Click on the headline to link to the "Leon Trotsky Internet Archive" for an online copy of a section of his classic work "Permanent Revolution"-"What Does The Slogan Of Democratic Dictatorship Mean For The East?"
The following is a two part article from the Winter 1982-82 and Spring 1984 issue of "Women and Revolution" that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.
Women and Permanent Revolution
PART ONE OF TWO
"The revolt of women has shaken China to its very depths In the women of China, the
Communists possessed, almost ready made, one of the greatest masses of disinherited human beings the world has ever seen. And because they found the keys to the heart of these women, they also found one of the keys to victory over Chiang Kai-shek."
—Jack Belden, China Shakes the World (1951)
The French Utopian socialist Charles Fourier maintained that the liberty of women stands as a decisive index of social progress in general. Fourier was surely right. Compare the advanced capitalist societies formed by the bourgeois-democratic revolution with the backward capitalist societies of Asia and Africa. The elementary rights Western women take for granted— to choose one's marriage partner, contraception and divorce, access to education, not to speak of political rights—do not exist for women in the tradition-bound and priest-ridden countries of the East. And efforts to achieve such rights are invariably met with murderous reaction. By all accounts the feudalist insurgency in Afghanistan (against which the Soviet army fortunately intervened) was fueled, above all, by attempts of the left-nationalist government to reduce the bride price and to teach young girls to read.
In the twentieth century the backward countries can no longer be transformed through a bourgeois-democratic revolution. Indeed, the "democratic" imperialist powers, centrally the U.S., prop up the most reactionary, obscurantist regimes in the world from Chiang Kai-shek's China to Emperor Bao Dai's Vietnam to the Saudi monarchy. Only in those countries of the East where capitalism has been overthrown, in however bureaucratically limited or deformed a manner, do women enjoy elementary democratic rights. To cross the border from old Afghanistan, for example, into Soviet Uzbekistan is to traverse centuries of the oppression of women.
That women cannot be freed in the countries of the East without overthrowing capitalism was perhaps nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the case of China. The democratic reforms Western feminists organized and agitated around—equal access to education, suffrage, access to contraception—were inconceivable in a country like China without a profound social revolution. Chinese women activists, including those initially influenced by Western feminism, were inexorably drawn into the broader currents of revolutionary radicalism, first that of modernizing nationalism and later that of Communism. The history of revolution in twentieth-century China is in no small measure the history of its women struggling for their liberation.
Modernizing Nationalism and the 1911 Revolution
The complete subjugation of woman in traditional Confucian China was proverbial. The Confucian Book of Rites prescribed that "to be a women means to submit." A women was totally subject to her father and later her (arranged) husband or, by convention, mother-in-law. Women were socialized to be not merely submissive but invisible. If someone came to her home when her husband wasn't there, a woman traditionally responded, "No one is at home." Women had no protection against flagrant physical abuse save community disapproval of an especially cruel husband. For many a Chinese woman the only escape from an intolerable family situation was suicide.
The oppression and social segregation of Chinese women was intensified by the hideous practice of foot-binding introduced in the tenth century A.D. The purpose of this painful and crippling process was to further restrict women to bedroom and kitchen. As a folk ditty put it, "Bound feet, bound feet, past the gate can't retreat." Contrary to a common misconception in the West, the custom was not limited to women of the upper classes. All Chinese women had their feet bound except those of the poorest families and of the non-Han ethnic minorities (e.g., Manchus, Hakka) among whom women generally had greater freedom.
The liberation of women from their total bondage was a fundamental aspect of the modernizing nationalist current which developed among China's intellectuals and officials at the end of the nineteenth century. A key target for these reformers and radicals was, understandably, foot-binding, which enlightened Westerners condemned (and rightly so) as barbaric. More important for nationalistic Chinese, it was commonly believed (without any genetic basis) that the male children of foot-bound women were physically weaker than Westerners. The movement against foot-binding was therefore largely motivated by the desire to produce a new generation of fighters against imperialist domination. In the 1890s Unbound Feet and Natural Feet Societies mushroomed throughout China. The membership of these societies, it should be pointed out, were almost entirely men. And where the reforming intelligentsia/officialdom were influential, the proportion of girl children with bound feet did diminish.
