“Not that I don’t want to help you. But your daughter is studying in America.” The archive manager pointed at me but spoke to my mother. “You know our government. Documents can be sensitive. They worry about things like a spy accessing our national secrets.”
I was researching labor history at the Shaowu State Sawmill, where both my mother and grandmother had once worked, for my doctoral dissertation. My mother offered to introduce me to the archive manager Wu in 2011.
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Both Wu and my mother were born in the early 1960s and grew up in this sawmill in the southeastern Chinese province Fujian until 2000 when their families all lost their jobs because of the privatization of the sawmill. Not only did they share this history, but they also shared the same Chinese auntie style — rounded perms, tinted reddish-brown eyebrows, and thick eyeliner. They resembled each other so much they must have hated each other, facing off now with their five-foot-tall bodies boosted by matching wedge sandals.
The government had rehired Wu to manage the historical documents and employee files, which contained so many “national secrets” locked up in a dusty room so grimy that a woman with newly permed hair didn’t want to step in.
My mom, always a hard bargainer, didn’t want to take “no” as an answer. “If she can’t see the mill’s documents, at least let her see my mom’s personal file. There can’t be any national secrets in her record, and letting her family read her documents isn’t a problem.”
My grandmother had been widowed when my mother was only a 5-month-old fetus. Working in the sawmill provided just enough to support this new child, along with the three older kids. My mother started working there when she was 16, married my father, another sawmill worker, and delivered their only child when she was in her early 20s.
Unlike her mellow and quiet sister, my mother often argued back against their mother, instigating long shouting matches. When her sister sank into a silent gloom after the discovery of a cheating boyfriend, she was the one who confronted that man and his new love with yells and curses that roused the entire neighborhood. Getting married didn’t soften her. Once she tried to tell off a supervisor who had bullied her husband outside the office building, but he ran away. Carrying a late-pregnancy baby bump, she chased after him, tripped and fell, then stood again to continue to hunt him down, shocking the worried onlookers.
When I returned to the sawmill neighborhood for my research more than 10 years after we moved away, the elders joyfully and fondly told me these stories. None of them surprised me, of course. After all, I had known my mother my entire life.
When she firmly looked at Wu, requesting my grandmother’s documents with a polite smile, I felt as if she were silently threatening her. Wu exhaled deeply and took us to the room across the hall where she opened one of the four 6-foot tall red wooden cabinets and, after some searching, retrieved a big straw-colored envelope. She extended it to my mother, but my mother stepped back and nodded at me to take it.
The cabinets where the author’s grandmother’s personnel file was stored. Courtesy of the author
While my Americanized Chinese brain debated which one was more ridiculous — that it was prohibited to read the mill’s public documents or that it was okay to read someone’s personal records without their consent — I opened the envelope and took out all 38 pages of documents, chronologically arranged and dated between 1954 and 1990. The first page began with my grandmother’s headshot and comprehensive demographic information, including basic information on her immediate family and close friends. The next pages were filled with survey questions that you could only answer “no” to in 1950s China, such as: “Have you ever participated in a reactionary party or army?” and “Have you ever been a participant in a cult?” These questions reminded me of those asked in my US naturalization interview.
My mother leaned closer. She quickly flipped through the remaining pages before coming to a long pause at one particular document. Her heavy gaze seemed to thicken the air. After a while, she laid all the papers back down and then addressed Wu, who was leaning against the door frame and looking at her phone: “How about my daughter take pictures of these documents so you don’t need to wait for us here?”
A nod. Over 30 camera clicks later, we left.
Exiting the front door of the building, my mother murmured: “Do you think people know what’s in their personal documents?”
The way she aired this inquiry, I could tell she wasn’t expecting an answer.
Standing there, we could see two chimneys, at least four workshops, and two log yards. These facilities, built by the state sawmill in the 1960s and 1970s, were now owned by four private wood production businesses that hired mostly young rural migrants from China’s southwestern provinces Yunnan and Guizhou. The 3,000 state workers who had lost their jobs around 2000 largely drifted between cities doing temporary jobs of all kinds in the following two decades.
