Changing Times and Diverging Lives

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Changing Times and Diverging Lives:

The 60s Generation of Chinese Women

from Little Red Soldier to Glamorous Housewife

Lingling Mao


The University of York

Women’s Studies

March 2012


The principal objective of this project is to explore the lives of the 1960s generation of Chinese women (those born in the 1960s), paying special attention to the social shaping of gender and generation. In China, the sea change in the social economic and political life in the last sixty years has afforded successive generations with different life experiences, producing a society that has now been deeply marked by strong generational cleavages. Under the shadow of the Cultural Revolution generation, there is no existing systematic research about the 1960s generation. Taking those aged between their 40s and 50s as the most illustrative group to reflect these changes, I argue that my research on the 60s generation of Chinese women is not just to give them their own identities and to fill the knowledge gap, but also to provide a fruitful line of enquiry for modern Chinese history and society in generational and gendered context. Drawing upon interviews with four groups of the 60s generation women, I explore and interpret the data to reveal how gender and generation affected their daily existence at different stages of their lives: childhood, youth and adult years, focusing on themes such as political movements, parents, education, relationships, marriage, children and work. Through reflexive scholarship and investigation, this project contributes to the understandings of the gender and generational impact of social change in China.


Abstract 2

List of figures and tables 6

Acknowledgements 7

Author’s declaration 9


I and others 17

Aims of the thesis 19

Chapter outline 22


Pre-1949 period 26

Mao’s era 1949-1976 31

Consolidation, the Soviet model and the Great Leap Forward 31

The Cultural Revolution 34

Summary of Mao’s era 39

Post-Mao era 40

The reform period 41

The twenty-first century 51

Summary of post-Mao era 55

The 60s generation and the dark age 56



Pre-field: establishing the research method 63

In-field: data generation 67

Solemn statement – meeting the women cadres 69

A rich man’s world – meeting the wives 77

Swimming the ocean – meeting the overseas women 82

Openning the floodgates – meeting the migrant workers 89

Post-field: data analysis and reflection 97

Conclusion 106


The absence of parent(s) 109

The subject of gender 117

Learning from mothers 122

Education 128

Political-ideological education 134

The rise of individual and the 1989 protests 139

Memory and the Cultural Revolution 147

Conclusion 150


Romantic love 152

Love at first sight 156

The ideal spouse 157

Untainted love (chaste love) 161

Love on one’s own initiative 165

Summary of romantic love 168

Marriage 169

Infidelity and bao ernai 176

Children 182

Childbearing 183

Son or daughter? 185

Childrearing 189

Looking after the elderly 194

Care for the elderly in rural and urban areas 196

Daughter’s role in care 199

The myth of mother-in-law 202

Conclusion 204


Entering the job market 211

Educational qualifications 212

Guanxi 216

Meritocracy 224

The struggle between work and family 226

Full-time housewife: jiantingfunü and quanzhitaitai 231

From jiantingfunü to quanzhitaitai 231

Quanzhitaitai – a badge of pride or a badge of shame? 236

Being a quanzhitaitai 241

Conclusion 248


Appendix 1 262

Appendix 2 263

Glossary 264

Bibliography 269



Figure 1 Iron girl Xing Yanzi 38


Table 1 Comparison of political, economic and social status of different groups of women 69

Table 2 First educational qualification and first job 213

Table 3 Educational qualification and job at the time of interview 214


Although I had never thought of giving up, many times I did contemplate whether the idea of being able to reach the other end of the long tunnel was simply a fantasy, or if it could indeed become reality. At times, I could not tell where I was or how far I would need to go; at times, I was so tired that even if there were lights through the darkness, it was hard for me to see. Thus, I am deeply grateful to those that have held torches, bringing their lights to aid me along this journey.


I thank Stevi Jackson for being a most understanding and inspiring supervisor. Over the years, through numerous supervision meetings, through her comments and grammatical corrections which are dotted on my countless drafts, through reading her books and articles, I have not only learnt the importance of clarity in thought and writing, but also the meaning of being an intellectual, as well as the responsibilities of an academic. In this research relay, I am still but an amateur at an age of which I should be a veteran, and it was Stevi who encouraged me, sometimes pushed me, and always steered me towards my goal. My gratitude to her is eternal and immeasurable.


