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6. Iron Girls Revisited: Gender and the Politics of Work in the Cultural Revolution, 1966–76

图书名称:Re-Drawing Boundaries: Work, Households, and Gender in China
图书作者:Barbara Entwisle and Gail E. Henderson    ISBN:
出版社:Berkeley: University of California Press    出版日期:2000年

Emily Honig

The Iron Girls—strong, robust women capable of performing jobs more commonly done by men, such as repairing high-voltage electric wires— symbolized the Maoist slogan that “whatever men comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too.” Celebrated during the Cultural Revolution as the emblem of gender equality, the Iron Girls became the subject of merciless mockery during the 1980s. In the context of the post-Mao economic reforms, the Iron Girls embodied a belief that the Cultural Revolution represented a time of inappropriate equality in the workforce that was detrimental to economic development. Mockery and repudiation of the Iron Girls was part of an argument for a gendered division of labor in which women's work was more closely tied to beliefs about their innate biologically and physiologically determined abilities (Honig and Hershatter 1988, 23–25).

The assumption that the Cultural Revolution represented a time of relative gender equality, particularly in the context of work, not only is central to post-Mao Chinese political discourse, but also informs Western analyses of the impact of economic reforms on women. The increased “biologization,” as Margaret Woo calls it, of women in the reform era, the explicit preference of factory managers to employ men while encouraging women workers to leave their jobs, and the concentration of women in special economic zones and private enterprises are regarded as a retreat from a period when women may well have been measured by a male yardstick, but during which they were presumably not the victims of such overt gender discrimination (Honig and Hershatter, 1988; Woo 1994).

This “progressive” read of Cultural Revolution gender relations is perplexing, given that issues of gender were conspicuously absent from the Cultural Revolution agenda. It was in fact the first major political campaign sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that did not address gender issues. Class was its main concern. If gender issues were raised at all, it was primarily to denounce their relevance: feminism was declared “bourgeois,” the Women's Federation disbanded, and the “sameness” of men and women asserted.

Assumptions about Cultural Revolution gender relations are also puzzling because, political propaganda and rhetoric aside, so little is actually known about the gendered dimensions of work in the period preceding the economic reforms. Popular conceptions of appropriate work for women, the kinds of work women actually did, how they were remunerated, and the extent to which this represented a departure from the 1950's and early 1960's remain obscure. Although a wealth of literature describes the experience of sent-down youth (young urban students sent to the countryside for “reeducation” by peasants), little is known about their experience with work: the specific jobs men and women were assigned, how their presence may have affected rural attitudes toward appropriate women's work, and their perceptions of rural women's work.

This chapter is a preliminary attempt to explore issues of gender and work during the Cultural Revolution—preliminary because it is based primarily on secondary sources, personal testimonies, and memoirs. Ultimately, archival research and oral history interviews will be necessary to develop a more nuanced analysis. Yet even personal testimonies and memoirs reveal that the gendered dimensions of work were far more complex than previously recognized. In almost every arena, from state propaganda to the assignment of work points in agricultural brigades, gender relations were continually contested. In spite of the Cultural Revolution's apparently exclusive emphasis on class, work was central to the broader reconfiguration of gender that was at the very heart of this political movement. Moreover, the gap between women's work experience during the Cultural Revolution and during the 1980s may prove to be far narrower than has been previously imagined (see also chap. 7).


In spite of the declaration of class as the priority, the Cultural Revolution was a period of intense propagation of images of women who defied conventional notions of biological weakness and physiological limitations. The media glorified women's public roles as proletarian fighters and as “Iron Girls.” Newspapers and magazines, punctuated with the slogan that “women hold up half the sky,” valorized the examples of women who joined fishing teams, drilling teams, oil teams, well-sinking teams, those who became policewomen, tractor, truck, and diesel locomotive drivers, turbine generator operators, electricians, and navigators (Survey of the China Mainland Press [SCMP ] 1970, 1971b, 1972c, 1973b; Survey of People's Republic of China Press [SPRCP ] 1975a).

