Cotton, Gender, and Revolution in Twentieth-century China

Stuart 102

The socialist revolution promised to transform the everyday life of China’s rural inhabitants by bringing new objects and technologies – “two-storey brick houses, electric light, and telephones” (loushang louxia, diandeng dianhua) – to the countryside. How people experienced socialism at the grassroots levels depended as much on such changes in material life as on the political campaigns that are usually at the center of analysis. Few changes were as momentous as those related to how rural people clothed themselves. Before the 1949 revolution, most rural people wore tubu: homespun, hand-woven cloth produced in small workshops and farm households. At many levels, textile work shaped the lives of women, who rarely left their home and remained almost invisible, even to their neighbors. The socialist revolution promised to liberate women from slow, painful, time-consuming labor, but for complex reasons, the state failed to deliver on its promise. From the 1950s to the 1970s, millions of rural women continued to produce cloth and clothing for their families, but manual textile work – long seen as the proper and appropriate work for women of all classes – was devalued. This talk examines how rural women in North China (Shaanxi province, near Xi’an) reacted to these changes.