There is no denying
that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party under Chairman Mao Zedong
changed the course of the history of China and shaped the China the world sees
today. The amount of lives, cultural traditions, and differing intellectual
thoughts that were lost and destroyed as he strove to meet his goals for the
country can never be recovered or replaced. However, it had been asserted that
one of the more positive effects of Chairman Mao on the people of China was his
somewhat radical opinion of woman. Prior to the Communist Revolution, women’s
role in Chinese society was almost completely limited to life within the home
and focused on supporting their family and being submissive to their fathers
and husbands. Chairman Mao realized that women were one of the oppressed groups
in China that could be utilized to increase his control over the country. While
women’s rights still have a long way to go, it can definitely be said some of
Mao’s polices advanced Chinese women in ways that would have been unimaginable before
his rise to leadership. The more relevant questions are regarding Chairman
Mao’s intent behind these polices and if they were destined to fail from the
start due to the cultural and political climate in 20th century China. 

It can also be argued that the political activities of Chairman Mao’s Communist
China were more of a continuation of traditional Imperial China, based heavily
in Confucian values, than a new type of Marxist-Leninist China, based on the
Soviet Union as an archetype. While it is unquestionable that a
Marxist-Leninist political structure was present in China during this time,
Confucian values remained to be reinforced through rituals and were a
fundamental part of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies. The importance of
Confucian values had serious implications and consequences for the development
of women in China before, during, and after the leadership of Chairman Mao.
Alicia S.M. Leung writes, “Confucian ethics accepted the subservience of women
to men as natural and proper because women were generally regarded as unworthy
or incapable of education.” This demonstrates that although Chairman Mao and
the Chinese Communist Party might have had the good intentions to advance women
through their policies, these polices were destined to not work out from the
start, because of the thousands of years of influence Confucianism has on
Chinese society. 

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The Chinese Communist Party’s official discourse on women’s liberation
originated from Karl Marx’s theories of communist revolution and the history of
private ownership, European Socialist views on women’s liberation, the Soviet
model of women’s liberation, the May Fourth feminist movement, and Chinese
nationalism of the early twentieth century from when the party was first
founded in 1921. Wang Zheng discusses how the May Fourth Movement accelerated
the idea of advancing women’s rights in China. The feminist movement of this
period brought women’s liberation into China’s political discourse, forcing all
current and future political movements to contain policies and ideas for
increasing women’s rights in order to be seen as progressive. Thus, the Chinese
Communist Party deemed women’s emancipation as one of their ideological goals
and pledges. The Party began to institutionalize their ideas of women’s
liberation 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-China
Women’s Federation, was founded with the support of the leaders of the Chinese
Communist Party in April 1949. The Federation was created to be an umbrella
organization of all other women’s organizations China. Its main functions
included mobilizing women to accomplish tasks for the Chinese Communist Party
during the Communist Revolution and concentrating on specific issues concerning
women’s interests, welfare, and equal rights. Both of these efforts were viewed
as “complementary to each other and crucial for engaging women in a political
process for women’s liberation.” However, Wang Zheng argues that these efforts
were viewed as “subordinate to the Party’s ‘central work,’ and thus never
became a priority of the Chinese Communist Party. Women during this period were
also constrained by the Party’s idea of suppressing “bourgeois feminism.” “They
would always find themselves walking a fine line between advocating women’s
interests and being named ‘bourgeois feminists’ for seeming to insist on the
primacy of gender issues.” 

The Chinese woman’s movement had been greatly advanced by the creation of the
Marriage Law of 1950, which was established to promote the equality of both
sexes in marriage. These laws strove to end male superiority over women, making
both partners in the marriage equal. The laws also allowed women to leave
unhappy marriages through divorce, as well as prevented marriages from
happening if both parties were not willing participants. The Marriage Law
criticized the traditional marriage system, calling it “feudal,” and “based on
the superiority of man over woman and which ignores the children’s interest.”
On the contrary, the Communist government claimed that their “New Democratic
marriage system” was “based on free choice of partners, on monogamy, on equal
rights for both sexes, and on protection of the lawful interests of women and
children.” The introduction of this new kind of system and laws to protect the
rights of women within this system was instrumental in advancing women’s rights
in China in both the family and the legal realm.

