The free will, the right to choose one’s

The role of women during the Communist and
Cultural Revolution

 

 Mao Zedong’s point of view on women

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Before
the Communist Revolution in China, people generally had to follow three
authorities: the state (political), the family (patriarchal) and the religion.
For women there existed a fourth one, the husband. Mao Zedong considered these
authorities as the four ropes that needed to be broken in order to find a way
out of the class oppression and change the image of women in Chinese society.
He stated that this could only be done by participating in the revolution.

As a
young man, Mao who himself was betrothed at the age of 14 but never consummated
the marriage, revolted actively against the feudal marriage system. He went so
far as to calling  arranged marriages
“indirect rape” Especially one incident in 1919 marked him, the suicide of a
girl oppressed by her own and her husband-to-be’s family and who seemed not to
have another option than to take her own life the night before the wedding. However,
she was only one of the many victims suffering under the old marriage traditions.

 Therefore, Mao personally fought free will,
the right to choose one’s partner, and a new system that would treat women and
men equally just like the famous Mao-era quote: “Women hold up half of the
sky”.

Unfortunately,
as so often, the reality was a little different.

Mao, the
former president of the People’s Republic of China and one of the most
influential Chinese persons of the 20th century, was famous for having
affairs with young, sometimes even under-aged girls, which the CPP apparently procured
them for him. They would often be seen working as nurses or dancers in his many
villas. He liked to brag about his sexual practices and as he got older, Mao
discovered an interest in Taoist sexual practices, which could supposedly make
one’s life last longer.

  The person who in the public view was so
against the Ancient regime, was now acting like an emperor with an infinite
number of concubines.

Could
such a man, the hypocritical symbol of Chinese women’s movements, really
improve their situation?

State
feminism

While in Western countries,
women’s rights movements were started by individual feminist activists, in
China the state initiated the change of the women’s role in their society. In a
time where the politic system started evolving dramatically, so did the feudal-patriarchal
ideology. For thousands of years, women had been treated in a slave like way
but when the communist party started getting more powerful they had a new goal
in mind: equal rights for women.

The first act passed by the
new communist government was the Marriage Reform Law in 1950. It abolished
traditions such as concubinage, bride price, child betrothal and forced
marriage, and symbolised the government’s prioritisation of dealing with
women’s issues.  This new law also
guaranteed Chinese women the right to divorce and equal rights in ownership and
management of the family property.

Their interest in promoting
feminism in China didn’t result from idealistic beliefs but from an economic
purpose, becoming one of the most powerful and advanced nations in the world.
In order to advance economically and politically, they thought it necessary to
emancipate women to strengthen the family which was believed to be the
fundamental base of Chinese society. The government didn’t think that marriage
was a private matter anymore but that it rather “united private and public
interests in men and women as constituent members of that state and society.”
(p.178 the marriage law of 1950)

Therefore, the CCP didn’t
exactly have the women’s best interests at heart. The Marriage Reform made it
easier for women to join the workforce, which had been one of the principal
objectives from the beginning. Thanks to the relief of patriarchal oppressions
and other laws guaranteeing equal pay and equal education for women, the
country became more and more productive. 
Mao Zedong had been thinking a long time that women were a wasted
reservoir of labour and hoped that they could help compensate the shortage of
machines, new means of production, and workers.

 

The impact
on women

Mao Zedong and his
followers not only benefitted from women’s rights movements, but they also
tried to replace the patriarchal authority that had oppressed Chinese women
once before by the party’s one. They intentionally helped women gain equal
rights in order to change, if not even break, traditional family ties and
restore a new loyalty to the state.

Almost 75 % of the women
applied for divorce as soon as they could due to the former superior status of
her husband.

Nevertheless, divorce was
not always easy. The women had to go through three barriers: the husband, the
husband’s family and the cadre of the village government. This last one was
always the most difficult. They often added their own personal rules to the
Marriage Reform Law such as for instance that the woman may only marry again if
her ex-husband is already remarried, which made it even more complicated to be
granted a divorce.

For the husband, the loss
of his wife was comparable to the one of a cow or sheep. The general opinion of
this new law negative. A lot of people were still trapped mentally at least in
the feudal-patriarchal system and could not easily accept the idea that women
should suddenly be equal to men whereas, just a decade before, they were
considered as things and were held as slaves in their own households. Even
Chinese communists thought of it as disadvantageous for poorer peasants and
unemployed farmhands and the pursuit of divorce by a woman was considered as
“high treason against a natural order “. (p.180).

The battle for a divorce
was often a matter of life and death. As many as 70’000-80’000 marriage-related
murders were committed during the two or three years following the promulgation
of the Marriage Reform Law. Women were often struggling alone to gain
independence and were very determined, even though they were aware of the
dangerous position they were him.

The married women workers
often had a double burden. They had to work tremendous hours on the fields or
in factories but in many cases had to give the money they earned to their husband,
their husband’s families or split it between their natal and marital ‘s one.
When they got home, they had to take care of their parents-in-law and do all
the extra household chores.

The state noticed that
women were less motivated to work when they were trapped in these situations so
by spreading Marriage Law propaganda, they managed to create a system where
families would be supportive of one another and where the spouses were treated
equally. They also rules like everyone should eat in common halls  and set up nurseries, kindergartens and
tailor ships so that women didn’t have to take 
care of these daily tasks and could concentrate more on their work. On
the other hand, family bonds, as mentioned earlier, could also suffer from
these new institutions. Many people who grew up in Communist China reported
that they barely saw their mother and often even lived at their grandparents’
house because their parents devoted all the time working for the CPP.

However,
three years after they first introduced the Marriage Reform Law to the Chinese
population, the communist government, concerned that it might have a negative
influence on the party’s reputation, abandoned it. Women’s rights and equality
were only encouraged so long as it helped the party.

Nevertheless, this was the
beginning of the liberation of Chinese women. They became more independent and
powerful thanks to this political strategy and even started participating in
local politics where some would even work in high-ranking positions as officers
or other members of authority. This phenomenon was a great progress made in the
conservative China. Women had discovered that they could have the same rights
as men and be treated equally and, thanks to the government, they actually believed
that they should.

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