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Sisters and Strangers

January 31, 2010

Emily Honig. Sisters and Strangers: Women in the Shanghai Cotton Mills, 1919-1949. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Christian Hess (2003)

In this brief but extremely detailed book Emily Honig examines several understudied aspects of the history of labor movements in Shanghai. As she discusses in her introductory chapter, previous scholarship on labor during the Republican period has focused on the emergence of new social relations and institutions as evidence for a new proletarian consciousness through which labor movements grew in strength and number. Honig argues that the role of women laborers in this process has been overlooked. Such neglect is particularly obvious in the case of Shanghai, where women workers constituted the majority of the labor force in its largest industry, the cotton mills. By focusing on this group, Honig reveals the complex process through which women workers developed the foundations of a new class consciousness. “Working-class consciousness, if it has any meaning, must be able to embrace multiple loyalties” (249). As this study illustrates, whom these women were fighting, and how and why they developed loyalties with one another reveals that the formation of this consciousness was as much a product of traditional loyalties and organizations as it was a response to a harsh new urban working environment.

That these women were exploited, often terribly, is clearly reflected in Honig’s carefully crafted chapters which portray these women’s lives inside and outside of the mills. Yet she reveals that relations between women and mill owners and managers were complex. Neither of these two groups was monolithic in its composition. Women came to the mills from different regions, and were segregated on the basis of native place. This division was further complicated by imperialism, “which served to intensify the antagonism among the mill workers” (76). Subei workers, for example, were more likely to take jobs in the Japanese-run mills where they did not receive the poor treatment they received in Chinese-managed mills. Moreover, Honig considers a third force in her analysis: the Green Gang. She argues that as operators of kidnapping rings and labor contract syndicates the Green Gang was as likely to be the target of protest as were foreign or domestic capitalists (247).

In her final chapter, Honig presents a vivid narrative of a violent protest that occurred in 1949 at a major mill in Shanghai. Women at the mill acted together, and were supported by workers at other mills and by women in other occupations such as dancehall workers. This event, led by women laborers, stands out for Honig as “a transcendence of the parochialism that had inhibited women’s movements in the past” (245). They had first developed quasi-traditional organizations like ‘sisterhoods’ (jiemei hui), through which they aided and protected on another. The change that occurred in the late 1940s that enabled these small, native-place based organizations to develop into more politically conscious groups, Honig argues, was the vision and training provided by such new institutions as the YWCA. Honig reveals that the YWCA in particular provided women with political education through its night school, and held numerous solidarity-building social events (222-3). At the same time, the CCP made new efforts to work within traditional women’s organizations and spread the party’s vision (229).

The book’s organization and Honig’s presentation of her arguments are extremely clear. Her chapters build logically from one another and construct pictures of women’s working conditions that are not burdened by excessive analysis. Reviewing the book, Mary Rankin’s only issue takes issue with this parsimony, in that she finds that Honig’s “concluding chapter does not do full justice to the analytical possibilities of the material.” Rankin does, however, praise Honig’s use of such diverse source materials as sociological surveys, newspapers, and personal interviews that she conducted with former workers from Shanghai (The American Historical Review, 92,4:1016-7). Most importantly, Honig succeeds in crafting a study that brings to light women’s actions and agency in the formation of Chinese modernity, thereby adding considerably to knowledge of the historical experiences of this very understudied segment of China’s population.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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