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Chinese Women in the 20th century

Updated on May 22, 2017

China’s twentieth century was a complicated one, as it transformed into myriads of governments and economic models. The story of Chinese women throughout these changes was no less transformatory. Their position within society and representation shifted, from a conservative society under Confucian norms, to the Guomindang’s sprouts of liberalization and revolution, to a Communist government that promoted radical changes in women’s equality in society, and finally to a market economy and unprecedented state involvement in fertility policies.

China's borders have both de jure and de-facto varied throughout the century, but a general territorial continuity has been maintained.
China's borders have both de jure and de-facto varied throughout the century, but a general territorial continuity has been maintained.
Chinese female footbinding; a practice that would be stamped out in the 20th century (by the efforts, to varying degrees, of every major Chinese government).
Chinese female footbinding; a practice that would be stamped out in the 20th century (by the efforts, to varying degrees, of every major Chinese government).
An Arch of Virtuous Widows, Confucian values carved into the very landscape.
An Arch of Virtuous Widows, Confucian values carved into the very landscape. | Source

If we are to assume a baseline to later measure results, the nineteenth century in China represented the period prior to China’s extensive social, political, and economic changes. Women did not have a significant political role in Chinese dynasties (at least officially - - doubtless they exerted unofficial influence behind the scenes), and an increase in the power of women and their relative freedom was seen as a sign of decline in dynasties. According to Patterns of Modern Chinese History, official discourses promoted the subservience of women to men, obedience, chastity, and loyalty. Widows were not expected to be re-married, and instead would remain chaste and loyal to their departed husbands. These “virtuous widows” would sometimes be honored, such as by the monument “Arches of Virtuous Widows.” When women were educated - - and this refers principally to upper class women - - they studied Confucian etiquette and arts suitable of young women, such as spinning and weaving (women in farming households were heavily involved in textile production, including the silk industry). During the Qing dynasty the most famous example of impositions upon women was that of foot binding, which existed for aesthetic reasons, as identity-markers, and as a sign of virtue by rendering women incapable of leaving their homes easily. There were of course, women who did not bind their feet; ethnic minorities and the Manchu did not do so, and lower status women practiced it less. Manchu attempts to suppress footbinding provoked a Han response in defense of the institution, increasingly utilizing it as a way to defend Han identity. As girls would marry outside the family, their education focused on that what their new husbands would find valuable, principally the domestic arts and a modicum of education and entertainment capacity.

An excellent general history of China with much detail

Of course, at the same time during this period there were exceptions. Women could communicate to each other with their own special red characters, forming secret communication links that were inaccessible to others. The daring literature work Flowers in the Mirror by Li Ruzhen painted hypothetical pictures of a world where women were the ones who controlled society, men being the ones secluded and rendered to a position of inferiority. The Taiping Rebellion was the most radical of all for changing the roles of women, treating men and women in an egalitarian fashion, rejecting traditional Confucian values - - including family - - and going so far as to form all-female combat units. It was of course, crushed, with intense loss of life in China. Still, it is wise to not view official Confucian proclamations as always being one and the same; the lives of men and women could be more complementary and women’s agency more broad than would be assumed by a strict Confucian doctrine.

Reform was not entirely absent in the final years of the Qing dynasty. Official discourse, at least overseas, marked the changes that China had made in reducing foot-binding. Wu Tingfang for example, a Chinese diplomat, lauded the actions of the “Anti-Footbinding Society,” and denigrated the practice of foot-binding. In this case, whether Wu Tingfang actually believed what he was saying or not, the motives were clear - - China was countering her reputation for being barbaric and backwards by lauding a change to a custom that Westerners found reprehensible. Altering it helped to attraction support and increase Chinese prestige and aid in the attempts to elevate itself to an equal status among the family of nations.

During the final years of the Qing Dynasty, there were those with more radical views on how women’s position in society should be altered, especially among the anarchists and feminists. Anarcho-Communists like He Zhen proclaimed that women were exploited because of their subservient economic position, and that the creation of a society without possessions, where everything would be held communally, would mean that women would be placed on an equal position to men, freed from the tyranny of directly depending on them for economic survival. Others traced the subservient position of women to China’s “culture,” based on either the teachings of Confucius or Ban Zhou, who promoted women’s “virtue” and “obedience” with women being placed in an inferior position for the benefit of men. Han Yi, possibly Liu Shipei, took this further and advocated for the abolition of the family, which they postulated as the root of selfishness and evil, and inequality between men and women. Views like these were influenced by the spread of Western feminism, communism, and anarchism into China.