The same reformers and radicals who agitated against foot-binding also advocated education for women. Here again most were not concerned with sexual equality per se, but rather with overcoming China's backwardness vis-a-vis Western imperialism. They recognized that women who could read, write and do sums were a valuable national resource, even in their traditional role as mothers of male children. As one reforming official argued, "If the mothers have not been trained from childhood where are we to find the strong men of our nation" (quoted in Elisabeth Croll, Feminism and Socialism in China ).
Whatever their personal outlook and motivations, these Westernizing intellectuals/officials set up the first schools for girls, often their own daughters, which produced a new Chinese woman who would play an important role in the subsequent revolutionary upheavals of her country. The new girls' schools were naturally hotbeds of anti-Manchu and anti-traditionalist nationalism. In Shanghai, Peking, Canton and elsewhere disciplined contingents of schoolgirls regularly participated in the mass protests against foreign privilege. In one such school a secret girls' militia was formed under the guise of physical education classes.
The outstanding woman revolutionary of the pre-1911 period was Chiu Chin (Jiu Jin). The oldest daughter of a scholarly family, she was allowed to study the classics with her brothers (not that uncommon a practice). In addition she was proud of her ability to ride a horse, use a sword and consume large quantities of wine. Despite this liberal upbringing, Chiu, like all Chinese women, was subject to an arranged marriage, which was not a happy one.
Influenced by the Western ideas sweeping the Chinese intellectual classes, at the age of 30 Chiu left her family and in 1904 went to Japan, then the main organizing center for Chinese revolutionary nationalists. Overcoming chauvinist objections that a cultured woman should not associate with men of the common classes, she became the first woman member of Sun Yat-sen's Restoration Society, the principal anti-Manchu organization. In 1906 Chiu returned to China where she divided her energies between putting out the Chinese Women's Journal, manufacturing explosives and organizing secret militias. Chiu saw in the women of China—so deeply oppressed under the old order—a kind of elemental vanguard force for national regeneration. Her outlook was encapsulated in a 1907 poem, "Women's Rights":
"We want our emancipation!
For our liberty we'll drink a cup,
Men and women are born equal,
Why should we let men hold sway?
We will rise and save ourselves,
Ridding the nation of all her shame.
In the steps of Joan of Arc,
With our own hands will we regain our land." ,,
—quoted in Wei Chin-chih, "An Early Woman Revolutionary," China Reconstructs, June 1962
One Western student of her political activities concluded:
"When Ch'iu Chin turned to revolution she anticipated ways in which women were eventually liberated in China. She implicitly recognized that sexual equality was
not likely to be achieved without some major structural changes, and saw the liberation of women as one result of the revolution to which she chose to devote her greatest energy."
—Mary Backus Rankin, "The Emergence of Women at the End of the Ch'ing: The Case of Ch'iu Chin" in Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke, eds., Women in Chinese Society (1975)
In 1907 Chiu was deeply involved in an abortive anti-Manchu uprising. Though warned that she was about to be arrested, she refused to flee. She was captured, questioned under torture (but did not reveal her colleagues) and was beheaded without trial. Her execution provoked large-scale demonstrations throughout China. Popular outrage over the martyrdom of Chiu Chin helped forge the spike that was driven into the heart of the hated Manchu dynasty four years later. And Chiu would have been pleased to see women's battalions too fighting the imperial forces as they went down to defeat.