In the summer of 2016, 100 of these workers reunited at my wedding at Shaowu.
I’d resisted the wedding, as I’d resisted the hetero-patriarchy. But my mother convinced me: “You interviewed so many workers. A wedding dinner that declines any gift would be a grateful thing to do.”
I have at many moments felt sorry that I grew up and drifted away physically, politically, and emotionally from my parents. There were also many moments I was pulled out from guilt when I realized that my mother was still skilled at altering my behavior by invoking my principles.
As a compromise, my mother agreed to exclude many popular local rituals symbolizing the significance of romantic love for marriage and the gifting of a woman to her husband’s family, such as bridesmaids preventing the bridegroom from picking up the bride, the father-in-law walking the bride to the bridegroom, and newlyweds exchanging rings and doing a music or dance performance together.
Besides celebrating the marriage, Chinese weddings serve to show the host family’s hospitality and social status through food. In my earliest memories, wealthy families served the meat of a wild animal as their “big dish” at weddings at the turn of the 1980s and ‘90s, as my hometown Shaowu was in the mountains. When the coastal region became the model of Chinese economic development in the 1990s, people from Shaowu (or should I say, generally all Chinese people) developed a fetish for seafood, which was expensive and inaccessible to many. At that time, affluent families or families aspiring to be affluent served crab and shrimp at their weddings. My mother, however, took advantage of her work to feed me a lot of crab and shrimp during that period, which I was told to feel grateful about. Fast-forward to our wedding in 2016, the big dish became steamed whole lobsters, which channeled my mother’s decadeslong aspiration to be middle class.
To me, my wedding exhibited the crash between my family’s working-class roots and middle-class aspirations. There were 12 round tables and each seated 12 guests. My husband and I sat with my college friends who were quintessential middle-class professionals living in big cities. We shared our updates over the meal and sips of drinks, speaking at a volume carefully measured to not go beyond our intended audience. At all the other tables sat (or stood) people who were my family friends; many were sawmill workers. They shouted over each other, singing, drinking, hugging, and jokingly slapping each other.
Two hours into the wedding, my friends went back to their hotel rooms. But my husband and I were stuck — mostly my husband — because the drunken Chinese guests decided they needed a picture with this white American, and his wife could conveniently serve as an interpreter.
“I-Len!” shouted an auntie in her 50s at my husband in a southern Chinese accent. Her face had turned to shade of tomato-red from drinking alcohol and her voice was extremely hoarse as a result of decades of smoking. “You should visit China, visit Shaowu, often. Our city is a small place but our people are so warm! Auntie will cook for you!”
Auntie tightly grabbed his arm with one of her hands, and the other hand holding a glass of red wine. Another drunk uncle who was in line for a photoshoot accidentally pushed her already wobbling body. Wine flew out from the glass and streamed down my husband’s light pink shirt.
Crash, but no pause afterward. The drunken people didn’t care, and we were too polite to say anything.
Soon, my mom came to rescue us. “Let them go back for a rest. She’s three months pregnant and needs rest.” My mom pointed at me. She had struggled with revealing to others the fact that I had been pregnant before my wedding.
“Mom, who cares these days about pre-marital pregnancy?” I tried to use my rhetoric question to calm her.
“I care! I don’t think it sounds good. People would say shit.”
“Well, I studied in the US and am getting a Ph.D. degree very soon. I’m pretty sure that I’ve bought a ticket to have a ton of premarital sex in today’s Chinese value system.”
My mother responded with thoughtful silence, which I interpreted as an acceptance and agreement until I heard my mother’s words at my wedding: “You know they got married in the US four months ago.” She laid out a clear timeline with my legal marriage taking place one month prior to the conception.
Returning to our residence from the sawmill archive, my mother asked me to transfer the photos of my grandmother’s record to my laptop right away. She then put on her reading glasses, which she usually refused to wear unless accuracy was in acute need.
