Reading: Gail Hershatter — The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past

This is the book I was so intimidated by I went off and read Charles Stross and Harry Potter for a couple of weeks. I heard of Gail Hershatter in 2008 (if I was paying attention), but it was an interview in The China Beat that made me put this book at the top of my next-to-buy reading list.

It’s been sitting there for quite a few weeks, now, as it reminded me of Susan Mann’s The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, which I’d never finished, so began once again and was utterly taken. So for the next two weeks in Brussels I needed something I wouldn’t finish in a night (Harry Potter) requiring me to buy something new.

The cover of The Gender of Memory is a thing of beauty in itself, and then to open it … 488 pages set in a very small typeface, of which perhaps a fifth are notes, appendices, bibliography.

I’ve begun reading it perhaps three times now, only getting to the second page before being distracted for a day or two, necessitating a restart. Not to say it’s turgid, on the contrary, it’s so dense and fascinating I’d rather go back and make sure I recall some details than adopt she blasé reading habit.

As for why I am reading this, I have decided to make a specific shift in my China, Asia and Central Asian reading, to concentrate as much as possible on the often missing 50% of the human population: women. I notice this especially when reading on Afghanistan, which has been one of the regions I’ve concentrated on the last ten years or so, where voices of women in the historical narrative, in the contemporary political and cultural situation, in both academic and more generalist texts are substantially, if not wholly absent.

Much the same can be said for all of Central Asian and Chinese scholarship, as well as much contemporary european writing. Or perhaps another way to phrase it is, that if a writer neglects to consciously include the situation of and for women in a particular context, under the supposition that his writing by default is inclusive, he is sorely mistaken and has managed to exclude half the population whose experiences do not necessarily accord to the default, male narrative. Additionally, one chapter devoted to the subject of women out of a whole book does not make things right.

So this book, along with Susan Mann’s form part of  a new direction in reading for me on my favourite subjects. Which is not to say I’ll only be reading a book if it meets these unfortunately stringent criteria. There are several Southern China works sneaking up on me which are unlikely to entirely or even partly satisfy this. Nonetheless, Gail Hershatter’s work from the few pages I’ve read so far is likely to be among the best reads I have this year.

Gail Hershatter — The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past
Gail Hershatter — The Gender of Memory