It is common for contemporary Western feminist academics to label Chinese women activists of Chiu Chin's generation as "feminists," as does, for example, Elisabeth Croll in her valuable study, Feminism and Socialism in China. This is a case of ideological obfuscation. While there were women's journals in the pre-1911 period, there was no women's movement separate and distinct from the broader current of modernizing nationalism. Nor was women's equality seen as separable from the overall transformation of China into a modern society. Croll herself recognizes that the women activists of this period were first and foremost radical nationalists, an ordering of ideological priorities of which she is somewhat critical:
"Rather, the early feminists, who wrote the first magazines, thought that no question was so urgent as the threatened autonomy of China and the overthrow of the
Manchu dynasty and the foreign yoke of tyranny It is
particularly apparent from the early women's magazines and newspapers that the women contributors felt very deeply for their country, and the issue around which women first met, demonstrated and organised was that of 'national salvation'."
With the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911, China appeared to have become a Western-type parliamentary democracy. This was, however, a soon-to-be-discarded facade behind which rival militarists sought to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of the imperial bureaucracy. Bourgeois-democratic politicians like Sun Yat-sen became mere playthings in the hands of one or another of the warring warlord cliques.
The immediate aftermath of the revolution witnessed the emergence of a genuine feminist movement consciously modeled on the British suffragettes. When the National Assembly refused to write women's equality into the new constitution, members of Women's Suffrage Association stormed the Assembly hall, smashed windows and floored some constables. These militant Chinese feminists also aggressively displayed Western social mores, which affronted the old China perhaps even more than their demand for equality under the law. The Chinese suffragettes were soon to discover that they were not living in a restricted bourgeois democracy like Edwardian Britain.
The now-republican militarists, and their landlord and usurer backers, were as ruthlessly committed t defending the old order, including the subjugation of women, as had been the imperial bureaucracy. In 191 a girl about to elope with a militiaman was arrested and publicly executed as a lesson to all women that the new republic did not mean "personal freedom to do what they like." With the consolidation of Yuan Shih-kai military dictatorship the following year, all suffragette organizations were banned and a number of wome activists found with arms were publicly beheaded. A new movement for women's liberation had to await new wave of revolutionary nationalism set into motio by the world war and the red dawn arising out of Bolshevik Russia.
From the May Fourth Movement to Communism
On May 4, 1919 huge student protests erupted Peking against Japan's 21 demands, which would have totally reduced China to a Japanese colony. The homes of pro-Japanese ministers were ransacked. The movement rapidly spread throughout the country, and a new note was sounded when factory workers struck support of the student demands for a new government. The May Fourth Movement went far beyond protest against the immediate Japanese threat or even the depredations of the imperialist powers in general, marked the beginning of a new wave of radical activism directed no less at the existing Chinese order th against foreign domination:
"Traditional ideas and modes of conduct were crumbling and the echo of their fall sounded from one end of the country to the other. Young men and women in towns and villages began to break with the old authority of the family and the village elders. A fissure opened between the generations that was never again closed."
—Harold R. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1961)
High up among the traditional ideas and modes of conduct which came under attack was the subjugation of women. A manifesto issued by the most influential journal of the movement, Chen Tu-hsiu's New Youth, declared:
"We believe that to respect women's personality and rights is a practical need for the social progress at present, and we hope that they themselves will be completely aware of their duty to society."
—quoted in Croll, op cit.
And women responded to these ideas. The May Fourth ferment gave rise to the so-called "five proposals" movement: equal access to education and employment, suffrage and the right to hold office, the right of inheritance and the right to choose one's marriage partner. It should be emphasized that the struggle for the equality of women was in no sense regarded as women's work. When the Peking Alliance for Women's Rights Movement was established among university students in 1919, two-thirds of its members were men! For China's educated youth, the May Fourth Movement was a veritable political/cultural renaissance with which all could identify from the mildest liberal reformers to the most wild-eyed anarchists. However, the naive unity among China's New Youth could not last long. And it did not. Two of the movement's leading figures, Chen Tu-hsiu and Li Ta-chao, through contact with Soviet envoys, were soon won to Marxism and set out to organize a Chinese Communist party, which was formally founded in July 1921. The issue of Communism split the loose, heterogeneous organizations which made up the May Fourth Movement into hostile camps. The left wing became the core of the newly formed Communist Party (CCP); the right-wingers joined the bourgeois-nationalist Kuomintang or other national-liberal for¬mations like the Chinese Youth Party. One such right-winger recalled that after a stormy argument a friend who had just become a Communist left saying half jokingly, "Well, Shun-sheng, we'll see each other again on the battlefield" (quoted in Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movemen(). These words proved to be prophetic.