However, the new Marriage Laws of the Chinese Communist Party did not
automatically emancipate women, even though that was what the Party claimed. It
is true that many women were able to file for divorce and leave unhappy
marriages, but they “faced an enormously difficult future.” Ono Kazuko thinks
that this continuing difficulty for women to assert their independence, even
after the creation of marriage laws, was because of the legacy of the
traditional role for women in Chinese culture. She states “For a woman to
pursue divorce was virtually high treason against a natural order.” This kind
of view was prevalent in Chinese society of the time, as well as other negative
views surrounding other aspects of the Marriage Laws, such as the ability for
widows to remarry. Phyllis Andors contends, “The influence of the old system of
child brides, arranged marriages, and female infanticide continued to be
strong.” These opinions demonstrate that however reformative Communist
legislation was, it could not changed thousands of years of traditional ideas
that were rooted in the Chinese people’s minds.

Chairman Mao advocated a collective struggle for family revolution because he
viewed 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, human
sentiment, family loyalties and intimate personal contact.” Chinese women were
told to give themselves completely to revolutionary efforts and promoting Party
policies. If a woman was seen giving any type of affection for their children,
she was criticized as having divided loyalties, because she should only be
focused on furthering the Communist movement. Mao also thought that the family
alienated the Chinese people’ s minds and thoughts away from nationalism to the
Communist state and the Party. The Communist-controlled media used propaganda
to establish acceptable norms of behavior, which stressed that the individual
should be more concerned about his or her responsibilities to the collective
group, rather than “narrow and individualistic family roles and
responsibilities.” However, although his policies had theoretically changed the
traditional version of the Chinese family, women still existed in a patriarchal
family system and were fully aware of this fact. Women were told that a way
they could contribute to the Communist cause was by keeping the morale of their
husband high and maintaining harmony in their home and within their family.

The years of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, can be considered as
another phase of the development of feminism in Communist China. During this
radical time period, official state policy “shifted to an emphasis on class
differences and women were called into the productive workforce.” In order to
rid the country of “feudal” practices, women began to work in jobs that were
previously only done by men. At this time, women were also called to be
political activists and some were given positions of power, either in the Party
or in their individual communes and work units. Women, as well as men, were
encouraged to be critical of others and to be active in their support of the
Communist Party. A radical aspect of this time period was that women were able
to condemn others, including male family members, for their disloyalty to the
party, or criticize them of being counterrevolutionary. In traditional and
patriarchal Chinese society, it would not have been possible for women to go
against men, especially their fathers, brothers, and husbands, who were seen as
more superior and controlled the women’s lives. Mao Zedong’s secretary and
chief intellectual interpreter, Chen Boda, said this of Chinese women:

They can not only speak and walk loudly but also lift up their fists and
shoulder 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 and
husbands, and to oppose every system and form of prostitution…. The main
theme is to fight: to fight alongside all those oppressed men. 

However, even though Chinese women were being integrated into the new Communism
state ideologically, through their labor value and ability to contribute to the
revolutionary struggle, the issue of sexual norms remained a problem in Chinese
society. Alicia L.M. Leung states, “Maoist gender reconstruction was a unique
moment in world history, a time in which the result of state feminism was not
only the negation of gender differences but also the overall de-sexualization
of both men and women.” During this time period, the Chinese Communist Party
was also committed to the “re-molding” of women using male standards, and the
Party placed emphasis on the masculinization of women in Chinese society.
Female Party Members wore the same, shapeless clothes as and Male Party
Members, and began to attempt to walk and behave like their male counterparts.
Leung mentions the thought that Chinese women “were mere vessels of class
ideology, sexually neutralized revolutionary militants.” However, even though
sexuality was deemphasized under Chairman Mao’s leadership, Chinese women who
were not married and over thirty years old were considered either as social
burdens or sexually abnormal. These women were often ostracized and labeled as
lesbians under the socially accepted norms of conformity.

