Women in the Chinese Revolution


Women in Socialist China

 Part I 

Part II

Women in Socialist China


"The emancipation of women and their equality with men are impossible, and remain so, as long as women are excluded from social production and restricted to domestic labour. The emancipation becomes feasible only when women are enabled to take part extensively in social production". This is one of the best-known passages from Engels’ writings on women’s liberation. Lenin explained it further when he remarked: " The main task is to draw women into socially productive labour, to liberate them from ‘domestic slavery’, to free them from their stultifying and humiliating subjugation to the eternal drudgery of the kitchen and the nursery".

The New Democratic Revolution of 1949 put an end to the anti-feudal and anti-imperialist struggle of the people of China and ushered in a new stage of struggle, i.e., the stage of Socialist Revolution. The Marriage Law of 1950, which was introduced by the People’s Republic of China was an essential change in the realm of superstructure. It established and implemented, besides other things, the principle of free choice of life partners and divorce. However, many things still remained to be done in the realm of superstructure, particularly in the ideas and thinking of the people. The battle against patriarchy did not come to end with the revolution of 1949. The birthmarks of the old society cannot disappear so easily or automatically; what is required is some conscious effort on the part of the people. And that is precisely the reason why Mao had to initiate the Cultural Revolution. In the new situation, some of the old contradictions disappeared, while some others remained; on the other hand, many new contradictions appeared. Some of those questions were directly connected with women’s liberation. We will seek to analyse how the struggle for women’s emancipation progressed through twists and turns during the period Mao was at the helm of affairs.

Immediately after liberation, women workers were held up to all women as models to admire and emulate. Books, articles and reports in the daily press praised women in industrial production as diverse as textile production and tailoring, coal mining, steel-smelting and engine-driving. In the mid-1950s, however, there was a distinct change in the tone of such literature. Articles eulogising the housewife appeared with increasing frequency. Women’s role as a home-maker, wife, and mother received unprecedented attention. The house-wife was shown as contributing to society through her husband and family by acting as a sort of (unpaid) service worker for those who participated in production.

At conferences of women’s dependents, discussions continued to consider how wives could best maintain their husbands’ morale and preserve their strength for their jobs by protecting them from any problems at home. Even the series of fashion and beauty features which appeared in Women in China in 1955 can be seen as the same broad movement to ‘feminise’ women to a reactionary domestic model. This particular aspect of the movement was short-lived and was replaced by the economy drive of 1956-57 when the slogan was ‘‘build the country up economically, manage the household thriftily’. Women were told that if they eliminated waste at the level of the individual household, they would make a great contribution to the national economy. Many speeches at the Third National Congress of Women in 1957 shows that these were supposed to be the concerns of women-work at that time.

At one level, the campaign to confer more social prestige on housewives may be understood as an attempt to raise the sinking self-esteem of housewives who, in the early 1950s began to feel isolated and excluded from the major concern of the new society. At another level, the changes in policy towards women may be seen as an aspect of the struggle between Maoist and Liuist political lines. A women’s Red Guard newspaper of 1966 was very critical of the way in which the slogan ‘Build the country up economically, manage the household thriftily’ had been used. It claimed that the slogan was based on a line from a speech by Mao Tse-tung in which he said that the country relied particularly on the women’s organisations to promote household thrift, but that it had been taken out of context. In the same speech he had listed many other more explicitly political tasks for the women’s movement, yet the phrase ‘manage the household thriftily’ had been picked out and made to stand on its own as a slogan.

The roots of the campaign to glorify housework actually depended on the objective condition. Unemployment was a major problem in the Chinese cities in the 1950s. It was limited in part by the capital-intensive nature of development, strongly oriented towards heavy industry—a mark of Soviet strategy of development. Residual unemployment was aggravated by sporadic waves of seasonal unemployment. The campaign reached its height when pressure was put even on some employed women to retire. It was argued by some leading members of the Party that just as the old and the sick should retire, so should women with difficulties should retire from workforce. The who tried to resist returning to housework were also criticised. Whatever the reason, this principle of the ‘cult of the housewife’ was in sharp contrast to Lenin’s condemnation of its unproductive, stultifying drudgery and Mao’s policy of women holding up ‘half the sky’. However, the campaign to induce women to retire was not sustained: it was swept away during the Great Leap Forward.

