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Liang Jun, China's Iconic Female Tractor Driver, Dies At 90

Liang Jun, a tractor driver and Soviet model worker, was immortalized in the 1960s on China's 1 yuan banknote.
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Liang Jun, a tractor driver and Soviet model worker, was immortalized in the 1960s on China's 1 yuan banknote.

People across China are remembering the life of Liang Jun, who is celebrated as the first Chinese woman to work as a tractor driver.

Recognized as a national folk hero, trailblazer and model socialist worker, Liang Jun was immortalized in the 1960s on China's 1 yuan banknote driving a tractor. She died this week at the age of 90.

Her story is typical of model workers in China, says Tina Mai Chen, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Manitoba. Chen interviewed Liang Jun in 1996.

As the story goes, Chen says, Liang Jun was born in 1930 to a poor peasant family and later given away at the age of 12 to the landlord as a child bride. She was eventually freed from those conditions by the Chinese Communist Party, which gave her the opportunity to go to school and select a profession.

During that period, Chen says, she was exposed to Soviet photograph exhibitions and Soviet films where she saw women driving tractors. "She then chose to enroll in a tractor driving school and she decided that was the profession for her," Chen recalls in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered.

Chen says Liang Jun's story fits into the Socialist project of glorifying the worker — a role for which she had the right personality.

"She clearly wanted to succeed," says Chen. "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."

Whether she was indeed China's first female tractor driver is not entirely clear. Women may have been training as tractor drivers in different places in China, but when the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, part of the process of creating model workers also required celebrating women in particular roles, according to Chen. There's a whole genre of first female model workers that includes not just the first female tractor driver, but also the first conductor and first welder.

Chen calls the experience of meeting Liang Jun when she was a graduate student researching female model workers one of the highlights of her career.

"The first thing she did was took my hands," she says. "She held them for a while and she turned and she said to me, 'Those are large, strong hands. That's good.' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.