Frowning, she squinted at the screen for such a long time that even afterward, two deep wrinkles stayed on her forehead.
“I knew her documents would have something about this.” She took off her glasses and turned the laptop to me. On the screen was a handwritten “statement of self-criticism.” My grandmother’s name was in the author’s signature place, but she was illiterate and couldn’t even write her name, not to mention this two-page document.
The statement, authored with a first-person narrative, declared that my grandmother had a six-year extramarital affair with her male co-worker, Lin, at the sawmill. Lin knew that her husband was ill and weak so he often helped her out. Their interactions turned into “a relationship that went beyond comradeship”: they had sex for the first time “in August 1960.” A few months after my grandmother was widowed in 1964, she delivered a baby who was actually Lin’s child. Lin gave her “20 yuan in cash, 15 jin of thin noodles, and a 20-jin rice coupon.” The document also explained how often they had sex (once or twice per month), why they didn’t have sex more often (because she had multiple kids at home), and how they were able to have sex (letting friends take the kids to watch movies).
This shocked me on multiple levels. It seemed inappropriate that someone’s affair was detailed in this person’s employment file. Moreover, my extended family has long held the narrative that my mother was a yi fu zi, or a kid left in the belly, also known as a posthumous child. My grandmother often said that when she was pregnant with my mom, she made two types of clothing: graveclothes for my “grandfather” and newborn clothes for my mother.
Finally, I couldn’t imagine my grandmother having an affair. Not only had I been taught to associate the elder generation with conservatism, her personality was also cold and bitter. I had never seen her verbally or physically express love, or even laughter. It was much easier to believe the narrative that dominated my family: Somebody arranged for her to marry my grandfather who was ten years older; they never loved each other but simply paired up for reproduction until he died from lung cancer, leaving four children in her care. Did my grandmother laugh at Lin’s jokes at work? Did she say “love” to him? Did she feel liberated having sex with this man when her husband was ill and her children were away? There were so many uncomfortable frictions in this new story that my brain couldn’t comb through them.
My mother, however, did not share my surprise. Instead, she seemed relieved. “I remember Lin. When I was very little, he gave me candies. His family moved to another city when I was maybe four or five, but sometimes the uncles in the sawmill would bring me snacks and said they were from ‘Uncle Lin.’ I was too young to remember how they framed it. But I have a vague memory of this person. He was thin.”
Grandma never told my mother a word about this person, and my mother was not convinced that she would be able to push my grandmother to say more. When my mother started working in 1980 and earned her own money, she took a train to Lin’s hometown, only to find out that he had passed away. She didn’t ask Lin’s children if they knew whether their father had an affair and whether they were half-siblings.
The document explained that the affair was detected by the sawmill administration when a doctor in the mill clinic found out my grandmother had missed her period for quite a few months. She knew my grandmother’s husband was so sick that he was infertile, so she reported her suspicions. Following a brief investigation, the mill bulletin announced the condemnation and punishment against Lin and my grandmother: They were both put on HR probation, which meant further misconduct could lead to termination. My grandmother had received low-income financial support from the mill, and this support was ceased.
“So my real birthday is in October instead of May then,” Mom commented. “I guess when my mom reported my birthday to the household registration office, she made it half a year earlier to strengthen the narrative that I was her late husband’s child.”
But why did Grandma even bother to fabricate the timeline? With the announcement made around the mill, everybody knew about the affair and the child born out of marriage.
The sawmill where the author’s grandmother worked. Courtesy of the author
My mother had clearly used me to confirm her biological kin. She had first volunteered to introduce me to some forestry department employees whom I interviewed for my research. She then volunteered to assist me in accessing the archives.
I was not mad. It was not expected but expectable.
My mother’s survival skill and basis of livelihood is her ability to trade relationships — putting the right people in connection with each other while benefiting from these networks.
