- The Personal Past—Two Readings
What do we learn when we reconsider modern Chinese history from the vantage point of those who lived through it? Does our understanding of the grand narrative of key events change fundamentally when we think not in terms of the revolution or the state but in terms of life experience and memory? What happens when an empathic historian literally engages his or her sources in conversation? The authors of the two books under review offer radically different answers to these questions, even as they cover some of the same temporal ground. In The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, Gail Hershatter uses oral interviews with rural women to call into question the inevitability of “campaign time” as an organizing principle. In Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History, Joseph Esherick revisits the iconic events of modern Chinese history through the life experiences of several generations of elite men from his wife’s family, shedding new light on the familiar timeline while reiterating that chronology’s organizing power. Hershatter offers a breathtaking interrogation of her sources and methods, rendering elegantly transparent the thought processes [End Page 430] behind her book’s production. Esherick integrates sources and storytelling, providing a confident and seamless narrative in which politics and personal lives are inextricably intertwined.
In The Gender of Memory, Gail Hershatter interrogates the timeline that structures the modern China survey. She refocuses attention on some of the least privileged people in Chinese society and questions the salience of “campaign time” (or “national history”) to their experience. Hershatter argues that in thinking about post-1949 history, we have been too wedded for too long to a litany of political events and state initiatives produced in Beijing. Our histories have been too centralized, too state-oriented, and too concerned with elite men—or they have focused on “women’s liberation” as defined by either the revolutionary state or Western feminism. Hershatter turns these perspectives inside out; she asks us to consider what the twentieth century felt like at the local level, what political events meant for women’s work, what changed for women after 1949, and, most significantly, how rural women’s accounts of their own life experiences change how historians understand fundamental categories like revolution, gender, and the nation.
The book is animated by the question of whether Chinese women had a Chinese revolution. If so, when, and in what ways? (7). In pursuit of answers, Hershatter and her Chinese colleague Gao Xiaoxian interviewed seventy-two elderly women in four villages in Shaanxi Province over the ten-year period from 1996 to 2006. They also interviewed a smaller number of men and younger people. The chapters are enlivened by extensive passages in the informants’ own words; the women thus talk back, “speaking bitterness” to the historian, the reader, and those more locally who have not listened to them (34). Hershatter’s informants seem, at least in memory, remarkably disengaged from “Beijing time.” The women get the chronology “wrong” in ways that Hershatter reads as gendered; they use officially sanctioned terms like “old society,” “feudal,” and “revolution” in unconventional (or asynchronous) ways (25). They describe themselves as having been “shut away at home” prior to 1949, even when “the details of their stories suggest otherwise” (44). They deploy older notions of virtue in service to revolutionary ideals and express consternation at the present-day failure of family members and the state to reward or recognize their contributions in those terms (269). For these women, tradition, revolution, and modernity are not incompatible categories. Nor, Hershatter finds, can their lives be narrated as a straight-forward [End Page 431] progression from oppression to liberation. The past bitterness of which they speak has moral force and emotional power. It is not, however, the stuff of simple historical evidence, if such a thing can be said to exist. The informants...