Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 5, May 2001
Lisa Rofel

Other Modernities:
Gendered Yearnings in China after Socialism
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999,
pp. xvi, 330. Includes index.
ISBN 0-520-21078-6 (paperback)

review article by Sally Sargeson

Other Modernities is an ethnographic study of changing constructions of modernity in China since the 1950s. Through her theoretically sophisticated, reflexive exploration of the memories and desires of three generations of workers in a state-owned silk factory, Lisa Rofel presents a relatively simple thesis. That is, modernity is constituted differently in specific socio-spatial locations, historical periods and political contexts, and the conceptualisation of gender is integral to its constitution.

Rofel's interrogation of the teleological discourse of modernity is wide-ranging. She begins by problematising 'modernity' as a vehicle of colonial and capitalist domination, state technique of management and imagined collective and personal future (p.13). These interlinked views of modernity are then analysed in the state's projects of women's liberation, class categorisation, historiography, industrialisation, scientific management and bio-power. The narratives told by the workers that are the subjects of the book reflect, refract and contest those projects. In so doing, they illuminate how the internalisation of three distinctive gendered subject-positions has been facilitated and naturalised by revolutionary socialist, Maoist and, most recently, post-socialist 'market-rational' cultural processing.

The oldest generation of Rofel's informant-workers comprises women whose first experiences of silk manufacture occurred in the mid twentieth century, when the new Communist government eliminated small family workshops, expanded and nationalised the silk industry and invited women to participate in 'productive' labour outside the confines of their home. Many women in the cohort recalled this invitation and the new model of female subjectivity it offered, one that encompassed opportunities to learn new skills and wield organisational authority, as a 'liberation'. Those who had been brought into factories as child labourers were also absolved of the moral stigma once attached to women who went 'outside' to work in the male public sphere. Their commitment to socialist labour became a crucial component of their identities as women. Love, reproduction and mothering did not. On the other hand, Rofel points out that the idioms through which the state promoted the 'liberation' of women feminised and, therefore, devalued not only the labour that women historically had performed 'inside', but also the weaving skills that had been central to male silk workers' sense of masculinity.

The gender identities of members of the Cultural Revolution generation are bound up with their participation in an oppositional 'politics of authority'. They reject the hierarchies on which both state and factory have been constructed and post-Mao strategies that are intended to individualise workers and thereby increase their productivity. In response, the current regime criticises their behaviour as a relic of the 'backwardness' and 'perversity' of the Maoist era. It is portrayed as being the antithesis of the disciplined application of mind and body to manufacturing that is required for China's achievement of modernity. As Rofel puts it, 'One proves oneself a modern subject by expunging what the Cultural Revolution generation has come to represent' (p. 190). Not surprisingly, then, these workers are consumed by 'yearnings', a 'passion for meaningful engagement' and fantasies about what they might have become if not for the outbreak of the revolution. Women who came of age in this period largely consider their jobs, sexual partners and children irrelevant to their lives, aspirations and activist identities. Yet their male peers' stories of themselves as provocateurs are fed by dreams of receiving 'fearful' women's admiration and care.

In contrast to the socialist commitment and thwarted activism of their predecessors, the youngest generation of women workers seek 'private' fulfilment through adornment of their bodies, heterosexual romance, marriage and motherhood. These women docilely accept the government's introduction of new methods of calculating and remunerating their output. Their re-gendering is consistent with the post-Mao state's aim of regulating women's sexuality, reproduction and the health and socialisation of children. Unrestrained, women's desires and fertility might threaten the 'quality' of China's population and its achievement of modernity. In the 1980s, the ailing state-sector of the economy has been feminised in political rhetoric and in the composition of its work force. Competitive entrepreneurship in the increasingly globalised marketplace has become the site in which modern masculine subjects are created.

In examining the way in which Other Modernities is structured around the distinctly different models of modernity and gender deployed by these generations, I find myself in agreement with Charles Stafford's comment on the book.[1] The text prioritises theoretical and thematic consistency at the expense of empirical integrity. The shortfall between the field observations the author records and the conclusions Rofel draws is most evident in the middle section on Cultural Revolution workers. In keeping with the conventions of oral histories of the period, the section opens with a woman's account of the violence she suffered. Her communication with the ethnographer is cut short, apparently because it caused her to be criticised by a factory cadre. But Rofel reads intent and agency into the termination of their conversation. She concludes that in her refusal 'to stitch together the fragments into a tale of progress and redemption' the woman jeopardised the state's modernising project, for 'open, unresolved memories work against the grain of dominant stories of the Cultural Revolution' (p. 165). Despite Rofel's claim that the Cultural Revolution generation is distinguished by its 'politics of refusal' and questioning of authority, two of its members, both in junior management positions, are among the very few in the factory work force who enthusiastically support the Communist Party. The quintessential example we are offered of a worker's refusal to exercise or accede to authority is a woman who clearly suffers from serious (post-natal?) depression, and even she yearns for the trappings of office.

Notwithstanding a brief acknowledgement that workers in each generation adopt multiple subject-positions, Rofel also tends to exaggerate the extent to which the members of each cohort share common identities, attitudes and behaviour and the degree to which these differ in kind from those expressed by other cohorts. Perhaps the most extraordinary generalisation made in the text is the claim that only the Cultural Revolution generation displays a subaltern consciousness and engages in 'active forms of refusal' (p. 174). In fact, the number of labour disputes and strikes in Chinese work places has grown year-on-year ever since the mid 1980s when Rofel began her fieldwork. Many of these protests have involved the younger generation of workers, described by Rofel as docile, politically inactive and crafting identities in 'discussions of nature, feminine bodies and sexuality' (p. 279).

Setting those quibbles aside, I recommend this as an excellent book. By placing the pursuit of modernity through gender constructions at the centre of her study, Rofel draws our attention to the ways in which the changing goals, structures and practices of state power profoundly influence the kinds of subjectivity, agency and relations that are possible for different generations. Her correction of the Eurocentric bias in Foucauldian and recent anthropological explorations of modernity, her analysis of narrative as political intervention and her critical reflections on western feminist writings on Chinese women and the U.S's condemnation of Chinese policies all contribute to a theoretically rich, nuanced study of the fluidity of cultural politics. For this reason, the book will be of value not only to students of gender theory, but also to historians, anthropologists and all who are interested in 'modern' China.


[1] Charles Stafford, Book review 'Other modernities: gendered yearnings in China after socialism', Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 6 no. 3, 2000.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 6 March 1611 by: Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright