Introduction era (1949-1976) and the reform era (1976-1989).


Women in China have faced a dilemma
that challenges women across the world: dominating patriarchal forces that
determine the quality of their lives. What separates women in China from women
around the globe is the institutionalization of Confucianism into Chinese
society, and how the boom of capitalism after the Mao era fed on inequality. It
is widely understood of “Confucian traditions as deeply rooted in, and
expressive of, a distinctively patriarchal familialism…and social structures”
(Nyitray, 2010, Pp. 144-145). Within this familial dynamic, the oldest male is
the figurehead. Given this, emphasis is put on the importance of men and
subordination of women to serve the figurehead. When the People’s Republic of
China was founded in 1949, marking the beginning of Mao Tse-Tung’s China,
“Confucius and his feudal ideology were supposed to have been tossed away”
(Nyitray, 2010, p. 149). This new socialist era ushered in the stress on the
importance of equality of the sexes, ultimately for the benefit of state
production. Conversely, the reform era under Deng Xiaoping ushered in a Western
mind-set, less focused on equality and humanity, and more centred around state
economics and what policies would help increase China’s wealth and global
position. After Mao’s death, Deng took control of the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP), changing its identity. The economic opening of China to outside nations in
1978 led to the growth of capitalistic influences in Chinese economics.

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Subsequently, this shifted the frame of importance on women’s contribution to
society away from focus. The transition from Maoist China to the reform era saw
an overall disintegration of CCP support for women equality. The integration of
Confucianism into capitalist China during the reform era regressed the
institutional advocacy for women and the advancements they made under Maoism.

            For Chinese women, the influence of
Confucianism on society and culture determined how they were treated in
comparison to their male counterparts between the Maoist era (1949-1976) and
the reform era (1976-1989). “The move from a planned to a market economy had
significant consequences on the evolution of inequalities between the sexes.

While the Maoist state sought…to eradicate inequalities between men and
women…the reform and opening policies…were largely built on the traditional
representations of women’s role in the family and in society” (Angeloff,
Lieber, Jayaram, 2012, p.18). These traditional representations refer back to
Confucianism. Confucian doctrine based equality, or lack thereof, on Yin-Yang
theory. Yang represents the men, strength and activity. Yin represents the
women, weakness, and passivity. “Yin and Yang are complementary but not equal,
and the Chinese female was always considered to be subordinate to the male”
(Hooper, 1975, p.134). This posed insurmountable for women’s advancement in a
culture that was skewed against them. The revival of a Confucian influenced
society ultimately pushed women into positions of submissiveness. Combined with
Confucianism, the new-found Chinese capitalist forces manipulated women to
become less self-reliant; not because they were incapable of autonomy but
because the system did not allow it. The influence of Confucianism as an
institutional factor trickled down to determining the rights women had over
their beings and bodies and their attainable economic opportunities.

Women during the Mao
Era (1949-1976)

When Mao took over China in 1949,
he transformed China from feudalism to communism. This move presented women
with an opportunity to raise their quality of life; which during the feudal
years, simply centred around domestic work. “During the early years of the PRC,
the party continued to insist that women would achieve liberation by
participating in movements to benefit the nation, specifically those to raise
production” (Hershatter, 2004, p.1021). Communist societies are focused on the
collective good and the equal treatment of all members within the society. The
problem with this perspective is that it overlooked the reality of how the
feudalist treatment of women would trickle over into the social world of the
People’s Republic of China. Indeed, women’s work would matter in theory but
would it matter in practice? As a result, there were efforts by state feminists
that “emphasized women’s enthusiasm for labor, their farming skills, and their
strong bodies” (Hershatter, 2004, p.1021). A magazine called Women of China showed images of women
working diligently and energetically. They were portrayed as an equal contributor
to Chinese society. They were shown performing work that was previously viewed
as being masculine. These illustrations showed that “socialist state feminists
were striving towards their Communist goal of eliminating gender, class and
ethnic inequalities in China” (Zheng, 2010, p.837). These efforts reinforced
the idea of equality for all – a cornerstone of a successful Communist society.