In many ways, this type of feminism that was created and controlled by the
state did not have many effects on the status of Chinese women. In actuality,
the Communist government used gender issues in order to legitimize its
ideological polices in creating revolution and liberation. Tani E. Barlow
states, “The institutionalization of the Chinese women’s liberation movement
under the Chinese communist state sublated the feminist heritage into its
political policies.” There was no separate and specific role designed for only
women, and the only efforts made towards their liberation were through their
participation in the revolutionary process. During the initial mobilization
process, Chinese women were encourage to decentralize the individual self and
focus on the collective needs of all people. Chairman Mao declared that women
“would be liberated from the customs and habits of a feudal society through
their participation in paid work as well as through the processes of the
Marriage and Land Reforms.” Therefore, the idea was spread that women’s
liberation could only occur if women showed utmost loyalty to Chinese Communist
Party policies. In this way, Chairman Mao’s objective for advancing women’s
rights can be seen merely as a method for promoting his own political ideology
and agenda.

In Jieyu Liu’s article “Researching Chinese Women’s Lives: ‘Insider’ Research
and Life History, she focuses on research gained through interviews of various
Chinese women who lived during the Maoist period. She noted that the majority
of women would give the “politically accepted version” of important events,
such as the Cultural Revolution. She said it almost “seemed they had
internalized these accounts rather than deliberately chosen to give a public
account.” Jieyu believe that this indoctrination of the Chinese Communist
Party’s version of history might be because the women were never exposed to an
alternative version of the events, even after Chairman Mao’s death. She noticed
that the likelihood to provide the “politically accepted version” of events was
especially prevalent in women who were former Party members. She thought that
this was because “they would have been habituated to these by their frequent
attendance at Party meetings and the need continually to subject their own past
to critical reflection.” Jieyu’s research demonstrates the long-lasting effects
of the Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party’s indoctrination and
control of ideas in China, as well as the enforced idea of utmost loyalty to
the Party.

Jieyu Liu also mentions the wariness of the women to mention anything that
could be construed as negative against the Chinese Communist Party when they
were being tape-recorded, even years after Chairman Mao’s death. She writes
that the women were “very aware of it the tape recorder and were wary of
talking about issues such as the Party and redundancy, especially those who
were Party members or distant contacts.” She writes extensively about her
interview with a woman she calls Mother Guan, who was a member of the Chinese
Communist Party. Mother Guan told Jieyu that if she did not use a recording
device that she would be more willing to tell her more stories about her life.
Jieyu eventually persuaded her to tell additional stories, and one she
mentioned involved her being wronged in a sexual scandal. Mother Guan is a good
symbol for many Chinese women who were Party members, because she was afraid to
share her experiences for fear of being labeled as counterrevolutionary or a
critic of the Party. It is quite possible that many Chinese women were never
able to share their stories of hardship and violence under the leadership of
Chairman Mao, thus promulgating the belief that women’s rights were greatly
advanced by Mao, when that may not be true.

Since Chairman Mao’s rise to power in 1949, the role of women in Chinese
society has been totally changed under the influence of his leadership. There
are now women in all trades and professions in China, working alongside men on
a seemingly equal footing. Chinese women’s equal access to jobs and education
are still evident today in the number of females employed in intellectual
fields that are predominately still male in Western countries, such as the
medical field. The memoirs compiled in the book Some of Us: Chinese Women
Growing up in the Mao Era, illuminate some of the more positive effects of
Chairman Mao’s leadership. Through their different experiences of this time
period, the writers offer insight that China during this era was much more
complex than Westerners would like to believe. Although it is easy to paint
Chairman Mao as a villain, not all of his policies victimized women as much as
the West tends to promote.

To summarize, the study of women during the Maoist Period has produced
conflicting opinions concerning whether women were liberated or victimized
under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong. In actuality, it is most likely
that women were neither as oppressed as Westerners often believe, nor as
emancipated as the Chinese Communist Party often emphasize. While modern
scholars can never be sure of Chairman Mao’s intentions in enacting polices
that tried to advance Chinese women, it is easier to see that women would not
be emancipated solely through these policies, because of the longstanding
traditional ideas that were, and are still prevalent in Chinese society
regarding women. What can be said is that Chairman Mao definitely used the liberation
of women as a tool to further his political power, although he might have had
some purer motivations as well. The legacy of Confucianism in China also played
a major role in the lack of success in many of the imposed reforms. Like most
of Mao’s policies, not just those focused on women, it is likely that the
negative effects outweighed the positive ones. However, it is certain that
China would not have risen to become the global power it is today without the
leadership of Chairman Mao.

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