The left-right polarization of the May Fourth Movement likewise extended to the women's movement. The more conservative women's groups stressed social work and legalistic reforms. Christian women activists, who had earlier vigorously opposed Confucian traditionalism, now increasingly defended the status quo against "red revolution." During the 1920s the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) became a kind of conservative, pro-imperialist anti-pode to the Women's Department of the Communist Party. One of the leading lights of the Chinese YWCA was a young heiress recently returned from Wellesley, Soong Mei-ling, later better known to the world as Mme. Chiang Kai-shek.
The outstanding woman revolutionary of this period—who embodied the transition of May Fourth radicalism to Communism—was Hsiang Ching-yu (Xiang Jingyu). In 1915 at the age of 20 she opened the first coeducational primary school in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, and also organized an anti-foot-binding society. She was naturally caught up in the May Fourth Movement (as was a fellow Hunanese student activist named Mao Tse-tung). In 1919 Hsiang, along with some friends, went to France to continue her studies. To pay her way she worked in a rubber plant and then a textile mill, thus acquiring first-hand knowledge of a highly class-conscious proletariat. In France she (along with Chou En-lai) organized a Marxist study group which later developed into an organization of Chinese Communist student youth abroad.
Expelled from France for political agitation, Hsiang returned to China in early 1922 and immediately joined the Communist Party. She was elected to the party's central committee at its second congress in 1922 and a year later became the head of its newly formed Women's Department. The Communists thus became the first Chinese party to organize women as a distinct oppressed group.
Like most other newly formed Communist parties in the colonial world, the CCP's original cadre were recruited from the radical intelligentsia. To win over the best women activists, Hsiang polemicized against Western-style feminism which had gained a certain currency in Chinese intellectual circles at the time. (Margaret Sanger, for example, visited China in 1922 and lectured at Peking University.) Hsiang insisted that "the new-emerging labouring women are the strongest and most revolutionary," and she charged the feminists that they "have not the courage to take part in the real political movement—the national revolutionary movement—the prerequisite to the movement for women's rights and suffrage" (quoted in WangYi-chih, "A Great Woman Revolutionary," China Reconstructs, March 1965).
China's newly emerging laboring women would certainly demonstrate their revolutionary force in the next few years. However, the program of a "national revolutionary movement," implying as it did collaboration with a supposedly "progressive" wing of the Chinese bourgeoisie, would lead the youthful Communist movement into an historic defeat in which Hsiang among countless others would lose their lives.
Revolution and Counterrevolution, 1925-27
The fate of the women's movement and revolutionary mass movement in general was to a large extent determined by the bloc between the inexperienced Communist Party and the bourgeois-nationalist Kuomintang. At the prodding of the Comintern (Communist International) representative, Maring (Hendrik Sneevliet), in 1923 the Communists entered Sun Yat-sen's party as individuals, originally intending to take short-term advantage of the Kuomintang's loose structure. (Significantly, Trotsky voted against this policy in the Russian party leadership.) At first the entry tactic appeared highly successful as Communist influence grew by leaps and bounds.
