Reproductive Realities in Modern China: An Interview with Sarah Mellors Rodriguez

Cover image of "Reproductive Realities in Modern China," by Sarah Mellors Rodriguez

Sarah Mellors Rodriguez is Assistant Professor of History at Missouri State University and author of Reproductive Realities in Modern China: Birth Control and Abortion, 1911-2021 (Cambridge University Press, 2023). Many readers will be familiar with the politics of reproduction in contemporary China, via media stories about the One Child Policy in effect from the late 1970s until 2015, and the Party-state’s efforts to increase birth numbers in the years since the policy’s rollback. In Reproductive Realities, Rodriguez moves beyond politics and widens the timeframe to consider the lived experiences of Chinese citizens—particularly women—as they managed reproduction and birth control from the early 20th century to the present.

Building on a rich archival base of legal cases, mass media, and government family planning records, Rodriguez adds depth to her study with details gathered through oral histories conducted with 80 men and women in Shanghai, Tianjin, and Luoyang. While state documents often depict a strictly enforced, top-down approach to regulating reproduction and birth control, Rodriguez found in her research that “Approaching sexuality and contraception from a grassroots perspective highlights the role that ordinary people played in shaping their own reproductive futures and the diversity of their experiences with reproduction.” More often than we might expect, and in many different geographic and temporal contexts, the story of Reproductive Realities is one of resistance.

The following interview with Sarah Mellors Rodriguez about Reproductive Realities was conducted via email.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Let’s start with the origin story of Reproductive Realities. How did you develop a dissertation project on reproduction and contraception in modern China, and then what sort of revisions or additions did you make to the project in its transition to book form?

Sarah Mellors Rodriguez: I became interested in reproduction and contraception in China nearly 15 years ago. In 2009, I started teaching English at a suburban middle school in Guangdong province. I had heard about the One Child Policy’s harsh enforcement and that transgressors were sometimes forced to undergo abortion and sterilization surgeries. To my surprise, I had a number of students in my classes with as many as eight siblings. My pupils often teased each other, joking that one student had cost his parents an additional 1,000 yuan in fees or that another had managed to evade the policy altogether.

In 2011, I was teaching English and history at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Jiangsu province when I was asked to teach a compulsory class for university faculty and administrators. As I grew closer to my adult students, they invited me to their homes and confided in me about their personal lives. Like their parents decades earlier, some students admitted that they had known very little about sex or birth control when they were married in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of my students, then in their 40s and 50s, had undergone multiple abortions in accordance with the One Child Policy, the violation of which could lead to heavy fines or even expulsion from the university. This led me to research human rights violations associated with the One Child Policy for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a bi-partisan U.S. government agency that monitors rule of law issues in China.

It was this series of events, revealing the vast degree of variation in policy enforcement and the enduring gaps in sex education and birth control use, that piqued my interest in studying the history of contraception. I wondered how these contemporary stories fit into the longer narrative of birth control use in China.

As for revisions I made to my dissertation, although my books covers the period from the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 to the present, my dissertation actually began in the 1920s and stopped with the conclusion of the One Child Policy in 2015. I quickly realized that I was ascribing insufficient importance to American birth control activist Margaret Sanger’s 1922 trip to China and that I needed to spend more time discussing how her visit sparked broader conversations about modernity, women’s rights, and public health. Situating Sanger’s visit within the context of the Republican period also required me to rethink the periodization of my book and thus I decided to start with the establishment of the Republic of China. Reworking the dissertation into the book also meant that I had to return to China, which I did in the summer of 2019, to conduct additional interviews that specifically addressed experiences under the One Child Policy. Those interviews allowed me to reflect more deeply on issues related to the One Child Policy that had been given less scholarly attention: namely, sex education and eugenics.

MEC: While there’s a large body of literature on women in 20th century China, most of that scholarship sticks to one side or the other of the 1949 divide between Republican China and the People’s Republic of China. Why did you decide to work in a broader timeframe, and what were some of the benefits and challenges to doing so?

SMR: I decided to frame my work in terms of the longue durée because I realized that crossing the 1949 divide yielded new insights that would not have been apparent if I had focused on a narrower timeframe or confined my analysis to just the Republican or Mao era. For instance, the emergence of overtly eugenic ideas and language in the 1980s is noteworthy in itself, but it is even more telling that Chinese eugenicists first promoted many of these same concepts during the May Fourth/New Culture Movement of the 1910s and ’20s. Although I feel that the benefits of using a broader timeframe outweighed the disadvantages of this approach, I was not able to provide as granular of a history as I might otherwise have. It was also a challenge to foreground contraception and abortion while not losing sight of the numerous significant political, economic, and social changes that occurred between 1911 and 2021.

