Peace, Praxis, and Women Farmers in China.

Author:Barlow, Tani
 
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THIS ARTICLE DISCUSSES THE REMARKABLE WORK OF CHINESE WOMEN farmers who are part of PeaceWomen Across the Globe (PWAG). (1) I consider various aspects of this project--praxis, theory, philosophy, and the recognition accorded to the PeaceWomen. I argue that their work, and the thinking behind it, has much to offer to theories of rural development and community building.

Background

In 2003, at the initiative of Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold, a member of the Swiss National Council and the Council of Europe, an effort began to nominate 1,000 PeaceWomen for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. The Swiss group invited female peace activists from 20 countries to coordinate the selection of potential nominees from many regions, including East Asia. When the nomination did not result in a Nobel Peace Prize, the organizers regrouped under the name PeaceWomen Across the Globe (PWAG). Kin Chi Lau [phrase omitted] of Lingnan University organized the China branch of PWAG in 2007, and PWAG coordinators in mainland China and Hong Kong have since undertaken projects focused on ecological security and environmental justice. (2)

In 2009, I joined a delegation of PeaceWomen and traveled with them through the Chinese provinces of Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Shanxi. We met Chinese PeaceWomen--farmers, for the most part, including Niu Yuqin [phrase omitted], Yin Yuzhen [phrase omitted] Wang Shuxia [phrase omitted] Cheng Wei [phrase omitted] Zhang Hua [phrase omitted] Zhao Ling [phrase omitted] Joan Hinton [phrase omitted] Yang Hailan and Tian Guirong [phrase omitted]--and visited their workplaces. (3) I learned about antidesertification farms, organic fruit farms, ecovillage construction, reclamation of toxic batteries from the environment, organic latrines, and chemical-free pig and cattle farms, as well as the complex relationships among female agriculturalists, university students, social workers, local businesswomen, and the state rural reconstruction project that seeks to build a dense, sustainable cultural world outside large cities.

Over the last 15 years, I have regularly returned to the following questions about PWAG: How did PWAG organizers bypass the United Nations' depoliticized gender instruments and gender mainstreaming that are prevalent in the official NGO world? How did PWAG manage its internationalism with respect to feminist and social theory? Was PWAG linked to the century-old Communist women's political peace movement? Why was the PWAG project all but invisible in mainstream US work on international feminism?

The 2009 journey resolved most of my questions. The delegation included a Sudanese agronomist, an anthropologist living and working in Chiapas, Mexico, and a Spanish activist who advocated for migrant workers in the EU flower industry. I saw how such international delegations of Peace Women had forged a practical internationalism that bypassed neoliberal development institutions. Second, the international implications of the project lay in its improvement over many Kerala-like models. (4) I learned that Peace Women know about the internationalist Communist movement; they acknowledge its importance without disavowing or exaggerating it. This leaves in place the question of why the PeaceWomen project has received so little attention in the arena of US-based feminist scholarship. The absence is puzzling, as Elissa J. Tivona's (2008) dissertation observes, because the PeaceWomen project has reconfigured fundamental assumptions about women, politics, and representation. "The 1,000 women," she writes, "'exhibit scant evidence of the need to be empowered. Instead they offer stunning examples of creative agency making full use of their social capital within the context of their lives" (Tivona 2008, 14; emphasis mine).

Indeed, PeaceWomen's activities, although modest, constitute praxis--not just good works--that is visible in daily life and in intentional, theoretically driven, political acts. Praxis among female farmers is difficult to see, partly because women's actions are often attributed to their sex rather than recognized as political activity. Therefore, PeaceWomen's political acts rejuvenate theories of social life and recast the meaning of social justice. This claim will require philosophy to acknowledge that our species is a constructed subject split into egg carriers and sperm carriers, often, but not always, anatomical women and men. PeaceWomen build on the existential fact of social reproduction, but they repoliticize it.

What might we learn from PWAG and how might rural women's praxis become meaningful in the United States? Farmers' peace and livelihood practices, including planting trees, vegetables, and brush in the desert--their planning for creative work--are open to scholarly emulation and adaptation at our current conjuncture.

Praxis

Rural people in China today create value under two conditions: 1) corrosive partial marketization and 2) the disintegration of village corporate institutions due to repeated, failed modernization models imposed from the top down. He Xuefeng (2008) and his colleague Chen Baifeng (2008) use theories of value to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary village life as part of an effort to create villages where people want to and can live--spaces where resources for a good life are available. Reinvention of rural life rests on the ability of farmers and authorities to invoke social values beyond the family but not subordinated to the market or its quantification of life (Chen 2008, 30-42). (5) Although debate surrounds these new village analyses, the consensus position is that rural degradation includes corruption, collapse of financial accountability, blossoming surcharges, collapse of village solidarity, and the rise of collective violence (Xing 2008).

Given this analysis of rural decline, the practices of Chinese PeaceWomen are astonishingly inventive in several respects. Out of forbiddingly difficult conditions of national marketization, impoverished class standing, and the erosion of the common social good, these women are creating communicable value and exchanging this value with one another. This is the process that I witnessed in 2009. Joining in mutual recognition of their own creative achievements, the PeaceWomen have built new just social relations during a period of retrenchment of rural values. The space where these inventive, just social relations and public values are created is neither strictly within the village governance system nor outside of it. Where some sociologists of village life see the rise of the nuclear family as an erosion of village sociality, the preponderance of projects among the women I met (many of whom were part of a nuclear couple with children) suggest the contrary, that what connects Chinese PeaceWomen are rural social networks, incorporating the nuclear family and persisting in a fresh space of intrarural, thoroughly contemporary, postvillage sociality (Chen 2008). Finally, PeaceWomen's work poses alternatives of the kind that rural specialists like Wen Tiejun [phrase omitted] and other leaders of China's Three Agricultural Problems movement (6) call for, because they create value...

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