Women’s Role in the 20th Century China

free essayDuring the twentieth century, the political turmoil has marked the drastic changes in Chinese social hierarchy. After the Communist Revolution, the female population enjoyed the benefits of gender equality and growing access to political rights. Many women aspired to surpass the conventional boundaries of gender and excel in education and male-dominated professions.

Influence of Communist Revolution on gender stereotypes

The Communist Revolution has irreversibly affected the traditional image of women. During the pre-revolutionary period, they were completely excluded from the political life of the country. In fact, women performed the duties of the household servants since they were economically dependent on their families (“China: A Century of Revolution 1. China in Revolution, 1911-1949”). Under the influence of Confucianism, females were forced to live the virtuous life while suffering the hardships of inferior status within the Chinese social stratification (“China: A Century of Revolution 1. China in Revolution, 1911-1949”). However, the situation has changed after the rise of the communists in power. Thus, the progressive political activists promised the Chinese women a considerable freedom of speech and movement (“China: A Century of Revolution 1. China in Revolution, 1911-1949”). The promise of liberation from oppression compelled them to support the communists that declared the establishment of social equality and eradication of the class division. Moreover, some women even suffered political persecution for collaborating with the enemies of the Nationalist government (“China: A Century of Revolution 1. China in Revolution, 1911-1949”). Thus, the ascension of the Chinese Communist Party to power was associated with the elimination of conservative conventions.

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The Communist Revolution of 1949 has dramatically changed the social life of China. The proletarian ideology, however, replaced the Confucian teachings about the female’s inferiority. Women received the official positions within the party hierarchy and enjoyed the overall improvement of their political status (Ye and Ma 28-30). The Chinese girls were exposed to the party ideology from the young age. At schools, the female students were obligated to “study hard and make progress everyday” (Ye and Ma 38). Besides, in their childhood they witnessed the negative influence of the social stratification, though the children of the party members enjoyed special treatment and significant privileges (Ye and Ma 42). At the same time, the revolutionary atmosphere inspired women to assume the male-dominated professions. According to Ma, the Communist ideology deliberately degraded the common image of the feminine softness and cultivated moral and physical strength in the young generations (Ye and Ma 62-63). Eventually, the efforts led to the rising desire of women to challenge the superior status of men in different professions including the hard labor and military service (Ye and Ma 62-63). Therefore, women greeted the establishment of the Communist regime. While the party leadership benefited from women’s inclusion in the labor force, the female population experienced the massive surges of cultural and political liberation.

Role of women in Cultural Revolution

During the Cultural Revolution, the image of woman was stripped of the traditional conventions of femininity. As the country was facing the growing wave of radical nationalism, the female population joined the Communist campaigns of cultural cleansings. However, the young people eagerly responded to Mao Zedong’s calls for the rise of the revolutionary movement in the mid-1960s (“China: A Century of Revolution, 1949-1976, Part 2”). Consequently, the large mass of university students left campuses to join the brigades of the Red Guards that systematically targeted the former capitalists, landlords, loose women, and rich peasants (“China: A Century of Revolution, 1949-1976, Part 2”). Women aspired to uphold the revolutionary trend and joined the student organizations. Decades later, Ma still remembers when the Red Guards invaded the house of a former capitalist and subjugated the family to the extensive questioning about their background (Ye and Ma 82). The scholar was particularly horrified by the abusive treatment of the middle-aged woman. Her compatriots grabbed the woman by the hair and accused her of being a concubine (Ye and Ma 82). Once, Ma has even participated in the cruel beatings. In this regard, the ideological propaganda compelled the author to attack the young girl that dared to criticize the state policy and Mao Zedong in particular (Ye and Ma 83). Ma’s personal experience suggests that women were the political tools of the Communist Party in their struggle to confirm socialism and the legitimacy of cruel dictatorship.

