Women hold up half the sky – once more than a dream
9 March 2009. A World to Win News Service. Shortly after the Chinese revolution in 1949, new laws gave women the equal legal status and full rights denied to them in the days when the imperialists, their local capitalist allies and feudal landlords ruled the country. New laws put an end to child and arranged marriages, granted women the right to divorce and gave them the right to land so that they would no longer be the property of men in any way. The freeing of countless women from prostitution is another example of great changes brought about almost overnight.
But Mao Tsetung understood that the leap from formal equality under law to the complete emancipation of women from all that has oppressed them as an unequal sex would require protracted hard struggle – and that without it, the revolution could not go in the direction of overcoming all the birthmarks of oppression and exploitation left by the old society and would instead install capitalism. The revolution, as it developed and as women took part in creating a new society, would have to transform not only the traditional social and economic relations that oppressed women but also social institutions and people’s values and thinking. With the famous slogan "Women hold up half the sky", Mao and the Chinese revolutionaries proclaimed that there could be no emancipation for humanity without the participation and emancipation of half of society – its women.
Here we are reprinting excerpts from three books about women in revolutionary China that show the impressive steps toward the liberation of women in what was then one of the world's most backward countries. Such steps can only take place when the proletariat, the class whose own liberation requires the liberation of humanity from all forms of exploitation, holds state power. These accounts also show the powerful role women can play in driving forward that process. The reality of the achievements of socialist China give a glimpse of what can be accomplished in the future, when once again the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is established in one or more countries as part of the process of bringing into being communism, a world finally free of classes and class divisions and the institutions and thinking born of class society.
In the book Fanshen, A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village (Vintage Books, 1966) William Hinton wrote about the countryside in the early days of the Chinese revolution, when the old feudal domination, institutions and customs were first being overthrown. He described typical cases of wives being beaten for going to evening meetings of the Women's Association. The Association members would arrange meetings for all the women in the village and summon the husband or the father-in-law to defend himself publicly against the accusations made by the woman or the daughter-in-law. If he refused to answer they would often give him a beating to show him that things would be different from now on and that he had better not abuse the woman once he was alone with her. The women's committee would be present, ever-watchful and ready to intervene again if necessary. Hinton writes:
"Among those who were beaten was poor peasant Man-ts'ang's wife. When she came home from a Women's Association meeting, her husband beat her as a matter of course, shouting, 'I'll teach you to stay home. I'll mend your rascal ways.' But Man-ts'ang's wife surprised her lord and master. Instead of staying home thereafter as a dutiful chattel, she went the very next day to the secretary of the Women's Association, militiamen Ta-hung's wife, and registered a complaint against her husband. After, in a discussion with the members of the executive committee, the secretary called a meeting of the women of the whole village. At least a third, perhaps even half of them, showed up. In front of this unprecedented gathering of determined women a demand was made that Man-ts'ang explain his actions. Man-ts'ang, arrogant and unbowed, readily complied: He said that he beat his wife because she went to meetings and 'the only reason women go to meetings is to gain a free hand for flirtation and seduction'.
This remark aroused a furious protest from the women assembled before him. Words soon led to deeds. They rushed at him from all sides, knocked him down, kicked him, tore his clothes, scratched his face, pulled his hair and pummelled him until he could no longer breathe.
"'Beat her, will you? Beat her, and slander us all, will you? Well, rape your mother. Maybe this will teach you.'
"'Stop, I'll never beat her again,' gasped the panic-stricken husband who was on the verge of fainting under their blows.
"They stopped, let him up, and sent him home with a warning – let him so much us lay a finger on his wife again and he would receive more of the same 'cure'.
"From that day onward Man-ts'ang never dared beat his wife and from that day onwards his wife became known to the whole village by her maiden name, Ch'eng Ai-lien, instead of simply by the title of Man ts'ang's wife, as had been the custom since time began."
The Great Leap Forward launched in 1958 brought women out of the household and into the swirl of the battle to create a new society in production, politics, culture and other fronts. The People’s Communes established as collective forms of ownership and governance in the countryside brought community dining rooms, nurseries, cooperative home repair and other things that not only provided for the peasants’ welfare but also began to free women from the confines of the family by providing collective solutions for social needs that formally rested on women’s shoulders alone. This made it easier for them to take part in the start-up of new factories and in irrigation projects, and to play a greater role in politics and other spheres.
