There is no denyingthat the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party under Chairman Mao Zedongchanged the course of the history of China and shaped the China the world seestoday. The amount of lives, cultural traditions, and differing intellectualthoughts that were lost and destroyed as he strove to meet his goals for thecountry can never be recovered or replaced.
However, it had been asserted thatone of the more positive effects of Chairman Mao on the people of China was hissomewhat radical opinion of woman. Prior to the Communist Revolution, women’srole in Chinese society was almost completely limited to life within the homeand focused on supporting their family and being submissive to their fathersand husbands. Chairman Mao realized that women were one of the oppressed groupsin China that could be utilized to increase his control over the country. Whilewomen’s rights still have a long way to go, it can definitely be said some ofMao’s polices advanced Chinese women in ways that would have been unimaginable beforehis rise to leadership. The more relevant questions are regarding ChairmanMao’s intent behind these polices and if they were destined to fail from thestart due to the cultural and political climate in 20th century China. It can also be argued that the political activities of Chairman Mao’s CommunistChina were more of a continuation of traditional Imperial China, based heavilyin Confucian values, than a new type of Marxist-Leninist China, based on theSoviet Union as an archetype. While it is unquestionable that aMarxist-Leninist political structure was present in China during this time,Confucian values remained to be reinforced through rituals and were afundamental part of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies. The importance ofConfucian values had serious implications and consequences for the developmentof women in China before, during, and after the leadership of Chairman Mao.
Alicia S.M. Leung writes, “Confucian ethics accepted the subservience of womento men as natural and proper because women were generally regarded as unworthyor incapable of education.” This demonstrates that although Chairman Mao andthe Chinese Communist Party might have had the good intentions to advance womenthrough their policies, these polices were destined to not work out from thestart, because of the thousands of years of influence Confucianism has onChinese society. The Chinese Communist Party’s official discourse on women’s liberationoriginated from Karl Marx’s theories of communist revolution and the history ofprivate ownership, European Socialist views on women’s liberation, the Sovietmodel of women’s liberation, the May Fourth feminist movement, and Chinesenationalism of the early twentieth century from when the party was firstfounded in 1921. Wang Zheng discusses how the May Fourth Movement acceleratedthe idea of advancing women’s rights in China. The feminist movement of thisperiod brought women’s liberation into China’s political discourse, forcing allcurrent and future political movements to contain policies and ideas forincreasing women’s rights in order to be seen as progressive. Thus, the ChineseCommunist Party deemed women’s emancipation as one of their ideological goalsand pledges.
The Party began to institutionalize their ideas of women’sliberation first through the National Revolution, then in the Red Base Areas,and later in the People’s Republic of China, under leader Chairman Mao. The All-China Women’s Democratic Federation, later known as the All-ChinaWomen’s Federation, was founded with the support of the leaders of the ChineseCommunist Party in April 1949. The Federation was created to be an umbrellaorganization of all other women’s organizations China. Its main functionsincluded mobilizing women to accomplish tasks for the Chinese Communist Partyduring the Communist Revolution and concentrating on specific issues concerningwomen’s interests, welfare, and equal rights. Both of these efforts were viewedas “complementary to each other and crucial for engaging women in a politicalprocess for women’s liberation.” However, Wang Zheng argues that these effortswere viewed as “subordinate to the Party’s ‘central work,’ and thus neverbecame a priority of the Chinese Communist Party. Women during this period werealso constrained by the Party’s idea of suppressing “bourgeois feminism.” “Theywould always find themselves walking a fine line between advocating women’sinterests and being named ‘bourgeois feminists’ for seeming to insist on theprimacy of gender issues.
” The Chinese woman’s movement had been greatly advanced by the creation of theMarriage Law of 1950, which was established to promote the equality of bothsexes in marriage. These laws strove to end male superiority over women, makingboth partners in the marriage equal. The laws also allowed women to leaveunhappy marriages through divorce, as well as prevented marriages fromhappening if both parties were not willing participants. The Marriage Lawcriticized the traditional marriage system, calling it “feudal,” and “based onthe superiority of man over woman and which ignores the children’s interest.”On the contrary, the Communist government claimed that their “New Democraticmarriage system” was “based on free choice of partners, on monogamy, on equalrights for both sexes, and on protection of the lawful interests of women andchildren.” The introduction of this new kind of system and laws to protect therights of women within this system was instrumental in advancing women’s rightsin China in both the family and the legal realm.However, the new Marriage Laws of the Chinese Communist Party did notautomatically emancipate women, even though that was what the Party claimed. Itis true that many women were able to file for divorce and leave unhappymarriages, but they “faced an enormously difficult future.
