Writing the Chinese Labor: Changes and Continuities in Labor Historiography
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In the 1980s, most historical writings in China begun to take a new direction owing to domestic changes and outside influence. In comparison with other topics, however, studies of the pre-1949 Chinese labor seem to remain largely intact. While social historians as a whole are regarded as the most innovative and active members within the history community, labor historians appear to follow the party line with high loyalty; while in the west, new labor history, together with women’s history and slavery studies, sprang out of the climate of thinking of the radical 1960s, in China labor history has distinguished itself from other sub-topics of social history almost in every respect. Focusing on four issues, this paper tries to offer a tentative explanation to this historiographical puzzle. First, I survey western interpretations of the Chinese labor and demonstrate how main stream Chinese labor historians view this western scholarship divergently from many social historians. Next, a discussion of several hotly debated issues in labor study area further highlights the discrepant stances taken by labor scholars and other social historians. Part III examines the intellectual legacy, political commitment and research institutions of Chinese labor studies as the main factors that have separated this research area from other social history topics. Last, after analyzing the intellectual climate in the 1990s, I argue that, in addition to their strong ideological commitment, Chinese labor historians’ resistance to change has been reinforced by a new relationship between union and the party-state and the negative impacts of globalization on their subject matter—Chinese workers. I conclude the paper by further arguing that notable changes have occured underneath the seemingly constant surface of the pre-1949 labor history writings. Unlike in the past, Chinese historians today are generally in sympathy with what they are expected to write. In view of the deteriorating situation of the Chinese workers, labor historians deliberately ignore the ambiguity and complexity of workers’ historical experiences, which are evidenced by western researchers. Following the Chinese tradition of “using the past to serve the present”, they insist on workers’ “glorious past” to defend their social status and economic interests in a rapidly changing world.