The Iron Girl model may at first glance suggest that the Cultural Revolution was actually about a state-sponsored contestation of gender roles. On the one hand, the model did hold out to women the possibility of challenging gender norms, and, as we shall see later, some women invoked this model for their own ends. On the other hand, the Iron Girl message was quite limited: women could aspire to become like men. (Nowhere was it suggested that men could hope to become like women.) Moreover, the Iron Girl model made it seem that the issue of gender equality was settled: so long as women could become Iron Girls, no other aspect of gender roles in the workplace need be addressed. Meanwhile, propagation of the Iron Girl model did little, in and of itself, to alter those roles. The Iron Girls represented only a very tiny percentage of the female population and left unaltered (and uncontested) the status of the vast majority of women.

Cultural Revolution state propaganda needs to be contextualized in several other ways. First, it would be misleading to suggest that the Iron Girls, women who boldly crossed traditional gender boundaries in the division of labor, represented the predominant theme of state propaganda about women. It was far more common for the media to emphasize the mere fact of women's participation in the paid labor force, to stress their everincreasing numbers, to honor the achievements of a woman worker in an occupation (such as textiles) long dominated by women, or to extol an individual woman's creative application of Mao Zedong thought for revolutionizing production (SCMP 1971a, 1972a, b, 1973a).

Second, as Kay Ann Johnson points out, save for the Campaign to Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius (1972–74), women's responsibility for housework and child care was conspicuously unquestioned during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, the well-known 1964 attack on the editor of Women of China, which represented a prelude to the disbandment of the Women's Federation in 1966, stressed that women should be responsible for both housework and work outside the home (Johnson 1983, 180–81). Even while the Cultural Revolution media honored women's role in the workforce, it took for granted their status as housewives and responsibility for managing their homes, featuring articles with titles such as “Housewives Start Factory from Scratch in Central China Province,” “Housewives' Co-op in Shanghai Makes Tele-Communication Equipment,” or “More Peking Housewives Join Productive Labor” (SCMP 1972c, 1972d, 1976). Even inspirational stories of women who entered professions previously dominated by men unwittingly reinscribed women's responsibility for the domestic sphere. One such story, for example, featured the accomplishments of a model woman metallurgical field surveyor who defied all obstacles—including marriage and childbearing—to succeed. The report notes that she sent her first child to live with her mother so she could continue working unfettered; her second child was entrusted to the care of an older woman neighbor. The report, in other words, documents and leaves unquestioned women's responsibility for child rearing, while highlighting a single woman's success in becoming a field surveyor (Tung 1974, 44–45; see chap. 5 for delineation of this issue in the early 1950s.)

Third, a cursory survey of the media in the 1950s and 1960s suggests there was little that was actually new in the Cultural Revolution message about women's role in the workforce. Throughout the earlier period, one finds similar articles celebrating the success stories of women who became tractor and bus drivers, train engineers, tin miners, policewomen, factory technicians, lathe turners, all the while applauding the ever-increasing number of women to join the paid workforce (SCMP 1951a, 1951b, 1953, 1962; Xiang Hong 1965, 14). This is not meant to imply that an identical message was propagated, or that there was a single, static government attitude toward women's work outside the home. During the economic slough of the mid-1950s, for instance, the government clearly emphasized women's potential role as “socialist housewives” to encourage them to withdraw from the industrial workforce, while during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961), far more emphasis was placed on women's capacity to contribute to socialist production by working outside the home. In spite of a popular association of the Cultural Revolution with women defying physiological limitations, it is not clear that there was anything new or different about what was propagated during this time. The only exception may have been that the Iron Girls, who made their first appearance in the early 1960s, became emblematic of the Cultural Revolution woman.

In fact, scattered evidence suggests that the Cultural Revolution may well have marked a time of greater official ambivalence about these images. For example, the film Li Shuang-shuang, based on a story written in 1959, portrayed a young peasant woman's struggle with her feudal-minded husband over the unequal distribution of household chores and showed the inferior status of women in the village workforce during the Great Leap Forward. When the film appeared in 1962, it not only enjoyed a popular audience but then received an award for “best picture” in a contest sponsored by Popular Cinema in 1963. During the Cultural Revolution, however, it was criticized and banned for its attention to “petty bourgeois” personal matters, presumably those related to housework and gender equality (Johnson 1983, 269; Li Shuang-shuang 1963; Leyda 1972, 310–11; Loh 1984, 175).

