Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Writing Chinese Labour History: Changes and Continuities in Labour Historiography

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Writing Chinese Labour History: Changes and Continuities in Labour Historiography

Article excerpt

IN THE 1980s, THE AUTHORS of most historical studies in China began to move in new directions owing to a combination of internal changes and outside influences. Conversely, studies of pre-1949 labour movements in China continue to reflect a perspective that is largely monolithic. While Chinese social historians tend to be, in many ways, innovative and forward-thinking, historians whose primary focus is labour often persist in defending, and even advocating, Maoist jargon. North American New Labour History, together with Women's Studies and Slavery Studies, continue to be shaped by the climate of thought peculiar to the West in the 1960s. Chinese labour historians have been reticent to adopt much from such developments, thus distinguishing themselves both from Western historians generally and Chinese historians focused on other subject matters. This paper offers a tentative explanation for this historiographical anomaly by focusing on three issues.

First, I summarize Western interpretations of pre-1949 Chinese labour and identify broad differences separating Western interpretations of Chinese labour movement trends from those conceived by Chinese scholars. Next, I present a discussion of major debates in labour historiography to shed some light on the different perspectives adopted by Chinese labour scholars relative to other social historians. Finally, I examine a number of factors that contribute to Chinese labour historians' reticence to embrace and adapt newer models, and conclude by noting that beneath the apparent consistency of message characterizing pre-1949 Chinese labour studies in general, political and social changes are having a subtle impact on the ways in which Chinese labour historians depict the working-class.

Chinese Workers in the West and Western Scholarship in China

Marxist Class Analysis and Research Involving the Chinese Working Class in the West

The French Marxist historian Jean Chesneaux published his pioneering research study, The Chinese Labour Movement, 1919-1927 in 1962. Grounded in the perspective of orthodox Marxism, this ground-breaking work probes the social formation of the working-class as well as its emergence as an organized and class-conscious force in the great wave of strikes culminating in the Shanghai insurrections of 1927. Chesneaux's work, however, reflects stereotypical attitudes prevalent at the time of its publication by focusing exclusively on modern industrial sectors and by giving short shrift to the role of women. In addition, this book overrates the decisive role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by stating that the "labour organizations and the movement as a whole developed in close collaboration with the Communist Party and followed the party's lead." (1) Chesneaux's conclusions have come under criticism by a second generation of labour historians, who come primarily from the United States. This younger generation reached its prime in the 1970s, and is heavily influenced both by theories of Cultural Marxism and Feminist Studies.

In the area of labour studies, British Marxist E.P. Thompson's work has revised the orthodox Marxist conception of class. Thompson argues that the conventional Marxist base/superstructure metaphor tends to frame the class struggle in mechanistic terms, as if the process itself invariably transpires in a rigid way, as something frozen within "a static, anti-historical structure." (2) Stressing agency and consciousness, Thompson re-defines class in his influential book The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Class, in Thompson's eyes, is not a thing, but a fluent relationship which can only be studied "over an adequate period of social change." It is an economic and social creation largely determined by the productive relations into which men and women are born--or enter involuntarily; but it is also "a historical and cultural formation" arising out of class struggle. (3)

In response to Thompson's theory, North American labour historians shifted their approach away from a once exclusive focus on aspects of labour that are of an essentially institutional nature, and towards a concern with workers' everyday lives and cultural beliefs and practices. …

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