Chinese Women’s Oral Histories

Li HuiBo, a librarian at the China Women & Gender Library at Chinese Women’s University, and contributor to the recent OHR article, “Hearing Her: Comparing Feminist Oral History in the UK and China,” explores the challenges of collecting and processing women’s oral histories at the Research Center for Chinese Women’s Oral History.

By Li Huibo

When I did my doctorate at Capital Normal University, I interviewed more than one hundred people over age 70 about their marriages and family as part of my PhD thesis, “Studies in the transmutation of Marriage Culture in Beijing (1949-1966).” In light of these interview experiences, I came to the China Women & Gender Library (CWGL) at Chinese Women’s University to work in 2012. In addition to everyday affairs of the library, my main work related to the women’s oral history project includes recruiting and training interviewers, interview data collection, editing interview data, publishing interview data, and doing related research.

CWGL constitutes a site for reading and research that encompasses a wide range of academic resources for women’s/gender studies, including paper documents, e-documents, as well as multimedia audio-visual materials. The vision is to advocate and spread advanced gender culture and build a women’s and gender library with strong influence both at home and abroad. The mission is to search, collect, and archive resources for women’s/gender studies, and initiate instructional and academic activities, so as to provide support and service for teaching, research, and social practice.

Women’s oral history materials constitute the highlight of CWGL’s resources. We know that women’s histories have been insufficiently recorded and that oral history is part of a wider commitment to understand both past experience and struggles. By providing the opportunity for women to describe their own life stories, we hope to know about their living conditions in the process of participation in social life, and discover the important contributions of Chinese women to society in different life stages. Perhaps we can even affect the country’s public policy-making by showing women’s stories and related research.

So far we have trained 300 interviewers. Most of them are Masters and PhD students and teachers, who come from universities and research institutions around the country. We have completed over 400 transcripts of interviews (about 10 million Chinese characters), including women’s individual life stories, women activists’ stories, and “Female educated youth” stories focused on stories, focusing on the late 1960s and early 1970s campaign during which urban, educated youth went “up to the mountains and down to the countryside.” Educated urban youth were a major component of the movement, in which the learned from rural citizens and devoted energy and enthusiasm to construction projects in remote areas.

Author LiHuibo at the China Women & Gender Library

Life story interviewees included women older than 70 years, some of whom participated in the revolutionary war, some who were leaders of National Federation of Women’s Institutes and others who were educators, legal practitioners, health care workers, railroad engineers, or geological exploration workers. Interviewees also included female youth in support of the Xinjiang Construction Corps, as well as members of neighborhood cadres, family workers, housewives, and others. The collected interviews include original recordings with transcriptions, with the interviewees also supplying old photos and family trees.

The year 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing. We have masterminded the project of “Hearing and Narrating: Dialogue and Inherit the ’95 Spirit.” The concept was that younger interviewers would dialogue with women activists who experienced the landmark Conference, and that this dialogue would promote a younger generation’s commitment to gender equality.

In 2012 the CWGL helped establish the Research Center for Chinese Women’s Oral History. Focusing on in-depth analysis of and research into women’s oral history materials, the Center organized a number of activities, including the Seminar on Women’s Oral History and Seminar on Qualitative Research. Continuous practice allowed us to gradually establish a set of canonical management procedures, enabling the collected resources to be processed in a professional and sustainable way. The joint research project, “Hearing Her: Oral Histories of Women’s Liberation in China and the United Kingdom,” conducted by CWGL and the University of Sussex, and funded by The British Academy, will also strengthen our work in this field. Partnering with Professor Margaretta Jolly, we compared the CWGL project with Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, a large-scale oral history of UK feminists partnered with The British Library. Our OHR article “Hearing Her” explores in depth what happened as we compared our two projects to further understand each other’s ideas of gender and of oral history’s political purpose, particularly as institutionalized through state-funded universities and libraries.

We at the CWGL have made abundant achievements, but still face some challenges. First, due to academic pressure or work, many of the interviewers can’t complete their interviews within the stipulated time. Second, many interviewers have experienced the phenomenon of drain, leaving them unable to continue collecting data for us. Thirdly, some interviewees don’t want to sign consent forms, making it unethical to use the interview as part of our research.

In order to improve the collection and increase use of women’s oral history data, we need to continue to work hard. Firstly, we should inspire the interviewers’ interest in various ways to make them feel like part of the project. Secondly, we should make efforts to communicate with interviewees and their families, in order to gain their trust. Thirdly, we should be prepared for cataloguing, and meet the needs of our existing and hoped for users and researchers. We are a unique resource – and we welcome all who wish to discover our riches!

Li Huibo is a librarian at the China Women’s University Library, where her research focuses on oral history, library and information. Projects have included Chinese Contemporary Women’s Oral History Research, Beijing + 20: History/Herstory, Special Olympics Oral History, Marriage History Studies in the 20th century. She is the co-editor of the series of “Listening and Discovering: The China Women’s Oral History.” With Margaretta Jolly, Li Huibo contributed to “Hearing Her: Comparing Feminist Oral History in the UK and China,” in the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of the Oral History Review.

Images courtesy of the author