A major struggle for women after
the establishment of the Mao regime was overthrowing the feudalist mind-set.

The usage of “the word feudalism…was similar to what we mean today by a
combination of sexism, patriarchy, masculinism, and misogyny” (Zheng, 2010,
p.843). Many CCP officials were not pro-women equality; believing women had too
much housework, or that pregnancy was a hassle to accommodate; simply believing
in the idea that women were not as good as men. Women had to go out of their
way to prove they were worthy. “State feminists’ pursuit of women’s liberation very
soon brought them into conflict with masculine power within the Party,” which
called for them to include “male Party officials in the targets of their
feminist cultural transformation” (Zheng, 2010, p.848). They were successful
because they took advantage of the fact “the Party was consolidating its
centralizing power” and marginalized women were energized to act (Zheng, 2010,
p.849). Feminists were able to be involved in political development of China,
establishing congresses for women, that would serve to advocate for women’s
desires. “These women’s congresses were representative bodies for expressing
local women’s demands to the government and, in turn, explaining government
policies to them” (Zheng, 2005, p.524). These congresses would directly involve
women in Chinese politics. It would be difficult to ignore their grievances. They
are engaged and educated on the decision-making processes of China. The fact
that women had a platform to speak up and mark accountable for their oppression
was a monumental change from previous years.

Before the Mao era, women were
limited in what they could accomplish. “The main options available were those
of the wife, concubine, or prostitute” (Fulton, 2000, p.35). In these roles,
women had no decision-making power. Arranged or forced marriages were common
practice as men often had multiple wives, each subversive to the wife above her
and ultimately the mother-in-law and husband (Chang, 1991, pp.39,46). Below the
status of wife was a concubine. In this role, a woman was “a formal mistress
used by a man for sexual pleasure and to produce children” (Fulton, 2000,
p.36). These aforementioned roles, along with prostitution and sex trafficking,
were all outlawed under Mao. He viewed these roles as indirect rape and simply
not how half of the population should be treated. “He thought China’s then
enormous population of women was crucial to national advancement, but they
needed equality if they were to be utilized in the work force” (Fulton, 2000,
p.36). This is how the communist system would thrive: systematic equality
allows for equal participation in the communal system, which would allow China
to catch up to the rest of the world. When women work, the country works.

The rights of a woman over her own
decisions became focal to change under Maoist China. “Mao initiated a new
marriage law that forbade arranged marriages, encouraged free choice of
spouses, and stopped all purchase and sale in marriage contracts; divorce was
also made to be granted at the request of either spouse” (Fulton, 2000, p.36).

Women were given opportunities they had previously been denied. Their personal
freedoms expanded massively and pre-determined paths for their lives were no
longer forced upon them. Additionally, these efforts taken by Mao are reflective
of his anti-Confucianism stance as it stands in opposition to his communist
goals. Collectivization would be impossible if women were not involved in the
economy. In this regard, and unique to China, Confucianism was bad for women,
while Mao’s communist ideals were optimistic for women’s engagement in Chinese
economics and society.

The efforts translated. In mass
amounts, women were encouraged by the CCP to enter the workforce. “The number
of women in the work force soared…women had new independence and
self-confidence, along with new educational opportunities” (Fulton, 2000,
p.37). This opening of opportunities for women was supported by Mao’s
declaration that women “hold up half of the sky” meaning that they are as
equally important as men are, to the success of China (Lin, 2003, p.88). This
stood in contrast to the traditional Confucian ideals that women were
submissive to the man. Women working outside of the domestic realm was a
remarkable step toward women’s advancement in China. “Economic independence and
social political recognition have enhanced women’s social status, giving women
unprecedented confidence and enthusiasm. Women also became involved in
politics” (Lin, 2003, p.88). Women could own and sell land, which allowed for a
sense of personal pride in their work and that they could exist as human
beings, not servants. Additionally, women’s movement into politics signifies
that their grievances would be heard and not easily dismissed by an all-male
government. Women gained representation, responsibilities, independence, and
respect by showing they were entirely capable of the things they had been told
they could not do for centuries under a Confucianist lens of submissiveness.