One of the first steps to attain the goal of women’s emancipation was naturally their physical participation in the process of production, which would make them economically independent and have repercussions in the cultural superstructure. The question is: were they employed in all those sectors where men were also employed? In fact, the presence of women were felt more in light industry and work of particular types than in heavy industry and all other types. For example, at Peking No.3 State Cotton Mill, employing 6,400 workers, 70 % are women; at Wusih No.1 State Silk factory, 80 % of the workforce is female. But at the agricultural Machinery Factory in Hsiang, Shansi, only 16% were women, while only men were assigned to work in the commune-owned coal-mine at a production brigade. This started to change by degrees for the better when women consciously got rid of these shackles. In fact, one aspect of the feudal mentality which held women in subordinate position was the idea that there were certain things which could not do. The mass entry of women into social production, under the general slogan ‘anything men can do a woman can do also’, is a living refutation of this conception. In Tientsin, for example, women workers in pre-liberation days were mainly employed in textile and light industry. They had in the early 1970s entered areas of heavy industry from which they were formerly excluded, like machine building, power and transport. In the countryside, female participation in agricultural production has helped to undermine such long-held assumptions as that ‘potatoes women plant won’t sprout’ and ‘melons women plant are bitter’. Such assumptions, reinforced by patriarchal and clan authority and power, had kept women out of production (particularly in North China) for centuries.

Women in China took great strides in their own liberation from the shackles of their feudal existence and made a tremendous contribution to every stage of the revolution. It is for this very reason that anything, which attempts to hold them back or implies the reversion of their newly-won independence has to be constantly exposed and criticised. The significance of the movement to criticise Lin Piao and Confucius is that it provides a general political context within which this work of exposure can be carried out with intensity, and where political conclusions can be reached. In November 1974, the People’s Daily published an article by the theory study group of the Tien Chun Commune and criticising group of Peking and Tsinghua University, which gives some indications of the sorts of issues involved. They write:

‘In collective production, some units have not done enough in carrying out the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work among the sexes’. This is bound to affect women’s initiative in participating fully both in revolution and production...It should be realised that carrying out the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ is by no means a trivial thing of arguing for a few work points, but a serious issue concerned with the total liberation of women, concerned with firmly applying the economic policy laid down by Chairman Mao, and also concerned with a downright cut-off from the traditional idea of Confucianism.

‘In the aspect of family life, the remnant influence of husband authority...is also in existence. Some couples take part in collective production, work together, and yet do not share household work. There is still the phenomenon that ‘women go home to cook meals, feed the pigs and shut up the chickens, whilst men go home to smoke their pipes wait for food and drink’. Some even laugh at those comrades who help their housewives with their housework.

‘In the aspect of social convention and custom even more pernicious Confucian ideas linger on...For example, preferring a baby son to a baby daughter, sayings like ‘more sons, more well-being’, ‘without sons there is no happiness’, ‘a family with only daughters is a dead-end family’; the notion that ‘marriages must have dowries’, ‘there is no friendship without money being exchanged’ and the idea of ‘study to become an official’.

Such ideological struggle generates immense vitality and involvement.

In 1980-81, Margery Wolf visited China, met many women and recorded her observations on the basis of her interviews. In course of her conversations, one teacher of a nursery school in Peking remarked that it was men, not women, who did all the innovations. While one can accept that men played a dominant role in the majority of these innovations, it is definitely wrong to suggest that women had no role to play, at least in Maoist China. Michael Opper has described in detail how in 1966, a group of 9 enterprising women workers built up a metallurgical factory on their own to produce spare parts for adjoining factories with iron oxide waste. Young Mongolian women of Ushenchao Commune showed remarkable initiative and leadership when they through tremendous efforts halted the extension of desert regions to grazing lands by successfully planting sand sage brush in the desert. One can multiply such instances.

As women became actively absorbed in the struggle for social transformation, the idea of a new ‘model woman’ emerged. This new woman, unlike the ‘housewife’ of the 1950s, was not confined to home; she actively takes part in the most difficult and hard work like men. In the vast agricultural tract of Tachai, there were stories of 23 young girls—popularly called "Girls of Iron" who always undertook the most difficult and arduous tasks.

The question of women’s liberation was closely connected with the question of birth control and family planning. Oral pills, male contraceptives, introduction of a ring made of stainless steel in uterus, intra-uterine devices (nylon), vasectomy are some of the methods which were of use in many areas. The objectives of birth control are tied up with the emancipation of women: with her participation in production and her economic and political equality; with her own raised intellectual level and consciousness; with better health for all, smaller families, and healthy ones, in a society where public spiritedness and a sense of sharing enmeshes ever are all collectivisedly one. In this true liberation of woman she has to be freed of biological weaknesses, and birth control becomes part of the total programme of her own total equality.

