Women in the Chinese Revolution


Women in Socialist China

Part II   

Part I

Women in the Chinese Revolution



The struggle for the transformation in the status of women in China was closely connected with the struggle of the people of China against feudalism and imperialist control. Their long struggle for self-assertion within the family and society, against patriarchy, for the right to vote, for free choice of partners and divorce, for property rights etc., drew sustenance from the revolutionary movements in China. The movement proceeded along a zigzag path; it was attended with advances and retreats. At times, women’s rights movements strengthened revolutionary struggles aimed at fundamental social transformation; at other times, these were fed by revolutionary movements. There were also times, particularly during the Anti-Japanese War (1937-45), when the needs of the national or social revolution took precedence over the cause of the women’s movements.

Mao Tsetung wrote that the Chinese people had three ropes round their necks, but women had four: political authority, clan authority, religious authority and the authority of the husband. These authorities embodied the whole feudal and patriarchal ideology and the social system. For thousands of years, political power in China, whether in slave society or feudal society, had been closely associated with the control of women. Neither did the women have any right over property, nor did they enjoy any independent decision-making power in matters affecting the family and clan.

A woman was subjugated throughout her life to an unending series of authorities: her own mother and father, her husband’s mother and father, her husband, and finally, her son. The marriages were blind marriages arranged by family heads in which neither the groom nor the bride had any voice. Under this arrangement, the groom’s family paid a "body price" to the bride’s family, implying thereby that they are buying the young woman as a chattel and reimbursing her natal family with the "bride price" for the expense of raising her. The situation was such that divorce was next to impossible for an unhappy wife. Even if her husband died, her in-laws retained control over her. If she was allowed to leave her family and remarry again, she would first have to find out a new husband who was prepared to pay the body price for her. But how could she get a new life-partner when free-mixing between men and women was unthinkable in society? If she simply sought to get a divorce and be free, she could not do so because being economically dependent, she could never pay the body price necessary to secure her freedom. Marriage was such a terrible prospect for women that in some places they formed sisterhoods, composed of maidens who vowed never to marry.

One of the important elements peculiar to the feudal society of China was the custom of foot-binding imposed on the Chinese women in many parts of the country. This custom is attributed to the second ruler of the Tang dynasty, Li Yu (937-978) who is supposed to have compelled his favourite Yaoning to dance to the image of a lotus flower. Footbinding, introduced in the 11th century, spread from the ranks of the aristocracy to those of modest means and much of the peasantry. This operation is performed on the eve of the fifth birthday of girls, by their mothers. The toes are bent under the soles of the feet and the broken feet are then bound with bandages—an operation that lasts 10 to 15 years. This inhuman physical suffering leads to the turning of the young girl into a fetish, an object of love. These bound feet or "golden lily" in the eyes of the poets, becomes the erotic part of the female body, so much so that Tang painters depict a woman’s genitals but never a crippled foot. After her marriage, this bound foot gains for her the recognition and respect of the in-laws because this is an undeniable proof of her capacity to suffer and obey.

In feudal China, as in other feudal societies, women, particularly rural women, were regarded as an object, whose body and mind were under the control of patriarchy. Confucian ideology perpetuated the domination of men over women. Later, Confucious formulated more codes of conduct for women. How feudal China looked at women is evident from the following formulation; ‘Having married a cock she must follow the cock; having married a dog she must follow the dog; having married a carrying pole she must carry it for life.’

In fact, women constituted so important an element of the feudal system, that any attempt to emancipate women could only result in the entire restructuring of the whole social pyramid and a tremendous change in outlook towards women as also in the correlation of forces struggling for power. In fact, the history of the women’s movements in China had always been closely connected with the history of revolutionary movements. Chinese women took an active role in a large number of rebellions and movements of other types along with men.