This process was resisted by those in the Communist Party who wanted to halt the revolution with the modernisation of China and develop capitalism, a society in which the formal equality of all individuals hides real inequality, oppression and exploitation. Instead of being a bastion for the worldwide struggle for communism, they wanted to sell the country and its people to the world capitalist system.
That's why Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, a great struggle of countless millions of people to take a further and bigger leap down the socialist road. The struggle between the two roads in the party and in Chinese society went on for a decade. Ultimately, after Mao's death in 1976, the ''capitalist roaders in the party'' Mao had warned about were able to carry out a military coup, arrest the revolutionary party leadership and begin to make China what it is today – an enormous source of profit for globalised capitalism, and once again a place where the needs of humanity count for nothing, and a special hell for girls and women.
The book Some of Us, Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era (edited by Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng and Bai Di; Rugers University Press, 2001) offers accounts by individual Chinese women (who are now living and teaching in the U.S.) of memories of their participation in the Cultural Revolution and their experience as "educated youth" who went down to the countryside to work with the peasants. In general they regard that period as very positive and express no regrets – a refutation of what one editor calls the current "dark age narrative" of the Cultural Revolution and the "Mao craze". The editors and authors point out that memories of the Mao era in China are necessarily diverse, depending on class outlook and social context. The views of well-known "suffering memoirs" are hotly contested by these now-older "youth without regrets", educated youth who recount how they went from the urban environment to work with the peasants and help overcome the huge economic, social and intellectual gap between the cities and countryside.
In this book, they demand to know, "Whose experience and whose memories count as history"? While they have their own criticisms, they insist that the profound social changes for women and subsequent contradictions that were brought about by the revolution and Mao's gender equality policies and attempts to break down the disparity between rural and urban conditions require exploration. While in school, they felt no stigma as females. These young women eagerly took up their role in the revolutionary ferment. One of the writers remarks that for a young woman to be trained as a cheerleader in the West should be considered a form of ideological brainwashing in terms of a woman's position in society and exclaims how lucky she feels to have been "brainwashed to become a revolutionary" instead.
In this excerpt from Some of Us, Naiha Zhang describes the close bonds she formed with two peasant women her age and how she felt honoured to be able to work in the countryside. She emphasises the "can-do" atmosphere in which women were encouraged to play an active and often leadership role – and did.
"Both Guirong and Lifeng stood out among their peers. Guirong, a year older than I, was the head of the Brigade’s Women’s Federation. Lifeng, a year younger, was head of her village’s women’s team. Both were skilled at farm and needlework. Guirong looked and frail but was known for the farming skills she learned from her uncle, a master farmer. To watch her thin out sorghum seedlings was a treat. In her hands, the long-handled hoe moved with high efficiency and accuracy, a few agile and neat strokes would clear out a seedling. There was never a wasted or redundant move. She was equally adept at sorghum harvesting, another farm task that sets farmers apart in terms of their skills. She was quick, yet extraordinarily calm and graceful, leaving behind small bundles of sorghum in the exact same shapes and intervals, making a well-patterned design if viewed from the edge of the field…
"We often said to one another that there must have been some kind of lot or luck that brought us and kept us together. After a year at the brigade’s experimental station, we were transferred to the brigade’s small orchard, with me in charge. The orchard was located on a hillside next to Guirong's village, with a two-room earthen house overlooking rows of little Chinese pear-leafed crab-apple trees. We had three oxen and an old-style cart with wooden wheels. We grew short crops such as beans and vegetables in between the small fruit trees. After working at the brigade orchard for a year, the commune wanted to establish an agricultural experimental farm on the site of the commune, with me as its head. I told the commune leaders that I wanted Guirong and Lifeng to go with me, and they happily agreed. We remained together along with a dozen other people–farmers from various brigades and a few local zhiqing (urban youth who went to the countryside) – until I left the countryside to attend university three years later in 1977...
"Together, the three of us did all kinds of work–one of the most strenuous was throwing up mud and trowelling the roof of a house… All this may suggest we had a hard time. Yes, we encountered many difficulties and endured hardships, but, all in all, we were happy. At that time, all organizations or projects had to be self-reliant. We had to support ourselves before we could have money to do experiments or other tasks. We were proud that, as a result of our efforts, both the brigade orchard and the commune experimental farm were doing well economically... We studied together in the evenings. Guirong picked up books I had. Lifeng, who had very little schooling, began to learn to read and write. She had a little notebook with her and often took it out to review the words in it when she had a chance. We had shared dreams and aspirations and we had lived together like I would with my zhiqing friends. But we were all aware, even though we did not talk about it, that our final destinies would diverge because of the fact that I was from the city and they were from the countryside… I left Momoge in January 1977 with nostalgia and a sense of guilt. The experimental farm was dismantled at the end of 1977."