The laws were on the side of women. Mao was on the side of women. However,
changing society was harder to achieve than anticipated. “In Mao’s view, women
have not yet attained full equality because struggle still exists…between the
remnants of a feudal bourgeois society and the new socialist society…twenty-six
years of socialism is not sufficient to change the customs and attitudes of
over two thousand years of Confucianism” (Hooper, 1975, p.133) This allowed for
the re-emergence of women’s submissiveness after the Cultural Revolution and the
opening of China, to gain momentum.

Women during the
Reform Era (1976-1989)

The Cultural Revolution in China
was an attempt by Mao to purge the CCP of capitalist, revisionist
proliferations. He believed that “a new bureaucratic ruling class had emerged
because of the centralized and authoritarian nature of the political system,”
and this fact would pose conflict to the communist agenda (Li, 2001, p.149). A
civil war within the CCP between Maoists and revisionists allowed for the
emergence of a new leader, one with capitalistic aspirations for China. Deng
Xiaoping, a revisionist leader, was able to transform China to “market
capitalism based on privatization of ownership, marketization of the means of
production and resource distribution, acceptance of economic inequities and
political privileges…and promotion of the interests of the privileged” (Li,
2001, p.138). These factors posed massive issues for women. The societal belief
of women’s subordination could not be legislated away under Mao. Confucianism
was able to reinstate its principles, leading to widening inequality between
men and women, and capitalism fed on that.

Capitalism has the tendency to
function at its best when there are those in privileged positions, and those in
oppressed positions. Deng and other reform leaders were supportive of, “even
encouraging, inequalities in order to allow more advanced areas, sectors, and
households to jump-start economic development” (Hershatter, 2004, p.1023). This
opened the door for discrimination. Negative thoughts on women’s anatomical
differences and the implications for their economic productivity hindrance re-established
themselves. Revisionist’s were critical of Maoism and its allowance for women to
engage in industrial work, believing that there was a “disregard for natural
sex differences” and that “their women’s participation in risky or dangerous
labor” was a consequential idea; they simply believed men could do a better
job. (Hershatter, 2004, p.1024). Pregnancy would create temporary workers that
were not worthy of investment. Now that Confucist ideals of the family were
revived, the woman’s main duty was to groom the family and take care of the
home. This limited her economic independence and social mobility capabilities.

Access to education was also affected.

There was a rise in the belief that “girls’ intellectual abilities declined at
puberty” along with their mental stability (Hershatter, 2004, p.1024). Given
this, there was a lack of enthusiasm to send girls to school, or prepare them
for the working world since they would ultimately end up performing domestic
work. As a result, parents would keep “their girl children at home to do
domestic and agricultural work, saving their educational investment for the
male children” (Hershatter, 2004, p.1024). The belief that Maoism had in a
woman’s ability to perform tasks at the same competency as their male
counterparts had been completely erased through these restrictive measures. The
implications of these actions forced women to be reliant on their husbands. The
men were less enthusiastic about taking care of the home – that was the woman’s
job, another perpetuation of Confucius ideology.

