In 20th century China, women’s lives changed greatly. On the surface, they were given access to a much higher degree of personal autonomy and rights, as well as a more “positive” portrayal in the media. This is a drastic departure from women’s lives in pre-20th century China, when women were socially and legally subsumed into a status below men. Nonetheless, a closer examination of the impact of Western influences, the design of a new, modern national image and other political motivations might disclose an ulterior motive behind this change, allowing us to consider whether women ever did become equal to men, or whether they were simply pawns to further a political agenda.
The elimination of footbinding was an early development in the 20th century to improve women’s lives, marking the end of an epoch of extensive “bodily and psychological damage suffered [by women] in feudal society” (Curator of Heilongjiang Museum of Ethnography). Footbinding remained prevalent in China until the Republican era, when a nationwide ban was instated, though never implemented, in 1912. Nevertheless, women continued to be infantilised, and objectified as passive beings, through representations of women in this period. Visual representations of bound feet were circulated ubiquitously in the forms of photographs and medical reports, and became a topical point of discussion in advanced nations. Under such pressure, Chinese political leadership understood the urgency of reinventing itself as a liberated society, one that could compete with Western standards of emancipation and feminism. The bound foot was utilised as a microcosm for the ills of the present, backward society, by reformers seeking to overthrow anachronistic customs and thought. There was an element of geographical variation, as footbinding survived longer in villages where trends of modernisation took root more slowly. The message that women on bound feet were a financial burden to men was propagated throughout cities and towns, greatly compromising the cultural prestige of footbinding. Therefore, although women’s lives were ameliorated, women and genuine values of equality were ultimately only afterthoughts in the midst of mass-scale national reconstruction. The process of stamping out the practice also evinces flawed power dynamics within society, reiterating that systemically, women were not equal to men, and some women were not equal even among other women. For example: Yan Xishan’s anti-footbinding policy (1917-22) in Shanxi ridiculed and degraded women by exposing their bodies to public inspection. There was pushback as some, especially older women, felt that they were being forcibly divorced from an age-old praxis they had grown attached to. These women may have enacted manoeuvres such as rebinding their feet once inspectors had left. A large number of inspectors being dispatched were educated women; the policy aggravated class tensions because inspectors were enabled to act upon illiterate footbound women by transgressing the borders of their privacy. Overall, the anti-footbinding drive succeeded in gradually eradicating an outmoded, outdated tradition which exploited women; in this sense, it changed women’s lives and indicated China’s intentions of creating reform. Nonetheless, the persisting representations of women as unproductive (while footbound) and victimised (as footbinding was being phased out) might lead us to contemplate how far their lives did change in actuality. By the same token, footbinding was not only a potent symbol of women’s oppression at this time, but also a major cause of it.
By the 1930s, women’s lives changed as they were given more agency in society with the advent of the notion of the “Modern Woman”, but underlying class cleavages also generated antagonisms against these women who become subjects of sexualisation. The Modern Woman was represented in popular culture (newspapers, films, books, advertisements), as an elusive figure whose persona and charm could be emulated through the consumption of expensive commodities. Her style was pursued by women from a range of social strata and career backgrounds (including students and prostitutes), evoking anxieties as class lines became increasingly less marked. The class divides follow city-countryside divides, as a growing number of rural women migrated to cities to become susceptible to these Western ideals of modernity. Relationships between men and women exemplify an overturn of power as women were lusted after and longed for. This is popularised through cartoons and caricatures (漫畫), which represented women as objects of fetishisation and simultaneously, active seekers of fetishisation, enjoying the stares and even entertaining them. However, there is little evidence that women liked this new role, as it gave men power through manipulation of the female body. Furthermore, males were displayed as victims of the woman, worn down by her spending costs and anxious about her flirtatious nature; this illustrates the subversion of roles between men and women. Although these new representations of the woman as able to reclaim her authority against men play an integral part in shaping the modern definition of masculinity, a double standard is perpetuated in that a woman’s appearance rather than character is continually judged and dissected, implying that her right to equality is conditional upon how well she is received by men. For example: in the workplace, many employers specified their preference for a good-looking girl to attract clients. Moreover, the Modern Girl was condemned in her approach to marriage, denounced for disrupting the purity of the marriage market and entering a higher social bracket to which she did not belong. While Modern Girls of upper echelons were [being] exposed to Western values of free value, those of a lower class were advised to marry within their social circles and to someone chosen by the family; the theme of the double standard is again prominent here, emphasising that equality only existed for those of a higher class. In conclusion, the proliferation of the Modern Girl changed the lives of many women, by allowing them freer rein within society, but on a deeper level she also became vulnerable to criticism from those who believed that the Modern Girl was merely a perpetrator of capitalist, commercialist culture, reiterating that these changes were not deep-rooted. This intimates that modernisation of attitudes to women – the product of a more general, far-reaching rise of modernity throughout China – was out of step with an inherent social conservatism which failed to change alongside political change.
