Review part 2: Some of Us
Review part 2: Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era (edited by Zueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di). Rutgers University Press. USA: 2001. Review by Prairie Fire (llco.org)
Some of Us is an anthology of autobiographical writings by Chinese women from petty-bourgeois backgrounds who grew up during the Cultural Revolution decade, but later moved to the United States to pursue academic careers. The authors are do not representative of the majority of Chinese women. Many of the authors are hostile to communism. In addition, the compilation suffers from the inherent limits of oral history, anecdotal approaches. Nonetheless, the book complicates the victim/victimizer narratives of the Cultural Revolution decade; it contains important insights into gender in the Mao era. Despite its flaws, the book provides a welcome contrast to mainstream anti-communist history.
There is no easy way to sum up the diverse observations on gender contained in Some of Us. What is refreshing about the anecdotes is that they convey the complexity and difficulty involved in the Maoist attempts to remake the world without gender oppression. Even though the Maoist attempts were not perfect, one gets the sense that the Maoist efforts were sincere, very real attempts to forward the cause of human liberation. In this respect, the book differs from various cynical, Western narratives.
The depth of the Chinese social revolution, and the sheer number of people involved, is why the Cultural Revolution is the furthest advance toward communism in history. A quarter of the world stood up. China leaped from foot binding to the advanced feminist practices of the Cultural Revolution in a few decades. The Maoist movement in China was the greatest feminist movement of all time in terms of its impact on the status of women. However, analysis of gender in the Maoist era lagged behind practice. Some of the most advanced social experiments in gender equality in human history lacked an adequate theory as a guide in these years. In the Maoist years, socialist moralism wielded as much, if not more, influence on the everyday than revolutionary science. Even so, the testimonies in Some of Us attest to the power of simple maxims and slogans such as “Times have changed. Men and women are the same. Whatever men can do, women can do, too.” Jiang Jin recounts her experience:
“I grew up in a revolutionary era, an era marked by a loud, distinctive voice announcing, ‘Times have changed; men and women are the same.’ The Western reader may be skeptical about the idea that men and women are the same; but in the context of the newly established People’s Republic of China, this slogan, in its simplistic way, conveyed a powerful message to millions of Chinese women that in this new era men and women were equal. The new constitution gave women the same rights as it gave men. The state called upon women to work outside the home and promised to reward them with equal pay. The new orthodoxy also held that men and women were equal in terms of intellectual competence, political consciousness, and even physical strength. The rhetoric of women’s liberation and a state policy that fostered gender equality informed my growing-up experience in the Maoist era and, to a large extent, shaped my identity and the life path I have chosen.” (100)
Similar experiences are recalled throughout Some of Us. Naihua Zhang:
“In some ways I was aware of gender and so were my peers. When writing compositions on what they wanted to be when they grew up, many female students dreamed about being ‘female scientists,’ ‘female engineers,’ ‘female pilots,’ and ‘female tractor drivers,’ etc. It was apparent that we were aware of occupational segregation, and we were inspired to take nontraditional gender roles — thus the emphasis on ‘female’ for all the occupational roles mentioned above. No one mentioned anything about growing up to be a mother. One of the students wrote about wanting to be the wife of an ambassador in my middle school. This incident was picked up during the CR as evidence of how the bourgeois education of our school had corrupted innocent minds: this female student desired a social status acquired through marriage to her husband rather than by her own making… The Cultural Revolution’s popular slogan, based on Mao’s quotation, was ‘Time has changed. Men and women are the same. Whatever men can do, women can do, too.’ These words inspired girls and women to take unconventional roles and to enter male domains. For example, our commune’s well drilling team was made up of young girls, following Dazhai’s ‘iron girl’ model. They worked on heavy equipment, moving from village to village to drill deep irrigation wells. Our all-girls brigade orchard and the commune experimental farm led by a female zhiqing were also products of this specific historical context. In retrospect, I actually benefited as a zhiqing and a woman. My formal education as a zhiqing granted legitimacy to ‘scientific’ farming experiments, and, in the ‘can do’ atmosphere of the CR, women were encouraged to do what men did and more women were appointed to leadership positions.” (14-15)
In the United States, people can hardly imagine healthy community life. For Westerners, themselves distant from healthy social interaction, the egalitarianism and altruism of the Maoist years can be nothing other than a false projection of a evil totalitarian society that brainwashes its population. Some of Us, despite its own flaws, exposes simpleton Western accounts. Even though her account is misinformed by certain First Worldist feminist assumptions, Wang Zheng flips the script on the cartoonish, anti-communist narrative:
“Not long after I arrived in the United States, I met an American woman at a friend’s home. She told me with apparent pride that her daughter was a cheerleader. I did not know what kind of leader that was. Hearing her explanation, I could not bring myself to present a compliment, as she obviously expected. I just hoped that my eyes would not betray my destain as I thought to myself, ‘I guess this American woman has never dreamed of her daughter being a leader cheered by men.’ I feel fortunate that I was ‘brainwashed’ to want to be a revolutionary instead of a cheerleader…
Was brainwashing girls to become young vanguards in socialist construction more oppressive and limiting than brainwashing girls to become cheerleaders for football games?” (36-37)
All societies shape the behavior of their populations. The nature of any society is to reproduce itself. This entails reproducing itself, imprinting society, on the level of the personality. Maoist social goals have their correlates at the level of the individual. Ideological remolding for socialist ends was carried out on a massive scale during the Maoist years. Society itself was seen through the paradigm of a “great school of Maoism,” an outlook that had originated in the PLA just prior to the Cultural Revolution.
In capitalist societies, the social processes that shape desires, hopes, emotions, tastes and so on, are largely obscured to the individual in the everyday. Even though technology of social programing is everywhere in the United States, most visible in the huge marketing eyesores that dirty the urban landscapes today, people in the United States do not see themselves as duped. Unlike Maoist China, in the contemporary world, Western liberal states do not announce the intention to reshape society as such, on a massive scale. The Maoist view dispenses with the bourgeois illusion of the self as one’s own. And, in doing so, the Maoist approach opens up the possibility of collectively taking control of those processes by ever broader segments of the population. Unleashing the creative power of the masses means giving the masses the scientific tools, the analysis, to manipulate their own social programming, unleashing a “spiritual atom bomb,” for the purpose of reaching communism.
The question is not whether or not a society is “brainwashing” its population. The question is whose interests are being served. Communism is the elimination of all oppression, elimination of the oppression of groups over groups, of nations over nations, classes over classes, genders over genders, people over people. Patriarchy is one of the main systems of oppression. Ending gender oppression is one of the the key steps to reaching communism. When they held power, Maoists reorganized cultural and institutional power in order to overthrow patriarchy. The authors of Some of Us are hostile to the communist project overall. Yet even these liberal, bourgeois feminists understand that the Maoist years had a positive, profound effect on their gender identity in China and the world.