There were special contingents of women in the Taiping army during the Taiping rebellion (1851-64) as also among the Boxers during the Boxer rebellion of 1900. While Jean Chesneaux attributes the presence of rebel women in large numbers to the weakening of the feudal structure due to the intensification of the feudal crisis, Julia Kristeva suggests that the daughters of the Taoist Boxers took part in military and political struggles because of the limited freedom accorded to women in non-Han, non-Confucian families. Women took part in the Reform Movement of 1898 which demanded, among other things, the right to education for women and the unbinding of their feet. Bourgeois revolutionary efforts led by Sun Yat-sen also attracted many women like Chiu Chin who published the first "Women’s Journal", organized the "Restoration Army" in Chekiang, attempted to assassinate the governor and was executed in 1907. Battalions of women were organized during the Revolution of 1911 when demands were raised for women’s right to education, "to make friends" to marry by free choice of partners and to participate in government.

After the establishment of the Republic in 1912, a new type of movement developed which gave Chinese feminism its militant character. The activists stood against patriarchy, and fought for the equality of men and women. Influenced by western suffragettes, as also by the fight against a feudal patriarchal society, this movement, urban in nature, drew its followers from such organizations as the Shanghai Social Club for Women’s Suffrage, the militant Women’s Society, the Female Alliance, the Women’s Organization for Peace, and the Women’s Citizens’ society—all of which formed a coordinating council and prepared a list of objectives which were to be adopted during the May 4 Movement of 1919. The militancy of Chinese women was displayed in no uncertain degree when some feminists and their supporters, like the women suffragattes of England before, stormed a Republican Parliament in 1913, smashing windows and injuring several guards. The May 4 Movement championed all these ideas and spread them throughout the country.

The people who gave leadership in the Chinese revolution also took an active part in championing women’s causes during the May 4 Movement. The New People’s Study Society, which Mao Tsetung formed in Hunan, became one of the most radical student organizations, and most of its members eventually joined the Socialist Youth Corps. Early response, even during pre-communist days, to the women’s issue, underlined the link between the position of women and the key issues relating to social revolution in China. Some of Mao’s early articles on these issue dealt with the suicide of three young girls.

In ‘A Critique of Miss Chao’s Suicide’, he wrote: "...A suicide is determined entirely by the environment. Was Miss Chao’s original intention to die? No, it was not. On the contrary, it was to live. Yet her final decision to die was forced by her environment." Miss Chao’s marriage was arranged by her parents and the match-maker in November 1919 much to her dislike. Her parents refused either to undo the marriage or to postpone the wedding date. On the day of wedding as she was being raised aloft in the bridal chair to be delivered to the home of the groom, she slit her throat with a dagger. Mao called upon women to join the whole human race against cannibalistic feudal morality: "Since we are all human beings, why shouldn’t we be able to vote? And we are all human beings, why shouldn’t we mix freely together?" While in ordinary circumstances, this incident might have gone unnoticed, during the social ferment and the intellectual awakening of the May 4 Movement it became Changsha’s biggest news stories of the year. This suicide was the subject of at least nine impassioned articles by Mao. These are important because the message that gradually emerges out of them is that the movement for women’s emancipation is an integral part of the struggle for social transformation.

The fundamental question was: Should the Chinese Communists recognise and support the existence of a separate women’s movement dealing only with their specific demands; or should the women’s question be treated as one of the important elements of the broader question of social revolution, and hence the women’s movement be under the guidance of the CPC? The formation of the CPC in 1921, and the spread of revolutionary movement, brought the women’s movement to the fore. The communists recognised that women were confronted with some specific problems peculiar to their social position and these made them the most oppressed section among the oppressed classes in feudal China. Thus the battle for women’s emancipation was closely tied up with the battle for social revolution in which they fought side by side with men. However, patriarchy was so much embedded within Chinese society, even within members of the CPC, as the Party was soon to discover, as to affect joint struggles against common enemies in future.

The relation between the CPC and the various feminist groups was more of struggle than of unity. Although the Party leaders recognised their demands for equality as just, these groups, mainly consisting of urban, educated women, were also criticised for being westernised, bourgeois elitists who failed to integrate with the women workers and poor masses, and ignored the need for revolution. These feminists concentrated too much on sexual politics, identified men as the oppressor rather than assailing the ruling classes and the entire man-eating system as the root cause of both male and female oppression.