There is no doubt that there will be no full equality for women without the socialisation of child-care and cooking. Ellen Leopold observes that in many areas this process had started. In the 1970s, as he writes, husbands now do a much greater share of the cooking and child-care. Laundry, bathing, sewing and mending facilities are all collectivised for political as well as economic reasons. Like the state provisions for child care facilities, these services further socialise the formerly private burdens of the individual household. In cities, neighbourhood committees had helped to redirect the focus of many women from household to community management. Problems of the individual family, borne largely by the wife, have been reformulated as responsibilities of the social collective. Neighbourhood committees pay special attention to single parent families, families with a disabled parent, and to older people living alone. They involve them socially in productive or leisure activities and provide help with domestic chores. But ‘serving the people’ in this way is not a form of charity that capitalises on the ‘natural’ disadvantages of some members of the community. It is a conviction that human development cannot help but improve the welfare of the collective by improving the welfare of each individual within it. Neighbourhood committees also organise activities for children after school and during holidays. This often takes the form of productive community work—snow and street clearing, fly extermination, street decorations for local festivals, repair work for revolutionary veterans. Developing a community identity from an early age eliminates the causes of vandalism and public neglect. But at the same time, it also reduces the prolonged interdependence between children and their natural mothers. Chinese children learn early to trust all adults. Socialised virtually from infancy, they do no often display pathological fears of outsiders; adults are simply all ‘aunts and uncles’. In this context, western insistence on the exclusive commitment of the mother to the emotional development of her child appears as simply another justification for keeping women at home.

The Chinese have always maintained that the liberation of women couldn’t be achieved in isolation, but in a component part of the proletarian revolution. The conflict between sexes is defined as a ‘non-antagonistic contradiction’ that is one among ‘the people’ which is to be solved through patient education. The liberation of women is not just the exclusive concern of the women’s movement but of all bodies and people in China. The precise nature of the relation of the women’s movement to the wider revolutionary movement has tended to divide the women’s movement around this question; Which should come first, class struggle or the struggle between sexes? The tension between these two points of view came to a head on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.

In the early 1960s there was a strong tendency within the women’s movement to think of women’s liberation as an isolated cause in itself and one in which its members could solve their personal problems, decide their own priorities in public and domestic life and work out their own personal relationships without reference to the form which the political and economic system takes. The critics of this view argued that the women’s magazines debated questions such as "What should be the criteria in choosing a husband?" and "What do women live for?" as if the future shape and colour of society were irrelevant and problems were peculiar to ‘abstract’ and ‘above-class’ women. They pointed out that if the question of women was primarily viewed as a sex distinction it became entangled in a web of circular arguments founded on their ‘natural duties, functions or blessings’. They maintained that though the special oppression women their separate organisation, women did not form a separate class however the term was defined, but belonged to different classes the nature of which determined their particular and social attitudes. That is, there was no viewpoint, which was peculiar to men or women. Women besides being made aware of their own oppression had also to be aware of their class interests.

The above mentioned controversy between the primarily bourgeois and socialist points of view on the relevance of political or economic systems for women’s complete emancipation culminated in the virtual disbandment of the Women’s Federation in 1966-67. During the Cultural Revolution the government set about to involve women directly in the same political and vocational framework as men. Women did play a very significant role in the Cultural Revolution, but there is also evidence that many associations and enterprises felt that so long as overall revolutionary aims were fulfilled there was no need to pay particular attention to the position of women. Since work in every field involved women, it was thought that it would be enough to involve women in every field! Women in many areas once more felt the need for their separate organisation and it was the recognition of this need that was responsible for this rebuilding of the women’s movement in the 1970s. The local women’s federations had been re-established with the avowed aims of giving more attention to public and political questions, undertaking political study, participating in class struggle, involving more peasant and working women in their organisation as well as safeguarding the rights and interests of women. By the end of 1973 most provinces and municipalities had held representative conferences in preparation for the Sixth National Congress of Women.

The women’s movement in China then was, a continuing movement. It was recognised that women have not yet reached a position of equality or developed their full potential. As Mao Tse-tung, Soong Ching- ling and others made it clear, the need for a women’s movement will continue until the social transformation of society was complete. Not only is women’s liberation a component part of the proletarian revolution, but they are interdependent. The success of each is seen to be dependent on the achievement of the other. What had been particularly impressive in Maoist China is the constant recognition and consideration given to the position of women at all government levels. In the last resort, however, it had been the struggle within individual families, villages and factories, which could only be carried out by the women themselves that had been responsible for their achievements. In this respect, the separate establishment of the organised women’s movement, its programmes and work methods, have played a key role in establishing their separate identity and raising the self-confidence of individual women. It was out of this confidence that women had found the strength to exercise their collective will.