That Cultural Revolution messages about women's roles were characterized by more ambivalence than previously recognized is suggested as well by the “model” operatic ballet Red Detachment of Women. Although it is not about women's role in the workforce per se, the ballet has often been treated as a symbol of state propaganda in which women boasted strength, ferocity, and leadership abilities equal to those of men. Based on real, historical events, the Red Detachment takes place on Hainan Island and centers on the heroic efforts of a young slave girl, Wu Qinghua, to resist a wicked landlord. She does break free, “wreaking violence upon male guards along her escape route.” Eventually she joins the CCP's Women's Detachment, a group of heroic female guerrillas, who successfully destroy the power of the local landlords. The story concludes with Wu's vow to abide by Mao's motto “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” (Witke 1977, 426–29).

Although the Red Detachment of Women was primarily a tale that glorified female militancy, its performance reveals some ambivalence about women's unconventional roles. Historical records show that in the actual events on Hainan Island in the 1920s, women taught themselves to use rifles and were organized by a particularly militant female commissar. In the ballet version, however, women are taught by men to use rifles, they are led by a dashing male commissar, and when they are not fighting, they busy themselves mending soldiers' uniforms. When an American visitor to China in 1972 asked about the change, “the ballet troupe explained that the commissar was changed to a male for ‘artistic reasons,’ because there weren't enough male leads” (J. Barrett 1973, 188–89). This shift in male/female roles may have gone unnoticed by Chinese audiences, for whom the Red Detachment remained a story that celebrated female militancy. Nevertheless, though it was popularly understood as advocating gender equality and the liberation of women, the story actually reinscribed certain forms of female subordination, and reveals the qualified meaning of Cultural Revolution slogans such as “Women can do anything men can do,” and “The times have changed, men and women are the same.” Furthermore, these slogans may well obscure the ways in which the Cultural Revolution, from the perspective of state propaganda, represented a retreat from the preceding period.


State propaganda is, of course, only a small part (albeit the most accessible) of what needs to be understood about the gendered dimensions of work during the Cultural Revolution. Ultimately we need to know how women themselves understood and responded to official messages about their appropriate roles, how the sexual division of labor in both rural and urban areas changed, and what kinds of conflicts about women's roles in the workforce emerged during this period.

Unfortunately, a number of factors obstruct the collection of data about women's work during the Cultural Revolution. First, rigid state control of data collection during the Maoist years, compounded by the practice in many rural and urban production units of inflating statistics in order to fulfill state-legislated quotas, limits the utility of data collected and published during the Cultural Revolution itself. Second, social survey research by both Chinese and Western scholars, which has produced such rich data about issues of gender and work during the economic reforms (e.g., chaps. 7, 8, and 15), was not possible during the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, the field of sociology was abolished and not revived until the late 1970s. The 1980s and 1990s have witnessed an explosion in the publication of nationwide, provincial, and city-specific labor statistics that claim to cover the entire post1949 era. However, in almost every case, data on the 1965–1977 period are missing (Zhongguo quanguo funü lianhehui yanjiu suo 1991). The Cultural Revolution, in other words, remains a statistical blank.

At this point, besides contemporary media reports, the only set of sources that shed light on issues of gender and work during the Cultural Revolution are personal memoirs. Almost all are written by intellectuals and do not focus on work. Rather, they emphasize tales of suffering, political persecution, violence, and unrequited love. Testimonials of urban workers, not to mention rural women, are all but nonexistent. Even in the recollections of sent-down youth (the collection of which has become something of a cottage industry in its own right, with each province assembling its own volumes), work is a minor theme compared to tales of leaving home, living conditions in the countryside, romance and marriage, problems returning to the city, and rape of young urban women by local officials. Given that work occupied so much of their time in the countryside, the lack of attention to this issue in the memoirs of sent-down youth is perplexing. Perhaps the particulars of their rural labor had little effect on their future careers, and therefore seemed uncompelling.

Nevertheless, these accounts by sent-down youth do offer scattered descriptions of women's work—the experiences of female sent-down youth themselves, and their perceptions of rural women's work lives and responsibilities. They by no means represent a random sample of sent-down youth, but they do suggest how issues concerning gender and work were framed during the Cultural Revolution.

