Gender and Class at Work in Rural China under Mao

Speaker: Dr Joseph Lawson, Newcastle University


The gendering of work has been the subject of many scholarships on Maoist China. Most labour was gendered in some way, which, in some instances, the Maoist state attempted to change. This talk analyses rural teaching, as well as agricultural work. As peasants who were also intellectuals, rural teachers occupied an ambiguous position within Maoist status hierarchies, which meant that profession developed differently in rural and urban contexts. The talk shows that there were formidable barriers to women’s entry into teaching in rural areas, but the profession had no gender pay gap, which was the result of the Maoist construction of excellence in teaching. Changes in gender roles in agriculture have been the subject of more research by other scholars. This discussion surveys the evidence and discusses responses to the challenging of traditional norms. Women’s Federation archives provide a rich body of reporting on enduring stereotypes and (dis)engagement from work. This must be read carefully and in light of a set of ambiguities which present considerable challenges to historians. These include the Federation’s own position on the margins of the state, as well as the fact that the increasing participation of women in agriculture was sometimes the result of state activism, and sometimes the result of socio-economic change unrelated to government intentions or actions. 


Joe Lawson is Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at Newcastle University.   He is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century China. Broadly, his research falls into two themes: the multi-ethnic Southwest, and histories of the rural economy. His first book, A Frontier Made Lawless: Violence in Upland Southwest China, 1800-1956 (UBC Press, 2017), examined inter-group violence in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century upland southwest China. His new research has to do with economic and cultural histories of work in rural China from 1945-1980. He has also led a project to translate Mao Haijian's The Qing Empire and the Opium War: Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty (Tianchao de bengkui), the most widely-read Chinese account of the First Opium War, into English.