Cotton, Gender, and Revolution: The Political Economy of Handloom Cloth in Maoist China


ACLS Fellowship Program


East Asian Languages and Civilizations

Named Award

supported in part by the Frederic E. Wakeman, Jr. Fund for Chinese History named award


For decades after the 1949 revolution, people in rural China still wore homespun cloth and millions of rural women continued to spend large parts of their waking hours producing cloth and clothing. This is puzzling because the state opposed manual cloth production on the grounds that it was wasteful of labor and raw materials. Moreover, a state monopoly should have ensured that all cotton ended up in the hands of the state. Yet handloom cloth survived, in part because its production was integrated with gender norms and with a gift economy that prescribed ritual exchanges at life cycle events; in part because the existence of interlocking scarcities of grain, cash, cotton, and cloth forced rural people to sell state-issued rations and make cloth from whatever cotton they could find.