The Canton general strike/boycott directed against the British in the summer of 1925 marked the beginning of the second Chinese revolution and consequently the beginning of the decisive conflict between the Kuomintang leaders and the" Communists. The nationalist bourgeoisie suddenly became frightened of the powerful Communist-influenced labor movement it had helped to mobilize in extracting concessions from the imperialists. In March 1926 the commander of the Kuomintang armed forces, Chiang Kai-shek, staged a coup in Canton. Chiang's coup was a clear signal that the bourgeois nationalists were about to behead the workers movement. Despite this (and the strident warnings of the Trotskyist opposition in Russia) the Stalin/Bukharin leadership of the Comintern ordered the Chinese Communists to preserve the bloc with the "patriotic" bourgeoisie at all costs. The cost was the Chinese revolution which over the next year and a half was drowned in blood, first by Chiang and then by the "left" Kuomintang leaders.
Far more centrally than the anti-Manchu revolution of 1911, the betrayed and defeated Chinese revolution of the 1920s posed the issue of women's liberation. No area of Communist activity was more spectacularly successful than its work among women. Within two years of its founding the Women's Department of the CCP had 100,000 members; by 1927 it had 300,000 members. In 1924 International Women's Day in Canton—the Communist/nationalist stronghold— drew less than a thousand. Two years later 10,000 women marched through the city under the slogans "Down with imperialism," "Down with warlords" and "Same work, same pay." The Communist organization of women simply swamped the small bourgeois feminist groups, like the Women's Rights League, and in doing so won over their most committed activists. An American feminist academic, not sympathetic to Marxism, acknowledges that by the mid-1920s, "More and more women activists were moving toward the position held by Hsiang Ching-yu in 1922: feminist rebellion was meaningless without general political revolution" (Suzette Leith, "Chinese Women in the Early Communist Movement" in Marilyn B. Young, ed., Women in China ).
At the height of the revolutionary upsurge in 1926-27 an estimated million and a half women were members of women's organizations generally led by Communists. These organizations were tribunes of the oppressed in the truest sense. Runaway slave girls, prostitutes wanting to leave their degrading profession, peasant women abused by their husbands, as well as women factory workers, flocked to these organizations with their grievances. For some observers, aware of the traditional total submissiveness of Chinese women, the eruption of an aggressive women's movement was the clearest proof that age-old China was undergoing a revolution. A sympathetic Westerner wrote at the time:
"Whatever the fate in store for the Nationalist government, it may be that historians of the future will find that the greatest and most permanent achievement to its credit has been the promotion of the women's movement."
—H.O. Chapman, The Chinese Revolution, 1926-27 (1928)
The demands made upon the Communist-led women's organizations far exceeded their material capacities. Even a relatively straightforward task like finding alternative livelihood for tens of thousands of prostitutes and concubines required the economic resources of a government department. And, in fact, many Chinese women looked upon the Women's Department of the Communist Party as if it were the women's department of a soviet government. (In some areas women's groups set up their own divorce courts.) Yet the fatal policy of limiting the revolution to bourgeois-democratic tasks prevented the establishment of a Chinese soviet government. And it likewise condemned the women's movement, despite the radicalism of its participants, to acting as a pressure group upon "anti-imperialist" militarists, landlords and factory owners whose idea of the role of women was shaped by the Confucian Book of Rites and the requirements of hoped-for capitalist stability.
The emergence of a militant women's movement in a society like China was bound to produce a conservative backlash. And so it did. This was aggravated by the overzealousness of some women activists. Older, conventionally minded women had their hair bobbed or feet unbound often under considerable pressure, if not by actual force. Over and above such excesses, however, many a peasant husband deeply resented his wife taking their family problems to the local women's group. And even some Communist fathers still insisted on arranging marriages for their daughters. These backward prejudices against women's equality served as an important point of support for the gathering white terror. Horror stories about "the wild, wild women" (that they organized women to march naked in the streets) became a major theme—if not the major theme—of anti-red propaganda.
And when the ax fell, it fell with especial force on the women's movement. Women's movement activists were, if anything, treated more savagely under the Kuomintang terror than even labor organizers or agrarian agitators. China's militarists, gentry and bourgeoisie could understand why peasants would want to stop paying rent or factory workers strike for higher pay and shorter hours. But the demand of women for independence and equality was radically new and appeared to them as a truly sinister attack on their entire social universe. So they reacted accordingly.