I thank Treva Broughton for being the second supervisor for my first stage of study. I will never forget one time that I was stuck after a literature review, when she lent me the book Family Secrets by Annette Kuln, whose writing has shone me with delight and opened up new vistas. I thank Ann Kaloski-Naylor and Gabriele Griffin for the questions they raised and the suggestions they made at my upgrading meeting, which served as meaningful reminders at every stage of my research. As a side note, Ann’s remedy for my unendurable cough induced by hayfever was magical, and I have since been able to lead a normal life during the spring season. Thanks again, Ann.

I thank Harriet Badger for her kindness and patience. Although she must have had to update my file so many times as I have been in the Centre for Women’s Studies for six odd years, she never lost her smile. As a part-time research student, I always had to come and go hurriedly, but whenever I sat in the common room, the warm comradeship and the friendly chat with whoever was present would always make me feel welcome.


I thank Elizabeth Croll, Harriet Evans, Lisa Rofel, Maria Jaschok, Wang Zheng, Margery Wolf and all the scholars whose work I have referred to. They have, in various ways, influenced and enriched my thinking about the legacy of Chinese women, and by extension, the 60s generation of women. I thank the women who have participated in my research, who have shared their time and their valuable experiences with me. Their contributions have been indispensable to my research, and I can only hope that through my efforts to preserve their quotations and through my analysis, I have been able to do some justice to their great generosity. 


Finally, I thank my family for being there. No matter how tough things became, I was always safe in the knowledge that they would be behind me. My mother has been battling with cancer for nine years, and though her prognosis was originally poor, her perseverance and strong will to live have prevailed. I have been able to draw great strength from the trajectory of her survival. My daughter, who witnessed at first hand my struggle in a foreign land, and also had to experience this herself from a tender age, has come out triumphantly. She is my well of joy and happiness.  


This thesis is based on original research and I am the sole author. Some parts in chapter 1 and 2 had been reorganized as working papers which I presented at the conference Jiu: Commemoration and Celebration in the Chinese-speaking World in Sydney Australia in July 2009 and the second annual International Forum of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham in September 2009.

Chapter one


The image of a photograph has been inside my head ever since I came across Family Secrets by Annette Kuhn (2002); only recently, in the context of research, did I come to understand its significance.

A twelve-year old girl is standing in the picture. Her pose is formal: she stands up straight, arms close to her sides, looking straight ahead. A smile is leaking out the corners of her mouth, but you cannot see her teeth. Her smile reveals a message that she has made an effort to be serious but she cannot not help but secretly laugh inside. She is neat, with short hair, short-sleeved shirt and short skirt. However, in contrast to her tidiness, something untidy is looped around her neck. It looks like a scarf, but the edges have worn out and the colour faded, showing even in this old black and white photograph. What is it? Why does she wear it in this most prominent position – in front of her chest?

It is the Red Scarf, the symbol of the Little Red Soldier (hongxiaobing 红小兵). The Little Red Soldier’s predecessor was the Young Pioneer.1 In 1966, the Red Guard (hongweibing 红卫兵), as a rising student organization, supported by Mao himself, spread swiftly in the middle schools and the universities. In primary schools, students who were not old enough to join the Red Guard set up the Little Red Soldier organization, substituting the previous Young Pioneers. On 27th of October 1978, at the Tenth Chinese Youth League Meeting, the central committee approved The Resolution to Recover the Name of China’s Young Pioneer, and edited the Little Red Soldier out of history. The Little Red Soldier’s time period of existence exactly paralleled that of the Red Guard; both lasted for 12 years. Yet, because of their young age, the Little Red Soldiers’ revolutionary impact was limited and hence caused less damage to the society as a whole. Both organizations, however, retained a strong political element. Not every child could join as the rules were strict. First, you needed to possess the Three ‘G’s, which were ‘Good Morals, Good Study and Good Health’, after which your family background would then also be inspected in detail. If your family belonged to one of these five categories: landlord, rich peasant, reactionary element, bad element and rightist, you would never even dream of joining. Only children with the right class origin could be accepted.2