Claudie Broyelle visited China in 1971 during the Cultural Revolution with a group of French women activists intrigued by the difficult and untidy struggle for women’s liberation in China. They heard many stories from women about how they came out of the traditional roles that women play in the home and as child rearers, to learn to read, to grapple with intellectual ideas and to play their full role in transforming society. In her book Women’s Liberation in China (Harvester Press, 1977), she writes about what she along with other women experienced in the ChaoYan rural area:
"Inside the factory there was a feeling of solidarity, dynamism and dedication. It was quite common to see women workers staying on after their day's work to finish a job, or to practice a difficult technique. Of course we weren't forced to do that, and we weren't paid for the overtime. Must we get bonuses for making the revolution? And that was what it was about. Besides, our experiment didn't by any means please everybody. In 1961 some of the factory's managers, completely blinded by orders from the Peking town council, decided to 'rationalize' production. They decreed that there were too many of us working there and that we would have to stop making kettles since we were now a medical-apparatus factory. How contemptuous they were about our kettles! The 'reorganisation' would have meant a good number of us returning home. They thought they'd convince us by saying that the men would get a wage rise so that we could stay at home and look after our families. Wouldn't everything be simpler that way? But these plans encountered spirited resistance from the women, and they declared: 'We won't go back to our cooking, we won't give up our jobs!' Life in the factory became very tense. There was a desperate struggle between that faction of the management who wanted the factory to be run for immediate profit and who, above all, didn't want the women workers to liberate themselves, and the large majority of women workers who wanted to continue on their chosen path.
"This struggle was fought in full awareness of what it was all about. We understood what was at stake. In most cases our husbands and the other men supported us. That can easily be explained. What happened in Chao Yan wasn't an isolated incident. In all the factories a reactionary offensive arranged by Liu Shao-chi aimed either to re-establish capitalist norms of production, or to prevent their overthrow by the masses. This explains why the men, who were also having to confront the bourgeois offensive, understood and generally backed up the women's resistance. Since many of us were out of work, we got no pay. But it didn't matter. If we didn't have any work, we would make some for ourselves! If we got no wages, we would hang on by helping one another! We asked other factories to give us work that we would then do in 'our factory'. Some women workers would bring scrap to the factory (bricks, sheet metal and so on) and we salvaged and cleaned it for recycling. The women's work was useful, even if it wasn't 'profitable', and we proved it. A few women, only about fifteen of us, were unable to go through with it. They either went to work in large factories or returned home. During the Cultural Revolution we came to understand even more clearly the real nature of this reactionary policy. We led campaigns to denounce the method of so-called 'rationalization'.
"Most of those who had supported Liu Shao-chi's line discovered the interests they had really been serving. They are now working side by side with us. Almost all the women who had left the factory have come back to work here. Recently the women workers at this factory have perfected a process for the manufacture of silicon. Previously the workers here were all former housewives and generally quite old, between forty and fifty. Now we also have some young school-leavers, who share their knowledge with the older workers, at the same time learning from them the qualities of revolutionary persistence and proletarian resilience. In this neighbourhood virtually none of the women stays home, only the women who are too old or who are in bad health – but even for them life has changed. They help one another and take on a few domestic chores to relieve the ones who have jobs away from home; they organize the political and cultural life of the district; they aren't as isolated as before. This transformation is the result of the move by thousands of women into productive and social activities. As for us, we are wage-earners, and it's important that we have won our economic independence. But it must be understood that it is still more important for us to stand four-square in the world, to be concerned about communal affairs rather than to care only about family problems. We have used production as a weapon to liberate ourselves, to serve the Chinese people and world revolution better."
The conditions for women today, whether in developed capitalist society or in the third world, remain grounded in oppression, taking different forms in different places. Capitalism has only updated this oppression with modern forms through super-exploitation in a globalised economy where women earn $2 a day in factories spread throughout the four corners of the globe. Women are still raped, killed are become prizes of war. Sex slavery of women and children has become a worldwide phenomenon. And everywhere women are evaluated in terms of their usefulness to men as mothers, wives and for sexual gratification. The liberation of women can only be attained through revolutionary transformation of the world and all of humanity, with the emancipation of women as one cornerstone of this emancipation.
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