For a woman to have short hair now became a crime punishable by a painful death. Women wearing men's clothing were stripped to the waist in public so that "every man in town may see she is in reality a woman" before being killed. Girl Communists in Canton were wrapped in cotton blankets soaked in -gasoline and then burned alive. A particularly audacious young women's leader in a small Hunan village was hacked to death by enraged soldiery. Between 1927 and 1930 tens of thousands of Communist women were killed, among them Hsiang Ching-yu. She was arrested in the French concession of Hankow and turned over to the Kuomintang to be executed.
Yet the spirit of rebellion of those young Chinese women who had rallied to the Communist banner wa not broken. One of them wrote in a poem on the eve of her execution: "Red and White will ever be divide" and we shall see who has victory, who defeat."
Part Two will contrast the role of women unde Kuomintang reaction and in the rural areas liberated b the Communist-led Red Army. It will recount th struggle for women's liberation as a motor force in th civil war which culminated in the victory of Mao's Red Army in 1949. And it will discuss the effect of thi deformed social revolution on the traditional Chinese family and the place of women in society."
Women and Permanent Revolution
This is the conclusion of a two-part article. Part One (Women and Revolution No. 25, Winter 1982-83) covered the interrelation of women's liberation and social revolution from the emergence of a modernizing nationalist movement in China in the late nineteenth century through the defeated revolution of 1925-27.
PART TWO OF TWO
That women cannot achieve elementary democratic freedoms in the countries of the East without overthrowing capitalism is perhaps nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in China. The Kuomintang counter-revolution in the late 1920s was directed with especial savagery at the radical women's movement. Tens of thousands of Communist and other women activists were raped, tortured and killed for the "crime" of wearing short hair or men's clothing. During the 1930s the Kuomintang militarists sought to reimpose traditional Confucian subjugation upon Chinese women.
This mass of oppressed women would provide much of the social dynamite which blew away Kuomintang China in the civil war of 1946-49. In the rural areas liberated by the Red Army, women were mobilized to fight for their emancipation. While these measures would not have been radical in Shanghai or Canton with their modern industrial proletariat and Westernized intelligentsia, Communist "woman-work" had a radical impact in the primitive tradition-bound villages of Kiangsi (jiangxi) and Shensi (Shaanxi).
However, between 1937 and 1946 Mao's Red Army entered into an alliance with the Chiang Kai-shek Kuomintang regime, one of the conditions for this being that the Communists stopped the confiscation of the landlords' property. This policy basically froze the old social order in the countryside, perpetuating the enslavement of peasant women to housework and husband. Only when the civil war forced the Chinese Stalinists to place themselves at the head of the agrarian revolution did the mass of peasant women achieve the basis for social emancipation. And it was only after the Communists conquered state power in 1949 that the feudalist garbage suffocating Chinese women (ar¬ranged marriages, foot-binding, female infanticide) was swept into the dustbin of history.
Yet the People's Republic of China was the product of a bureaucratically deformed social revolution, and that deformation imprinted itself on all aspects of social life, not least the woman question. Like its counterpart in the USSR, the Chinese Stalinist (Maoist) regime has perpetuated and defended the most basic institution of women's oppression—the family. The Stalinists' conservative attitude toward the family was further reinforced in China by the peasant-based nature of the revolution. For unlike the urban proletariat, for the peasantry, the family is the existing unit of small-scale agricultural production. And this continues to be thecase today on the collective farms.
The gradual replacement of oppressive family functions by social alternatives (communal laundries, childcare facilities, etc.)—the precondition for the complete equality of women—is not a matter of voluntarism and cannot be achieved within an isolated, backward country like China. It requires a level of economic productivity far above even the most advanced capitalist country. Thus the liberation of women—a basic condition for a genuinely socialist society—demands the international extension of proletarian revolution, i.e., the heart of Trotsky's program of permanent revolution.
