Socialist Modernity in the Wasteland: Changing Repre-
sentations of the Female Tractor Driver in China, 1949–1964

By Daisy Yan Du

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no.1  (Spring 2017), pp. 55-94

Women’s relationships with agricultural technology in rural China gradually underwent transformation after the communist takeover in 1949. In traditional China, the gender-based division of labor, although remains an ideal, had often relegated rural women to weaving in the domestic sphere, while farming brought men into the public sphere. But Chairman Mao and his cohorts regarded the traditional family and family-based agricultural production as sites of patriarchal oppression and during the agricultural collectivization campaigns in the 1950s, Mao advocated that women should join socialist production in the public sphere. Women and men would do the same work in the fields and would thus be theoretically equal.

As a part of this campaign to modernize women’s role in Chinese society, numerous representations emerged featuring rural women doing men’s work. Women were pictured using machines traditionally associated with men, especially the tractor, one of the most advanced pieces of agricultural technology available at that time. Indeed, the female tractor driver became a popular symbol of the socialist new woman, and she was represented as playing an important role in the major effort to reclaim the wasteland of China on state farms. She appeared not only as a real person in photos, news reports and other official documents, but also as a fictional figure in literature, arts, and films. As a popular icon, she stood for the achievements of socialist modernity: technological modernization in agriculture (the use of the most advanced machine) and, more importantly, gender equality (women handling modern heavy machines as men did), which is the focus of this article.

Maoist discourse of gender equality advocated for the sameness and equality of women and men in the public sphere and encouraged gender-neutral representations. In fact, it has been a long-held belief that Maoist women were represented as masculine as part of the rhetoric of “gender erasure and desexualization,” which subordinated sexual and gender differences to class difference in socialist China. Although this argument has undoubtedly captured the general trend at that time, recently more and more scholars have begun to expand this view by revealing the subtle gender stratifications in Maoist representations. While these recent studies address socialist women in general, this article specifically focuses on the representations of the female tractor driver and highlights the roles of machines, technology, and socialist modernity in the (trans)formation of gender and sexual differences, a topic rarely discussed in previous studies.

To this end, this article establishes a dialogue with at least two strands of scholarship. The first one is the role of machines and technology in feminist (re)formulation of gender and sexual differences. The second is the study of women and Chinese (socialist) modernity. In engaging these studies, this article demonstrates that the representations of the female tractor driver from 1949 to 1964 were far more subtle and complicated than is generally recognized, despite the egalitarian and masculine ideals of official rhetoric. While the representations in the early 1950s might fit in well with the official discourse of gender erasure and gender equality, by the late 1950s there were more and more representations that constructed the female tractor driver as gendered in traditional configurations of femininity, which was the very antithesis of socialist modernity. The changing representations of the female tractor driver thus embodied not only the promises but also the limitations of socialist modernity at a time when China underwent drastic yet uncertain socio-historical changes at the threshold between the old and the new.

[The writing and revision of this article was financially supported by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (RGC Project Number: ECS 26400114).]