Understanding international development
Understanding international development

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Understanding international development

1.2.4 Issues of history

The dominant approaches to development noted in Chapter 2 each became prominent at particular points in history, i.e. as a result of a particular set of social, economic and political contexts. The importance of historical context explains why it is argued at the beginning of the chapter that studying development is, to some extent, about asking Eric Hobsbawn’s ‘key historical question’:

how did humanity get from caveman to space-traveller, from a time when we were scared by sabre-toothed tigers to a time when we are scared of nuclear explosions?

(Hobsbawn, 1997)

There is value in taking a historical perspective as it provides us with evidence of what has occurred before enabling us to consider how things might happen in the future.

Now I’d like you to reflect a little more on the usefulness of a historical perspective and the place of individual’s within historical processes and thus development activities.

Activity 7

Timing: 45 minutes

Watch the clip below, which discusses how an individual’s life in Shanghai has shaped and has been shaped by events around them throughout their life.

Take notes as you listen particularly around the following issues:

  • What are the key historical events that have shaped Madame Yao’s and Ms Fu’s lives?
  • What are the historical events that they have helped shape?
Download this video clip.Video player: Shanghai clip (15 minutes)
Skip transcript: Shanghai clip (15 minutes)

Transcript: Shanghai clip (15 minutes)

Mrs Yao has two daughters. The elder one lives in Japan, the younger one, Ms Fu is 47. She’s married with one son and lives in Shanghai.
Ms Fu
This was taken when I was 15 years old. I was in middle school. At the time, I was a young girl. Although I was a student, I took care of my appearance.
At that time I used hair curlers, because I couldn’t get a perm. So I did my own fringe. The Gang of Four had just fallen, so beauty was still frowned upon.
I was at elementary school during the Cultural Revolution. I loved to take care of my appearance but this was not permitted in China.
If you wore tight trousers, your trousers would be cut open. After the Gang of Four fell, self-adornment was permitted.
Previously, perms were not allowed. So I used curlers to do my hair. Afterwards, I went to a studio to have this picture taken.
During the Cultural Revolution, I was a company commander in my class. I was always a leader at elementary school.
When I was at elementary school, academic study was downgraded. However, the teachers were still intellectuals. They would never ask you not to study, and they were serious about their teaching. If you didn’t like studying, they couldn’t be as strict with you as today’s teachers are.
When we were in grade 4 or 5, we started making political posters. We had young pioneer newspapers and we painted directly on to them.
At our school, there were teachers who came from capitalist families. It was common across several generations in those families to work as professors or teachers. We made political posters to attack those teachers.
Afterwards we put the posters up in the playground and classrooms.
I remember this very clearly.
When I attended middle school, after the Gang of Four had fallen schooling returned to normal. However, my academic foundations were very weak. So it was difficult for me to catch up.
Although I can claim to be a high school graduate, my knowledge can’t be compared to today’s graduates.
At the time, intellectuals were labelled as the ‘Stinking Ninth’ category. The working class was considered to be the most important with advanced thoughts.
In the first few years of elementary school, I was a class leader. I was taken by my teachers to learn from workers and peasants. Our education was about learning from the workers and the peasants.
We didn’t have academic study all the time. Because I was a class leader, my teachers took me to visit factories. After two lessons in the morning, children except for class leaders were dismissed.
My teacher took me and the other class leaders in my year to visit factories. I visited many factories, including a food processing factory and a textile factory. That was so that you would be re-educated by the working class.
After leaving school Ms Fu was found work by her Neighbourhood Committee until she took a permanent job in a State run factory that made table tennis equipment.
She’s been with that same company all her working life. It’s now a joint venture between the State and private shareholders.
Ms Fu
I remember we worked at the Neighbourhood Committee workshop to assemble staples. The raw materials were brought over from the factory. The Neighbourhood Committee provided us with a room where we assembled the staples.
I worked there for 11 months. The next year, I got the results of my factory recruitment exam, and then I was officially recruited to the table tennis factory.
When I started this job, my eyesight was very poor. The canteen needed two members of staff, so I was assigned to work there. But I didn’t like working there. 15 other people who were recruited at the same time were assigned to the workshops. There were assembly lines to produce table tennis balls
Most workers were women.
I was transferred to the packaging workshop in 1985. I worked there up until I had my son in 1989, about five years.
At the very beginning I pressed the bags, later I packaged table tennis balls. There was a special assembly line for Double Happiness table tennis balls and it had its own packaging workshop.
When I had my son in 1989 I went on maternity leave, and then I returned to work. After a short while we bought stocks.
Why was I transferred to the retail department? It’s because of the transition from a planned to a market economy.
Four factories were merged in 1995, forming a Double Happiness corporation. A series of products including table tennis balls and tables were branded together.
So then I worked in the Retail Department, in sales. That Retail Department was next to our corporate HQ. It was an outlet for clients and visitors, including delegations from the State Sports Committee.
Later, in 2000, I was transferred to the sales department at the corporate HQ. The sales were targeted at big clients, such as distributors.
Because of the growing popularity of sport, we’ve been doing better and better. We established the Double Happiness corporation to develop a bigger and stronger business. That’s the reason for the merger.
Because of increasing market demand, our business is better and better.
Ms Fu currently handles the Double Happiness sales account with a French supermarket chain.
Ms Fu