The media accounts of educated youth published during the Cultural Revolution emphasized almost exclusively the positive aspects of the experience for both the urban youth themselves and their rural counterparts. The “scar literature” (or “literature of the wounded”) that emerged after the death of Mao and the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976 replaced these upbeat accounts with tales of suffering and wasted youth. In the early 1990s yet another genre appeared, one in which the Cultural Revolution is neither applauded nor condemned, but recalled with a sense of nostalgia. For women, the nostalgia is for a time of opportunity to cross the gender divide. One woman who spent nearly a decade on a state farm on Hainan Island told me that were it not for the Cultural Revolution her life would have been entirely predictable. She would have graduated from a prestigious allgirls middle school in Beijing, entered a university, married, and had children (interestingly, work did not figure into her notion of pre–Cultural Revolution conventions). Because of the Cultural Revolution, though, she saw parts of China she never would have seen and engaged in work she never could have imagined doing. And—insisting, as she spoke, on singlehandedly hauling two large overstuffed suitcases through an American airport—she declared that she had once been an Iron Girl, capable of carrying nearly 200 pounds on shoulder poles in the rubber plantation where she worked.

Perhaps the most unqualifiedly nostalgic account of a female sent-down youth's experience in the countryside appears in the beautifully written memoir by Rae Yang. Recalling her adolescent self—a “peasant woman on a pig farm”—nearly 20 years later, she writes:

Her face was dark brown and weather-beaten. Her hair was as dry and brittle as straw in late fall. She had strong muscles and a loud voice. She loved to eat dog meat with raw garlic. Her face did not change color after she gulped down several cups of Chinese liquor. … Although her clothes and boots carried a lot of stinking mud, the work she did was neat and she took great pride in it. (R. Yang 1997, 8–9)

She looks back on her time in the Great Northern Wilderness as crucial to the development of her subsequent sense of self-confidence and fearlessness about trying to support herself in the United States, where she now lives.

I don't mean that I have much use for the skills I learned on the farm: castrating piglets, building a good kang or a fire wall, winnowing grains with a wooden spade, cutting soybean with a small sickle. … But knowing that I did all these and did them well somehow gives me a safe feeling at the bottom of my heart. I do not lose sleep over my tenure evaluation, for example, because I know that I am not just a professor. I was a peasant and a worker. Today if I cannot make a living with my brain and my pen, I will support myself and my son with my muscles and bones. (R. Yang 1997, 174).

Even more striking than Rae Yang's positive assessment of the future value of her labor in the countryside is her adamant conviction that men and women there enjoyed full equality. They received the same pay for the same work, in her view. Women did all the jobs that men did, and invariably did them better. It was always the Iron Girls, for instance, who collected by far the largest soybean harvest—the most physically demanding job on the farm, by her account. So formidable were these young women that the men, who had initially tried to compete, “gave it up and pretended that they did not care” (R. Yang 1997, 178). It is not entirely clear in her account if she is referring only to sent-down youth or to local peasants as well, a distinction that is central to almost all other accounts.

Most urban women who later reported on their experience in the countryside not only highlighted the differences between themselves and their rural counterparts in general terms, but were particularly insistent that they enjoyed total equality while rural women suffered unimaginable forms of inequality, particularly in the context of work. “We educated youth were not like the herdsmen's families,” observed a young woman sent to live in Inner Mongolia. Unlike those families, in which the men were responsible for outside affairs (herding and slaughtering sheep, covering the horses) and women for domestic affairs (fetching water, collecting manure), “we would rotate herding the animals and taking care of the house: we would be women one day and men the next (zuo yitian nüren zai zuo yitian nanren)” (Yuan 1991, 412). Her account unwittingly reinscribes the sexual division of labor she seeks to critique: rather than questioning local understandings of “men's work” and “women's work,” she instead speaks in terms of switching roles, so that she and her friends essentially assumed a male identity to perform the tasks usually done by men. Another woman sent to Inner Mongolia described a similar arrangement among the male and female sentdown youth, who did “inner” and “outer” work regardless of their sex, such that her Mongolian “mother” pitied this “fake boy” (Nuo 1995, 64). A third young woman relocated from Beijing to Inner Mongolia recalls that since peasant girls were “half-laborers,” she and her classmates insisted on the status of “full laborers” by doing “men's work.” In the spring, for instance, when the girls would plant seeds, she and other sent-down youth joined the “robust laborers” in steering the ox-plow. At the well, peasant women would only pull the rope, while “we did the heavy jobs at the bottom of the well. … We refused to display any weakness: we forged iron, constructed buildings, and carried 200-jin gunnysacks. We became true laborers” (Y. Zhang 1995, 219–20).