After working in the log measurement unit for a decade, she joined the sawmill’s first-ever marketing team in the early 1990s. Her team traveled across Guangdong, including Shenzhen, and to Hong Kong to promote products and negotiate contracts. Because of this exposure to the capitalist frontline, she sensed the approaching decline of the state-run wood industry. She, therefore, hopped over to lead the marketing team in a city-owned hotel, striving for a balance between surfing with the upward-trendy service industry and nesting with the stability of the state power. That was in 1995.
A few years later a nationwide privatization policy swept across tens of thousands of state enterprises in China. 86% of all state enterprises were fully or partially privatized by 2001, and 25.5 million workers were laid off between 1998 and 2001. Shaowu State Sawmill was one of them.
When the entire sawmill community, including my dad, uncles, and aunts, lost their jobs or main livelihood, my mom used her accumulated networks to help her struggling family and community members.
In one instance, a laid-off worker was put into jail and his mother wanted to visit him but her request was rejected by the jail. My mother used her connections to get approval, but the jail was 100 miles away and no public transportation went there. Private vehicles were rare. The worker’s mom couldn’t afford to hire a taxi. Neither did my family. We had only 1,000 yuan left that we kept as an emergency fund. In the end, my mother asked a driver colleague from the city government to drive her and the worker’s mother.
As long as it didn’t require money, she would be willing to help. But her help, compared to the entire amount of hardships in the sawmill community, often felt like throwing a rock into the lake: the ripples were small and fleeting.
My dad and others who lost their jobs tried all kinds of small and often ridiculous business ideas and failed over and over again. I say “ridiculous” because how could they nurture a business with extremely limited resources and immediate networks that were all broke?
My childhood friend’s dad went to Shenzhen for a job in an electronics factory. When he was supposed to come back for a one-week Lunar New Year break, he brought all his luggage back because he could not stand the abusive management anymore. My friend, who was aged 14 at that time, didn’t know whether she should feel happy or worried.
Another auntie was diagnosed with colorectal cancer but didn’t have money for the treatment. Her husband, known for his sense of humor, went totally grey in just one night, his hair reflecting his burden, just like in Hong Kong wuxia movies.
There was so much trauma in the community that at one point hearing about them stopped bringing a big impact to my body and mind anymore. I was submerged in the collective survival mode that required us to keep our heads down and keep going. Until one day, witnessing my mother’s embarrassment in her attempt to help a sawmill friend brought me the painful realization that we — laid-off workers and their communities — had become a class that society deemed inferior.
She had traveled to the provincial capital to meet a government official she had known through work. She brought me with her. It was in 2001, in a restaurant composed of eight spacious Mongolian yurts, though the food clearly had nothing to do with Mongolian cuisine. A group dinner was taking place around a giant round table. A government official asked us to join.
My mother brought two bags of red fungi as gifts. She explained the red fungi’s origin with excitement: A peasant picked them from deep in the mountains in our hometown just a week ago, making these fungi especially nutritious and tasty.
The government official cut her off, loudly laughing: “You think this is good stuff? It’s nothing. I have two big boxes of red fungi at home already. I can’t even finish them.”
Shocked by that man’s arrogant and rude reaction, I peeked at my mom and saw her smile freeze and her eyes blur, as if a part of her spirit had flown away from her body. That only lasted for a few seconds before she returned to her normal feminized gesture of diplomacy: slightly leaning forward, smiling, and bright eyes showing interest.
Recalling that moment still brings me sorrow and disturbance today because it evokes the collective traumas that millions suffered and never were able to process. It was also the first time I closely observed my mom’s failure in operating her feminized networking skills, after all those years of sitting by her side at a round table.
By A Round Table
In my school-age memories, from before I was 7, a scene that repeats itself is me sitting quietly at a round table with adults talking and drinking, directing all my focus on peeling crab and shrimp. This was in the late 1990s, two decades before the Chinese government’s “banquet ban.” The main task of the city hotel’s marketing team was to accompany officials who visited from other government agencies by eating and drinking with them. If you were able to get these officials drunk, they would bring you many new and recurring business opportunities. This was the prevailing, if unreasonable, practice.
