Was China’s Communist Revolution a Women’s Revolution?

By Bérénice Collignon

On November 9th, the McGill University chapter of Global China Connection, held a discussion panel titled “What is behind China’s 70th anniversary?”. As a McGill student association, it aims to promote cultural and business exchanges between students through various types of events. At this panel, Dr. Gal Gvili, a professor of East Asian Studies at McGill University, discussed the changes brought by the Chinese Communist Party regarding the role of women in society. Her goal was to “take a look at the past 70 years from the prism of women’s conditions and the revelation of a checkered narrative.” 

In less than a century, women’s social roles in China have changed drastically due to their increasing presence in Chinese society and the marriage policies implemented by the People’s Republic of China.

The status of women prior to the Communist revolution 

Filial piety” is a Confucian cultural concept that has been deeply rooted into Chinese beliefs for thousands of years and is composed of three obedience rules. This belief refers to the respect of the elderly and implies that there is a hierarchy of obedience within a family structure, with women seen as inferior to men. Indeed, “Confucian texts claim that women are born with a lower status than men.” Hence, women were required to obey the male figures in the household, ranging  from their fathers, husbands, and even sons. This perception of women remained anchored in the minds of the population as centuries passed. 

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that Chinese intellectuals became increasingly influenced by western ideologies and created the May Fourth Movement, an intellectual and reformist movement aimed to form a modern Chinese culture. These were protests going against the existing imperial and feudal systems that had governed China for thousands of years. This social movement gave place to the issue of ‘equal rights’ and gender equality, with a growing number of women’s rights movement and a shift in China’s public discourse. 

The promise of the People’s Republic of China 

The year 1949 is an important date in Chinese history as it marks the beginning of its Communist revolution, the creation of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As the new government came into power, it made a commitment to bring equality to women and men, and so began the debate over how to liberate women. A Common Program was formed as a way to bring legislative protection for women. Within it, Article 6 stood out, stipulating that:

“The People’s Republic of China shall abolish the feudal system which holds women in bondage. Women shall enjoy equal rights with men in political, economic, cultural, educational and social life. Freedom of marriage for men and women shall be put into effect.” 

In 1950, the CCP created the first Marriage Law and Land Reform, which Dr.Gvili referred to as a “major milestone to the liberalization of women in China.” She explained that the latter now allowed women to own land, while the former allowed demands for divorce to be made. Furthermore, these laws banned prostitution, concubinage, and now required marriages to be based on consent, thus ending the tradition of arranged marriages. These laws marked an end to the former feudal system which had been in place, resulting in an increasing number of women owning land, a decrease in prostitution, and the creation of a new and freer image of women in Chinese society. Divorce rates surged once the Marriage Law was passed, it came to be known as the ‘divorce law’. In China divorces were said to be as high as 1.3 per 1000 population, reflecting the level of marital discontent women experienced. 

Despite such positive changes, however, these laws did fail in other ways. Women remained constrained to do household chores and raise the children, thus reflecting the reform’s failure to change deeply rooted societal mores. Instead, women were simply given more rights. Another issue highlighted by Dr.Gvili was the lack of education among women, which presented a substantial disadvantage for women, particularly in instances of divorce. 

Mao Zedong’s vision for women’s roles went beyond creating new laws that promoted their rights. The PRC focused primarily on the mobilization of female labour in order to increase economic activity through industry. However, these efforts were completely opposed with the fact that motherhood and reproduction were still highly valued, therefore, the expectations of women’s livelihoods remained largely unchanged. In order to promote the outlooks that the PRC had on women, the government employed propaganda in order to, in Dr. Gvili’s words, “create an ideal family”. This is why “campaigns were launched” to promote this idea of a mother’s perfect behaviour within a household “emphasizing her domestic responsibilities“. Yet, in the late 1950s, women began to increasingly join heavy industries which had negative impacts on their health. Women were under high pressure to achieve many expectations while “still being paid less than men and limited in their career ambition.“. 

