The Rural Women of China During the Mao Era and Post-Mao Period
On October 1st, 1949, when Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the world was unaware of the massive impact and change his leadership would bring. Mao’s revolutionary activities and strong reformist thought led him to rise through the ranks and ultimately place himself at the top as the Chairman of Communist China. Chinese society was highly altered by Mao’s policies and programs, both in the bustling cities and rural countryside. As a figure that wanted to change the landscape of China both physically and politically, Mao understood that in order for the transformation of the country to happen, women were needed. Mao, feeling that women were essential to China’s success, stated in his writing that “women hold up half the sky,” meaning that women are just as resourceful and equal to men. However, women in China were not seen as equal to men due to the traditionalist view of Confucian thought. The quote attributed to Confucius (551-478 B.C.), “women are, indeed, human beings, but they are of a lower state than men,”  unfortunately displays how women were viewed as lesser beings for thousands of years. The traditionalist view invaded the minds of countless women across the country to the point where in order to be seen as desirable for marriage, women practiced foot binding. The practice left women physically and mentally bound to their husbands for the rest of their life due to not being able to walk or perform other tasks. However, during the Mao era and beyond, women were seen as being free from the views that once ruled over their lives and women were allowed to pursue jobs and careers that once were unheard of. Therefore, during and after Mao’s leadership, women’s public and private lives were transformed in a way which affected the social and political structure of society, leading to changes in laws, workplaces, businesses, and homes across China.
During the first couple of years of the PRC, Mao worked in order to ensure that women’s rights were addressed. Backed by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in April of 1949 the All-Women’s Democratic Federation (AWDF) was founded to ensure that women could accomplish tasks for the CCP revolution and become officials. AWDF was instrumental in helping women across all parts of China by combining the powers of individual organizations to help ensure that equality was achieved. One triumph of the Mao era that was seen as a major turning point in the struggle for gender equality was the issuing of the new Marriage Law. Issued on May 1, 1950, the “Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China” proclaimed the abolition of the traditional Chinese system of marriage and the establishment of a new democratic marriage system. The traditional view on marriage stems from the Qing dynasty in which marriages were arranged by the paterfamilias of the betrothed and there were many restrictions on marriage and divorce. Divorce was now a matter of choice and the number of divorces in China rose dramatically, although, women who divorced faced difficulties. Old habits and customs were still present and divorcing in rural areas was hard on women. Getting a divorce was not as easy when there was a child involved either. For example, in a novel by Ha Jin that details the life of a doctor in the Chinese Army trying to divorce his wife with bound feet in the countryside, the protagonist Lin has a hard time divorcing his wife, who was picked by his family for an arranged marriage. On countless occasions, Lin tries to go to the divorce court and Shuyu (his wife) decides that she does not want to divorce him. Many women had experienced the same predicament as Shuyu in that the women had to fight their problems alone and sometimes women were even killed by their husbands. Women also began to refuse forced marriages and high numbers of wives left their violent husbands. An estimated ten thousand women in the South Central portion of the country were killed in one year by their families or committed suicide because they had rejected forced marriages or left their husbands in areas where there was no or insufficient Party support for them. Being in a forced marriage, Lin and Shuyu inevitably had a child together, Hua, and Shuyu took care of her while Lin worked at the hospital. However, Lin, being in love with another woman, could not get a divorce until the mid-1980s, demonstrating how powerful the Marriage Law was. In the case of the relationship, the man was tied to the woman and not the other way around.