In an effort to make China richer
and stronger, Deng Xiaoping and the new government “saw strict population
containment as essential to economic reform and to an improvement in living
standards” (Zhang, 2017, p.144). In 1979, the one-child policy was implemented
which, if broken, women would face punishment and the child would be taken
away. Consequences would involve forced abortions, kidnapping of their family
until they cooperated, and detrimental fines that they could not pay by
themselves (White, 2010, p.177). Measures to ensure cooperation included “free
access to contraceptives, abortion and sterilization” (White, 2010, p.172). The
patriarchy would never hold men responsible, or even partially responsible, for
population issues; therefore, the burden fell on the shoulder of women. If a
woman wanted to keep the baby without anyone knowing, she could bribe medical
personnel to remove birth control devices or she could run away from her
village to avoid detection. Men could continue to work, garnering wealth, while
a woman would be protecting her life, and the life of an unborn child, from a
society that viewed her as burden. She’d also have to hide from officials for
years to avoid punishment. Furthermore, the one-child policy imposed men over
women in the social power balance. “The one-child policy adopted at the end of
the 1970’s resulted in an aggravation of the demographic imbalance” and also
led to “a growth in trafficking in women and violence against them” because of
an over-population of men who couldn’t find a partner (Angeloff, Lieber,
Jayaram, 2012, p.18). Women became subjects of a man’s will, simply to fulfil a
man’s sexual desires. As a consequence, women were “viewed as a marketable
commodity. Starting in the 1980’s, con-men began moving into rural areas asking
girls if they wanted to work at a factory” (Fulton, 2000, p.37). A factory was
more often than not, only a tale of fiction. Women were desperate for work and
some form of independence, and instead, they got wrapped up in broken promises
and found themselves in sex slavery, or were sold to be brides. “From 1989 to
1990, over 10,000 women and children were rescued” from these types of scams
(Fulton, 2000, p.37). This indicates the breadth of disrespect women received
through the reimplementation of Confucianism and the emergence of capitalism in
post-Mao China.

Capitalism in China began through
the opening of trade between what was an extremely isolated China, and the rest
of the world, particularly the United States and Europe; regions that had their
own institutionalized sex inequalities. “Rulers of the PRC were more
concerned with economic and industrial development than with class struggle”
(Gregor & Chang, 1979, p.1092). The leaders were focused on how to make
China stronger on an international economic level, not on how to make China
fairer for the masses. Implementation of these techniques resulted in
deceivingly positive outcomes. There was increased economic opportunity,
overall personal wealth went up, and women could find jobs. The hidden aspect
to these outcomes was that women lost control over their bodies and over how
far they could climb the economic ladder, since the patriarchal majority sought
ways to advance themselves and as a result, advanced other men. Respect toward
women as human being, who could actively engage in Chinese economics and
society was tarnished due to capitalistic greed and the re-emergence of
Confucius ideology of female subservience.


China’s long history of
Confucianism principles created a culture of subservience of women in relation
to men. The integration of Confucianism into capitalist China during the reform
era regressed the institutional advocacy for women and the advancements they
made under Maoism. When Mao and communism swept China, starting in 1949, there
were concentrated attempts by the political institution to uproot the
feudalistic Confucian way of life. This included attempts to created equality
for all people, as the most successful communist system functions at an optimal
level when all people can actively and fully engage in improving the welfare
and economy. “Although the principle of equality of men and women has figured
in the Constitution since 1950, it remains far from being realized” (Angeloff, et.

al, 2012, p.17). Changing the Confucius ideology of women’s submissiveness was
difficult to unravel, and once given the opportunity to move away from Maoism,
the patriarchy utilized capitalism to play on the inequalities to make men and
the development of wealth the priorities. Under Mao, women enjoyed personal
freedoms, a sense of equality in what their work meant to China, and the
ability to make decisions for themselves. Once Capitalism took over, women
found themselves back in the rut of pre-Maoism, blundered by Confucius principles
that restricted their lives. This hampering is often made to be acceptable and
necessary for China’s growth. For example, “the Chinese one child policy…was a
source of great pain for one generation, but a generation later it began to
yield important economic benefits” (Potts, 2006, p.361). It is inexcusable to
say that China is better off because women were pained. A country cannot run
simply on economic successes. The detrimental impact of the institutional
re-implementation of policies and behaviors that furthered women’s oppression
have continued to impact women in China to this day.