Many sent-down youth had to confront not only the unexpected reality of rural women's subordination, but their first experiences of gender inequality as well. Zhai Zhenhua, for example, reports her dismay at the discovery that women in the rural area near Yan'an where she had been sent “weren't a major force in production.” To prepare meals they worked far fewer hours than men, and it appeared to Zhai that during the winter women did not work outside the home at all. The real surprise for Zhai, though, was finding that when women did work the same hours as men, they earned less. Such was also the case in the assignment of work points to the sent-down youth. For Zhai's group, girls could earn a maximum of seven points for a day's work, while boys could earn nine. “I had always taken for granted the equality of men and women,” she confessed. “But now I saw it fail in reality. We female students did the same work and had the same working hours as men but scored two points less.” She did not complain, though, because she realized that when women did the same work as men, such as carrying stones, they could not match men's ability. But she did feel disturbed: “Women in the city weren't discriminated against so overtly. All university graduates earned the same salary, as far as I knew. To make a living in the countryside brains didn't really matter. What mattered was strength and sex” (Zhai 1992, 170–71).

It is not clear in her account how often women and men actually did exactly the same jobs. Instead, when she describes the project of building cave dwellings for sent-down youth, she highlights the division of labor between local peasants and themselves. “The former did the actual laying of stones for the caves while we were xiaogong (little laborers), or those who engaged in subordinate work.” Among the “little laborers,” however, was an even more precise division of labor. “Male students carried stones on their back to the spot; female students made mud with husks, soil, and water” (Zhai 1992, 198–99). It is difficult to determine whether this division of labor was prescribed by the local brigade leaders, was consciously developed by the students, or simply reflected their own “naturalized” beliefs about appropriate work for men and women.

If sent-down youth were shocked by the persistence of gender inequality in the countryside, many saw themselves as crusaders for change and proudly chronicle their battles against objectionable divisions of labor. One account describes a girl, Xiao Sun, sent down to the countryside from Chengdu. She was first assigned to be a health worker in a rural chemical factory—a job envied by those with much more arduous work. She was not content, however, and demanded the more challenging “battle assignment” of working in the mines. When the leader informed her of the regulation prohibiting women from the mines, she replied, “But the times have changed. Men and women are the same! Why can't women comrades do the same things men comrades can do?” The local cadre found it difficult to oppose her, as the newspapers had propagated so many stories of Iron Girls, and female heroines such as Hua Mulan and Tie Guiying. Xiao Sun was therefore permitted to work in the mines during the day and prepare medicines at night. Her example was eventually used to persuade reluctant or unwilling male workers to go down the mines as well: “If female comrades can work in the mines, is it possible that you are not as capable as they?” Having crossed the gender divide and worked in a uranium mine for seven years, Xiao Sun eventually developed lung cancer and died at the age of 30 (Deng 1992, 83–84).

Few accounts of women's battles to do the same jobs as rural men have such dramatic and unfortunate endings. One woman who was sent to Inner Mongolia reported that “of all the things we [female sent-down youths] did, what was most unforgettable to people was our driving the carts.” She describes one year at planting time when the team leader became frustrated with the two lazy village men responsible for driving carts to move heaps of dung and dirt. He wanted to replace them, but all the strong male workers had gone to repair a reservoir, and the only villagers left were old, weak, or those with “political problems.” The young urban women seized the moment. Seeing the quandary of the team leader, they stood up and in unison declared, “Today men and women are the same! Anything men can do women can do too, and we can do it even better!” From then on, she proudly reports, women were allowed to drive the carts. She does mention that women were designated “assistant drivers,” a minor point that apparently did not detract from her conviction that she and her friends had brought some modicum of women's liberation to Inner Mongolia (Hui 1991, 477–78).

Another woman sent to Inner Mongolia boasted of her team's accomplishments in winning access for women to work in the threshing ground. It was harvest time when she first arrived, and she and her friends excitedly anticipated joining in the work of gathering crops. When the morning whistle blew for work they rushed to the commune room, where they found only robust young men waiting to be assigned jobs. “At first we thought this was strange,” she recalls, “but as we thought about it figured that maybe they had given women time off to take care of housework, since it was such a busy autumn. … We never imagined that the team leader would only permit male laborers to enter the threshing ground.”