The girl in the picture is me. My paternal grandfather was classified as a rich farmer, a member of the ‘exploiting class’, but my maternal grandfather was a sailor from the red hot proletariat. This obsession with bloodline was well reflected in a popular couplet during that time: ‘If the father is a hero, the son will be a great fellow. If the father is a reactionary, the son will be a rotten egg’ (老子英雄儿好汉,老子反动儿混蛋 laozi yingxiong er haohan; laozi fandong er hundan). In theory, I should have followed my paternal grandfather’s classification as I had inherited my father’s surname. In reality however, my paternal grandfather lived hundreds of miles away and my father had drawn a clear line of demarcation between himself and his father. My parents were more than happy to let me follow my maternal grandpa’s class origin. When reading Kuhn’s (2002) and Walkerdine’s (1990) writings about their working-class backgrounds in the late 1950s and their struggles to either work or marry their way out, I recognised the absolute irony between their societies and mine. Chinese people during the Mao era would do anything to become part of the working class, as the general belief was ‘the lower the purer’. Sophisticated as the middle-class was, or in Chinese term the landlords or the rich peasants, they would pollute the pure minds of the proletariat.

Chinese school has only two terms, summer and winter, within which a batch or two of the Little Red Soldiers would be recruited. In a class of fifty students, only two or three students would be recruited into the organization. I entered primary school in January 1973, and was soon selected to be among the first batch to join the Little Red Soldiers. I can still remember that day clearly: 4th of May 1973. We marched to a cemetary where the local revolutionary martyrs were buried, gathering under a cluster of green pine trees. Around eight First Year students were invited out of the crowd, and each was offered a Red Scarf, put on by an older Little Red Soldier member. The Red Scarf, I was told, was a corner of the Red Flag, which symbolises the blood of the revolutionary martyrs. Holding our right elbows up, with our fists close to our ears, we were taught to take an oath. One of the lines it included was ‘be ready to fight for the communist cause at any moment’. We were then taught to sing the anthem of the Little Red Soldiers:

We are the successors of Communism

Inheriting the glorious tradition of our revolutionary predecessors

Love the motherland and the people

The bright red scarf fluttering on our chests

Not afraid of difficulties, not afraid of the enemy

Study indomitably, fight determinedly

Go forward bravely toward victory

Go forward bravely toward victory, go forward

Go forward bravely toward victory

We are the successors of Communism3

From that moment on, at just seven years old, I was transformed into a girl who held an ideal for the future, and a responsibility for others and the country. I had ‘grown up’. That was indeed the first highlight of my life.
The badge of pride was embodied in the Red Scarf. I did not even want to take it off at night. For the first few days I wore it when I went to sleep. Then it became such a joke in my family; the summer was coming as well. Under the pressure of both the weather and my family, I had to fold it neatly under my pillow each night. My Red Scarf was made of cotton and the dyeing technology was undeveloped at that time, so that the colour faded and it disintegrated more after each wash. But even though it looked rather worn, I and the first batch of Little Red Soldiers would wear it just as it was. The logic was simple: it had faded because you had worn it for a long time, indicating that you were an older member. The fading scarf was effectively a status symbol. Now going back to the photograph, it was the same logic that explains why I put on such a piece of rotting cotton with an air of pride.

The photo was taken in July 1978 in a studio in Shipu (the seaside town where I lived) for my primary school graduation. China’s economic reform had been initiated in the southern Shenzhen experimental zone in that year, but little had changed elsewhere. My father’s wage was fifty-six yuan per month, my mother’s twenty-four yuan.4 In total, our parents had less than a hundred yuan per month. But a famous brand camera ‘Seagull’ (海鸥hai’ou, an imitation of the Japanese Minolta) cost more than one hundred yuan. Therefore I did not know anyone who personally possessed a camera.5 China's camera industry started in the 1950s, and by the 70s it was in full swing, with exports to other countries.6 For most people, it was an item that was tantalizingly near – within sight but beyond reach. One had to go to a studio to celebrate an occasion. For me, that occasion was primary school graduation.