When the Communist Party took over in 1949, many women anticipated that the turnover in leadership from the Nationalists to Communists would herald significant change for womankind, especially when taken into account the 1949 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China which allotted equal rights for both sexes, inciting positive change in legislature for women. I argue that Mao’s vision of women as able to “hold up half the sky” as manifested as a political campaign not only to recruit women into the workforce, but also to highlight China’s modernity and ability to contend with Western benchmarks of progressive thinking and liberality. Women were glorified as model workers, signifying that women’s lives had changed but only within the realms of productive work and national political ambition. However, this series of romanticised representations only pertained to a select few women: 女界第一 model workers (literally translated to “female-kind first”) were given precedence over other women of the time, insinuating that equality and changes to women’s lives did not apply to all of womenkind. The dichotomy between this subset of women – identified as the first cohort of females to become tractor or train drivers, or to deal with heavy machinery – and other ordinary women of the time was very pronounced, as model women were differentiated by their bodies which were likened to masculine physiques, enhancing the ingrained gendered categories of the time. This separation is strengthened by the consistent overuse of the word “female” when referring to these categories of women. The 第一 first woman was essentially tokenised to the extent that once the first woman has done the job, the next woman who does the same job does not receive the same credibility for it. The advertisement of women refusing to succumb to male dominance was a recurring pattern in propaganda, and successfully doing so allowed women to be wholly accepted by men. For example: Liang Jun was championed for being the only female in her 70-student tractor driving programme in Bei’an in 1948. She accredited all of her success to the Communist Party, claiming: “The government leaders really are the people who saved China, saved women, saved me.” Again, we see a need for women to be validated by men, confirming insufficient change both in women’s lives and in national perspectives on equality between sexes. On the whole, the birth of women’s rights in this instance performed a highly political function, and was thus a performative, rather than authentic, means to deliver gender equality to women and change their lives.
During the Cultural Revolution, women’s lives changed because the equal rights they were conferred under the 1949 Constitution allowed them to become Red Guards, a role customarily assumed to be more suited to men. Nevertheless, a reevaluation of representations of female Red Guards might reformulate our prejudgements of how far changes to women’s lives were permanent rather than constrained to the parameters of the Communist Party. The publication of mantras by Mao such as: “The times have changed, men and women are the same” might at first appear to be an appeal for gender equality, especially when accompanied by visuals of Iron Girls (muscular women tasked with undertaking strenuous labour previously done by men) in the media. Women who conformed to this archetype wore army clothes and short hair and were glamourised as indispensable features of the revolution; this is symptomatic of a nationwide shift toward gender neutrality, and a protest against the bourgeois sexualisation of women discussed earlier. That being said, the transformation of women into supposedly androgynous humans wearing distinctly male fashions bears a subtext that women were required to behave like men in order to be treated as equals. Additionally, there were reports of women being sexually abused by gangs or male officials in the countryside, which demonstrates an innate lack of respect for women despite their newfound uniformity with men. Conversations surrounding feminism were dismissed as bourgeois, so this instilled the mindset that acting like men was more related to erasing class demarcations than denouncing femininity. As surmised by Rae Yang in a personal reminiscence: “Anything that would make girls look like girls was bourgeois. I almost forgot I was a girl. I was a Red Guard. And that was it.” For the reason that encouraging women to become men and imitate masculine traits is not a form of gender equality, I would offer that women’s lives realistically changed little at this time. Again, there was a city versus countryside segregation in the Cultural Revolution which was also linked to class, and this impacted rural women more negatively than women of the cities.
To conclude, the extent to which the lives of women changed was entirely congruent upon a broader national political, economic or social milieu, orchestrated largely by the male leadership of China. Although it is doubtless that women’s lives improved at this time, as showcased by the ending of footbinding, and enlistment of women into nationwide political developments (such as: women becoming model workers and Red Guards), such representations of women as emancipated beings often carry connotations of liberation at the hands of men, to the extent that some women credit male-led political regimes with changing their lives. This alludes to the idea that the changing of women’s lives was dependent on the pervading and ever-changing political, national or international circumstances of the time, and not done exclusively for the sake of bettering of women’s lives.
About the author…
I’m Lucy, a 21-year-old liberal arts student at Durham University, specializing in history and sociology, with a focus on Chinese 20th-century history. I’m also passionate about sociology, particularly in the context of mental health and psychiatry. Journalism, especially in areas like social justice and international affairs, is my future aspiration after graduation. Currently, I’m on a study abroad year at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, where I’m expanding my horizons in global politics. My goal is to combine my academic background with international relations theories to better grasp and analyze current events.