The death of Mao in 1976 was followed immediately by the arrest of Chiang Ching, Chang Chun-chiao, Yao Wen-yuan and Wang Hung-wen, who were denounced by the new leadership as the ‘Gang of Four’, but who, in reality, constituted the core of the revolutionary headquarters within the CPC. While still paying lip-service to Mao Tse-tung Thought, the new leadership sought to undermine the gains attained in course of the struggle against capitalist restoration under Mao’s leadership. Besides other changes in the economic and political spheres, the reactionary rulers of China under Teng Hsiao-ping, sought to negate all those gains that directly affected the status of women. Contrary to the practice of involving women in all kinds of work without neglecting their physiological problems, the new leadership started to shift women to office work and also those which required lesser skill. Delia Davin (‘China Now’, March-April 1982) writes that women were "transferred from the task of driving trains to ‘more appropriate’ office work in the railway bureau. Women as a group were excluded from skilled jobs which conferred higher wages and status to less skilled jobs which offered low wages. The signs of job-stereotyping were noticeable in other areas also. In the textile and handicraft industry, even in factories where the vast majority of the workforce was female, the supervisor tended to be male. Many ads. conveyed stereotyped images of women as housewives and mothers—reminiscent of the ‘cult of the housewife’ of the 1950s—the only people likely to operate washing machines, or as rapid decorative consumers of cosmetics and other luxury items. There were calendars, which exclusively portrayed women from classical beauties of history to modern young women with perms and westernised features".

Males outnumbered females even at the stage of primary school but the inequality sharpened as one moved up the system and was greatest in elite institutes. Stereotyping images of girls was noticeable in children’s books, for example where girls were portrayed as playing with dolls while boys handled action toys or girls were at a loss what to do in some situations and boys gave the lead. kindergarten performances showed the same tendency by casting all the boys as drivers and all the girls as passengers or getting the girls to nurse their dolls while their boy-husbands go out to work.

Cultural forms are being used to spread decadent feudal and bourgeois values. ‘Beijing Review’ reported that a Japanese film ‘Yearning for Home’ was shown on TV throughout the country. The film depicted the lives of Japanese prostitutes in South-east Asia during 1900-1930. Replying to the criticism of those who said that certain parts of those who said that certain parts of the dialogue and plot reflecting scenes in the brothel would ‘have a bad influence among the young people’, BR bluntly stated that ’it is not safe to keep people in a safe’. The Peking Opera returned to the old themes and started staging old operas like ‘The Drunken Beauty’, which is about the emperor and his concubines. The patronage of decadent culture and bourgeois values was particularly noticeable in November 1980 when a semi-official exhibition of paintings was held in Peking, many of whose exhibits were female nudes. Preference for a male child has once again reared its head especially in the rural areas with negative consequences for the girl child. The women of China whose struggle for self-assertion and emancipation had been proceeding along a zigzag course along with the consolidation of socialism during the Maoist era was stalled,
and the bourgeois leadership that seized power sought to establish the old social order with all its muck, bloodshed and de-humanisation.

Mao once remarked that even if capitalism was restored in China, those forces would not be able to live in peace. Will the people of China allow the present ruling clique to turn their beloved country into an El Dorado to be ravages by foreign imperialism and domestic reaction, or will they rise up in the true Maoist spirit, bombard the headquarters of reaction and hawkers of death and recapture political power and march onward resolutely to build up a truly socialist society? Let the East win again prevail over the West wind. Let the people of the world respond to the great call Mao gave in 1970: "People of the World, Unite and Defeat the US aggressors and all their Running dogs".



Julia Kristeva: About Chinese Women, New York, 1977

Margery Wolf: Revolution Postponed, Women in Contemporary China, London 1985

Sheila Rowbotham: Women, Resistance & revolution, London 1972

Kay Ann Johnson: Women, the Family, & Peasant Revolution in China, Chicago 1983.

Delia Davin: Woman-work: Women & the Party in Revolutionary China, London 1976

Dalia Davin: Women in the ‘50s: Shift in Policies, China Now, June 1976

Elizabeth Croll: Half the Sky, China Now, January 1975

Michael Opper: ‘Women Power’, China Now, Dec. 1975




Part I


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