MEC: I was struck by the many examples in Reproductive Realities of the disconnect between official discourse and on-the-ground reality: national conversations about birth control and abortion focused on socioeconomic and political factors, but individual behavior was driven by pragmatism and resources. If you could get Reproductive Realities into the hands of China’s family-planning officials today, what lessons would you hope they’d draw from history?

SMR: I hope that family-planning officials would realize that, as in the past, people make reproductive decisions for practical reasons linked to their personal circumstances. If the government wants people to act in a particular way with regard to childbearing, state policies need to make the desired reproductive behavior beneficial to individuals in the target demographic. To provide a concrete example, in light of the low birth rate, since 2015 the central government has repeatedly relaxed the national population policy and is now urging married couples to have more children to augment the workforce and care for the elderly. Rather than restricting access to abortion (something that was proposed in 2021), the government should address the structural factors that make having children difficult. Providing generous leave allotments for parents regardless of gender, industry, or migration status would do a lot to encourage childbearing. Guaranteeing access to low-cost childcare and education would also help ameliorate the financial burden of raising children. Ultimately if state policies are at odds with individual needs and wants, people won’t abide by them.

MEC: You emphasize the intensely gendered nature of state surveillance over reproduction, with women subject to far more scrutiny than men. What made this a “women’s issue” in the eyes of the Chinese state?

SMR: Reproduction, and by extension contraception, is viewed as a “women’s issue” for two reasons. First, childbearing is linked to women’s social and biological roles as mothers. The natal connection between mothers and babies makes childbearing of greater consequence to women and therefore renders their bodies particularly vulnerable to policing. Second, historically women in China have been viewed as responsible for duties related to the family, and reproduction often falls under this rubric. In this way, both women’s biological connections to babies and their social roles as wives and mothers make them the primary targets of state reproductive surveillance.

MEC: Though I have shelves and shelves of books waiting to be read, I’m always looking for more. So, if someone liked Reproductive Realities and wants to read further about gender history in modern China or reproduction and birth control elsewhere, what are a few of your top recommendations? What are the books that inspire you?

SMR: One of my all-time favorite books about gender history in China and a significant inspiration for my book is Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past. This book, which has now become something of a classic, charts the experiences of “doubly marginalized” rural women from the founding of the People’s Republic through the Reform era. As a graduate student, reading The Gender of Memory demonstrated to me more clearly than any other work how centering gender can destabilize and reframe conventional historical narratives. The way in which Hershatter (and her co-author, Gao Xiaoxian) seamlessly integrated life stories into the book’s analysis also left a lasting impression on me. Some of my other favorite readings on the history of reproduction in China are “Jihua shengyu de kaiduan – 1950–1960 niandai de Shanghai” 计划生育的开端—1950–1960年代的上海 (The Beginnings of Birth Planning in Shanghai in the 1950s and 1960s) by Masako Kohama (in Chinese) and “Under the Shadow of the Collective Good: An Ethnographic Analysis of Fertility Control in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang Province, China” by Hua Han. Although Kohama is a historian and Han is an anthropologist, both authors use ethnographic methods—including “thick description” (à la Clifford Geertz)—to expose Chinese women’s reproductive agency and local contraceptive practices.

MEC: Finally, what else has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, historian, professor, or person living in the world?

SMR: I find myself thinking a lot lately about the fact that many countries in Asia and Europe are facing significant demographic shifts as their populations age. Even in the best of circumstances, negotiating eldercare can be challenging for everyone involved, and this is an increasingly dire issue in Mainland China. According to official estimates, by 2050, half a billion people—more than one-third of China’s population—will be 60 or older. Yet state efforts to meet the needs of the swelling senior population have not kept pace with the demand for eldercare services. My next book-length project, “Growing Old in China: A History of Aging in the People’s Republic,” uses archival research and interviews to investigate how the rollback of the (albeit limited) collective-era social safety net, uneven economic development, and limited access to healthcare have shaped experiences with aging in China since 1949. My goal is to shed light on the experiences of individuals who represent a substantial portion of the Chinese population in absolute terms but whose stories have largely been overlooked. If you are reading this and would like to get involved with this project or know of potential source material, I would be delighted to hear from you!