This essay examines the ways a gender studies perspective has been applied in Chinese academic reflections on China’s socialist culture and practice during the so-called Seventeen-Year Period, which spanned from the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and is usually considered the most important period for the establishment of the socialist regime and political system. The essay builds on the premise that since the 1980s, gendered critiques of the Seventeen-Year Period, by applying imported gender theory, have tended to treat woman as an invisible category whose individual agency and distinct, complex subjectivities are sacrificed to the patriarchal state’s priorities and socialist ideology. As a case study for alternative ways to reflect on women’s struggles during the Mao era, the essay analyzes several stories by representative Seventeen-Year Period writer Zhao Shuli, paying special attention to the evolution of Zhao’s treatment of the relationship between women and state projects throughout the Seventeen-Year Period. Presenting a case study in literary fiction may bring attention to some of the blind spots and limitations of the current gender theory applications widely upheld by the Chinese academic world since the 1980s. This essay argues that only when socialist practice and feminist critique are put in vigorous dialogue with history can there emerge truly productive ways of understanding women’s liberation movements during the Seventeen-Year Period.

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