In this edition of LRCCS Faculty Spotlight, we interviewed Professor Wang Zheng, Associate Professor in the Department of Women's Studies and Associate Research Scientist, Institute for Research on Women and Gender.
LRCCS: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where are you from?
Prof Wang: I was born and raised in Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution I was a sent-down youth, and was working as a farmer on Chongming Island near Shanghai.
LRCCS: Rumor has it you were in a movie. Can you tell us about that?
Prof Wang: Haha, oh boy, that's a long story. In the Cultural Revolution Jiang Qing’s group wanted to use actual peasants and workers to act in the movies that represented peasants and workers. Supposedly this would enable the subaltern’s direct involvement in cultural production, a more revolutionary stance than socialist films produced before the CR. At that time, I was a peasant on the farm, and singing was my hobby. There were contests of amateurs singing “model operas” organized by work units all over the country, and because I have a high voice, I was the only person on my farm able to sing the opera piece in its original register without my voice cracking. Thus the folks in the Cultural Hall of the county noticed me and recommended me to filmmakers of the Shanghai film studio who came to Chongming to look for actors. They chose me as a peasant to act a peasant in a movie about a socialist village scripted by peasants. I was told that playing the leading role in the film was a revolutionary task (meaning not for fame and fortune but for creating new revolutionary culture). And it was supposed to be the first feature film since the Cultural Revolution began.
LRCCS: What happened to your acting career after that?
Prof Wang: The film studio wanted to recruit me in their planned workshop for training professional actors, but I wasn't interested. By principal, I didn't want to rely on my appearance to make a living. Besides I hated my experience there. So that was my first and last film. I never regarded myself as an actor but I did embrace my identity as a peasant.
LRCCS: How did you make the transition from peasant to professor?
Prof Wang: After the Cultural Revolution, I passed the first college entrance examination and became an English major at Shanghai Normal University. Upon graduation, I was selected to join the faculty in my department. Then I got a Fulbright faculty training opportunity to study US history in Shanghai. In 1985, I came to America to study US women’s history at UC Davis. Then I discovered so much brilliant scholarship in US women's history and was both awed and intimidated - it would be very difficult to make a significant contribution to such a well-developed field with wonderful scholarship. And meanwhile when I looked at scholarship on China, there was a massive gap... there was very little research on Chinese women at the time, and a general stereotype of Chinese women in the West was their being submissive and obedient, victims of patriarchal oppression. But US feminist historians discovered so many powerful women historical actors who had contributed significantly to massive transformations in the history of the US. I did not see any scholarship on Chinese women comparable to that in the US women’s history. So I decided to commit myself to writing Chinese women’s history as well as developing a field of women’s and gender history in China.
LRCCS: When did you become involved in activism?
Prof Wang: During the student movement in 1989, I was working on my PhD in California, but I was glued to the TV every day. I felt a very strong sense of responsibility as a Chinese citizen and had to go to Tiananmen Square to join the movement. I collected donations from students at UC Davis in support of the movement, and got to Beijing after the marshal law was declared. My experience there has an enduring impact on my life. After I returned to the US I became a founder of the Chinese Society for Women’s Studies. I thought we Chinese students in the US had the moral obligation to continue the fight brutally suppressed in China. Of course, we have created our own mode of activism to fight for social justice since then.
LRCCS: What was your involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests?
Prof Wang: That was a very complex situation. The protests were unorganized and spontaneous. In late May a group of leading students and intellectuals felt the students should leave the square to end the impasse. However, they did not have a voice in the square to persuade students to leave. So this group, which included Liu Xiaobo, Wang Juntao, Wang Dan, and many others, decided they would camp in a tent under the Monument to the People's Heroes and stage a hunger strike to attract attention and then get people off the square. At a meeting I expressed my disagreement with their idea: since the goal was to disperse students from the square, their tactic of staging another hunger strike would only gather more people in the square. It would be counterproductive. But since no better option was proposed, the group decided to go ahead with the hunger strike.
This group was all men, and they wanted me to join the hunger strike, in an attempt to recreate a famous historical event in the 1930s when seven urban celebrities protested against the Nationalist Government for not resisting Japanese invasion. Of the famous seven, there was a woman lawyer. But I said no right away. It was not only because I had just expressed my opposition to the tactic. What's more, I couldn't stand the thought of being cramped in a tent with these guys for any length of time - I had been in meetings with them and their stench of cigarettes and BO played the biggest role in my refusal to join them, haha.
Just as I predicted, after their hunger strike started, with the recruitment of the famous Taiwanese singer Hou Dejian who was literally giving a free concert on the platform of the Monument, the numbers on the square swelled dramatically. But before the hunger strikers were able to use the public attention to get people off the square, the military moved in to force people off the square. I'm glad I didn't join that hunger strike - I would have been imprisoned (all the four in the tent were eventually arrested), and never would be able to do all the feminist activism in China as I have done over the past two decades.
LRCCS: What's your current involvement with activism?
Prof Wang: I have been running faculty and graduate training workshops, translating feminist scholarship, and hosting international conferences in order to promote women’s and gender studies in higher education in China in the past two decades. Feminist intervention in curriculum transformation and knowledge production is an important part of political and cultural transformation. In 2005, with the help from my collaborators at Fudan University and support from the Women’s Studies and Institute for Research on Women and Gender at UM, I set up a UM and Fudan Joint Institute for Gender Studies as my institutional base in China. About 200 Chinese scholars and graduate students have studied in the workshops we have run. And many UM faculty and graduate students have also participated in gender studies workshops there. Now the LRCCS is going to further develop collaborations between UM and Fudan in other academic fields. I am also part of recent collaborative efforts.
Over the years many of the participants from our gender studies workshops have become feminist leaders in various locations in China. It is quite exciting to see a growing feminist movement even in a highly uncongenial environment, as the recent detention of the Feminist Five demonstrated.
LRCCS: Tell us more about your current academic work.
Prof Wang: Right now I'm wrapping up my revision of a manuscript now entitled Finding Women in the State: Socialist Feminist Revolution in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1964. This first history of Chinese socialist state feminism is going to be published by the UC PressI am also working on a history of a Shanghai neighborhood. I am going to teach a new graduate seminar entitled Gender and Chinese Modernity in a Global Context in winter 2016. I welcome LRCCS students and any graduate students who study China to this class!
LRCCS: We greatly appreciate your time and stories. Do you have any closing thoughts?
Prof Wang: I would like more students in the China studies to regard gender as a principle of social organization in their research. If you ignore gender, you will leave out so many fundamental issues affecting ordinary people’s lives as well as high politics. Adopting gender as an analytical category is necessary if we want to reach a deeper understanding of our research subject, especially in today’s China when fierce gender contentions are taking place every day and everywhere.