” Ono Kazuko thinksthat this continuing difficulty for women to assert their independence, evenafter the creation of marriage laws, was because of the legacy of thetraditional role for women in Chinese culture. She states “For a woman topursue divorce was virtually high treason against a natural order.” This kindof view was prevalent in Chinese society of the time, as well as other negativeviews surrounding other aspects of the Marriage Laws, such as the ability forwidows to remarry. Phyllis Andors contends, “The influence of the old system ofchild brides, arranged marriages, and female infanticide continued to bestrong.” These opinions demonstrate that however reformative Communistlegislation was, it could not changed thousands of years of traditional ideasthat were rooted in the Chinese people’s minds.
Chairman Mao advocated a collective struggle for family revolution because heviewed the family as a symbol of decaying feudal social order. He believed that”the family was to be condemned because it gave birth to selfish ideas, humansentiment, family loyalties and intimate personal contact.” Chinese women weretold to give themselves completely to revolutionary efforts and promoting Partypolicies. If a woman was seen giving any type of affection for their children,she was criticized as having divided loyalties, because she should only befocused on furthering the Communist movement. Mao also thought that the familyalienated the Chinese people’ s minds and thoughts away from nationalism to theCommunist state and the Party. The Communist-controlled media used propagandato establish acceptable norms of behavior, which stressed that the individualshould be more concerned about his or her responsibilities to the collectivegroup, rather than “narrow and individualistic family roles andresponsibilities.
” However, although his policies had theoretically changed thetraditional version of the Chinese family, women still existed in a patriarchalfamily system and were fully aware of this fact. Women were told that a waythey could contribute to the Communist cause was by keeping the morale of theirhusband high and maintaining harmony in their home and within their family.The years of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, can be considered asanother phase of the development of feminism in Communist China. During thisradical time period, official state policy “shifted to an emphasis on classdifferences and women were called into the productive workforce.” In order torid the country of “feudal” practices, women began to work in jobs that werepreviously only done by men.
At this time, women were also called to bepolitical activists and some were given positions of power, either in the Partyor in their individual communes and work units. Women, as well as men, wereencouraged to be critical of others and to be active in their support of theCommunist Party. A radical aspect of this time period was that women were ableto condemn others, including male family members, for their disloyalty to theparty, or criticize them of being counterrevolutionary. In traditional andpatriarchal Chinese society, it would not have been possible for women to goagainst men, especially their fathers, brothers, and husbands, who were seen asmore superior and controlled the women’s lives. Mao Zedong’s secretary andchief intellectual interpreter, Chen Boda, said this of Chinese women:They can not only speak and walk loudly but also lift up their fists andshoulder rifles to pursue whatever task, which, in their opinion, is rational.In other words, women ought to stand straight up, secure their individuality,manage an independent living, not to be the slaves of their parents-in-law andhusbands, and to oppose every system and form of prostitution…
. The maintheme is to fight: to fight alongside all those oppressed men. However, even though Chinese women were being integrated into the new Communismstate ideologically, through their labor value and ability to contribute to therevolutionary struggle, the issue of sexual norms remained a problem in Chinesesociety. Alicia L.M. Leung states, “Maoist gender reconstruction was a uniquemoment in world history, a time in which the result of state feminism was notonly the negation of gender differences but also the overall de-sexualizationof both men and women.” During this time period, the Chinese Communist Partywas also committed to the “re-molding” of women using male standards, and theParty placed emphasis on the masculinization of women in Chinese society.
Female Party Members wore the same, shapeless clothes as and Male PartyMembers, and began to attempt to walk and behave like their male counterparts.Leung mentions the thought that Chinese women “were mere vessels of classideology, sexually neutralized revolutionary militants.” However, even thoughsexuality was deemphasized under Chairman Mao’s leadership, Chinese women whowere not married and over thirty years old were considered either as socialburdens or sexually abnormal. These women were often ostracized and labeled aslesbians under the socially accepted norms of conformity.In many ways, this type of feminism that was created and controlled by thestate did not have many effects on the status of Chinese women. In actuality,the Communist government used gender issues in order to legitimize itsideological polices in creating revolution and liberation.