The first official move of the CPC in this field, in response to the growing solidarity of women, was to set up a special women’s department at the Second Party Congress held in 1922 in order to organise and lead women in revolutionary politics. This department was directed by Hsing Ching-yu, one of Mao’s fellow student-activists from Hunan and the only woman on the Central Committee of the CPC. The Party included in its list of objectives "the unlimited right to vote for all workers and peasants, regardless of sex", protection for female and child labour and the abolition of all restrictions on women. It also espoused such democratic demands of feminist groups as the right to self-determination in marriage, equal husband-wife relations, equal rights to vote, hold office and education. Hsing was instrumental in bringing large sections of women belonging to these groups within the fold of the CPC, thereby channelling the movement into a socialist direction. She was executed by the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1928. She was admired as the "Grandmother of the Revolution."

In the early days, the Women’s Department’s concentration on the task of organising women workers reflected the CPC’s urban strategy of revolution as influenced by the Comintern. The first strike by women workers occurred in 24 silk factories of Shanghai in 1922 in which 20,000 joined and demanded a 10-hour working day and 5 cents wage-increase per day. The first rally of women, under party leadership, was held on Women’s Day (8 March) of 1924 in Canton, where a group of girl students and women workers raised slogans: "Down with imperialism", "Down with warlords", "Same work same pay", "protection for child labour and pregnant mothers", "Equal education", "Abolish child brides and polygamy", "Prohibit the buying of slave girls and the taking of concubines", "Formulate a child protection law". These anti-imperialist and anti-feudal slogans echoed throughout the country and ushered in a new phase in the women’s movement.

During the CPC-KMT alliance (1923-27), two separate women’s departments existed parallely—one of the CPC, the other of the KMT. The KMT-led department had nothing to do with social revolution; it only demanded equal rights for women and freedom in marriage and divorce, abolition of legal slavery of women and girls through the purchase-marriage system, prohibition of footbinding etc. The CPC-KMT alliance was terminated in 1927 by Chiang Kai-shek, who organized one of the most gruesome bloodbaths in which thousands of women also lost their lives. The KMT then tried to re-impose Confucianism through the New Life Movement in the 1930s.

The CPC, or at least a section of it, began to realise the futility of its strategy of urban insurrections based on the Soviet model and turned its attention to the peasantry and peasant women. The failure of the rising of the Shanghai workers, the massacres perpetrated by the KMT in Nanking, Canton and other places, the failure of the uprisings at Nanchang, the autumn harvest uprising, etc— all having taken place in 1927—forced Mao Tsetung, Chu Teh and others to gather on the Chingkang Mountains and set up base areas covering Hunan, Kiangsi and Fukien provinces in Central-Southeastern China.

The primary task of the party and the Red Army in the base areas was to fight off the KMT-led "encirclement and suppression" campaigns, and throughout the Kiangsi -Soviet period (1929-34), women in the base areas were on rear-area support for the war effort. Although there was generally no direct participation of women in the war, there were also some exceptions to it. Kang Ke-ching joined the Red Army in western Kiangsi in 1928 and later married Chu The. There were 100 other young women who came to Kiangsi with the Red Army. A regular fighting unit of women was also active in Szechuan, and it later joined Chang Kuo-Tao’s army on the Long March. The Party’s women’s department championed women’s rights theoretically for a long time, but it was in a position to formulate and implement a concrete policy only after the Party and the Red Army set up base areas on the Chingkang Mountains.

The section ‘Family law’ in the ‘Civil Code’ of the KMT upheld the principle of the equality of the sexes and the conclusion of marriage and divorce by mutual consent; this law, as is quite natural, existed on paper only, because such a change in the superstructure is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a genuine anti-feudal struggle, which the KMT was incapable of launching. The communist legislation of the Kiangsi Soviet in 1930 was far more specific in its formulation, and was enforced immediately on millions of men and women settled in the base areas. In his "Report of an investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan" (1927), Mao stressed the need of three kinds of struggle: against political power, clan power and theocratic power, and in the case of women, a fourth kind, that against oppressive husbands.

