Feminism under Mao

Words: Tevy Kuch

The People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949, was hailed as a beacon of a change that would replace old China with new. The nation’s shift from feudalism to socialism was Mao’s taster-test at cultural, political, social and economic reform, and offered an opportunity to promulgate the idea of the ‘new woman’. 

Mao Zedong believed that women’s liberation had been stifled by the remnants of feudal bourgeois society – specifically, by Confucianism, which had been deeply entrenched in the country’s cultural and social fabric. Traditional Chinese culture imagined the genders as Yin and Yang, within which Yin women were the physical embodiments of earth, darkness, weakness and passivity. They were complementary to Yang, but not socially or politically equal. Subordination, in traditional culture, was felt in expectations of filial piety, pressure to produce a male heir and foot-binding practices. Mao’s promises for ‘equality between men and women’ in 1945 was, for many, too ambitious a leap that decried age-old social customs and attitudes.

Inked into the constitution, Mao’s plans called for equal education and equal pay for equal work. Women were desexualized, with feminine apparel and makeup judged to be symbols of the petit bourgeois and banned from use. Everyone was recognized as comrade (t’ung-chih), eschewing the need for gendered terms. Traditional beliefs about gender were glass-cased as part of the Four Olds (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas), so that women could emerge and ‘hold up half of heaven’.

The Chinese Communist Party instigated propaganda that advocated ideals of womanhood like ‘the underground party worker who gave her life to bring about the revolution’, or ‘the Iron Girl who showed that women could do any work that men could do’. The point was that political involvement premeditated women’s emancipation, with women until that point being wasted as an avenue of labour. 

The revised Marriage Law modified traditional ‘feudal’ marriages – which included polygamy, concubinage and child betrothal – in exchange for ‘modern’ monogamous relationships in which individuals were free to choose partners and divorce at will (with 500,000 annual divorce cases reached within five years). For generations prior, divorce and concubinage were privileges reserved for men.

But the changes to the Marriage Law created discrepancies between the experiences of women in urban and rural areas, with the latter failing to realise a significant difference in family structure and relationships. Neil J. Diamant argues that divorce was unpopular among rural men, who were crucial for the workforce, whereas in urban areas, women were more often financially independent and had adopted Western ideals of love and liberation. 

In urban areas, women were often financially independent and had adopted Western ideals of love and liberation.

Traces of Confucian beliefs continued to habituate gender norms, and worried the harmony in state-individual relations that was necessary to avoid trouble. The legal changes also sparked friction between older and younger generations: mothers-in-law saw themselves deprived of authority, and the increasing numbers of unmarried women were treated as spoiled goods. Vigorous educational programmes were required to bring about changes to entrenched customs.

The effort made to emancipate women from oppressive traditions might have been revolutionary against the backdrop of Chinese history – but in feminist terms, it fell short of the mark. Female Chinese writers have rejected the term ‘feminism’ in connection with Mao’s China, observing its devaluation of gender identity. In her novella The Right to Love, Zhang Kangkang expressed her resentment towards the expectation to conceal emotion and sever ties to her sexuality. Campaigns from 1950 praised ‘women’s enthusiasm for labor, their farming skills and their strong bodies’ to compensate for the lack of workers, especially during the Great Leap Forward – slogans which Li Xiajing and others observed were not in their interest, but the state’s. There was little female human identity: only that of a revolutionary symbol. 

The Women’s Federation, established in 1949 to combat feudalistic gender ideals, lacked the commitment to handle these problems. Members, bound by their own preconceptions of womanhood, remained apathetic to modern ideals and instead prioritized the state’s economic development. To foster a revolutionary spirit among women, regular meetings centred on ‘thought reform’ were held to encourage public peer and self-criticism. The aim was the fortification of collective thinking along party lines, systematically filtering out real issues faced by women. 

Women played a crucial role in the workforce after the revolution, toppling – for the most part – traditions that restricted them to the roles of wife and mother. But attempts to salvage femininity after Mao’s death only created new problems. Urban men were often reluctant to marry women without decent jobs, and traditional hangovers also meant women with strong education and job prospects could be intimidating. Carolyn Denard compared women’s experiences under and after Mao to a ‘double jeopardy’ of political oppression and gender discrimination: while the CCP fundamentally changed the nature of womanhood in China, the question of women’s emancipation as women remained.

learn more

  • ARTICLE: ‘Women in China: Mao v Confucius‘ – Beverley Hooper, 1975
  • BOOK: Women in China’s Long Twentieth Century – Gail Hershatter
  • BOOK: Wild Swans – Jung Chang

Tevy Kuch is a third year journalism student at the University of Sheffield. Follow her on Twitter.