They were even more perplexed when the team leader assigned an older male peasant to lead the girls to collect cotton stalks that they could use as kindling. Although they still hoped to work in the threshing ground, they realized that they would need the kindling for winter and therefore had no grounds to oppose the assignment. They worked as hard as they could, finishing within half a day, with the hope that they could then go do “real” work. Instead, however, the team leader instructed them to use the afternoon to rest and do laundry. The next day they rushed off to the team gathering even earlier, only to find themselves once again assigned to go off with the older man, this time to trample down a manure heap. “We came to be educated by the peasants,” they told themselves in an attempt to quell their frustration. Given how large the harvest was, they could not comprehend why their labor would not be desired, and so finally questioned the team leader directly. “At first he hemmed and hawed, but then finally told us it was because we were female … and that threshing grain was men's work.” When pressed, he could offer no explanation other than “tradition.” “People believed that if women entered the threshing ground it would bring disaster.” “Hearing this we were enraged and stunned,” she recalls. “This was too backwards! After so many years, how could there still be so much superstition?” She listed the “strange customs” of the village: “women cannot sit on windowsills,” “women cannot touch the hats of men they don't know;” “women's clothes may not be dried on the roadside.” Finally, there was the belief that to destroy these beliefs would bring disaster to the men and to the village. “These attitudes were an obstacle to our right to work. We Beijing girls, unafraid of the earth or heavens, were determined to destroy these old customs. Some older people didn't want us to enter the threshing ground, but they couldn't stop us.”

She and her teammates then confronted the team leader, accusing him of being an “old feudal” (lao fengjian) and reactionary for looking down on women. When the Party secretary was summoned, they yelled, “Do Communists still believe in superstitions? Do we still tolerate discrimination against women? We hold up half the sky!” Eventually the Beijing girls were permitted to help harvest grain—work that proved to be far more taxing than they had anticipated, but which they then felt obliged to endure. More important, they had established a precedent. After this, families lacking male labor used their example to persuade the team leader to permit women to harvest grain (Sheng 1991, 381–83).

Several features of these accounts are striking. Whatever ambiguity or ambivalence might have characterized Cultural Revolution state propaganda about appropriate women's roles, these adolescent urban-educated girls clearly took slogans such as “women can do whatever men can do” or models such as the Iron Girls at face value, invoking language provided by the state to contest actual social practice. Too young to have had work experience themselves, they assumed that urban women were indeed liberated and enjoyed full equality in the workforce. These young women adopted a missionary-like attitude in bringing liberation to their rural counterparts. While their intentions were clear, their assessment of rural women's labor may have been flawed, perhaps mistaking beliefs about women's ideal roles for social practice (see also chap. 5).

What led these female sent-down youth to champion the issue of gender equality? What produced “Iron Girlism” among them remains unclear. One can only speculate whether earlier Cultural Revolution experiences, such as participation in the Red Guard movement, had an impact on their selfimage as women in the countryside. One wonders as well whether they learned of or ever encountered local labor heroines—those of the 1950s described by Gail Hershatter (chap. 5) as well as subsequent rural female models of the early and mid-1960s. No mention of these models appears in any of these memoirs. Finally, as all the accounts of the sent-down youth experience are written by the urban women themselves, it is impossible to know how rural women perceived the urban women's efforts to champion women's “right” to work. Did they find these young girls naive and foolish or, conversely, did they admire and appreciate their efforts?

In all the accounts described above it is the sent-down youth themselves who took the initiative to challenge rural beliefs about women's roles. Yet on some occasions it may have been local cadres, not women themselves, who instigated these challenges. At least one woman recalls that she and her female classmates, upon their arrival in a rural Shanxi village, were assigned to do jobs never before done by local women, including making bricks, loading them in the kiln, firing the kiln, and then hauling them to construction sites. When asked why female sent-down youth were assigned these jobs, she surmised it was because no local male workers were available; these jobs had previously been done by hired labor, and now the sent-down youth appeared as a readily available source. In some areas local cadres actually “toured” groups of urban women to demonstrate to their village counterparts that women could in fact work for remuneration. In these cases, urban women were used as a kind of dog-and-pony show that performed at the behest of local male cadres. How widespread a phenomenon this was, what the cadres' agenda was in staging these performances, and how they were experienced by both the sent-down youth and rural women are questions that remain to be explored.