As the Chairman of the Kiangsi Soviet, Mao promoted a Marriage Decree (1930), which says : "....men without wives may take the liberty of finding a wife as quickly as possible and women without husbands may take the liberty of finding a husband as quickly as possible". In the Plan of Action on the Women’s Issue, drawn up at the plenum of the Central Committee of the CPC (3 March 1931), it was stated: "....soviet political principles must be applied to women in order to destroy the legal norms of the old society, to oppose the exploitative relationships of the feudal family etc, and to guarantee women’s equality with men and permit them to acquire civil rights..." Article 1 of the Land Law stated in reference to confiscated lands of landlords: "Hired farm hands, coolies and toiling labour-owners shall enjoy equal rights to land allotments irrespective of sex".

Kristeva points out that the Marriage Resolution (1931) helped eliminate at least the patriarchal authority of the clan system. It authorised free choice of partners, prohibited marriage between relatives through the fifth generation, as well as between so called ‘piao’ cousins (i.e. ‘relatives of the same generation other than those to whom one is connected exclusively by males’) in the maternal lineage—a provision which struck at the system of clan isolation by arranged marriage between relatives. The provision of ‘free divorce’ ensures the economic security of women. The Regulation also abolished the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children.

It is pertinent to note that the Marriage Regulations were passed in the face of stiff opposition from within. Kay Ann Johnson suggests that the passing of the Regulations was partly due to the arrival of the underground wing of the Party from Shanghai, which "objected strongly to the view and practices of some other Party groups in Kiangsi who favoured the restriction of marriage and divorce rights". The regulations also made it clear that upon divorce, the woman retained her full property rights, land allotment and equal share of any property. The Marriage Law of April 1934 added more to the Kiangsi document. Marriage and divorce between boys of twenty and girls of eighteen and above were free. Mao insists that these must be registered, for that would serve as the means of protecting women against patriarchal abuses.

This was legal recognition, and a development upon the previous practice introduced by the CPC in the 1920s when "Eight Mutuals" (pledge to love, to respect, to help, to encourage, to console, to have consideration, to have confidence and mutual understanding) served as the basis of marriage among young revolutionaries. The state at the same time assumed the right to intervene in matters relating to reproduction in order to avoid anarchy. In one sense, this also implied some sort of controlled sexuality. If the basis of marriage is free choice and the ‘Eight Mutuals’, then there was no need to carry on secret love affairs.

In order to assess the impact of these measures one can refer to the following statement of Mao made in 1934: "In course of the four and a half years of communist rule, one woman out of one hundred (in the Canton Changgang, district Xingguo) was married three times. Before the arrival of the communists, on the other hand, fifty per cent of the women in the Canton were carrying on secret love affairs. Following the establishment of Soviet power, this figure has fallen by ten per cent....The reasons for this are : first, the land-reform movement ; second, freedom of marriage and divorce ; third, the importance of time dedicated to revolutionary activity". The 1934 law at the same time, prohibited polyandry and polygamy as also marriage between relatives through the third generation, and recognised de facto i.e., unregistered marriages. After divorce, children were to be in the custody of the mother and the father should contribute to their support. It is important to point out that the adoption and enforcement of the policy of freedom in marriage and divorce was never a smooth affair. First, this regulation caused conflicts with the male peasants and partymen whose traditional control over women and wives was thereby threatened.

The Chinese revolution has proved time and again that the process of remoulding one’s thinking is a tortuous and difficult one, that it is not at all easy to fight self-interest, bureaucratic attitudes and patriarchal attitudes within oneself. That it is easier to fight the enemy with the gun than to combat wrong outlook and practices within oneself. Second, the traditional marriage system was such that the would-be husband had to pay a bride-price to get a wife. There were thus many poor peasants who either could not marry and remained single throughout their lives due to their inability to pay the price, or they could get one, after much hardship. For them, freedom in marriage was welcome because they need not have to pay any bride-price for it. On the other hand, the right to divorce was a matter of great concern, for in that case they might not only lose their wives, but also their wives’ land. Such poor peasants as also male middle peasants were probably in the majority in the base areas.

