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Half of China from Womankind (April 1972)

(Editor's note: The CWLU China Group sponsored the first trip to the People's Republic of China by a US feminist organization.)

How sad it is to be a woman!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boys stand leaning at the door
Like gods fallen Out of heaven.
Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,
The wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No one is glad when a girl is born:
By her the family sets no store.
Fu Hsuan

The old Chinese poem accurately reflects the position of women in China before Liberation in 1949. Boy children might bring fame and wealth to their family by becoming scholars or merchants (and even poor peasants had some hope that this would happen), but girls were not able to do that and the therefore were not highly regarded. In very poor families, female children might be killed at birth. In times of famine, flood, or other great hardship, some families sold their children into slavery (as much to give them a home as to get immediate cash). Boys would be sold to work in farms, mines, or factories, but girls were usually sold as prostitutes or child—brides.

Marriages were arranged by the families of the prospective bride and groom, which led to a number of abuses of women. Married couples lived with the family of the husband, and the wife was very much abused and overworked by her husbands relatives, especially her mother—in—law. The mother—in—law herself had been in the same situation when she was a young bride, and the only power she could have in the household was by abusing the daughter—in—law.

Young women might sometimes be married off to elderly men, and when the husband died, the young widow would be stuck in the household of her in—laws, unable to remarry because of laws and customs which prohibited the remarriage of widows. Or, a child—bride would be taken to live with her husband’s family and worked to death before she was even old enough to have sexual relations with him. It was quite impossible for women to divorce their husbands, but men could divorce their wives, especially if she had committed adultery. In pre—revolutionary China, most suicides were due to some sort of family conflict, and of those, 72% of the suicides were young brides.

Of all the ways in which women were oppressed in China, probably the cruelest was the custom of foot—binding so that her toes were broken and curled under, and her feet remained as small as a child’s throughout her life. This custom began around 1000 AD; at first, it was only the wealthiest people who did this, as an indication that they were so rich they could have wives who didn’t work. Later, the custom spread to all classes of society, and even girls who grew up to be housewives, peasants, or workers were crippled by foot—binding.

By the end of the nineteenth century some Chinese people, mostly of the upper classes, were beginning to decide not to bind their girls’ feet. After the Chinese Revolution of 1911, foot—binding was outlawed, but it continued in some of the remote areas of China until well into the 1940’s. When the Communist Revolution liberated China in 1949, foot—binding, restrictive laws on marriage and divorce, and other forms of oppression against women were abolished. The new Marriage Law of 1950 abolished forced and arranged marriages, made divorce more easy to obtain and gave husband and wife equal rights over property.

Other changes in laws, customs, and institutions have made it possible for women to be educated, and get jobs at equal pay for equal work. Since Liberation, virtually all Chinese children ——girls as well as boys —— are sent to primary schools, and large numbers go to middle schools and universities as well. Chinese women work in a wide variety of jobs, including many which are usually considered "men's work".

Factories, rural communes, schools and various other institutions provide childcare for the families of workers so working parents have no problems taking care of their children. Health care, housing, and other services are also provided, usually by the workplace.

There are still problems with divisions between “men’s work” and “women’s work,” however. Recent American visitors to China were aware that, although half the doctors are women (compared to 7% in the US), all of the nurses are women. In the field of education, virtually all nursery school teachers are women, but very few women teach at the college level. A frequently heard expression is that “women hold up half the sky in China,” but a woman dock—worker admitted that in her job it was closer to “one—third of the sky.”


For more about women in China, see:


Woman symbol

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