It is difficult to determine the impact of the presence, battles, and “performances” of the sent-down youth on rural women's work. According to one Chinese analyst, in spite of all the efforts of female sent-down youth to achieve equality for rural women, little changed. Throughout the Cultural Revolution, she observes, the practice of men and women receiving different pay for the same work was so common as to be the rule. Women earned, at best, five to eight work points for every ten made by men (Huang 1990). More than remuneration was at stake, however. One sent-down youth, after proudly recalling her successful efforts to organize an Iron Girl Brigade among the young women in the village, confessed that once she left and the brigade leader married, the Iron Girl team dissolved.

It is important to point out that not all female sent-down youth saw themselves as either inspirational models for rural women or as zealous crusaders fighting local opponents to women's equal status in the workforce. The initial glamour and glory of engaging in hard physical labor was sometimes replaced by a desperation to escape work altogether. For instance, one memoir describes a young woman named Zhang, who had been the author's classmate in Inner Mongolia. “Two years ago,” the author recalls, “Zhang had been a very devoted worker who was determined to turn the heavens and earth upside down. She was unafraid of hardship or exhaustion, and quickly became a women's team leader.” At that time Zhang complained that the other three female educated youth in her group, unable to bear the hardship of work, had married. They had betrayed the revolution, according to Zhang, and she was unwilling to compromise her determination. Over the next year, though, Zhang found it increasingly difficult to support herself, and eventually found herself a local husband. Although she was not completely satisfied with the idea of marriage, she too had become exhausted by work and figured that with marriage she could at least give up hard labor (Xu Huiying 1991, 426–48).

What we see then is that the very phenomenon that some educated youth found so appalling and unbelievable—that once married, rural women (at least in some regions) did not work in the fields—was something that other women could use to their advantage. Marrying into a peasant family became a strategy to avoid work altogether—or so it may have seemed, until women like Zhang realized the myriad household tasks for which married women were responsible. (These included, as described in one account “hauling water from the pond, washing vegetables for pig and human food, feeding the fire with brushwood, cooking, scrubbing clothing, repairing the grass roof when it leaked, spinning thread from cotton for mending, and cleaning the kitchen so that not even a fly could feed itself in it”) (Liang Heng and Shapiro 1983, 192).


The picture of rural women's work that can be gleaned from the memoirs of sent-down educated youth is not altogether surprising and is consistent with the findings of previous studies (A. Chan, Madsen, and Unger 1984, 92–93; Johnson 1983; Parish and Whyte 1978, 235–47): Throughout the Cultural Revolution the value accorded labor in the countryside was based primarily on the physical strength required to perform a particular job. Women could never hope to earn the same number of work points as men and were responsible for the domestic sphere as well. However, these accounts are highly instructive about the ways in which young urban women, most of whom had grown up in the 1950s and early 1960s, perceived their rural counterparts, their surprise at what they observed and experienced, and the ways in which they assumed the identity of crusaders to challenge women's unequal status in the rural workforce, wielding official rhetoric to do so.

These accounts remind us of the inseparability of issues of urban and rural women's work during the Cultural Revolution. Although the implications of widespread labor migration in China are most commonly studied in the context of the post-Mao economic reforms (e.g., part 3 of this volume), the Cultural Revolution, too, involved a massive labor migration, albeit the movement of urban people to the countryside rather than of peasants to the city. Any analysis of the gendered dimensions of work, whether an exploration of changing beliefs about women's and men's work or an examination of the sexual division of labor, must take into account the impact of their mutual perceptions and interaction. This is not simply a story of naive urban youth who took pride in their attempts to dismantle the barriers between men's and women's work. It also involved the sober realization that the household chores of a peasant wife could be preferable to the arduous physical labor of peasant men.

Issues of women's work during the Cultural Revolution cannot be collapsed into a simple Iron Girl model. The Iron Girls never represented the totality of state propaganda, and certainly never represented cultural norms about appropriate work for women. Far more significant than the model itself is how it was understood and manipulated by local officials, and by urban and rural women. The rhetoric of the economic reforms has effectively reduced the Cultural Revolution history of women's work to the Iron Girls, and in so doing has obscured not only the lives and experiences of most women, but also the terms in and through which issues of women's work were negotiated.

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