I was lucky because of my poor eyesight. At the time most of my female classmates went to work in textile factories. When they registered for the factory recruitment exam, they applied to the Bureau of Textiles. Light industry was not so strict about eyesight, so I worked at the table tennis factory
Around 1987, my classmates in towel, radio and textile factories received buy-out offers. A buy-out means they give you money.
Madame Yao
Many of them were laid off, but most of those in your factory continued to work.
Ms Fu
After the buy-out they went home. Some of them retired at 45, some continued to look for other jobs. Very few of my classmates are like me. I have always worked for the same company. I have kept my job and enjoyed stability up to now. In fact my job has got better and better. I wouldn’t dream of switching jobs.
Ms Fu’s father served in the Peoples Liberation Army as a seaman. .
Ms Fu
This small picture ... this is my father.
Madame Yao
Hold it high.
Ms Fu
This way, this way. Don’t hold it like Chairman Mao’s Red book. Hold it naturally.
Madame Yao
The two of us were introduced in 1959. Our match-maker, his aunt, was my neighbour. His aunt said: ‘That girl is nice’.
On the one hand, we had a house, and I had no siblings, I was alone. She knew I was a Shanghai girl, so she introduced me to her nephew.
We didn’t date, we just wrote letters to each other. We didn’t have a telephone, we couldn’t even call each other. So we got to know through exchanging letters. We communicated by letter.
Letters took ten days to arrive. His army unit was in Zhoshan. So it took a long time to get there.
I told him about my family’s poverty in the letters. I didn’t hide the facts from him. And he told me the truth about his family too.
After writing, once we got to know each other, we felt at ease with each other.
Ms Fu
It’s like QQ (online chatting). You chat in QQ first.
Madame Yao
It was our destiny to be together.
In the 1960s Mrs Yao lived through what she calls the Natural Catastrophe which in the West is known as the Great Famine.
Madame Yao
In 1962, I gave birth to my elder daughter. Our conditions were fine because I was looked after by the army. I was able to eat pork. Normally people didn’t have that.
At the time ... People experienced hardship.
Ms Fu
People experienced hardship
Madmae Yao
The people, the fields and the animals were all malnourished. There were no fertilisers because the animals were malnourished. The land was infertile because no one was planting crops.
At the time everything was centred around politics and movements. And we had no experience in economic development. In addition we had to repay our huge debt to the Soviet Union.
Ms Fu
People had to tighten their belts.
Madame Yao
Stalin would not write off the debt. That greatly affected people’s lives. Our government was also responsible.
Ms Fu
Political movements.
Madame Yao
The country had no raw materials during the three years of the Natural Catastrophe. Because of this situation, I returned to Shanghai in 1961. I had no job and stayed at home. I was married at the time, so I was dependent on my husband.
My husband worked for the military, so it was not hard for us. We were happy.
Ms Fu
My mother was already married. The salary from the arm was high.
Madame Yao
Everything was rationed but it didn’t affect me. All the supplies came from the army. Ordinary people experienced hardship but not us.
Mrs Yao worked in a textile factory.
Madame Yao
The work was labour intensive. It’s difficult to explain. I was spinning yarn. First you spun yarn, then you worked as a painter.
Ms Fu
Madame Yao
Anyway, the work was hard. When there was too much work the factory hired extra hands, extremely hard-working people. Because I was small, people asked me: “How can you stand it?”
Although the labour was intensive, I thought if other people can do it, so can I. So I continued working for over 20 years until I retired.
I have a pension, which has increased over the years. My wage at the beginning was 65 cents for half a day. One yuan thirty cents for one day.
Ms Fu
Don’t go into details!
Madame Yao
Now I have a pension, social security and medical insurance.
Ms Fu
Because you became an official worker.
End transcript: Shanghai clip (15 minutes)
Shanghai clip (15 minutes)
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There are a number of historical events that you could have noted down after watching this film that introduces us further to Madame Yao and her daughter, Ms Fu. Some of these are momentous events that are well-known such as the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s or China’s economic transformation from the 1980s. The former impacted Ms Fu’s education and the way she could dress and express her personality while the transition of China to a market economy provided Ms Fu with greater job opportunities and security at a time when her friends were losing their jobs. Other historical events are perhaps less well known such as the famine of 1958–1962 known by Madame Yao as the ‘Natural Catastrophe’. Indeed, this example highlights the differences that are evident throughout history which means some people are cushioned more from natural disasters than others. Madame Yao and her family where not sheltered from the worst of the famine because of their monetary wealth but because her husband was in the army and therefore she benefited from additional support. However, as Madame Yao alludes to in the film, while the army provided a safety net for her and her family, it meant she had other problems to contend with related to the fact that she was often having to look after her children and the family home on her own while her husband was away in the army or at sea.

The second question might feel like a trick question; there is no obvious answer that presents itself when watching the film. However, if we interrogate the information we are given it is possible to see how one individual is part of a greater whole. For example, Madame Yao has helped shape her daughter’s life as much as any parent does; Ms Fu’s participation in criticising her teachers during the Cultural Revolution may have impacted others around her; and the business decisions Ms Fu takes in her position as a sales manager of a major sports retailer will have implications on the way her company operates (the customers it has, the number of orders it receives) which in turn impacts other workers in the company in terms of their work load and job security. History doesn’t just take place on a large scale and in terms of major events. We can think of history at a range of scales (personal, family, community, national as well as international) and one’s place within history as being influenced by the degree of power and agency a person has.

Activity 8

Timing: 45 minutes

Now review all your notes that you have made so far and draw a spray diagram that helps collate your notes around the issue of history.


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