ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Today people across China are remembering a tractor driver. Liang Jun was not just any tractor driver. She's often described as the first Chinese woman to hold that job, starting in 1948. And she was immortalized on the currency, appearing on China's one yuan banknote. She died this week at the age of 90.
Tina Mai Chen is a professor of Chinese history at the University of Manitoba, and she has interviewed Liang Jun.
Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
TINA MAI CHEN: Thank you so much for having me.
SHAPIRO: First, tell us how Liang Jun ended up driving a tractor and why that was a big deal in 1948.
CHEN: Well, Liang Jun's story, as it's always told, is that she was born in 1930 to a poor peasant family, and that when she was 12 years old, she was given away to the landlord as a child bride. And so this is a typical kind of upbringing for a poor peasant, where they have debts to pay, and so that - she lived in these kinds of conditions until the area that she lived in was liberated by the Chinese Communist Party. And from there, she was freed from those conditions, offered the opportunity to go to school. And during that period, then, she also was exposed to Soviet photographic exhibitions and Soviet films, where she saw women driving tractors. And as the story goes, she then chose to enroll in a tractor-driving school, and she decided that was the profession for her.
SHAPIRO: And she was certainly a trailblazer. She's often described as the first woman in China to drive a tractor. Does the historical record back up that she was actually the first?
CHEN: Well, there seems to be some ambiguity in the historical record, but it's clear at that time in China, 1948, and then leading up to the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, that part of the process of making model workers also required celebrating women in particular roles. And so needing a first female tractor driver, someone also recognized as the first female conductor and welder, there's a number of women who fall into this kind of category. And so Liang Jun is celebrated as the first female tractor driver in that context.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like her story fits very neatly into the kind of socialist project of glorifying the worker. Tell us about how she went from tractor driver to national icon.
CHEN: Well, I think this seemed quite an easy fit in many ways for someone like Liang Jun because her story fits exactly those categories, particularly of a woman who was born into poverty, denied education, was under kind of the evil hold of the landlord and needed to be liberated and freed and then is given the opportunity for education. But Liang Jun also seemed to have the right personality for this. She clearly wanted to succeed. She took on the idea of getting an education, of also challenging the ideas of her fellow male students and other teachers to show that women could do the work. She took great pride in even the own transformation of her body, but also the way that she was able to just do this work. So it transformed her from being a peasant to being a worker. And this was a very essential part of the kind of new socialist project.
SHAPIRO: What was she like when you sat down to talk with her?
CHEN: Well, you know, this is always, I think back, one of the highlights of my research career. I was a graduate student at the time, and the first thing she did was took my hands. And she held them for a while. And she turned, and she said to me, those are large, strong hands. That's good.
CHEN: And she then proceeded to tell me stories about how she's often recognized by the strength of her hands, the importance of blisters on hands to her, that hands are working hands and the way that she really sees this as an important way of what a woman should be in a new socialist China, what it means to have - be doing work. And so it always kind of stays with me that she was kind of this very strong personality. She was warm and welcoming, but also the very kind of physical experience for her of being a female model I think was quite important.
SHAPIRO: Professor Tina Mai Chen of the University of Manitoba, thank you for remembering Liang Jun with us.
CHEN: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAT FOR LASHES SONG, "WINTER FIELDS")
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