The photo studio was located in the centre of the town. It looked ordinary from the outside: built of brick, two storeys high, the same as other shops. On its white-painted signboard, words were written in red paint: 石浦照相馆 Shipu Zhaoxiangguan (Shipu Photo Studio). In my childhood, it was a place full of myth and mystery, covered by various dark-coloured curtains. A curtain you had to pass to enter the room where the picture would be taken; several curtains with each concealed a setting – seaside, mountains, or modern buildings (the photographer would move one curtain after another to reveal the settings for you to choose); finally, a black curtain to stop any attempted peeks into the dark-room. Only in short intervals were you able to see natural light; on most occasions, you would have strong artificial lights shining on you one second, and pitch darkness in the next. During the times of total darkness, I always had an urge to draw back a curtain, any curtain, to seek some form of light, but I had always been stopped, either by the photographer or my mother. What was concealed behind those curtains? Why had they stopped me? The curtains represented an obstruction, preventing me from discovering the unknown. I was disappointed, but not angry. Certain things were not for a child to see. Being a good girl, being obedient, is to accept the rules. If the rule in the studio was to not to lift the curtain, so be it.

Steedman (1986) mentions repeatedly and furiously about the curtainless windows in her childhood London flat because a social worker, judging their social status by this curtainless window, did not even want to step inside their house. ‘I will do everything and anything until the end of days to stop anyone ever talking to me like that woman talked to my mother…It is in this place, this bare, curtainless bedroom that lies my secret and shameful defiance’ (Steedman 1986: 2). For Steedman, the curtainless window symbolizes an exposed and deprived life, which leads to the root of her critical examination of her childhood. Steedman’s metaphorically curtainless childhood provides a striking contrast to my curtained childhood. Curtains, paradoxically, can provide protection or warmth when needed, but can also act as a barrier for the understanding and exchange of information.

Curtains have a long-standing relationship with communist countries. The metaphor of the curtain became significant in the West through the idea of the iron curtain. The first recorded use of the term iron curtain was in 1819, in the general sense of ‘an impenetrable barrier’ and by 1920, it had become associated with the boundary of the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. However, its use was popularized by the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who used it in his ‘Sinews of Peace’ address on March 5, 1946 at Westminister College in Fulton, Missouri: ‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an “iron curtain” has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe’ (Feuerlicht 1955: 187). Churchill likened the iron curtain to the boundary which ideologically and physically divided Europe into two separate areas from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War (roughly 1945 to 1990). A variant of the iron curtain, the bamboo curtain, was coined in reference to the People's Republic of China. Although these terms fell out of any but historical usage after the end of Cold War, the Western stereotyped view of people who had lived within the curtain still lingers: these are people who have been to hell, who have lived under heavy propaganda, deprived of choice and therefore are to be pitied – or worse, despised.
My curtained childhood was not ideal: given a choice, I would have liked to live differently. On examining my childhood, I have been consciously aware of the cliché of the ‘poor-but-happy’. Jeremy Seabrook remarks:

…the myth of a poor-but-happy past coexists with an imagery of continuous improvement and constant advance. The double movement, captured in the undeniable authority, the unimpeachable evidence of the photographs, is actually deceptive and deceiving, for it blots out both the violence and sadness of the past and the cruelties and penalties that have accomplished our version of progress; it sacrifices veracity to ideology. (1991: 179)

Communist countries, China included, have notably been willing to sacrifice voracity in preference for ideology, making Seabrook’s notes especially relevant for me. I felt as if I was stuck in a double trap: the ‘poor-but-happy’ myth versus the Communist ideology. How could I break out of this so that the ‘happy and content’ account I have written above would remain true to my own experiences, and not serve as a sacrifice to either myth or ideology?