Even though the Marriage Law of 1950 was prolific in modernizing marriage and divorce, revisions were made to the law in the post-Mao era in the year 1980. The Marriage Law of 1980 had now changed the previous law to encompass other aspects besides having the ability to marry freely or divorce. For example, the law ensured that the lawful rights and interests of women, children, and old people shall be protected. More focus was put on the relationship of a husband and wife, specifically if they wanted to divorce. Husbands could not abandon the family and children were also protected under the law. Article 15 of the 1980 Marriage Law stipulates that parents have to make sure that they fulfill their duty of rearing and educating their children. Also, outside of the cities in the rural regions of China, the PRC made it clear that it was not socially acceptable for a married couple to be childless or be satisfied with one child if the child is a girl. Following that way of thinking, during the same year, the government enacted the One-Child Policy which dealt with the increasing population growth. The policy was designed with the intention to temporarily put a brake on China’s population growth and to facilitate economic growth under a planned economy that faced problems such as massive shortages of capital, natural resources, and consumer goods. However, the policy became a problem for most peasants due to them having limited savings or pensions who relied on children to support them when they reach elderhood. Due to the new policy implementation, rural villages became areas where women were roped into coercive practices, including forced late-term abortions and involuntary sterilization. These early abortions and practices of not registering girls led to the discrepancies in the number of the population in China. Referred to as “missing” girls, from 1980 to the end of the decade, the average estimated numbers of missing girls was about 500,000 each year. However, throughout the time period, women were working to provide for their small families, just as they had during the Mao period. Although, labor during Mao’s reign was tough and the work that women did was on par with what men were doing at the time.
Labor in the rural areas of China was very systematic and events like the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution caused women to undertake new roles. During the Great Leap Forward (1957-1959), collectivism had taken over the countryside. Countless women were involved in running collective dining halls to alleviate domestic duties and young and childless women were encouraged to join the roving teams. Elderly individuals and women with children were expected to stay behind to assume primary responsibility for the large quantity of crops. However, along with physical labor, the fertility rate declined and mortality rate got to the point where excess mortality occurred in all provinces. The declining fertility rate in China during this period was especially worse off in the rural areas, with total fertility loss exceeding urban areas by about fifteen percent. Similar to the Great Leap Forward, the Great Famine, which started right after from 1959 to 1961, the fertility rate dropped and there was negative population growth. Women were subject to copious amounts of mental stress which led to suicide and death from starvation. Under extreme circumstances, wives and even children were sometimes sold so that they could save other family members from starvation and possible death. Personal accounts from the Great Famine such as in Famine in the Communes, detail the turmoil of being a woman in a large family. One mother, the wife of Zhang Linying in Zhangjia hamlet, had went into the fields to look for food substitutes to feed her family of six but she tried to poison herself and her own child by mixing two packets of rat poison into bread. The mother passed away; however, the six-year-old child had surprisingly lived, leaving the family to raise itself while the father worked to provide. The mental stress from laboring all day long impacted woman so much so that the famine led to high amounts of miscarriages. In an account from Fushun’s Hongzhu administrative district, the former deputy head had made pregnant women work in the fields, which led to twenty-four miscarriage cases. Even after the famine, women continued to endure stress both in the workplace and in the home. Now being considered equal to men under Mao, women during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) had experienced newfound equality, but this equality came with caveats.
Young girls and women across China’s heartland were set out to work alongside men in jobs that spanned across all types of work. Women during the Cultural Revolution had to eliminate signs of femininity in order to look, act, and work like a man, as well as keeping their hair shorter since it was a risk to a woman’s life to grow long hair. Every woman wore the same clothing, the olive colored uniform and canvas shoes, regardless of age. Mao’s desexualizing of a woman’s identity also permeated throughout propaganda posters during the revolution. Figure 1 displays how through propaganda, Chinese women in art were perceived as strong leaders and model workers who were on the same level as men. Alluding to the Long March, the soldiers walk side by side, with a woman in the forefront alongside two other men, showing uniformity and faces of determination. The poster and other forms of propaganda were important for emphasizing how women were viewed. Especially in rural regions where women worked in the fields, having non-fitting clothes and neutral colors made women look just like their counterparts. Following the theme of femininity not being expressed, personal accounts from the Mao era detail how girls only became women when they were married. For the majority of young girls working the fields, the ones with bigger breasts had to hide them because local people considered it indecent and ugly for a young woman to show big breasts. By banning feminine articles and clothing, the CCP ensured that women were viewed as revolutionary symbols. However, after the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death in 1976, clothing, jobs, and gender roles would again be changed to accommodate the increasing number of women in the workforce.