Women Under Red Army Rule
To escape the white terror which followed the crushing of the 1925-27 revolution, armed Communist bands retreated to the more inaccessible reaches of the vast Chinese countryside. In 1931 a number of these Communist-led forces consolidated into the Kiangsi Soviet Republic in south-central China under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung and Chu Teh.
In abandoning the cities to take the road of peasant-guerrilla warfare the Chinese Communist Party changed not only the environment in which it operated but its own nature. In the 1920s the CCP had been a revolutionary proletarian party supported by the radicalized urban intelligentsia. That is, it was based primarily on the most advanced, Westernized sections of Chinese society. During the 1930s the Communist Party became essentially a peasant-based military force with a declassed petty-bourgeois leadership.
In September 1930 the Bolshevik "International Left Opposition" led by Leon Trotsky issued a "Manifesto on China" which warned against the Chinese Stalinists' abandonment of the urban working class. The Left Opposition, which included a substantial number of Chinese Communists, recognized the need for a period of retrenchment following the brutal crushing of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution and the strategic nature of all decisive moments follows either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat— Soviets are the organs of power of a revolutionary class in opposition to the bourgeoisie. This means that the peasantry is unable to organize a soviet system on its own— Only the predominance of the proletariat in the decisive industrial and political centers of the country creates the necessary basis for the organization of a Red army and for the extension of a soviet system into the countryside. To those unable to grasp this, the revolution remains a book closed with seven seals."
The social transformation of the CCP had a highly contradictory effect on the CCP's approach to the woman question. On the one hand, the most basic measures (e.g., teaching women to read and practice basic hygiene, elimination of foot-binding) had a profoundly radical impact on the backward villages of Kiangsi and Shensi. At the same time, the Mao leadership was concerned not to affront the traditional social mores of the peasant men, especially those serving in the Red Army, upon whom they depended for their very survival. Thus, "woman-work" in the liberated areas was cautious and conservative in comparison to the radical Communist-led women's movement which had been a major force in the 1925-27 revolution.
If the Kiangsi Soviet did not actually experience "a sexual revolution," the condition of women certainly improved, in some ways radically. Slavery, concubinage and prostitution were outlawed. The war against the Kuomintang in itself tended to break down the traditional role of women. While few women served as combat troops, many were attached to the Red Army as nurses, porters, couriers, laundresses, etc. Perhaps more importantly large numbers of women were encouraged to work in the fields for the first time in order to free up men to fight in the Red Army. The Kuomintang reactionaries hated and feared the signs of women's liberation which they saw in Kiangsi. The accusation that the Reds practiced "free sex" and "debauchery" was a major focus of anti-Communist propaganda.
In late 1934 the Kuomintang armies, advised by a German general, finally broke through and destroyed the Kiangsi Soviet. The core of the Red Army retreated in the heroic Long March of 6,000-8,000 miles. A year later the survivors reached the relative safety of the Yenan area in northern Shensi province. This region, near Mongolia, was one of the poorest, most backward in all China. Almost all women were illiterate, modern medicine was unknown, foot-binding and female mfanticide were common practices. The participation of women in agricultural production (based on winter wheat and millet rather than rice) was lower than in almost any other region of China. Thus, the contradictions which had characterized the CCP's "woman-work" in Kiangsi were reproduced in a more extreme form in Yenan. The commissar of education, Hsu Teh-|ih, explained to American journalist Edgar Snow:
"This is culturally one of the darkest places on earth. Do you know the people in north Shensi and Kansu believe that water is harmful to them?...
"Such a population, compared with Kiangsi, is very backward indeed. There the illiteracy was about 90 percent, but the cultural level was very much higher, we had better material conditions to work in, and many more trained teachers— "Here the work is very much slower." —Red Star Over China (1937)
However, the slow pace of the social transformation in Yenan was not due simply to its extreme economic and cultural backwardness.