The peasant resistance was reflected also in the debates over organisation and form .The crucial question was whether there should be separate women’s associations or only a separate women’s section within the peasant association. The second path was supported by a large number of male communists and even many young women organisers. There were other problems as well. The Regulations advocated free choice of partners. But how could there be the exercise of free choice when in many areas, free mixing among young boys and girls was unthinkable. Moreover, the women organisers also encountered stiff resistance not only from men, but also from older, conservative women. The sight of ’strange’ women walking freely about the village, talking to strangers and preaching "immoral" doctrines like free love scandalised many villagers. In many places, women organisers had to be withdrawn in the face of conservative opposition, and there were reports about young women being beaten up and even killed by angry members of the families.

Johnson has referred to "excesses" of another kind. Some male cadres criticised traditional restrictions on women as a means to further exploit and sexually abuse women. Some members of the communist youth in the soviet districts of Fukien forced women to sleep with men pell-mell under the pretext of combating feudalism. Again, in some areas of Juichin, widows were forced to remarry within five days of a husband’s death. Although these deviations were condemned in many Party documents, these also provided the means in the hands of the critics to criticise the movement. Although the women’s teams had to make a retreat in some areas, there were also areas were they boldly stood up under the banner of the Women’s Association.

It was the struggle for the attainment of women’s liberation not only from the clutches of the landlords, but also from the oppression of their husbands and domestic seclusion. William Hinton, who lived in Long Bow village, observed that many women realised that it was impossible to talk of the liberation of women without the defence of the soviet areas against the KMT armies and without the successful transformation of society. Jack Belden has given a graphic and moving account of how Kinhua (Gold Flower)—a peasant woman from Hopei, who stood up, with the help of the Women’s Association, against her oppressive husband and in-laws; and how her husband was tried in a people’s court, beaten up by women for his refusal to apologise for his misdeeds and how, in the new fresh air of freedom, she could move out freely, hold her head high and take part in production. The new meaning of life Kinhua discovered, was shared by many other women in other areas also. Belden was not alone in thinking that the substitution of pain, anguish and despair of Chinese womanhood by joy, pride and hope was a phenomenon of the most tremendous significance.

The stage of the anti-Japanese national liberation war after the Long March (16 October 1934-20 October 1935) ushered in a new historical situation and the struggle against Japanese imperialism took precedence over the anti-feudal campaign. The struggle launched during the Yenan phase, is one of the bloodiest in the history of the modern world, and peasants were recruited in large numbers to the Eighth Route Army. There were attacks and counter-attacks on both sides, coupled with the KMT-blockade of the red zones. The situation demanded the channellisation of the major resources to meet the war needs. The liberation of women, particularly the right to divorce, was temporarily suspended because of, as Mark Selden writes, "its potentially divisive effect".

In order to meet the growing need for production and make up the shortage of labour, the CPC decided to involve women in production both within and outside the home. Thousands of peasant women were mobilised for part-time weaving on simple looms. This not only helped meet day-to-day needs, but also spread new economic and political ideas throughout the border region and to break down traditional values which impeded development and community action. Women were also organised into local village militia. They gathered intelligence, acted as couriers and occasionally backed up regular troops.

An important aspect of the 1934 law was that a soldier’s wife could not obtain divorce without the consent of her husband. Some peasant husbands complained. "The revolution wants to get rid of everything, wives included." To preserve the morale of the Red Army, a special clause, subsequently included, allowed divorce to wives only if their husbands agreed. The suspension of the struggle for women’s emancipation came in for criticism from the women themselves.

In 1942, the conflict between Party policy and women members of the Party came into the open with the publication of Ting Ling’s article, "Thoughts of March 8" (Women’s Day). She pointed to the contradictory demands made by the Party on women and expressed her frustration for being at a loss what to do. She wrote: "If women did not marry, they are ridiculed ; if they did and had children, they were chastised for holding political posts rather than being at home with their families; if they remained at home for a number of years, they were slandered as backward. Whereas in the old society they were pitied, in the present one they were condemned for a predicament not of their own making".

