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Women's emancipated under Mao: Girl completed primary school, began working in farm collective

By Harsh Thakor* 

The book “New Women in New China”, a collection of articles projecting dramatic transformation -- political and economic -- in the status of Chinese women after liberation, originally published in 1972, and reprinted in 2023 by the Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, encompasses the period between 1949 and 1972, seeking to give justice to the subject of women’s emancipation in China after the 1949 revolution.
It illustrates the abject contrast with the conditions of women in Socialist China under Mao Tse Tung from the degrading conditions in India and other third world countries, where women till this modern age are subservient or subordinated by feudal bondage. The book manifests how the ideology of Mao became a weapon of emancipation.
In the chapter ‘A Liberated Woman Speaks’, Lu Yulan recollects how the party organized women to study what Mao said about women’s emancipation: “Genuine equality between man and woman can be realized only in the process of socialist transformation of society as a whole.”
Belonging to the Dongliushangu village in Linxi County, Hubei Province, when she was five years old, she was able to go to school like the boys in the village, and after completing primary school, returned to her village to work in the farm collective and took part in revolutionary work.
She summarises how women began to understand that to achieve genuine emancipation they had to analyse things in terms of the whole society -- to see the family as a basic social unit that can only be transformed by transforming society. She recollects how after she returned to her village to participate in agricultural production in 1955 at 15 became active in setting up an agricultural producers’ cooperative and went door to door mobilizing women to take part in collective productive labour outside the household.
In the chapter ‘I Now Help Rule My Country, The Party Keeps Me Young’, woman peasant doctor Lin Quiaozhi narrates the almost miraculous changes which swept the medical and health system, giving a vivid example of how she cured a tumour weighing 25 kg of a 70 year old poor peasant in Shandong province. She describes how doctors participated in the democratic reform movement to overthrow the reactionary system of serfdom.
She attributes Mao’s revolutionary line for changing the life of the broad masses of medical workers, especially women, who left their large hospitals and went to the mountainous areas and the countryside, to the grassroots levels, and to the border areas to serve the workers, peasants, and soldiers.
Achievements
The book illustrates how In China from 1949-1972, men and women enjoyed equal status. The broad masses of working women became politically liberated and economically independent. There was barely an area of work from which women were barred, the only exceptions being those that might be hazardous to their health.
Women were machine-tool operators, geological prospectors, pilots, navigators, spray-painters, engineers, and scientific researchers, played highly impactful roles in China’s road to socialist revolution and socialist construction.
The book elaborates how women also directly managed state affairs. The Communist Party and revolutionary committees at all levels, from the people’s commune to the provincial and national bodies, all had women members. Women were elected to the National People’s Congress and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
Equal pay was given for equal work, and special protections were guaranteed for women workers. Women workers received pre- and post-natal care free and a fifty-six-day maternity leave with full pay. Medical treatment was free of charge for both men and women workers, while their dependents paid half the regular fee.
Many women workers were sent to schools at various levels for systematic education. The retirement age for women industrial workers was fifty, after which they would draw 50 to 70 percent of their wages as pensions.
None of this could be envisaged before China’s liberation in 1949. The old society deprived women of any status. In addition to being enslaved by the previous regime, they were completely subordinate by the feudal systems of political authority, clan authority, religious authority, and the authority of the husband.
The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 created wide avenues for China’s women to achieve emancipation, the book opines. During the long years of armed struggle being waged for national liberation, Chinese women of all nationalities in the revolutionary bases did their share.
Some took a direct part in the fighting; others served in the army as couriers or medical workers. Those staying in the rear areas joined the men in production in support of the front, stood sentry, maintained public order, made clothing and shoes for soldiers, and sent their sons or husbands to join the army. Many women gave their lives for the revolutionary cause.
Among these was the fourteen-year-old martyr Liu Hulan, who was beheaded by the Kuomintang reactionaries. The nationwide land reform that followed liberation marked the first move in establishing economic equality between men and women. 
Everyone got a share of the land, irrespective of sex or age, freeing the hundreds of millions of landless and land-poor peasants from feudal landlord oppression. For the first time in history the women in China’s villages had their own names on land deeds.
After the land reforms, heeding to the call of Mao, mutual-aid teams were organised, and following that, agricultural producers’ cooperatives began being set up. Production rose steadily. More and more women participated in farm work: in some places, half the women integrated with collective labour. This raised their social status considerably.
The adoption of the Marriage Law in 1950 liberated women from clutches of centuries old feudal system of bondage. The new law stipulated free choice of partner, monogamy, equal rights for both sexes, and protection of the legitimate interests of women and children. It largely triggered the building of a new society in which women were the equal partners of men.
Women’s emancipation marked a new epoch in China during the Great Leap Forward of 1958, when the country’s agricultural and industrial production transcended volumes unscaled, claims the book. Tens of millions of housewives stepped out of their homes to join in socialist construction.
The formation of rural people’s communes diversified the economy, introduced extensive irrigation projects, and developed industry, opening to women much wider fields of work. Women were trained to operate modern farm tools, machines, and tractors and served as technicians in water conservation, forestry, fishing, and meteorology.
In the cities, housewives set up and worked in small factories that were sprouting everywhere. This was followed by the establishment of public dining rooms, nurseries, kindergartens, and other services by factories and enterprises or neighbourhood committees to prevent working women the burden of household chores.
There were powerful trends or instances of regimentation of women in terms of clothing, culture and outlook during the period of Mao
Children could stay in the nurseries or kindergartens during the day or live there throughout the week and go home on Saturday afternoons to spend the weekend with their parents. Many neighbourhood committees conducted service centres where laundry, tailoring, mending, and many other jobs were conducted for working women.
Chinese women engaged in political and cultural activities alongside men. Many women emerged as socialist-minded and professional expert cadres. Instead of having their vision constricted to the boundaries of their homes as in the past, they now evaluate state and world affairs. With brimming spirit, they achieved feats women could hardly even t dream.
The book describes in detail the accounts of a women’s oil extraction team at the Daqing Oil Field. Called Iron Girls team of he Dazhai Brigade in Shanxi Province’s Xiyang county, girls in Guangzhou worked high above the ground on live ultra-high-tension power lines. 
Alongside the men commune members, the Iron Girl team of the Dazhai production brigade in Shanxi Province constructed a prosperous socialist countryside by transforming a barren hilly region into fertile fields.
Then there were first group of Chinese women pilots, the first generation of Chinese fisherwomen in charge of production and fishing vessels, and women bridge builders. In the Heilongjiang Province, a women’s bridge-building team, after a short period of training, completed in seventy days a 110-meter five-arch highway bridge in the depths of the forests of the Greater Khingan Range.
 Under the supervision of the party, orphans who in the old society roamed the streets were among China’s first generation of women pilots. Former Tibetan slaves were turned into good women cadres.

Relevance today

No doubt, after 1978, China completely reversed its course towards a capitalist path, with a sensational turnabout in women’s lives, but still the foundations of emancipation laid down in period of 1949-1976 continue to this day.
In the era of globalisation blossoming and liberalisation, consumerism has soared a height unscaled, with women sold as a commodity and placed at the virtual mercy of corporates. Discrimination of women brims an untold level.
No doubt, there were powerful trends or instances of regimentation of women in terms of clothing, culture and outlook during the period of Mao, and the book fails to critically examine the process of democratization of women, individual freedom or spiritual emancipation. It seeks to glorify ‘Thought of Chairman Mao.’
Still, the book lucidly illustrates how democratic power or self-governance of women transcended height unparalleled in history after the 1949 revolution.
---
*Freelance journalist. Click here to read the book

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