In the 1980s, Cui Jian (崔健, born in 1964), the first ever Chinese rock star, wrote a song called A Piece of Red Cloth. The first verse is:
That day you used a piece of red cloth

To blindfold my eyes and cover up the sky

You asked me what I had seen

I said I saw happiness

That feeling really made me comfortable

Made me forget I had no place to live

You asked me where I wanted to go

I said I wanted to go with you7

Cui Jian’s songs were the background music of the 1989 Tiananmen protests and many of them were banned in the late 80s for their radical lyrics, but not this one, as it was primarily understood as a love song. With the eyes covered by a piece of red cloth, the reality which falls on the eyes radiating with red lustre, through which one can feel instant warmth and holistic comfort. If happiness is about a state of stability, content and wholeness, then we had it. If happiness is about a kind of blindness and innocence, then we had it too. We held our conditioned happiness, curling within curtains. The song of our childhood, our happiness, could be sung as a romance, or a sad melody, but never a myth, never an ideology.

I and Others

In July 2006, on a trip to Bradford Photography, Television and Film Museum, I ran into a wet collodion camera in Day-light Studio. For a moment, I nearly called out in happy astonishment: was this the same type of camera that had been used for my photograph? From a small card description, I learnt that the wet collodion camera was introduced in Europe in 1866. It looked exactly like the one in Shipu, but I doubted that something invented in the nineteenth century could still be used in China in 1978. However, from the Chinese General History of Publication, I learnt that wet collodion technology, though backward, was economical and had been widely used until the early 1960s when newer processes were introduced, and did not go out of use in China until the 1980s.8

As Shipu was a small town, it was possible that in the late 1970s the wet collodion camera was still in use. So the technology was primitive and the aesthetic aspect of the photo was minimal. For my photograph was only a primary school graduation photo, ‘restricted to modest public codes and rarely aspiring to technical or artistic merit’ (Holland 1991: 4). It took only a few minutes of the photographer’s work; he could have taken up to a hundred within a day. However, ‘precisely this embrace of the conventions’ in the picture yields fascination, Holland remarks, because this familiar structure of the photograph offered us ‘a framework within which our understanding of various realities can come into play’ (Holland 1991: 4). Holland further extends the significance of seemingly insignificant photos such as this one as follows:
Its meanings are social as well as personal – and the social influences the personal. Family photographs are shaped by the public conventions of the image and rely on a public technology which is widely available. They depend on shared understandings. Private interpretations which may subvert collective meanings are considered disruptive and discouraged. But above all, the personal histories they record belong to narratives on a wider scale, those public narratives of community, religion, ethnicity and nation which make private identity possible. (Holland 1991: 3)

Kuhn also shares Holland’s view that images and memories are at the centre of a radiating web of associations, reflections and interpretations; they seem to be one’s own, but their associations extend far beyond the personal. ‘They spread into an extended network of meanings that bring together the personal with the familial, the cultural, the economic, the social, the historical’ (Kuhn 2002: 5). In other words, this photograph of mine is also thoroughly public. And this is the very rationale I see in presenting this photograph at the starting point of my thesis.

When undertaking research of any kind, there is an implicit assumption that we are investigating something ‘outside’ of ourselves. This is true for both the social and natural sciences, although in the latter the separation of researcher and research may appear more self-evident. On the other hand, we cannot research something with which we have no contact as ‘all researchers are to some degree connected to, a part of, the object of their research’ (Davies 1999: 3). Considerations of reflexivity are therefore important for all forms of research.

Reflexivity can be defined as turning back on oneself as a process of self-reference. In Women’s Studies, there are certainly several examples of researchers considering and processing their own experiences as a systematic part of their method (Kuhn 2002; Castro 1999). Wang Jing M. (2008) uses the term ‘selective relationality’ to express the view that the identity boundary between ‘I’ and others is fluid, as reflexivity is achieved through relation to and awareness of those others (2008: 88). However, there are dangers in self-reflexivity. Rosaldo (1993) is critical of objectifying ethnography, but worries that reflexivity has a ‘tendency for the self-absorbed Self to lose sight altogether of the …Other’ (Rosaldo 1993: 7).

In order to avoid the pitfalls of reflexivity, I will acknowledge that my own memories are embedded within their social context and this will be made visible when reporting findings. I will also focus far more on the experiences of others in the following chapters, as it is their stories that are central to this research. In summary, the importance of my photo lies in its context: it is relational, located at the centre of the web; and the connection between public historical events, structure of feeling, national identity, gender and personal memory were made visible because of it.

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