Tani E. Barlowstates, “The institutionalization of the Chinese women’s liberation movementunder the Chinese communist state sublated the feminist heritage into itspolitical policies.” There was no separate and specific role designed for onlywomen, and the only efforts made towards their liberation were through theirparticipation in the revolutionary process. During the initial mobilizationprocess, Chinese women were encourage to decentralize the individual self andfocus on the collective needs of all people. Chairman Mao declared that women”would be liberated from the customs and habits of a feudal society throughtheir participation in paid work as well as through the processes of theMarriage and Land Reforms.” Therefore, the idea was spread that women’sliberation could only occur if women showed utmost loyalty to Chinese CommunistParty policies.
In this way, Chairman Mao’s objective for advancing women’srights can be seen merely as a method for promoting his own political ideologyand agenda. In Jieyu Liu’s article “Researching Chinese Women’s Lives: ‘Insider’ Researchand Life History, she focuses on research gained through interviews of variousChinese women who lived during the Maoist period. She noted that the majorityof women would give the “politically accepted version” of important events,such as the Cultural Revolution. She said it almost “seemed they hadinternalized these accounts rather than deliberately chosen to give a publicaccount.” Jieyu believe that this indoctrination of the Chinese CommunistParty’s version of history might be because the women were never exposed to analternative version of the events, even after Chairman Mao’s death.
She noticedthat the likelihood to provide the “politically accepted version” of events wasespecially prevalent in women who were former Party members. She thought thatthis was because “they would have been habituated to these by their frequentattendance at Party meetings and the need continually to subject their own pastto critical reflection.” Jieyu’s research demonstrates the long-lasting effectsof the Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party’s indoctrination andcontrol of ideas in China, as well as the enforced idea of utmost loyalty tothe Party.Jieyu Liu also mentions the wariness of the women to mention anything thatcould be construed as negative against the Chinese Communist Party when theywere being tape-recorded, even years after Chairman Mao’s death. She writesthat the women were “very aware of it the tape recorder and were wary oftalking about issues such as the Party and redundancy, especially those whowere Party members or distant contacts.” She writes extensively about herinterview with a woman she calls Mother Guan, who was a member of the ChineseCommunist Party. Mother Guan told Jieyu that if she did not use a recordingdevice that she would be more willing to tell her more stories about her life.
Jieyu eventually persuaded her to tell additional stories, and one shementioned involved her being wronged in a sexual scandal. Mother Guan is a goodsymbol for many Chinese women who were Party members, because she was afraid toshare her experiences for fear of being labeled as counterrevolutionary or acritic of the Party. It is quite possible that many Chinese women were neverable to share their stories of hardship and violence under the leadership ofChairman Mao, thus promulgating the belief that women’s rights were greatlyadvanced by Mao, when that may not be true.Since Chairman Mao’s rise to power in 1949, the role of women in Chinesesociety has been totally changed under the influence of his leadership. Thereare now women in all trades and professions in China, working alongside men ona seemingly equal footing. Chinese women’s equal access to jobs and educationare still evident today in the number of females employed in intellectualfields that are predominately still male in Western countries, such as themedical field. The memoirs compiled in the book Some of Us: Chinese WomenGrowing up in the Mao Era, illuminate some of the more positive effects ofChairman Mao’s leadership. Through their different experiences of this timeperiod, the writers offer insight that China during this era was much morecomplex than Westerners would like to believe.
Although it is easy to paintChairman Mao as a villain, not all of his policies victimized women as much asthe West tends to promote.To summarize, the study of women during the Maoist Period has producedconflicting opinions concerning whether women were liberated or victimizedunder the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong. In actuality, it is most likelythat women were neither as oppressed as Westerners often believe, nor asemancipated as the Chinese Communist Party often emphasize. While modernscholars can never be sure of Chairman Mao’s intentions in enacting policesthat tried to advance Chinese women, it is easier to see that women would notbe emancipated solely through these policies, because of the longstandingtraditional ideas that were, and are still prevalent in Chinese societyregarding women.
What can be said is that Chairman Mao definitely used the liberationof women as a tool to further his political power, although he might have hadsome purer motivations as well. The legacy of Confucianism in China also playeda major role in the lack of success in many of the imposed reforms. Like mostof Mao’s policies, not just those focused on women, it is likely that thenegative effects outweighed the positive ones. However, it is certain thatChina would not have risen to become the global power it is today without theleadership of Chairman Mao.