Women in Modern China

Posted on June 19, 2012 by


BY JESS MARSHALL.

In recent history, China and its people have undergone a remarkable change in identity. Indeed, Brownell and Wasserstrom propose, “[t]he last two centuries have witnessed tremendous upheavals and transformation in every aspect of Chinese culture and society, from national politics to every day life”.[1] Undeniably, the role of women has been an area of rapid change and development, with women playing an integral role in the shaping of modern China. From the physical oppression of foot binding in a patriarchal world, to gendered sameness in a communist state, to the modern rhetoric of equality of the sexes, Chinese women have instigated and experienced rebellion, revolution and reform. After considering pre-revolution China, this paper will examine the lives of women under the rule of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, arguing that on balance, while both leaders implemented change that held great merit, China still has a long way to go in achieving gender equality.

In order to make sense of twentieth-century China, one must examine the context. Gender roles and relations in China were, and still are, according to Wolf,[2] ordered by patriarchy. Indeed, Wolf proposes, “[w]ith a record of male chauvinism extending back at least twenty-two centuries, China has an inheritance of well-worked out rules to control and confine the inferior sex”.[3] Women were considered dangerous, narrow-minded, jealous, quarrelsome, stupid, and on the whole, physically and morally weak; cultural stereotypes that were disseminated throughout every level of Chinese society for centuries.[4] In addition, the practice of foot binding played a significant role in the oppression of women. Hong cites a Chinese manual for women from the era of the Ming Dynasty, which explains, “’Why are feet bound? It is not because they are good looking with their bowed arch, but rather because men feared that women might easily leave their quarters and therefore have their feet bound tightly in order to prevent this’”.[5] While the bound foot was a symbol of male-defined beauty and erotic movement, it is clear that it became a useful tool of control in a culture where women suffered for men.

 

Several texts written and distributed for generations authenticated male dominance and ensured that a woman through every stage of her life cycle was subject to male control and authority, be it her father, husband or adult sons.[6] Confucianism also played its role in female submission and confinement to the domestic realm, with lines such as, ‘”[t]o be a woman means to submit’”[7] present in the subconscious in households from peasant to elite. Although stories of heroines and swordswomen were told that blurred male and female roles, Croll argues that these remained fantasy, and the codes for correct feminine behaviour were entrenched in Chinese culture until the twentieth century.[8]

In the Shanghai May Fourth Movement in 1919, Chinese women made history when they became involved in the national protest, and Chen attributes this participation to a developing awareness of the question of women’s rights amongst intellectuals, claiming, “…[w]estern thought and the new culture movement were largely responsible”.[9] However, for women who stepped outside the scope of prescribed femininity in pre-revolutionary China, there appeared to be no new ideals that maintained and reinforced new behaviour and roles, making the shaping of new lives incredibly difficult.

In 1949, when Mao Zedong came to power and uttered his now famous words, “’the Chinese people, one quarter of humankind have now stood up’”[10], he empowered women as well as men. Croll proposes that thereafter, women were said to be as much in control of their ‘fate’ as men, and were to be a fundamental part of the revolution of China.[11]However, despite the revolutionary claim that women were entitled to ‘half of heaven’[12], ‘heaven’ in age-old tradition and rhetoric, was a male space, and the admission of women into it required women to be rendered ‘un-female’. Furthermore, Croll proposes, “…combining women with men denied both the unique qualities of the female body and female-specific experiences”[13], and it is evident that this was the commencement of ‘sameness’ in gender.

Under Mao’s rule, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set about reducing gender difference in the name of equality and fairness; outlawing the archaic practice of foot binding, dropping the prefix of ‘daughter, mother, wife of…’ and enabling women to be addressed by name and often gender-neutral expressions, such as ‘comrade’, used for both woman and men in all levels of society. Furthermore, androgynous titles and address were accompanied by unisex clothing, a ‘uniform’ of sorts, worn by all from peasant to elite. Images of the woman changed, with women pictured standing alongside men, in strong, powerful stances, where once she was positioned in the domestic sphere, engaged in ‘feminine’ activities.[14] The mobilisation of women into the labour force and out of a position of subordination had a significant impact on the traditional notions of gender roles and femininity, and provided Mao and Communist China with an enormous labour army to carry out the revolution. New slogans became part of the Chinese consciousness, such as “‘women are the equal of men’”,[15] and “’anything a man can do a woman can also do’”[16], thus reducing gender difference and aiding in the improvement of woman’s status, which the CCP believed would result in high levels of participation in the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of China.

Difficulty remains when assessing the positive outcomes of the Cultural Revolution under Mao’s rule, as it continues to be a controversial topic, both in China and globally.[17] The Marriage Law adopted in 1951 gave rights to women in marriage, championing equal standing in the family home.[18] However, while women enjoyed an improvement in status, entering the labour force en masse and contributing to the revolution, traditional tasks in the home were not relieved, and “they were exhorted to shoulder cheerfully the burdens of the double day in the name of socialism”.[19] Many women’s issues were neglected throughout this period, as introspection and attention to personal life was considered bourgeois and therefore disallowed in socialist China.[20] Nevertheless, despite the terrible atrocities that occurred during this period of Chinese history, and the fact that many women’s issues were ignored, women were allowed a mobility and status that had hitherto been denied them, and it remains a vital step on the path to gender equality in modern China.

