My grandmother likes to tell stories from her career as a journalist in the early decades of the People’s Republic of China. She recalls scrawling down Chairman Mao’s latest pronouncements as they came through loudspeakers and talking with joyous peasants from the newly collectivized countryside. In what was her career highlight, she turned an anonymous candy salesman into a national labor hero with glowing praises for his service to the people.
She had grown up in the central province of Hunan, where her father was a landlord. She talks about her mother as a glum housewife who resented her husband for taking a concubine after she had failed to give birth to a boy.
“The Communists did many terrible things,” my grandmother always says at the end of her reminiscences. “But they made women’s lives much better.”
That often-repeated dictum sums up the popular perception of Mao Zedong’s legacy regarding women in China. As every Chinese schoolchild learns in history class, the Communists rescued peasant daughters from urban brothels and ushered cloistered wives into factories, liberating them from the oppression of Confucian patriarchy and imperialist threat.
But the narrative of an across-the-board elevation of women’s status under Mao contains crucial caveats.
While the Communist revolution brought women more job opportunities, it also made their interests subordinate to collective goals. Stopping at the household doorstep, Mao’s words and policies did little to alleviate women’s domestic burdens like housework and child care. And by inundating society with rhetoric blithely celebrating its achievements, the revolution deprived women of the private language with which they might understand and articulate their personal experiences.
When historians researched the collectivization of the Chinese countryside in the 1950s, an event believed to have empowered rural women by offering them employment, they discovered a complicated picture. While women indeed contributed enormously to collective farming, they rarely rose to positions of responsibility; they remained outsiders in communes organized around their husbands’ family and village relationships. Studies also showed that women routinely performed physically demanding jobs but earned less than men, since the lighter, most valued tasks involving large animals or machinery were usually reserved for men.
The urban workplace was hardly more inspiring. Women were shunted to collective neighborhood workshops with meager pay and dismal working conditions, while men were more commonly employed in comfortable big-industry and state-enterprise jobs. Party cadres’ explanations for this reflected deeply entrenched gender prejudices: Women have a weaker constitution and gentler temper, rendering them unfit for the strenuous tasks of operating heavy equipment or manning factory floors.
The party at times paid lip service to the equal sharing of domestic labor, but in practice it condoned women’s continuing subordination in the home. In posters and speeches, female socialist icons were portrayed as “iron women” who labored heroically in front of steel furnaces while maintaining a harmonious family. But it was a cherry-picking approach that focused exclusively on bringing women into the work force and neglected their experiences in other realms.
Visitors to rural areas saw peasant wives toiling around the clock: cooking, mending clothes and feeding livestock after finishing a day of work in the fields. Their plight shocked the urban youth who were sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, such that Naihua Zhang, a sociology professor at Florida Atlantic University who spent time in the countryside as a young woman in that era, equated rural marriage with a total erasure of women’s identity.
Researchers also observed that after marriage factory women often experienced slower career advancement than men as they became saddled with domestic responsibilities that left them with little time to learn new skills and take on extra work, both prerequisites for promotion. State services that promised to ease their burden, like public child care centers, were in reality few and far between. Unlike their counterparts in developed countries, Chinese women didn’t have labor-saving household appliances, since Mao’s economic policies prioritized heavy industry over the production of consumer products like washing machines and dishwashers.
Some Western scholars have said these realities amounted to a “revolution postponed.” Yet the conclusions of researchers were contradicted by none other than Chinese women themselves.
During her field study in China in 1970s, Margery Wolf, who was an anthropology professor at University of Iowa, was surprised by how effusive Chinese women were about the miracle of female emancipation in the very presence of their continued oppression.
“It was easy to take gender equality — an ideal that was widely promoted — as the reality and regard problems as reminiscent of old systems and ideology that would erode with time,” said Professor Zhang, the sociologist.
The state rolled out propaganda campaigns aimed at not only enlisting women in the work force but also shaping their self-perception. Posters, textbooks and newspapers propagated images and narratives that, devoid of any particularities of personal experiences, depicted women as men’s equal in outlook, value and achievement. For women in the workplace to adhere to this narrowly defined acceptable female image meant to see, understand and speak about their life not as it was, but as what it ought to be according to the party ideal.
Forty years after Mao’s death, this aspect of his legacy is still understood through his famous pronouncement on gender equality, “Women hold up half the sky.” It is a slogan my grandmother utters in the same breath as the chairman’s other sins and deeds.
She does not mention the arduous work of managing a household and raising three children amid tumultuous revolutionary campaigns. Nor does she complain about how she couldn’t join the party because of her husband’s unpopular political affiliations. She gives only a chuckle when she recalls the exhortations she once received from party superiors to marry just as her career was taking off.
For all its flaws, the Communist revolution taught Chinese women to dream big. When it came to advice for my mother, my grandmother applauded her daughter’s decision to go to graduate school and urged her to find a husband who would be supportive of her career. She still seems to think that the new market economy — with its meritocracy and freedom of choice — will finally allow women to be masters of their minds and actions.
After all, she has always said to my mother, “you have more opportunities.”