Water Aroused the Girls’ Hearts: Gendering Water and Soil Conservation in 1950s China
44 Pages Posted: 10 Jul 2019
Date Written: July 5, 2019
This article contributes to recent efforts to demonstrate the significance of gender in shaping human-environment interactions through an in-depth study of a model collective in the water and soil conservation campaigns that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) launched during the early 1950s. Dengjiabao village in Gansu province’s Wushan county earned nationwide recognition in these state-led efforts to check erosion, prevent downstream sedimentation, and boost agricultural production in Northwest China’s Loess Plateau. The state-sponsored publications that praised Dengjiabao’s achievements in the first decade of the PRC presented conservation in distinctly gendered terms. Propaganda materials asserted that improvements in environmental conditions and standards of living achieved through conservation efforts would reconfigure gender relations by enabling unmarried men in poor, resource-starved villages like Dengjiabao to find wives. But during the actual campaigns, as oral history interviews and local archives make evident, rural women had to balance the heavy physical labor of transforming the landscape with household work responsibilities. Water and soil conservation depended on the female workforce throughout the 1950s, and mass mobilization for large-scale conservation efforts during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) imbued women’s labor with even greater importance. The highly-militarized conservation campaigns of the Great Leap, and the famine to which they contributed, subjected rural women to burdens that directly affected their domestic lives, damaged their reproductive health, and had enduring corporeal effects.
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