Copyright Sociological Research Online,

Re-Drawing Boundaries: Work, Household, and Gender in China

Barbara Entwisle and Gail E. Henderson (editors)
University of California Press: Berkeley, CA
0520220919 (pb); 0520220900 (hb)
$19.95; 12.50 (pb); $50.00; 30.00 (hb)
xii + 343

Order this book

Front Cover
Over the last fifty years the nature of work, households and gender in China has undergone fundamental change. In the early years of liberation the newly installed Communist Party set about reconstructing the economy and refashioning institutional structures and social relations. As women were pulled into the waged labour force, the traditional idea of 'nanwai, nunei', that is, men working outside the home and women inside, was weakened. In the Maoist period between 1966 and 1976 rural communes and state or collective factories usurped households as the main locus of production. Gender relations were redefined as women undertook tasks that had previously been the preserve of men. Following the overthrow of the Gang of Four and the subsequent rise of the reformers, the links between work, gender and households were once again unsettled. The rapid pace of economic and social change since 1978 has given rise to a dynamic private economy, rural migration, and new forms of social differentiation, with complex implications for gender relations.

While there have been separate studies concerning the impact of these changes on gender, or households, or work, there are few studies that take on board the combined effects. It is to this end that this conference volume seeks to fill a gap in the literature. A key theme running through the book is the idea of boundaries. Work, gender and household are elusive concepts, which defy precise definition. The conceptual boundaries are blurred and constantly shifting as they become redefined, with major structural change and renegotiated in everyday life. The volume attempts not only to furnish substantive knowledge about work patterns in China, drawing upon a range of methodologies and disciplines, but also to develop an analytic framework for understanding the inter-connections between work, household and gender. The four sections reflect this broad endeavour, focussing respectively on the world of work, recent trends in gender and inequality, gender and migration, and households and work.

Understanding social change, and in particular, shifting patterns of gender inequality, is no easy task, and requires drawing upon a range of methodological frameworks, conceptual tools and analytic frameworks. Martin King Whyte discusses in a frank and non-judgmental way the 'perils' of assessing apparent trends in gender inequality in China. He highlights the importance of comparative information over time for drawing any meaningful conclusions. Yet systematic and detailed comparative information is precisely what is so starkly missing for key periods in China, especially the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution eras. Whyte argues that there are three possible indicators for gender inequality, namely, discrimination against urban women in the reform era, the abduction and sale of rural women, and female infanticide. Systematic, time-based comparative data exists only for the latter.

Given these data lacunae, research using oral history, memoirs and secondary sources play an important role in painting a more nuanced and textured picture of the lives of women in particular periods. The chapters by Hershatter on the life of a rural woman labour model in Shaanxi province in the 1950s, and by Honig on the lived experiences of Iron Girls during the Cultural Revolution, not only fill an important gap in our historical understanding, but also challenge our received stereotypes of gender relations during these periods. Similarly the more contemporary anthropological accounts of the everyday life of diverse migrant women in a migrant settlement of Beijing, as recorded in the chapter by Li Zhang, call into question assumptions about the relations between economic participation and empowerment, and about the homogeneity of women migrants.

This conference volume will be an important addition to the reading lists of post-graduate students of China and a key reference for many China scholars. Although some of the chapters use statistical data from over ten years ago, which may no longer reflect current realities, they nevertheless demonstrate the value of undertaking such statistical analysis, not least to give substance to, or alternatively to refute, general claims that are based on more limited information. The anthropological accounts of different women's experiences at particular historical moments illuminate and enrich the drier, statistical analyses. For readers with limited time, these chapters offer the most compelling starting-point.

Jude Howell
University of Sussex

Copyright Sociological Research Online,