbone of China’s communist revolution. During the revolutionary years, influenced by Marxist ideology and wartime experiences, Chinese communists developed misconceptions about peasants and the rural economy. These misconceptions became the basis upon which they built their expectations and guidelines for rural polices in subsequent years. On the eve of the founding of the PRC, Mao Zedong took pleasure in stressing that Chinese peasants had more social consciousness than all American workers and many British workers. But, soon after, revolutionary optimists like Mao were unpleasantly surprised by the apparent lack of social consciousness possessed by Chinese peasants. This presentation begins by examining several important misconceptions and groundless expectations of peasants that were held by Chinese communists in 1949. Then, based on case studies in Shanxi province, the presentation addresses how Chinese peasants who attempted to farm using their long-standing methods did not fit well into the growing socialist economy. The gulf between Chinese communists’ expectations of peasants and the reality of the situation in rural China was often read by Chinese communists as Chinese peasants’ “backwardness." In the early 1950s, as the new Chinese society progressed, Chinese peasants became inconveniently backward. In 1953, Chinese communists decided to help peasants to progress toward socialism along the lines of the Soviet collectivization model. This presentation explores the social and conceptual circumstances behind this decision.

Shanghai Little Men: Social Consequences of the Food Rationing in Shanghai
James Z. Gao, University of Maryland, College Park, USA

The paper examines social consequences of the food rationing in Shanghai with special analyses of Shanghai Little Men. The male Shanghainese are notorious for their talent of doing house works, including cooking and shopping. Since these jobs used to be regarded as a duty of housewives, the Shanghai men were given the nickname of Shanghai Little Men. My research finds that the Shanghai men did not step into the realm of women until the city began the food rationing in the 1950s. The paper explores how the state-controlled food supply impelled husbands to share house works with wives and led to men’s control over family’s food consumption. Playing the new role, Shanghai Little Men won a reputation of being “family men” and smart in using personal connections to get better food and other state supplies. This reflects new power relations between distributors and consumers, in which state-planed daily supplies became personal capital ready to exchange for private benefits. The new patron-client network was generated by and expanded in the state-planned economy. Since the state food distribution system was designed in favor of the urban population, it enabled Shanghai Little Men to manage their daily life, enjoying comparatively sufficient food supply. This made Shanghai Little Men attractive for girls. Although “little men” means lack of machismo, their legal Shanghai resident statues appeared to be the most valuable because of the widened gap between the PRC’s “progressed” cities and impoverished countryside.

“Born Again”: Thought Reform and Daily Life Among Private Industrialists and Businessman, 1956-1966
Xiaocai Feng, East China Normal University, China

In 1956, the PRC state officially announced the successful socialist transformation of China’s private industrialists and businessmen, a process that had deprived these individuals of their claims to private ownership over their past enterprises and businesses. Despite this accomplishment, however, the PRC state insisted that these former private industrialists and businessmen would continue to retain their “capitalist” class status, as well as demanded further education and thought reform for these “capitalists.” Inexorably tied to this negative class label, these individuals slowly and painfully learned how to participate in state-directed thought reform and education programs and thus demonstrate their “progress” to the CCP. Critically, their participation in these state-run programs coincided with fundamental changes in their daily lives. In most cases, their income levels dropped substation ally, while family relations, particularly ties to children, deteriorated. Social networks and ties among private networks, meanwhile, quickly faded away. This presentation investigates the transformation of Chinese “capitalists” during this critical moment, when they were bound to this negative class label yet stripped of their former capitalist ownership, in order to elucidate the ironic outcomes of their demonstrations of “progress” to the PRC state.