During the cheng feng, or the rectification movement launched by the CPC in 1942, the Party criticised the demands exclusively relating to women as divisive and detrimental to revolutionary mobilisation. This issue merits particular attention. There was a definite contradiction here between the Party policy and the fight for women’s emancipation, as at least a section of the women-activists perceived it. To the Party, during the period of the anti-Japanese war, the principal contradiction changed from one between feudalism and the broad masses of the Chinese people, into one between the Chinese nation on the one hand, and Japanese imperialism and their domestic allies on the other. This necessitated the suspension of the anti-feudal struggle to some extent, as many feudal landowners as also the KMT became the allies of the CPC in the anti-Japanese struggle. In such a situation, according to the CPC’s official stand, the struggle for women’s emancipation could not proceed at a great pace in the interest of the alliance with the landlords. Secondly, as the peasant men constituted the main fighting force in the national liberation war, the Party could not afford to ignore their opposition to divorce rights.

An important landmark was the first candidates and voters. In 1941, women were elected to fill 8% of the seats in township councils, including over region-wide elections in the base areas in 1941 during which there was a campaign for women’s rights. An editorial in the June 20, 1941 issue of Chieh-fang, Jih-pao urged women to play an active role in the election movement. Needless to mention, the gains achieved by women were the products of a long struggle against patriarchal ideology as reflected in various forms of opposition from within the Party and people, particularly men. In some places, the women who were most outspoken and acted as organisers, were often denounced as disreputable and immoral because they had broken traditional codes of behaviour, social and sexual. "The virtuous women were not militant and the militant women were not virtuous", as Isabel and David Cook noted about women’s militancy. Even within the CPC, the progress in women’s liberation was more striking in combat areas were women quickly assumed vital military, political and economic responsibility than it was in the rear areas. Sometimes, local cadres also raised obstacles, when their personal interests were involved. The cadres either did not implement reforms or put up all sorts of obstacles to their implementation. For the women, they could not enjoy the rights they had already got legally. While the Party policy gave women the right to own land in their own name, many women were unable to realise the full benefits of land reform, for it raised issues concerning women’s role within the family and society.

It is interesting to point out that the revolt against patriarchy took many forms. The beating of the oppressive and unrepentant husbands by members of the Women’s Association, open trial of husbands or father-in-laws in people’s court, stormy debates at meetings for securing their rights, etc., were some of the new methods to attain non-traditional results. There were also other methods .In village Tinghsu, Shanshi province, elections were held in 1943, but women were not allowed to vote. The women rebelled, refused to recognise the new village chief and demanded re-election and their right to vote. When the men laughed at the idea, the women adopted a traditional method to achieve a non-traditional result. They simply refused to sleep with their husbands. The men surrendered to this kind of pressure and were forced to allow a new election. This method of exploiting the sexual urge of the husbands to realise their demands was, though effective, rather crude. Victory attained thereby could only be temporary in nature unless it is accompanied by ideological persuasion. However, one can also interpret it from a different angle. The women’s decision was a negation of marital sexual relationships so long as their just demands remained unfulfilled. The election was an extremely contested one and women were able to capture the office of the Vice-Chief of the village and the office of the head of the Education Bureau.

The broad overturning movement brought for the rural women a new meaning of life. They could now throw out their chests, hold their heads high and looked eye to eye to anybody. Teng Ying chao, one of the leaders of the women’s movement, related how the attitude of the rural people towards "body" girls changed: "It was amusing to watch the excitement when a baby was expected, for children were also given their share and everyone would be hoping the baby would be born in time. The father and grandfather would stand outside asking anxiously, ‘Is it born, is it born?’ Where once they would have been saying, ‘Is it a boy?’ It was interesting to notice how the conception of women’s inferiority began to disappear. Peasants began to say, Now. Daughters are just as good as sons."

