women in modern china

Historically, Confucian teachings fostered a patriarchal society, where women were to obey their husbands and grown sons and polygamy was practiced, encouraged by the Confucian teachings on the importance of lineage. The introduction of Western learning and Christian ideas of monogamy led many Chinese intellectuals to challenge the treatment of women as secondary or almost non-existent and challenge the idea of marriage as simply a means of procreation and perpetuating the family line. The result was that in the twentieth century women started to go to school and even to find jobs. Instead of arranged marriages, they started to find their own marriage partners, although this was more common in the city than in the country. The different stories of Jung Chang's grandmother and mother, which you'll read in Wild Swans, are a testimony of the changes in Chinese women's lives in the first half of the twentieth century.

1. Women in Traditional Chinese Society

Historically, women were treated as second-class subjects of the emperor or non-entities. Many women did not have names, and when they got married, they would be referred to by their father's and their husband's last names. They had no legal rights. If a woman wanted to divorce a man, she could do so only when natal male relatives made the petition because she as a woman could not confront her husband.
Concubinage, which meant women married to a man but were not his legal wives, and inferior to his legal wife in status and treatment, was common because, according to Confucius, filial piety (great respect for one's parents) was a paramount virtue, and the cardinal sin was not to have (male) heirs and end the family line. Having multiple wives guaranteed one a male heir, thus fulfilling filial piety. Marriages were arranged by parents because they involved property and the perpetuation of the lineage, and so they were too serious a matter to be left to young people themselves.

Historically, women did not go to school and a few lucky ones would learn how to read and write from their brothers or fathers. Confucius, who believed female obedience to men was one of the three cardinal principles of a society (the other two were obedience from minister to emperor, and son's obedience to father), decided the most obedient women were illiterate; hence, women were not educated in literacy. My own late grandmother, who was born in 1905, did not read a single word until after the Communist takeover in 1949, when the Communists started a popularizing literacy movement. She was ultimately able to write my mother in broken Chinese.

Also, starting in the 700s, it became fashionable to practice foot binding, what some historians determined was inspired by ancient Persian dances and first practiced on upper class Chinese women, especially concubines to the emperor. Women would have their feet bound with three to four feet cloth to arrest the development of the feet. The practice soon spread to lower class Chinese women. From then on, the chief criterion of women's beauty in China became how small a girl's feet were. Girls' feet were bound starting from when they were two or three years old, and every day for the rest of their lives their feet had to remain bound (except for letting the feet rest during the night) so that they would not grow. A traditional Chinese saying, "three inches of golden lotus," referred to both the size and the shape, and the value, of small female feet. Although my grandmother never had her feet bound, when I was growing up in China I remember seeing little old ladies with their triangular shaped bound feet hobbling in the streets. This practice was implemented in society and encouraged by Chinese rulers to keep women restricted to home.

2. Women in Communist China

Communism seemed to usher in a new society for China, and, in many ways, it actually did. Communism abolished polygamy (which was first abolished by the republican government in 1912, but the reform was never completely carried out). Communism also established gender equality and legitimated free love and marriage (in contrast to arranged marriages) in its 1950 Marriage Law, leading to a 50 percent divorce rate in rural marriages in the first few years of the law's implementation. Communism upheld high principles and sought to overcome traditional Confucian social relationships, including its byproduct nepotism and other forms of corruption. But within Communism there were many unresolved problems. Gender equality did not lead to a respect for women. The supremacy of communism and revolution led to a de-emphasis of the family.

Communist China emphasized gender equality, but this emphasis was to make the two sexes more united in the building of socialism. Therefore, gender was not emphasized. Love and marriage were also secondary to revolution. Another consequence of the emphasis on gender equality in China was that many educated women came to look down upon household chores and child rearing. Work came first, and household duties second.

Because the Communist Party came first, like gender differences, everything was subsumed under the guidelines of the Communists, including permission to get married, and with whom. The family and its needs were subordinate to the needs of the revolution.

This Communist deemphasis on women's gender was inherited from the early 20th century New Culture Movement, when the emancipation of women was first raised by men, not to show respect to women and their gender, but to prevent the "waste" of laying half of the population illiterate and mentally and professionally disabled, in order to achieve national strength and prosperity. The category of women, like that of class, has long been exploited by the hegemonic discourse of the state of China, one that posits the equality between men and women by depriving the latter of their differences (and not the other way around!). In the emancipatory discourse of the state, which always subsumes women under the nationalist agenda, women's liberation means little more than equal opportunity to participate in public labor. The image of the liberated daughter and the figure of the strong female Party leader celebrated in the literature of socialist realism are invented for the purpose of abolishing the patriarchal discriminatory construction of gender, but they end up denying difference to women.

Thus even though Mao's slogan "Women hold half of the sky," became extremely popular, most women worked, and women did almost every kind of job that men did, this seeming equality also denied women the right they deserved: to be considered women and different from men.

Also despite the rhetoric of gender equality, the reality, especially in the countryside, was the continued gender distinction and inequality between the two sexes. Communism purportedly was to establish a completely new society based on new universal principles. Born during the New Culture Movement in the 1920s, Chinese Communism bore the imprint of this movement and its iconoclastic attack on Confucian learning and Chinese tradition. In contrast to Communist principles of gender equality was the reality of gender inequality in society, especially in the countryside, where brides were sometimes purchased or sold and women were treated as property, with baby girls often killed upon birth. Sons were important because they perpetuated the family line by carrying on the last name. They were also good laborers for one's own household, while girls would eventually end up becoming members of other families, contributing to others' welfare. In some parts of the Chinese countryside, it was even sneered on if parents brought up their daughters with a good education and much care, as all the effort, it was believed, was wasted since the daughters would eventually marry into other households. Even Communist cadres like Rae Yang's parents seemed not able to escape from this gender prejudice and took great joy in having a boy, Rae's younger brother, though it is hard for the reader to tell if her parents' adoration for the baby was because he was a boy, or simply because he was a baby and knew how to please every body.

Gender equality would be pushed to an extreme in the Cultural Revolution, as we will see in the following weeks, and gender distinctions would revive only after the political movements subsided, after 1978, which will also be discussed later.