While such revolutionaries might not have succeeded in imposing their entire social vision, they showed the growing intellectual debate and discourse on the subject. Such views and nationalist agitation to expel the Manchus often went together, with various revolutionaries principally concerned with such expulsion - - such as Zou Rong, who in addition to driving out the Manchus, desired full equality between men and women. Although the resultant 1911 revolution might not have responded to all of the hopes that women held, such as universal suffrage, it still marked the beginning of a new era, when Confucianism would be increasing sidelined as an official ideology and social changes would begin to manifest themselves throughout Chinese society.

The cheongsam or qipao would be a symbol of modernity in female fashion and of the Chinese new woman.
The cheongsam or qipao would be a symbol of modernity in female fashion and of the Chinese new woman. | Source

As the rate of Chinese industrialization picked up in the “golden age of the Chinese bourgeoisie” (1911-1937), there were material changes. As a small Chinese urban proletariat was formed, a growing class of female factory workers started to emerge, most notably in Shanghai. Naturally, these women faced terrible conditions in the factories of Shanghai, with low wages and dreadful working environments. However, they also marked part of the emergence of the class of “new women,” increasingly separated from traditional mores and social ties, fleeing to the transitioning cities and their freedom (and also bringing in ideas from overseas, such as returnees from women who went to college in the US) The Cheongsam dress, or qipao, became the height of modern Chinese fashion and served as a symbol of the era. It incorporated traditional features with more modern, tight fitting gowns. It must be noted that not all Chinese feminists were overjoyed by these changes. In fact, many looked askance at the new generation and its increasingly libertine social lifestyle. In time, there would be something of a reaction against these changes by the New Life Movement of the Nationalists, emphasizing a more disciplined and “clean” society. Also, it should be noted that in the countryside, where the overwhelming majority of Chinese people lived, there was little social change - - life remained very much the same as it had always been.

The coming of war with Japan would bring terrible suffering to Chinese women, like the rest of China. Among the most famous of the tragedies they endured was that of being “comfort” women, where vast numbers of Chinese women were captured and forced into sexual slavery under horrific conditions in the Japanese military. Further suffering took place at the hands of soldiers in the field through war crimes, most viciously and notoriously in the rape, mutilation, and murder during the Rape of Nanking in 1937. For those who survived, their plight could be magnified with potential charges of collaboration, and their reception in returning to their families could be hostile.

Communism brought the vote, giving women the privilege to vote for the Communist party. While this element of women’s political liberation was dubious, it was married to more tangible benefits. Communists viewed the authority that husbands exercised over their wives as the fourth oppression upon them, beyond the other three of state, clan, and religion. Books like A Daughter of Han show this in the most extreme version, with Ning Lao being unable to leave her husband due to custom and social rigidity. One benefit of being a woman politically, one that continues, is an easier capacity to engage in protests which otherwise might be repressed. Government troops which might be willing to shoot protesting men are generally much less willing to shoot mothers and wives. Thus, the practice of women being principal agents in protests continues to today.

"In marriage, keep an eye on your own interests, and return radiant after registration"
"In marriage, keep an eye on your own interests, and return radiant after registration" | Source

Among these political policies, the one with the greatest impact was the Marriage Law of 1950. This effectively introduced a vast range of rights for women including the abolition of concubinage, polygamy, arranged marriage, and child marriage. Furthermore, it allowed wives to own property, reformed divorce, and greatly restructured the system of marriage in China, bringing it under the effective purview of the state for the first time. Although there had been a previous similar Nationalist law, the difference was that the communist law was enforced. This was not an easy task, and the law faced tremendous resistance, especially in the countryside, where implementing the police resulted in spikes in peasant opposition as well as in suicide and murder rates. For the older generation, there was a feeling that the younger generation should have to undergo the same practices that they underwent. Older women were often in leadership positions for neighborhood organizations, and, as such, were well placed to stall changes to the younger generation otherwise enabled by government policy. Ironically, rural women were still able to make better use of the law than their urban counterparts in many ways, as they had more direct access across multiple spectrums to local government officials. Thus, they were able to better achieve their objectives if they wanted divorce than urban women who were consigned purely to bureaucratic channels. Another policy change was the formal abolition of prostitution; this was not always as successful as proclaimed, and the practice continued as shown in The Spiral Road. Naturally, sex also continued in its normal fashion for attaining gifts and rewards, such as when female Red Guards were sent down to the countryside and were able to use sexual favors to gain permission to return to the cities from local Party cadres.

Work as a welder is a different task entirely from that of being a mother.
Work as a welder is a different task entirely from that of being a mother.

The Red Detachment of Women, in suitable martial garb

Officially, Communist portrayals of women varied. At times, propaganda posters portrayed female workers in non traditional industries that were distinctly less feminine such as welding or other industrial jobs. Other times they oscillated to showcase the more traditional role of the wife and mother responsible for the household. A good example of the portrayal of a “modern woman” incorporated in a traditional setting, in this case a rice field, is the poster “New view in the rural village” (1953).