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The strong emphasize on the leading role of politics in the Chinese society rendered women ignorant of the conventional attributes of femininity. In fact, the state propaganda neglected the sexual education of young generation. Since the Communist Party promoted the exclusion of the intimate scenes from the contemporary cinematography and literature, young women were essentially unfamiliar with the biology of female bodies as well as the intimacy of sexual relationships (Ye and Ma 66). Therefore, chastity remained the compulsory quality of the decent woman. Meanwhile, the harsh censorship had the greatest effect primarily on the female citizens of the urban areas. In the late 1960s, the educated youth left the cities and traveled to the countryside to experience the poverty of low-income peasantry (Ye and Ma 97). Hence, the rural communities exhibited the striking disregard towards the traditional boundaries of gender. Consistently with Ma, the cases of infidelity sometimes occurred between the local peasant girls and military officers whereas both partners were harshly condemned for their actions (Ye and Ma 108). Ye, in turn, accurately notes that premarital sex was a regular occurrence among peasantry while the practice of the arranged marriages and bride price still prevailed in rural regions (Ye and Ma 117-120). However, the status of young girls was essentially reduced to some commercial commodity since daughters had no choice but to follow the parental will (Ye and Ma 117-118). The evidence reveals that the level of sensual freedom varied greatly across the country. Besides, the uncovered cases of love affairs still evoked harsh criticism toward the immoral behavior despite the frequent demonstrations of frivolity in the countryside. The assertion suggests that the ideological propaganda tended to diminish the value of romantic relations and emphasized the primary significance of national well-being.

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Gender stereotypes during Reformist era

Women enjoyed the benefits of the Chinese policy of openness. In the late 1980s, the political turmoil created the atmosphere of the anticipation for changes. The intellectual elite fought hard against the Communist dictatorship. As the economic reforms led to the liberalization of the Chinese society, the young intellectuals have openly promoted the Western liberal values (Meisner 508). The discontented students demanded the unrestricted support of capitalist system that was commonly associated with democracy and financial prosperity (Meisner 508). Thus, the Communist Party of China faced the immense wave of ideological challenges. Therefore, the democratic slogans constrained women to pursue their dreams of self-realization. According to Ma, the young generation began to question the legitimacy of old doctrines in their letters to newspapers (Ye and Ma 142).One of the most striking changes was the revolution in fashion. Many young people refused to wear the bleak gray jackets of the Mao period and preferred stylish clothes that reflected the Western influence (Ye and Ma 142). Women, in turn, returned to the former standards of beauty that presupposed the interest in fashion and cultivation of admirable taste in clothes cosmetics. The personal recollections of Ma indicate the atmosphere of excitement due to visible changes in her image after the visit to a designer (Ye and Ma 143). In other words, the striving for change indicates the growing opposition to the conservative boundaries of femininity whereas women experienced the rise of cultural self-awareness. On the whole, females were no longer the political tools but active members of society.

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In the post-revolutionary period, women grasped the opportunity to pursue their personal ambitions. The raising struggle for democracy has promised the female population the liberation from ideological constraints. In the late 1980s, the Democratic movement embodied the vigorous opposition to the state market reforms that had produced the social inequality (Meisner 508).  In Beijing, many workers supported the student riots and temporarily overtook the control over the city (Meisner 509). Despite the successful suppression of the movement, the Chinese nation was inspired by the rebellious mood. Women, in particular, could freely express their condemnation of the state policy. For example, Ma vividly recollects her years of working as a journalist as she truthfully described the hardships of rural poverty in her article after she visited poor Shaanxi province in the northern China (Ye and Ma 145-146). Along with the freedom of speech, the female population got a chance to finish the education abroad. In 1988, Ye and her son left China to join her husband in Boston (Ye and Ma 146). A year later, the author received the doctorate degree at Yale University and now teaches the Chinese history and women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston (Ye and Ma 146). The mentioned examples suggest that women’s role in Chinese society has undergone the considerable changes. Ultimately, the ideological fanaticism no longer shaped their lives whereas social life liberalization has offered a chance for the pursuit of long-cherished dreams.

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Conclusion

During the twentieth century, women managed to combat the conventional gender stereotypes and enjoy the benefits of free education and participation in political life of China. The personal experiences of the renowned scholars on moral propaganda of the Communist Revolution and ideological pressure of the Cultural Revolution illustrate the changeable boundaries of gender. Thus, the further study of women’s role in Chinese history may largely contribute to raising the cultural awareness of modern female population.