Delia Davin (June 9, 1944-October 13, 2016): An Appreciation

Gail Hershatter's picture

           Delia Davin, a scholar who helped bring questions of gender to the center of China Studies, has died at home in Leeds, England after a long illness. She was Emeritus Professor of Chinese Studies in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds.

            Delia Davin grew up in Oxford, the granddaughter of Irish migrants to New Zealand and the daughter of expatriate New Zealand parents. She left school at fifteen, finished her “A” levels in evening classes, and in 1963, at age 19, went to Beijing with a small group of “foreign experts.” She taught English at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, living at the Friendship Hotel and remaining in China until 1965.  Her first book, Letters from Peking, published in 1967, drew upon that experience. Subsequently she completed her B.A. (1968) and Ph.D. (1974) degrees in the Department of Chinese at Leeds, with research stints in Paris and at the Universities Service Center in Hong Kong.  She worked in China from 1975-6 as a translator at the Foreign Languages Press. 

            For sixteen years Davin was a lecturer in the Department of Economics and Related Studies at the University of York, becoming a founding member of York’s Centre for Women's Studies, the second institution in the UK to offer an M.A. in Women’s Studies.  In 1988 she returned to Leeds to teach Chinese history and social studies, where she was, in succession, a Senior Lecturer, a Reader, and a chaired Professor, also serving terms as Head of the Department of East Asian Studies and Deputy Head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures. She served as President of the British Association for Chinese Studies, a member of the China Panel of the British Academy, and a member of the Executive Council of the Universities’ China Committee in London.  She retired from fulltime work in 2004, but remained an active researcher until shortly before her death.

            Davin was one of the first foreign researchers working in China to pay attention to Chinese Communist Party policies on women and the complex effects of those policies.  She followed several important early articles with her 1976 classic Woman-Work: Women and the Party in Revolutionary China. The book outlined Party policies toward women from the 1930s until the establishment of the PRC, and then provided the first fine-grained study of the changes in women’s status after 1949. It included chapters on the Women’s Federation, marriage reform, the effects of land reform and collectivization on women, and the lives of urban women.  Davin appreciated the enormity of the changes that the new Party-state was initiating, but she did not shy away from analyzing the contradictions between the state’s economic goals and women’s skills and ongoing domestic burden, or between the ambitious Marriage Law and the difficulties of its implementation, or between rural women’s growing capacity for economic independence and their continued embeddedness in patrilocal families.  The book, which centered on the changes of the 1950s, effectively laid out an agenda for much of the subsequent scholarship on women in the Mao years. 

            In 1999, tracking the changes of the post-Mao economic reforms, Davin published a second major study, Internal Migration in Contemporary China.  At the same time she continued to investigate the changing circumstances of women in substantive essays exploring marriage migration, domestic service, and welfare entitlements for Chinese women workers. Her jointly edited book China’s One Child Family Policy (1985) was one of the first studies of the early effects of that policy.

            Another ongoing research interest was the life of Mao Zedong and the legacy of Maoism.  Her book Mao Zedong: A Life appeared in 1997. In 2013 she published a volume on Mao in the Oxford University Press “very short introduction” series.  She was also, with William Jenner, the translator, editor, and introducer of Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye’s book Chinese Lives: An Oral History of Contemporary China. One of Davin’s last pieces of writing was her 2015 Introduction to Daughter of Good Fortune, the autobiographical narrative of a rural Chinese woman named Chen Huiqin written with her daughter Chen Shehong. 

            Warm, perceptive, a committed activist for social justice, a generous mentor and an extraordinary friend, Delia Davin remained intellectually and politically engaged all her life.  She is survived by her husband, Owen Wells (who can be contacted at, and her six children and stepchildren.  Further details about her life and work can be found in John Gittings’s piece about her in The Guardian,

            A memorial and celebration of Delia Davin’s life will be held on October 25th in Leeds.  Those wishing to make a gift in her memory are invited to contribute to Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières) and Manorlands Hospice.


Gail Hershatter

University of California, Santa Cruz

From Chen Shehong, on remembering Delia Davin

Delia Davin—Teacher and Humanitarian
Chen Shehong

I wrote my mother's (Chen Huiqin's) memoir titled Daughter of Good Fortune: A Twentieth-Century Chinese Peasant Memoir, for which Delia Davin wrote the Introduction. I am very much saddened by the news that Prof. Davin had passed away. I am writing to tell a story Prof. Davin shared with me to add to what Prof. Gail Hershatter has written in her "Delia Davin: An Appreciation."
After my mother's memoir was published in the spring of 2015, a copy of the book was sent to Prof. Davin, who was hospitalized for cancer treatment in England at the time. When I contacted her via email to express my gratitude for the introduction she had written for my book, she replied back to me with the following story:

"There was a member of the hospital domestic staff who was responsible for bed-making. Everyday he came into the bag I was sharing with 7 other women to make the beds up with clean fresh linen. He did it with immense care and perfectionism making everything so neat that we were rather reluctant to get back into our beds and disturb them -  not a bad thing as the nurses insisted it was good for us to sit up for several hours a day to avoid bed sores and so on. Anyway, this young man was very approving at the amount of reading I was doing. He kept saying that it was much better than television. I asked him about his background and he said he came from a peasant family in Eritrea. He had had a scholarship to go to university but then he got into political trouble and somehow got to the UK where he was granted asylum. His English was not good so he got the best job he could. The next day when he came he noticed your book on my table and got very excited when he noticed my name on the cover. He said he had never met a writer before! I suggested that perhaps one day he could write his own life story. I am sure it would be an interesting one. He said he would study hard and try to do that.  I think it is nice to think that someone could be inspired by the book in such a personal way."

I had always admired Prof. Davin's scholarship, but had never met her in person. This story showed me another dimension of Prof. Davin as a human being--she was a great teacher and humanitarian who was encouraging and inspiring workers in the hospital where she was being treated for "terminal cancer" (her own words).

I would like to convey my condolences to Prof. Delia Davin's family. I believe that Prof. Davin's spirit lives on in the works she produced as well as in the people she impacted. 

Remembering Delia

There is another compelling memorial to Delia by John Gittings in The Guardian.

Here's another brief recollection.

Delia arrived in Tokyo from China perhaps en route back to England for a brief

research visit, perhaps in 1973. She also threw herself into the work of Beheiren (Japan Peace for

Vietnam Committee) and its international affiliate (Gaijin Beheiren) participating, and Lucy

then perhaps two years old on her back. There's a memorable photo of them in a Tokyo demo with

student sect members wearing helmets and carring staves squaring off against the riot police. Anna

appears determined (and Lucy serene). In the weeks before she passed away she was somehow

putting a Japanese researcher of the movement in touch with people in Europe, North America, Asia

and Australia.

mark selden