Yige Dong: China Scholar

Yige Dong wants to understand what makes modern China tick, and mapping the landscape of gender in the country of her birth is key to her work. Dong, the university’s Suzanne Wilson Barnett Chair in Contemporary China Studies, explores the ways that women contribute to and are perceived within the Chinese labor force and the country’s society at large. Here, she talks about what her research can teach us about Chinese society—and about our own.

Q: The notion of “care work” in China is central to your research. Can you explain what you mean by the term?
A: It’s something very important to our entire social setup. It’s mainly about serving others, caring for others, making our communities renew themselves both on a daily basis and across generations. Until very recently, it was done in the home by housewives. In the last few decades, with more women entering the labor force, some care work has been outsourced and become paid service. I’m using this concept to reassess the entire Chinese history in terms of development and social change. As I looked at China since 1949, the year the communist government came to power, this became one of my key areas of curiosity: To the Chinese people, to the urban working class, what is care? What makes it something valuable that should be recognized?

Q: How did that play out in China? 
A: When it comes to the Chinese socialist workplace—the danwei, or work unit—people talk a lot about this using the term “rear-guard” work. That includes child care, dining halls, housing allocations, clinics, public bathhouses, those kinds of things. The mentality of the danwei was to focus on production, nothing else. So they really, really squeezed the care sphere to the extent that as long as you have the space to sleep and you get fed three meals a day and are healthy, and you have a place to put your kids, then you can work. They were aware that in order to mobilize the workers, they had to find a way to deal with their care needs. Even if it was a minimal service. But culturally, they did recognize this.

Q: How does your research inform how you see care work here in the States? 
A: People today are talking about care work as the one thing they worry about so much here in the U.S.—that everything is so expensive and privatized. There’s this myth that universal child care is a solution. I’m trying to show that even if you have a state that talks about universal child care and you have employers building all these facilities, a lot of things still don’t get resolved. As long as everything is about making profit and production, you will not be able to provide a very decent service to the female employees who need that. It’s not about public or private only. As long as you don’t recognize the true value in this sphere and you underpay those who work in the care field, the whole thing will not run well. It’s not about socialism or capitalism, public or private. It’s reflecting on our modern, production-centered mentality.

Q: You’ve done some work on feminism in China, particularly as it relates to the country’s recent history. What have you found? 
A: Throughout the world, feminism is often seen as being middle class, white, urban. There’s that element in China, as well. But it’s not that simple. I think many women at the grassroots in China are actually more feminist than we thought. I think that is the socialist legacy, which is that you have to work to be a person and that it’s shameful to be a housewife. Participating in economic activities is something that the second-wave feminists here fought so hard for. But in China, it was given to them by the communist revolution. In China, they thought it was also their job to be a breadwinner, to share with their husbands, to make their families work. They’re by default feminists, in a broad sense, in how they see themselves. They’re contributing to their family economy. It’s one of the most interesting unintended consequences of the revolution.

Q: What kinds of misconceptions about China do you encounter among American students? 
A: They lump everything together into a big black hole—all the violent and brutal things happened during the  Cultural Revolution, and then Deng Xiaoping had market reform, and everything got better until June 4 [1989, the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre]. And today, it has become the world’s second-largest economy.

I want to complicate this simplistic narrative. I have tried to bring them complicated issues—to use China as a powerful, compelling case to let everybody reflect on the common issues and problems everybody shares. Gender inequalities. Development. Neoliberalism. Capitalism—the damaging aspects of the free market. I’m trying to tell them, “Here, I know you are not a China expert; you may not even know any of the language. But you’re interested in social science and big ideas. I’m going to show you how the Asian countries, including China, are not just where you apply those theories—they’re actually the site where many of the theories are being formulated.” China’s not just a case to receive all the Western concepts but a place where concepts and theories are being produced, and a mirror that will help us reflect on our existing knowledge. That way, we can make China really intellectually challenging and serious to students.

Q: What would you like people reading this to know about what you do? 
A: I am in this unprecedented position—maybe one of the few in American higher education who was hired to communicate between social science and China studies. Most social science departments, such as sociology and political science, do not have a position designated for a particular area outside the U.S. Mine is a really special position. It’s really exciting. I’m excited to continue strengthening our tie to Asia because we’re in this critical moment. You want to have people who are knowledgeable enough to talk about it intelligently. Whether the U.S.-China relationship is going to be better or worse, you’re going to have to have people who keep us informed. That’s what I want to help with. Let me put it this way: If we ignore Asia, it will be our loss—American students’ loss.


By Ted Anthony
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Feb. 13, 2020