Mao’s Communism vs Confucianism
A recent ad campaign was launched in Hong Kong to tackle casual sexism. It caught my attention as beneath Hong Kong’s veneer of modernity, sexism is rife and social norms continue to undervalue girls and women. The impact of Confucian patriarchy lingers on in the 21st Century and Mao’s liberation of Women appears somewhat short lived.
In Imperial China, women assumed a relatively subordinate position to men and they were at the bottom of the Confucian hierarchy. The so-called “Five Relationships” described by Confucians as the complete range of human interaction include four that entail hierarchy: ruler/subject, parent/child, husband/wife, elder sibling/younger sibling and only one that need not entail hierarchy, friend/friend. The ideal Confucian state, with its “natural” hierarchy of ruler and subject, mirrored the home, with its “natural” hierarchy of husband and wife. Exemplary behaviour and uncomplaining obedience was expected of the wife and women in general.
Now I am no fan of communism, especially not a fan of tyrant Mao who was responsible for millions of deaths with his misguided policies such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Not to mention his ill treatment of his four wives and the insatiable sexual appetite he had for young women and subsequent disposal of these women. (The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui) However, he did liberate women in China. To fully understand how Mao improved the lives of women, we must first understand the oppression that women faced in the pre-Communist era.
The first vehicle of oppression is that of foot binding, a custom introduced in the eleventh century, first practiced by the wealthy, and later by the peasantry as well. When a girl reached approximately three years of age, her mother would wrap her feet with bandages which were tightened nightly, to keep the feet small. Foot binding was essential for a woman to be considered eligible for marriage and the sight of a woman hobbling along on her “three inch golden lilies” was supposed to have an erotic effect on men.
Roles for women were limited and ultimately boiled down, to wife, concubine or prostitute each role successively less desirable. A wife had no power over her own life, she was forced to be completely subservient to her husband and his family. A concubine, a formal mistress used by a man for sexual pleasure and to produce children, had even less power than a wife. They were abused by the wives and could even have their own children taken away from them by a barren wife.
The least favourable option for women was prostitution, possibly not even the woman’s choice but the decision of her parents or guardian. In the late 1940’s, the Chinese economy was depressed, however, one trade was prospering: trafficking in young girls for brothels. Cities were filled with beggars offering their children in exchange for food, the rationale behind it was that even if the child ended up in a brothel, at least she was alive and the family had one less mouth to feed.
When the Japanese occupied Nanking in 1938, they also used prostitutes (in comfort houses) whom they referred to as public toilets. Far from being “houses of comfort,” many women in them starved to death or committed suicide rather than choosing to be imprisoned.
This was the situation for women before Mao; they had very few choices and could be forced into marriage, concubinage or prostitution. What did Mao do for these women as leader of China, what did he do for China?
For China, the answer in my opinion is not much. The communist era started with a blood bath of killings in the 1950s. It’s been estimated that during Mao’s “benevolent period,” from 1948 through 1955, 4 million people were executed. These killings slowed, but the campaigns were only beginning.
In 1957, the Anti-Rightist Campaign took place, and 552,877 of China’s brightest communists were denounced and imprisoned as rightists, or people who did not support Communism. Tens of thousands starved in prison camps.
Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958, a campaign aimed to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist society via rapid industrialization and collectivization is widely considered to have caused the Great Chinese Famine. Peasants survived by eating bark and leaves from trees. Parents had to choose which of their children would eat and survive; girls often lost out to their brothers. During this period, roughly 5 percent of China’s population died, or about 30 million people. Neither by war nor natural disaster have so many people died in one country before.
During the Cultural Revolution which launched in 1966, millions of people were persecuted in the violent struggles that ensued across the country, and suffered a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, hard labour, sustained harassment, seizure of property and sometimes execution.
Nevertheless, Mao did raise the status of women in China. The idea of equality for women fitted into his broader ideology of equality for the oppressed people of China. He also recognised women as a valuable labour force that could double the manpower to transform China by offering them equality. He declared that “women hold up half the sky.”
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 easier, to be granted at the request of either spouse.
Groups of men pledged not to marry women through arranged marriages or based on bound feet. Wives were promised the right to divorce freely and “run their own lives;” women who were not married were promised that they would not be sold into marriage and were protected from arranged marriages. Child marriages were forbidden. Neighbours were encouraged to knock on the doors of wife beaters to scold them. In these ways, the status of the Chinese wife was greatly improved.
Prostitution was outlawed, brothels were shut down and prostitutes were to be given six months’ living allowance by their owners. The use of concubines was also outlawed. Mao emphasised equality between the sexes and sharing of power, he involved women in the actions taken for their betterment and remedied situations that many were forced into without their consent.
Women entered the work force as the party encouraged them to do things they had never done before, such as becoming officials or running factories. The number of women in the work force soared, from 600,000 in 1949 to more than 50 million today. Women had a new-found independence, self-confidence, and new educational opportunities, as more women were encouraged to go to school, even in the peasantry.
For the first time in Chinese history women were more than cattle or playthings for men’s sexual pleasure. Factories and offices were encouraged to improve, and sexual differences were minimized, with everyone in the same blue or grey jackets. Cat calls would have been considered unrevolutionary and detrimental to the cause of communism.
Indeed, Mao changed laws which improved the lives of women and they were liberated: freed from foot binding, arranged marriages, spousal abuse, child marriages and prostitution. However, he failed to change hearts and minds as traits of Confucianism linger on.
As China’s standard of living has risen with a free market economy, the male dominated Chinese society has returned. Pornography and prostitution are quickly spreading throughout China, and bosses have begun to hire pretty, young women “as ornaments or playthings.” Women have greater economic opportunity, but they are facing increasing amounts of discrimination and the gender pay gap is widening. The worst aspect of all this is the fact that women themselves are now being viewed as a marketable commodity.
Women’s organisations such as the National Women’s Federation were dependent upon the government and exercised little actual authority. Communist state feminism functioned as a form of social control and any trend that in any way jeopardised the central government’s power was immediately quashed.
For example, the liberalisation of female sexuality caused resentment amongst the conservative peasants, mostly men. The government abandoned the Marriage Reform Law within three years of its introduction in fear of a backlash from these conservative men.
Mao’s communist party replaced traditional patriarchal authority with its own authority. It transformed family life so that commitment to the party exceeded all other ties. The government made clear its intention was to solidify collective adherence to the party ideology rather than promote any individual thinking or decision. Women’s equality and full participation was promoted so long as it benefited the party and it strengthened its coercive apparatus.
The introduction of market reforms by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 further complicated the role of women who were once guaranteed a job in the state-controlled economy. Women now face competition with their male counterparts, face severe discrimination, are more likely to face lay-offs and difficulty in finding re-employment.
The most recent case of state suppression was the arrest of five feminist activists who had planned a peaceful protest against domestic abuse and sexual harassment on International Women’s Day in 2015. They were detained for “picking quarrels” which has become a catch-all justification for the suppression of any dissident.
The state-endorsed All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) recently published a patriarchal poem instructing women on how to assist their husbands, raise their children, embody filial piety, cook, clean, dress, walk and be virtuous, hardly furthering the liberation of women.
Unless the hearts and minds of the people changes, true liberation of women has a long way to go in China and Hong Kong. Mao was only partially successful in mitigating the impact of Confucian patriarchy and it is evident centuries old Confucianism endures.