The guests who needed company were predominantly middle-aged men or old men. The marketing team led by my mom was full of pretty young women. I called all of them jiejie, or older sister, and knew all of them were very capable of consuming a large amount of alcohol. My mom usually took me to these dinners and ordered a big plate of shrimp and crab for me, paid for by her hotel. Two hours later, when the guests were drunk and red like steamed crab and shrimp, I had transformed the crab and shrimp into nothing more than shells.
I’ve never asked my mom this but I assumed one of the reasons she took me to her work dinners — besides the fact that I could eat free seafood — was to help her drink less. Because she was a mom and needed to take me home, people would understand why she drank less. Because there were times, many times, when she ended up drinking too much, I would tell her “you’re drunk” and be mad in a childish way in front of all those people. There was also another possible reason: She wanted to make clear her identity as a mother to avoid or lessen sexual harassment.
As I look back on those alcohol-drenched dinners, I know there must be so many normalized inappropriate touching and dirty jokes targeting women, yet I can only remember a few meant to embarrass men.
A jiejie made fun of a male guest who was not good at drinking: “Do you want us to order some milk for you? You can drink the same sweet milk drink that our little sister is drinking.” She pointed at me.
“Maybe you’re looking for other kinds of nai?” The other jiejie joined in, fueling up on a classic play on words: Nai means both milk and women’s breasts in Chinese.
The man’s face turned pale: “You can’t make this kind of joke in front of a kid.”
My mom laughed. “You don’t need to worry about my daughter. She has been with us at this kind of drinking table since she was five. She will ‘grow out of silt without being stained.’”
I don’t quite know whether my mother really thought I would not be affected. I learned from sitting by and watching all those round tables that a woman, myself included, needs to keep a perfect balance between capitalizing her own sexuality yet not being really physically taken advantage of by men. Jokes are okay because you just need to learn how to joke back. On the other side of this belief is that if a woman is sexually assaulted or harassed, it’s this woman’s fault because of her incompetence in navigating the sexist culture.
Ten years later I learned I was the incompetent one.
After college, I worked in administration at a university for a few months before I was admitted into an American graduate school. A lot of my college classmates were working in the public sector in various big cities. We all learned new things that were not taught at school or included in the job description but turned out to be essential skills: how to do small talk with customers, what to say during a toast at a business dinner, how to keep drunk businessmen from leaning on you (for women), and how to tell dirty jokes memorized off the internet when socializing with other male colleagues and customers (for men). We were told that society was different from school. If we wanted to stop being babies, we needed to play this new gendered game.
To celebrate Christmas and the end of the school year, my department’s administrative team went to a restaurant-KTV. That was my first and only time at a restaurant-KTV, during which dinner was served in a room, before tables were taken away, the lights were turned off, and the karaoke started. My team had a male supervisor, a female deputy supervisor, and eight female staff members, which was very typical for a university’s administration team.
When we first started singing, people were not very enthusiastic. A senior staff member felt the need to warm up the group so she pulled me up and brought me in front of the male supervisor: “Our little sister wants to sing a song with you.” I just smiled.
The man and I were standing in the center of the stage and a romantic duet was chosen for us. I tried to focus on singing. As a newbie, I was eager to impress people with my good singing.
“You two don’t look like you are singing a love song!” A woman’s voice yelled, and then I felt the man’s hand on my shoulder.
I continued focusing on singing.
“Waist! Who would grab their lover’s shoulder?” People laughed and continued making fun of the man being shy. Now I felt the arm around my waist.
I was still singing but struggled to come up with something funny and tactful to say in that situation. I felt obligated and yet incapable of warming up the atmosphere. I was a tool that had no life, no opinion, and no emotion. I was still that child focusing on eating and pretending to be indifferent.