Fig. 1. 1971 Propaganda Poster from the Cultural Revolution. From the Wofford College Fine Arts Collection. https://library.artstor.org/asset/SS7730819_7730819_10568880
By the 1980s, women comprised most of the workforce of rural China and the number of women in powerful positions had risen. In post-1949 China, women had become instrumental in the CCP and they started to have increased numbers of individuals in committees. Figure 2 shows how female membership in the Party Central Committee increased from around four percent in 1956 and rose to around almost six and half percent in 1992. Along with economic reform and political opportunities, the population in the rural countryside began to move to the cities in order to better themselves and their family. By the end of the twentieth century, a study conducted in Sichuan and Anhui Provinces found that migrant women returning from cities to the countryside, were more likely than nonmigrant women to adopt positive family planning, as well as better reproductive health attitudes and behavior in their rural communities. Due to the diversification of the countryside, women were able to stop worrying so much about having sons and there was an increased emphasis on educating children. Education during the Mao period and post-Mao period were impactful amongst men and women, however during the Mao period, there was a significant focus on studying subjects of social importance.
Fig. 2. Number of females in the Party Central Committee in 1949 to 1992. From Rosen (1995), doi:10.2307/2761128.
Since the rural population was mostly living in poverty, the young girls and boys of villages were illiterate and education was crucial to increasing the productivity of the rural regions of China. Mao Zedong believed that “the object of ones study should have a correct purpose and be relevant,” meaning that students should learn in order to aid in revolutionary causes and follow the Marxism ideology. During the majority of Mao era, the mass amounts of illiterate people were women, so cadres began to encourage illiterate adults to learn to read. Communist literature and education littered with Mao’s thought provided a new space in the social public sphere for women. However, during the Cultural Revolution, literature and academic learning was banned. After Mao, women across China began to chronicle their lives and publish major works that now are part of Chinese literature. Post-Mao women writers all share the same experiences during and after Mao, making their work distinctive in comparison to other Western writers of the time. By the 1980s, literacy and education was revamped to be more universal. In 1986, the Law for Compulsory Education was passed, meaning that all children ages six and up were required to have nine years of basic education. By having mandatory education, the masses would be educated and could then lead productive lives as workers with the basic skills needed in order to thrive in a job or career of their choice. Promotion of education in rural areas, decreasing dropout rates, and social skill building allowed the poorer regions of China to gain a foothold in structured and standardized education.
As women gained more freedoms and opportunities, Chinese society saw a shift in gendered thought and women were liberated. However, even though they had a better status in the society because of communism, they still suffered oppression from men. Thousands of years of history still impacted decision-making even after reforms like the Marriage Law and labor equality. Traditional patriarchal views and customs weighed down the thoughts of many women throughout China during the twentieth century. Men are still viewed as more capable, although, women have shown that that notion is not true. In fact, women’s contribution to family income over men increased from twenty percent in the 1950s to forty percent in the 1990s. With increasing numbers of women in the workforce, families were able to afford much more and had relatively stable incomes. Most of the workforce was younger though, making it harder for middle-aged and older women to secure jobs due to age discrimination. Even despite these hardships, women constantly strived to better themselves and their families. The generation that grew up and reached adulthood during the Mao era had different mentalities than that of the following generations. While younger generations that grew up in the economic reform era and beyond sought wealth and knowledge, the older generation sought survival. Albeit differences in age, every woman from the rise of Mao to the end of the twentieth century had experienced movements and campaigns unlike any other. These drastic events would shape their thoughts, decisions, and personalities for years to come. From the coastal cities that have millions of people to small villages with poorer inhabitants, Chinese society will continue to be exponentially transformed by the working women that live there.
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