After the death of Mao Zedong, the rise of Deng Xiaoping and the opening of China to the West in the late 1970s and early 1980s, China began thinking about the Cultural Revolution and its implications for modern China. Whilst change was necessary, Chinese people idealised Mao Zedong and the ‘victories’ of the CCP.[21] However, Gungwu claims, “…Deng Xiaoping also reconfigured some revolutionary and socialist paradigms after 1978”,[22] and public debate was reopened over the role of women.[23] Changes that had begun prior to the Cultural Revolution resumed, and women embraced the adornment and beautification of self after years of ‘sameness’ under Mao.[24] Changing patterns of courtship emerged, and attention was paid to the notion of love, and matters of sexuality, which was “for decades treated either as the shameful expression of a warped mind or as evidence of bourgeois individualism and detrimental to collective welfare”.[25] Women were an integral part of the ‘Four Modernizations’, the policies set in place and implemented by Deng Xiaoping in order to modernise China in line with the rest of the world.[26]

In conclusion, it is evident that while modern China is eager to achieve equality between the sexes, and both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping developed and implemented policies that improved the status and mobility of women, China’s progress has been interrupted and halted by many factors. Certainly, Wolf faults China’s two major leaders for “their failure to carry through on their promises to women.”[27] Limitations and expectations left over from the regimes of the twentieth century have undoubtedly impacted on today’s Chinese women, and equality should be an achievable, if distant, goal for modern China.


Bibliography:

Brownell, S & Wasserstrom, J N, ‘Introduction: Theorizing Femininities and Masculinities’ in Chinese Femininities, Chinese Masculinities: A Reader, University of California Press, Berkley CA, 2002, pp. 1-42.

Brownell, S & Wasserstrom, J N, Chinese Femininities, Chinese Masculinities: A Reader, University of California Press, Berkley CA, 2002.

Chen, J T, The May Fourth Movement in Shanghai, EJ Brill, Leiden, Netherlands, 1971.

Croll, E, Changing Identities of Chinese Women: Rhetoric, Experience and Self-Perception in Twentieth-Century China, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1995.

Croll, E, Chinese Women Since Mao, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1983.

Evans, H, Women and Sexuality in China: Female Sexuality and Gender Since 1949, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 1997.

Gungwu, W, ‘Chinese History Paradigms’, Asian Ethnicity, vol. 10, no. 3, 2009, pp. 201-216.

Hong, F, Footbinding, Feminism and Freedom: The Liberation of Women’s Bodies in Modern China, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., London, 1997.

Honig, E & Hershatter, G, Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980s, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1988.

Kristeva, J, About Chinese Women, Marion Boyars Publishers Inc, New York, 1986.

Wolf, M, Revolution Postponed: Women in Contemporary China, Stanford University Press, London, 1985.

L Zhao, Nu-er Jing zhi [The Explanation of the Rules for Women], published in the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644.

Endnotes

[1] S Brownell & JN Wasserstom, ‘Introduction: Theorizing Femininities and Masculinities’ in Chinese Femininities, Chinese Masculinities: A Reader, University of California Press, Berkley CA, 2002, p. 1

[2] M Wolf, Revolution Postponed: Women in Contemporary China, Stanford University Press, London, 1985, p. 11

[3] Wolf, 1985, p. 2

[4] Ibid, p. 2

[5] L Zhao, Nu-er Jing zhi [The Explanation of the Rules for Women], published in the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, cited in F Hong, Footbinding, Feminism and Freedom: The Liberation of Women’s Bodies in Modern China, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., London, 1997, p. 48

[6] E Croll, Changing Identities of Chinese Women: Rhetoric, Experience and Self-Perception in Twentieth-Century China, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1995, p. 13

[7] Croll, 1995, p. 14

[8] Ibid, p. 16

[9] J T Chen, The May Fourth Movement in Shanghai, EJ Brill, Leiden, Netherlands, 1971, 40

[10] Croll, 1995, p. 69

[11] Croll, 1995, p. 69

[12] Ibid, p. 69

[13] Ibid, p. 69-70

[14] Croll, 1995, p. 70-71

[15] Ibid, p. 71

[16] Ibid, p. 71

[17] E Honig & G Hershatter, Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980s, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1988, p. 4

[18] J Kristeva, About Chinese Women, Marion Boyars Publishers Inc, New York, 1986, p. 130-131

[19] E Honig & G Hershatter, Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980s, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1988, p. 4

[20] Ibid, p. 5

[21] Gungwu, W, ‘Chinese History Paradigms’, Asian Ethnicity, vol. 10, no. 3, 2009, pp. 201-216

[22] Ibid, p. 203

[23] Honig & Hershatter, 1988, p. 6

[24] Honig & Hershatter, 1988, p. 7

[25] H Evans, Women and Sexuality in China: Female Sexuality and Gender Since 1949, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 1997, p. 1-2

[26] E Croll, Chinese Women Since Mao, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1983, p. 20-21

[27] Wolf, 1985, p. 272

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Jess Marshall is a second year Bachelor of Arts student at La Trobe University Albury-Wodonga, majoring in History and Sociology, receiving a Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean’s Letter of Merit in 2011 for outstanding academic achievement.  She is interested in historical and social issues on a local and global level.

This paper was submitted for assessment in the first year subject Introduction to Asia: China and India at La Trobe University.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

 

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