I was one of those incompetent women who didn’t know how to play this gendered game. My complete silence that night brought so much shame in my body it froze me.
I was also afraid that I would eventually grow up to become them, one of those laughing women. Or would I be tired of the silence and turn to a roar, to which others would respond, “You are overreacting to this small thing?”
I fled from that work, permanently, dreaming of becoming an American university teacher. I imagined this could free me from the choice between my story of being a woman who’s incompetent and a woman who’s assimilated.
Her Own Story
In 2014, three years after I read my grandma’s documents, I accessed more archival records through the help of an informant. Among those documents with the sawmill’s letterhead, there were so many more announcements in the mill of condemnation and discipline against women who had bad shenghuo zuofeng, a euphemism for illegitimate sexual relationships.
The typical language used in these announcements is as follows: “Because she did not take political studies seriously and she had a bad lifestyle, she had an illegitimate relationship with a married man.” The mill administration proclaimed that “the impact of her behavior was very bad,” so they decided to take some sort of disciplinary action that would badly impact her work.
I don’t know how bad the impact of these women’s sexuality was and for whom, but I could imagine that a public denunciation inflicted a lot of shame on those women.
In my grandmother’s statement of self-criticism, she concluded: “I promise I will correct my thoughts and behavior from now on. I will never talk to him again. I will never make this kind of shameful mistake again.”
I don’t know whether my grandmother ever talked to Lin again. Did Lin come to say goodbye when his family moved away? Did anyone deliver a message to her when Lin passed away? I do know that she never mentioned a word about Lin, about their relationship, or about this public condemnation, to her children.
My mother once confronted Grandma about this. They were in a heated argument. Grandma, as usual, brought in the hard work she had done as a mother as her bargaining tool: “My life is so pathetic. My husband died early and left you four children to me. I brought all of you up, now all of you are against me.” My mother was so angry that she threw back: “Not all of your children were your husband’s, were they?” Grandma shut down into complete silence, and so did my mom. After a minute, Grandma walked away and did not come out of her bedroom for a long time. My mother never brought up this topic again.
Were the other women whose names appeared on these public announcements as determined in silence as my grandmother? When we, the younger generation, assume that their generation of women were all conservative and loyal to their marriages, what kind of narratives about women’s sexuality and self-determination are we feeding into?
Despite an announcement in the mill and a statement of self-criticism that would stay in her employment file even after her death, my grandmother chose to use silence and to change my mom’s birthday, a repudiation of the mill’s account of her life.
During that decadeslong silence, including the silence when her own child confronted her, there was an internalized shame, and there was also her resistance against her work unit’s attempt to disturb her life and punish her. As a single mother, her work unit provided everything she and her children needed to survive. Escaping was impossible. Her silence was her strong will to tell her own story under the gaze of the patriarchal state.
Years after my mother and I visited the mill archive and confirmed her speculation that had lasted for decades and we were randomly chatting one day about something else, my mom suddenly asked: “Do you think I’m smarter than my siblings because I was an adulterine child?”
I was stunned by this question that seemed to be out of nowhere but one that she seemed to have considered millions of times.
My mother explained with determination and enthusiasm. “You know, in historical dramas and stories, those adulterine children are usually the smartest. They won the throne, obtained the heritage, or saved the powerful clan from decline.”
But, ma, our family has neither throne nor heritage.
What you inherited from Grandma is your willpower in owning your narrative, when the capitalist gaze both empowers and entangles you. Your perseverance enabled me, in material and emotional terms, to take a sharp turn in my own narrative, regardless of whether it is as liberatory as I imagined.
Zhou Shuxuan is a writer, researcher, and community organizer based in Seattle. Her essays have been published in Sixth Tone and The Seattle Globalist. She obtained a doctoral degree in Feminist Studies at the University of Washington in 2017. Her book manuscript about the history of her family and community, sawmill and forest farm workers in Fujian, is under review of a university press.
(Header image: Xochicalco, Slo_Fuzz, and Fesoj/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)