Gender and Power in Rural North China

For a woman to be without ability is a virtue is a view attributed to Confucius but still very much alive in contemporary China. It is a paradox-a proposition widely accepted as true by both women and men but in practice denied in the conduct of everyday life. The author explores the recreation of this paradox in the processes of rural reform in China during the 1980's. In the wake of the Cultural Revolution and the rejection of collectivism, the Chinese leadership initiated a series of rural policy changes that included the transfer of collective resources to individuals, households, or groups of households; the replacement of the commune system with formal local governments and mixed (private and public) forms of economic organization; the revival of private marketing; and reduced state control over the production and sale of agricultural produce. This book shows how the reform program ignored the specific roles of women, despite the everyday roles women play in agriculture, rural industry, commodity production, and the dense networks of social relations that rural life comprises. The gender-specific roles played by women are essential to each of these spheres, and in practice they are recognized as essential even if they are officially minimized or denied. Based on fieldwork in three villages of Shandong province, this study concentrates on the centrality of the household in rural social and economic relations. It examines in detail the reconstructed household of the reform era and emphasizes gender relations within the household. The author also describes the gender relations inherent in many aspects of the rural economy, paying particular attention to the ways women organize and construct strategies that encourage change in the interests of rural women. Previous studies of Chinese rural economic reform have reflected and shared the stance of Chinese officialdom, viewing the reform program as purely a matter of political economy and as gender-neutral. This study demonstrates that gender plays an important role in virtually all aspects of the rural political economy, including decollectivization and the revival of household agriculture, the restructuring of villages and village-run industry, the opening to market forces, and the turn toward household-based economic enterprises. Throughout, the author links the everyday relations of gender to the operations of state power and argues that the reconstitution of the Chinese state in the reform era draws force and authority from the inherent politics and power of gender.