Canada

Agreat leap forward

Before the revolution, the women of China were merely men’s property. Now they hold up half the sky

Carolyn Purden April 19 1976
Canada

Agreat leap forward

Before the revolution, the women of China were merely men’s property. Now they hold up half the sky

Carolyn Purden April 19 1976

Agreat leap forward

Before the revolution, the women of China were merely men’s property. Now they hold up half the sky

Carolyn Purden

Tsui Chuan-hua lives in the Manchurian city of Shenyang in China’s industrial heartland. She was one of six children of a poor farmhand who died before the founding of the People’s Republic of China 27 years ago. He had worked hard for many years, she says, but poor living conditions, cold and hunger finally took their toll and he fell seriously ill. “The landlord came to our house, pressing my father to pay his debts, and he had to sell my six-year-old sister to be a child bride. Of six brothers and sisters, four were sold as commodities, and two as child brides.” Their husbands expected these girls to conform to Confucian ways: a woman’s life, from birth to death, was governed by subservience, first to her father, then to her husband and finally, in widowhood, to her sons. She was expected to adhere to the four Confucian virtues: “A woman must know her place and behave herself; she must not talk too much nor bore people; she must pay attention to self-adornment for the purpose of pleasing men; she must willingly do all household chores.” After her parents died, Tsui Chuan-hua worked as a child laborer. “Entering that factory was like entering a living hell. I worked 16 hours a day and was often beaten. I had no freedom even to go to the toilet. One day, because I was a bit late coming back, a foreman beat me on the head with a.stick. Women workers suffered a lot—not just me, millions of women suffered alike.” Tsui Chuan-hua, who tried twice to commit suicide before she was 20, is living witness to the astonishing transformation that has taken place in the lives of Chinese women in the last quarter century. The advances made by women in the Western world in the decade since the advent of women’s liberation seem almost insignificant by comparison, if only because Chinese women, who until a few years ago were simply chattels, have had further to come. Today they enjoy an equality most Western feminists would envy. “In China,” says Mao Tse-tung, “women hold up half the sky.” Tsui Chuan-hua is now Comrade Tsui, a member of the Communist Party. She has been a member of overseas delegations. In 1959 she attended a national model workers’ conference. “Here was 1,” she recalls, obviously moved, “a former child laborer, sitting with the leaders of our government and country.”

Typical of the new Chinese women is Lin Yen-fang, an engineer in a Shenyang foundry. Comrade Lin is married to a technician and has two children, one in high school, the other in primary school. She says that working has made family life a more cooperative enterprise. “There is no fixed responsibility—housework is done of your own accord. Whoever comes home first usually does it.” Her job often requires her to work late, she explains, and when she comes home her husband has usually collected the children from school and cooked dinner. “If my husband is busy, I’ll go home and do the housework.” The children are brought up with this same emphasis on cooperation, and help with the cleaning and preparing of meals. “They consider this an important way to help their mother and father work for socialist construction. It lets us dedicate more energy to our work.”

Not surprisingly, the changes that have permitted Comrade Tsui and Comrade Lin the liberty they enjoy today have been encouraged wholeheartedly by the state. The provision of day-care and week-care centres, nurseries and kindergartens have freed women from home ties and enabled them to join the labor force. “Whatever men comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too,” says Mao Tse-tung. By law, women get equal pay for equal work, get the same pension as the men and receive paid maternity leave. Equality in the home is also reinforced by law. One of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the new People’s Republic in 1950 was the marriage law, which allows a woman to inherit her husband’s property, use her own name, have free choice of occupation, and equal rights in possession and management of family property. But the struggle for equality depends as much on progressive attitudes as progressive legislation, and to that end China has developed a network of women’s federations which, under the umbrella of the Communist Party, function at all levels of society. The Women’s Federation of Shenyang is one such organization, with a membership of 90 women elected by the women of the city , and like all the other federations it has a dual purpose: to enable the women of Shenyang to break out of traditional roles, and to educate the men of Shenyang to accept the consequences.

But changing male attitudes isn’t easy, as Shenyang federation member Huang Yuchih can attest. In 1965 she and 21 other women decided to form a construction team, but her husband opposed the idea, saying she had neither the stamina for the work nor the technical expertise. Comrade Huang persevered. She decided to learn brick-laying by taking apart her brickbuilt stove. “I stayed there all night,” she says. “I built it nine times, and destroyed it nine times. My husband got up and asked what was wrong, and I told him I wanted to add real bricks to the building of socialism, and I had to learn how to do this.” Seeing her determination, her husband began to support her desire to work. But later, when the new construction team went to a railway station to build a dispatching office, they met a new obstacle. “The leading member of the station asked where the construction team was. We told him we were it, and he was not happy.” Spurred on by his disapproval the women worked day and night to complete the job ahead of schedule, and in the past 10 years they have erected 13 more buildings and received civic recognition for their work. They feel they have proved their worth. “Now leading members of many factories ask us to build for them, and men come to learn from us,” says Comrade Huang.

Despite such advances, Chinese women still have some way to go. There are fewer women than men in management positions, and women still tend to work in less demanding occupations. “Very heavy work is not good for women,” says a Shenyang factory spokesman, adding that with increased mechanization and automation they will be able to participate more fully. The Chinese believe physical differences entitle women to certain protections, an assumption the women seem unwilling to challenge. As a result, they receive special consideration during pregnancy, delivery and nursing and also during menstruation. Their working life is shorter, too. Women on communes work fewer days a year—on one commune, 50 days less. In factories they retire at 50, five to 10 years earlier than men. Says one factory spokesman by way of explanation: “Women raise babies and have pregnancies.” The state is working hard at curtailing the raising of babies, preaching late marriage and birth control, and apparently to some effect. A dock worker in Shanghai says that while older workers have up to five children, younger ones rarely have as many as three. A 21-year-old woman in Peking says she has no boyfriends “because I am too young,” adding that early dating could lead to early marriage.

When a child is born the mother receives 56 days maternity leave with pay. She then leaves the child with grandparents, or puts it into a day-care centre, usually attached to her place of work. In some cases the child is placed in week-care. A Peking father says he sees his four-year-old son only from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning, but the system suits him fine “because there is no one at home to look after him and it leaves my wife and me time to work in the evenings. The house is quiet.” To a Westerner, the concept of week-care may seem alarming, but to the Chinese a child is an independent being conceived, not for the selfish gratification of its parents but to provide a new generation to carry on the revolution. Says Comrade Lin: “We regard children as successors to the revolutionary cause, not as our own private property.”

In China, sooner or later, everything comes back to ideology—even marriage. As women’s roles have changed, so has the relationship between husband and wife. In accordance with Maoist teaching, the emphasis is not on personal desires but on working for the revolutionary cause. “It is good to have a revolutionary partner,” is the way Chang Hsueh-min, vice-chairman of the Shenyang Women’s Federation,de-

scribes marriage. Other Shenyang women agree. “We consider the relationship between husband and wife not as important as the relationship between revolutionary comrades,” says Comrade Lin. “It is secondary to revolutionary goals.” A somewhat chilling view, perhaps, but while the Chinese are physically and verbally reticent about their relationships with the opposite sex there is no reason to believe their marriages are any less happy than those in Western countries. In fact, the evidence points the other way. Although the marriage law provides for divorce, it is rare. As one woman says, “If we marry whom we choose, why should anyone want a to get divorce?” v>