I still remember my fourteen year old cousin who dared not venture into the street in 1971 Shanghai. It was during the Cultural Revolution. She was wearing a T-shirt and oval shaped sandals. Because her shirt was collarless, and her shoes slightly pointed, she feared that the People's Militia, made up of industrial male and female workers, would try to cut up her shirt and shoes. Those were the days when people wearing tight jeans would have their pants cut up right in the street and people wearing long, shoulder length hair would have their head half shaved. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), aimed at a complete cultural transformation of China, including on the issue of gender. Yet it was not the first time the Communist regime tried to erase the symbolic differences between gender. A poem written by Mao Tse-tung glorifying women in militia uniform was set to music and became one of the popular songs in the 1960s and 1970s. It went roughly as: Spirited and attractive, with a five feet rifle/arriving at the training ground with the first rays of morning sunshine/how magnificent Chinese women's ambitions are/they prefer militia uniform to feminine clothes. This was a far cry from value standards from before the Communist take-over in 1949, when women had very low social and legal status.
Before 1912, China was a polygamous society: a man could marry one wife but as many concubines as he could afford. The concubines did not have legal status and their children would be formally raised by the wife. After the death of the husband, the wife had the right to sell the concubines into brothels or as concubine to someone else. Polygamy was abolished in 1912 when China became a republic but was still continued until 1949 when the Communists took over. Before 1912 women were not considered legal persons. If they wanted a divorce it had to be petitioned by a natal male relative, otherwise it could not be done. Many women never had their own names, but were called by the number of their birth order in their natal homes and by their husbands' last names and their own maiden names combined after they married. Marriages were arranged, meaning men and women usually never saw each other before they married.
After the Communist takeover, they implemented a new Marriage Law in 1950 that stipulated freedom of marriage and legal equality between men and women. 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. But this seeming equality also denied women the right they deserved: to be considered women and different from men. As Lydia Liu explains below:
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. During the Cultural Revolution, political correctness consisted largely in women wearing the same dark colors as men, keeping their hair short, and using no make-up. That men were not required to use these things shows that it was women's symbolic difference that had been specifically targeted and suppressed on top of all other forms of political repression. Post-Mao Chinese women are therefore dealing with an order of reality vastly different from that which feminists in the West face within their own patriarchal society, where the female gender is exploited more on the grounds of her difference than the lack there of. Being named as the "other" and marginalized, Western feminists can speak more or less from a politically enabling position against the centered capitalist ideology. By contrast, contemporary Chinese women find their political identity so completely inscribed in official discourse on gender and institutionalized by Fulian (the All-China Women's Federation) that they cannot even claim "feminism" for themselves.
(The above is from Lydia H. Liu, "Invention and Intervention: The Making of a Female Tradition in Modern Chinese Literature," 149-174, in Susan Brownell and Jeffrey Wasserstrom eds., Chinese Femininities/Chinese Masculinities: A Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002))
This denial to women of their symbolic difference was pushed to the extreme in the Cultural Revolution, when women felt compelled to break away from feminine behavior, now, together with long hair, tight clothing, and low cut shirts,things that contrast them more from men, were identified as bourgeois, as Emily Honig explains below:
During the Cultural Revolution, violence also became women's identity, especially because they wanted to escape from a conventional perception of them as a way to escape from their conventional image as passive and gentle, which were all labeled as "bourgeois" by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, a great political movement in the 1960s-1970s as Mao's way to use mass mobilization to get rid of his opponents within the Communist Party. It was not uncommon for girls to interrogate and beat up the "bad elements" targeted by the Cultural Revolution.Women invariably dressed as men, or as male army combatants because it was "considered very glorious." And often, the belt on their uniform became their instrument to beat up their suspects. Rejecting a bourgeois lifestyle and engaging in aggressive, violent attacks both mandated that girls dress like boys, cut their hair like boys, and borrow their fathers (not their mothers') leather belts.
(The above is from Emily Honig, "Maoist Mapping of Gender: Reassessing the Red Guards," 255-268, in Susan Brownell and Jeffrey Wasserstrom eds., Chinese Femininities/Chinese Masculinities: A Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002))
After 1978, when China embarked on economic reform and shaped itself after capitalist countries, as you can find in the Stephen Landsberger post-Mao posters, women began to regain their femininity, partly as a revival of gender differences to encourage women workers to retire early and leave the spots to male workers as China moved into a market economy and job slots became tight (previously, in the managed economy, inefficiency did not matter as the state shouldered the burden, but with market economy, profit making became important, and not that many workers were needed). Another reason why the gender differences again became recognized was because China was becoming more open, and recognizing gender differences was one way to recognize the individuality of men and women. There were two opposing trends in the definition of gender today: on the one hand, women are recognized as different from men, and after the revolutions subside, they are expected to resume more traditional roles of women; on the other hand, in the posters we continue to see girls and women depicted as representing the leading members of society for a variety of reasons: on a communal level, two generations of women were raised believing they were equal to men and could do all that men could,it would be very confusing now to tell them it was not so; on the other hand, the one-child policy that Communist China practiced from 1980 to now has to legitimate the status of girls if a family can have only one child and if that happens to be a girl.
After fifty years of Communist rule and the Communist slogan of gender equality, the role of men, especially educated, urban men, in the family has also changed considerably, as William Jankowiak explains below:
Traditionally, Chinese men, as fathers, believed that their role, as a counterpoint to the role of women as mothers, was not to encourage or tolerate emotional indulgence to promote that dependency. They assumed the role of the stern disciplinarian, often as a complement to the mother's overindulgence, or at least a balancve was to be reached between a mother's understanding and a father's demands.
In contemporary China, men and women easily distinguish what they perceive to be fundamental differences between the sexes. The socialist transformation of cultural meanings has had a corresponding impact on men's conception of themselves as husbands and fathers.Young fathers continue to assume a firm and somewhat formal posture toward their sons while paradoxically insisting they do not want to be as formal and reserved as their fathers were with them. On the whole, fathers today are more intimate with their children. Three factors explain this: large numbers of women between 26 to 46 work, that compels even the most reluctant father to become more involved in caretaking activities. Second, the economy of domestic space, or the typically small one-room apartment, places the father in constant and close promixity to his child, thereby enabling more intimate parent-child interaction. Third, a new folk notion promoting fatherly involvement has emerged within many households.
(The above is from William Jankowiak, "Parental Affection in the Chinese Family," 361-383 in Susan Brownell and Jeffrey Wasserstrom eds., Chinese Femininities/Chinese Masculinities: A Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002))
In southern China, men's social behavior changed more considerably than in the north,on the whole. This is especially true in Shanghai, so that "Shanghai men" has become a special category of men, although not all men from Shanghai behave uniformly. They are characterized as good workers in their workplace, and caretakers at home. Shanghai women are known for their fashion and beauty, and their men are known for their diligence, including cooking, shopping, and taking care of the kid(s).