Under Communism, young women were often capable of being involved in political affairs to a greater extent than their elders, and thus the organizing and various political initiatives brought by the Chinese communists would be most taken advantage of by this demographic. By contrast, older women in factories were working for their families and without the time to attend night-time party sessions. Thus, because they were more principally focused on labor, they would become the demographic more associated with record-setting production levels when individual workers were glorified for such achievements.. Within the industrial branches, there was also a discrimination against women caused by the Chinese industrial labor system which had a relatively small group of workers - - such as steel workers - - with high benefits and wages, while much of the rest of the workforce continued to have poor conditions. Women, little represented in steel, but extensively involved in textiles, were thus discriminated against in their position in the labor system.

Although Communists may have highlighted female workers and employed them in industry, the majority of the Chinese lived in the countryside as peasants, farming the soil as their ancestors had done since time immemorial. Here, women took up an increasing share of agriculture, as male labor was increasingly mobilized for industrial projects. This would continue even after the beginning of the end of socialism in the 1970s. No period of Chinese history has seen agriculture so dominated by women as during this time. Work teams in the countryside were somewhat sexist, as men and women had different work point ratios, men earning more than women of course.

The transformation of China over the last forty years as it has transitioned to a market economy from a socialist system has had tremendous effects far beyond economics, and the role of women in society is not excluded. Sex is something that sells under capitalism, and an increased sexualization of women has re-emerged in advertising and public displays. A contrast between a female fashion model for say, perfume, compared to a 1950s display of a female welder, is a startling disjuncture.

Propaganda of a different era
Propaganda of a different era | Source

Since market reforms have begun, women’s economic position has changed, but in some sectors not always for the better. For example, although women enjoyed a nearly equal rate of graduation at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Languages in 1983 (demonstrating the impressive gains that China made in female education under the communists), most of the companies hiring the graduates were only interested in males. Also, a principal problem with the employment of women has been the low provisions for childcare, so that women must care for their children themselves, disrupting their capacity to work. This was not a new phenomenon, during the socialist period it was similar, despite this being the official policy. Reform of the Chinese economic system has magnified this problem by enabling much freer management of labor, and thus women to be fired and a higher turnover of workers achieved.

People don't seem to be much swayed into having more girls by propaganda posters.
People don't seem to be much swayed into having more girls by propaganda posters.

Although not a market-based policy, the Chinese one child policy, as well as previous reductions in fertility, has also played a tremendous role in shaping the position of women in Chinese society. There is an obvious change as the reduction of the number of children borne to each woman has offered alternative uses for time and economic resources. However, the effect of the policy has also produced a skewed gender ratio. Because a son is still viewed as more desirable, as someone to provide for the family in old age, given the one child limit, some families decide to abort or infanticide females. There is an estimate that up to forty million more men than women could exist in China at least partly because of this attitude. Furthermore, in economic sectors where men are overrepresented, ratios can reach astounding levels, introducing intense competition for females and intense jealousy of foreign rivalry. Even in a country of 1.4 billion, such differences in gender ratios can thus have quite an effect. Partly in an attempt to respond to this, national depictions of the one child program generally portray the single child who is born as a girl. Government propaganda however, as with most natalist endeavors, seems to have had little impact next to the actual incentives.

This skewed ratio promotes a greater competition for women, the sexual market place being skewed in their favor due to supply and demand. It would be unsurprising if China’s overall sexual mores became more conservative as a result of such (aided by government policies that promote various “traditional values” to counteract the liberalization potential of opening up to the Western world), but in individual cases it has occasioned great excesses against women, also brought about by economic factors. As the wealth divide between cities and countryside has grown, great numbers of women have left the countryside to go to the city, but there has also been the abduction of a portion of these to be sold to farmers in the countryside (where a lack of appropriate wives exists), or to be entered into prostitution, sexual slavery, or various other ends. In the worst instances, such as along the China-Burma border, this is comparable to the conditions that the “comfort women” experienced. Government response to this, in an increasingly corrupt system, has been limited - - the occasional crackdown, followed by limited action.

The last century was a tumultuous one for China, and Chinese women in particular. Nevertheless, despite various problems that continue to plague women and are difficult to fix, such as poor childcare, trafficking, and discrimination, their position in society changed dramatically and has formally at least has gained an equality with men. At the same time, former traditions and ideals die hard; the very ideas and customs that communists might have thought that they had destroyed in the 1960s can come back with impressive speed. It is wrong to view the path of Chinese women as a simply teleological one that followed a Whig version of history, but instead it should be viewed as part of a complex road that saw their positions in society evolve and change in a multi-faceted way, not always one which idealists might identify with.


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