Teng Ying chao, the wife of Chou En-lai, had her own story to tell. Like many other women, the May 4 Movement stimulated her to action when her national feelings were outraged by the presentation of the infamous ‘Twenty-one Demands’ to China by Japan. She came out of her classroom at the age of sixteen to organise girl-students and house-wives of Tientsin into a patriotic society. She organised the women’s movement in Tientsin, published a weekly called Women’s Stars, joined the Young Communist League of China in 1924 and became a communist in 1925. She was one of the thirty women who took part in the Long March from the beginning to the end and underwent all the rigours of underground life. During the Long March, they acted as nurses and collected provisions for the peasants, explaining to them what they were and what they stood for.

One of the first acts of the People’s Republic of China was the abolition of prostitution in 1949. The Chinese brothels had an existence of 2,700 years far surpassing those in the Netherlands which had the longest period of history in the flesh trade of Europe. The licensed prostitutes—euphemistically called the "Mist and Flower Maidens" and the worst victims of social oppression—were treated in the reformatories. There they received education, taught the real meanings of life, the difference between the old and the new society. Chen Chin-yang, one of those oppressed women, while describing her four-month-experience in the reformatory of Dymphna Cusack, said that it was "the happiest time in my life".

The most important development towards women’s emancipation was the announcement of the Marriage Law of May 1, 1950 by Mao. It was the logical culmination of previous regulations and struggles. The general principle is explained in Article 1 : "The arbitrary and compulsory feudal marriage system, which is based on the superiority of men over women, and which ignores the interests of children is abolished. The ‘New Democratic Marriage System’, based on free choice of partners, on monogamy, on equal rights for both sexes and on protection of the lawful interests of women and Children, shall be put into effect". The Marriage Law of 1950 and the later additions to it gave more rights to women than western bourgeois law could do. First, it does not recognise the ‘head of household’, and accords equal status to husband and wife in the family. (Article VII). Second, not only may a women retain her maiden name (Article XI) after marriage, but her children have the right to take her name rather than her husband’s. Third, a man does not have the right to apply for divorce during his wife’s pregnancy and until a year after the birth of the child but the wife may (Article XVIII). After divorce, the mother normally gets the custody of the nursing of the child (Article XX). Fourth, the housework of the housewife is also considered socially valuable and a form of compensation is also provided by Article X which entitles the wife to an equal share of family property. The Marriage Law popularly known as Divorce Law made divorce very easy. It is granted immediately where both parties agree, and after an attempt at reconciliation if only one party wants it.

That there was a great social demand for divorce, most likely form the side of women, is reflected in the increasing number of divorces over the years following the passing of the Marriage Law. In 1950, 1,86,167 divorces were registered. In 1951, it rose to 4,09,500. In 1953, the figure stood at 8,23,000. After that it rose into millions. The initial spurt in divorce cases was halted in the following years. In a people’s commune near Nanking, named Tong Jin, which had 30,000 inhabitants, there had been only one divorce in eight years following the Cultural Revolution. This was mainly because a new generation had already come up which chose their own life-partners freely and had no reason to quarrel over property also. Even if conflicts arose, these could be patched up by mutual discussion or friendly intervention by comrades.


1. Julia Kristeva : About Chinese Women Marion Boyars. New York, London 1977.

2. For Mao’s observations, see Roxane Witke, ‘Mao Tsetung, women and Sucide’ in Marilyn B Yong (ed) Women in China Studies in Social change and Feminism Ann Arbor, Centre for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 1973, pp 7-31

3. J Chesneaux : Peasant revolts in China, 1840-1949 James and Hudson, London 1973.

4. Kay Ann Johnson; Women, the Family and Peasant Revolution In China, Chicago,1983.

5. Dymphna Cusaik; Chinese Women Speak, London 1959.

6. Jack Belden; China Shakes The World, Penguin, Middlesex , 1973.

7. Mark Selden; The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1972.

8. Merle Goldman; Literary Dissent in Communist China, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1967.

9. Elisabeth Croll; Feminism and Socialism in China, London 1978.





Part II


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