The impact of laws and reforms on the social perception of women 

During this discussion, Dr.Gvili recalled that, at the time, the world was noticing a new global discourse regarding the position of women in society. International organisations such as the UN, in its early stage of creation, would soon consider it an important measure of development and social progress. Such a change in discourse would create new pathways for women as it highlighted the necessity to include women within society and the economy. The 1978 Economic reform marked the opening of Chinese markets to the world and the inflow of foreign investment leading to an increase in the consumer culture of the Chinese population. The economic reformation combined with a social transformation led Chinese women to focus gradually more on fashion and beauty as they were associated with social status. Being pretty was seen as an asset rather than a quality granting higher chances of marrying into rich households. However, the new success of China’s economy in the following years did not necessarily mean that women would obtain status equality.

The consequences of the  One Child Policy proved that women still had lower social status than men. Couples preferred having boys rather than girls due to traditional beliefs and financial security, which confirmed that women had still not obtained equal standing within chinese society. This is known as the boy-bias and  led to the widespread use of abortion, infanticide, and abandonment of baby girls. Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize winning economist, evaluated “that there [were] about 100 million missing women, women that were never born or killed or aborted across Asia” as a result of the One Child Policy. This highlights the abiding Chinese mentalities regarding the status of women; though their labor participation had become more prominent, women were still believed to be inferior to men. 

Despite this, the PRC focused also on trying to bring education to Chinese women. Numerous educational programs were created resulting in the increasing number of women receiving higher education. Couples who did decide to keep their daughters would invest in their future through education. Women born after the 1980s received greater education than any before them, which can arguably be considered  a great achievement for the PRC. 

Entering the 21st century, the PRC continued to implement measures. Another reform mentioned by Dr.Gvili,  was the 2011 Marriage Law, which allowed the distribution of property to whomever’s name was present on the deed in the event of divorce. Once again contestations arose as most of the properties were under the husband’s name and in some cases, the parents’. Gvili stressed  that women wanted to have both names on the deed, but that banks did not allow the creation of joint accounts. This is still the case today. Consequently, women were, and still are, forced to depend on their husbands, and if a divorce were to take place, most women would be left with nothing.

Recent developments 

In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of feminist movements in China; the Feminist Five can be viewed as a key example. The Guardian presented them as “a vocal group of young female activists who are turning to the internet and the streets to voice their anger at the ‘toxic vitality of sexism in China today.”  Five women were sent to jail in 2015 due to an attempt to protest against sexual harassment in public transportation, which violated China’s strict anti-criticism policies. After being questioned extensively, and held for thirty seven days in detention, they were liberated as this event had caused “tremendous global diplomatic and social media pressure“. Despite being released, they are to this day still seen as criminals and therefore, under close surveillance by the government. Although protests are illegal, alternatives such as the use of social media has allowed Chinese women to speak up against their struggles ranging from domestic violence to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Over the last 70 years, China has managed to give its female population a greater number of rights and opportunities. Nevertheless, there still remain serious inequalities and sexism represents a crucial problem within the country. Dr. Gvili, through her presentation, gave a clear illustration of how the PRC, through its reforms, created “an extreme radical shift in the position of women.” Nowadays, the majority of Chinese women work and receive post-graduate education, which is a positive indicator of development. Nonetheless, a new type of modern patriarchy persists. Within it, women are still not fully independent and sexism pervades. The anxiety of being unmarried becomes predominant and is enforced by state mechanisms suggesting that the path to equality for Chinese women is not over.  

Looking back upon the global history of women’s rights, many achievements have been accomplished in a single century. As individuals continue to become increasingly aware of existing gender inequalities, support for women’s rights will only continue to grow. 

Edited by Sruthi Sudhir

Photo credits: “Women working in a silk factory in China” by Lindsay Maizland. Published 27th of May, 2013. This work was sourced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made.

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