As it became increasingly clear that Japan was about to invade China from its Manchurian base, Mao raised the call for a "National Anti-Japanese Front" based on cooperation between the Kuomintang and CCP. Chiang at first rejected this overture, but pressure from his fellow militarists (one of whom kidnapped the Generalissimo until he relented) forced him to negotiate an agreement with the Communists in September 1937, a few months after the Japanese imperial army crossed the Marco Polo bridge and invaded China.
Central to the CCP-Kuomintang agreement was a ban on the confiscation of landlords' property in the areas under Red Army control. The Communists would henceforth limit themselves to rent and interest reductions and similar palliatives. This policy was codified in a 1942 CCP document whose counterrevo¬lutionary intent is entirely unambiguous:
"Recognize that most of the landlords are anti-Japanese, that some of the enlightened gentry also favour democratic reforms. Accordingly, the policy of the Party is only to help the peasants in reducing feudal exploitation but not to liquidate feudal exploitation entirely, much less to attack the enlightened gentry who support
"The guarantee of rent and interest collection and the protection of the landlord's civil, political, land, and economic rights are the second aspect of our Party's land policy."
—"Decision of the CC on Land Policy in the Anti-Japanese Base Areas" (28 January 1942) reproduced in Conrad Brandt et al., eds., A Documentary History of Chinese Communism (1966)
The policy not to liquidate the landlords' exploitation of the peasantry had a profound and negative effect on the position of women. Since women could not own land (the major source of income in Yenan), they remained economically dependent on their husbands, fathers, brothers, etc. If her husband ordered her to stay home and take care of the house and children, a peasant woman had no practical recourse. For women, the legal right of divorce was meaningless without an alternative means of livelihood. Thus, during the popular front period the mass of women under Red Army rule remained tied to housework as they had for centuries. In her scholarly study, Woman-Work (1976), Delia Davin concludes that "it was still unusual for them [women] to work on the land on any scale until the time of land reform." The Mao regime did promote home industry, especially for textiles, and to some degree this provided women with an independent income. But as long as property relations in the Chinese countryside remained unchanged, the mass of Chinese women would remain unliberated. The manifest gap between communist, and even democratic, principles and social reality in the misnamed Yenan Soviet Republic would soon produce dissension within the Communist camp.
Debate Over the Woman Question in Yenan
Following the Japanese invasion large numbers of radical student youth and leftist intellectuals made their way from the cities to Yenan. In part they were escaping Japanese and Kuomintang repression and in part they wanted to fight Japanese imperialism. Chiang's armies were notoriously corrupt and incompetent, and the Red Army was widely seen as the only effective anti-Japanese force in China.
Prominent among the newcomers to Yenan was Ting Ling (Ding Ling), the best-known leftist woman writer in China. As a teenage girl she had been a family friend of Hsiang Ching-yu, the founding leader of the Communist women's movement, who was killed in the white terror of the late 1920s. Later Ting Ling became a protege of Lu Hsun, universally regarded as China's greatest modern man of letters. Ting thus represented the avant-garde of China's radical intelligentsia.
Many of the newcomers, like Ting, were disappointed when life in Yenan did not measure up to their idea of what a Soviet Republic should be. They gradually developed into a dissident current or milieu, which one commentator termed the Yenan "literary opposition." They criticized the sterility and .dogmatism of official Communist propaganda, the tendencies toward bureaucratic commandism and the exceedingly slow pace of social transformation. But basically the dissident intellectuals objected to certain effects of Mao's peasant-guerrilla strategy and the alliance with the Kuomintang but did not challenge these underly¬ing policies.
The Mao regime crushed the "literary opposition" in the so-called "rectification campaign" of 1942-44. A major target for "rectification" was the views Ting Ling expressed in a 1942 essay, "Thoughts on 8 March" (International Women's Day). (This essay was reproduced in translation in New Left Review, July-August 1974, from which we quote.) Here she criticized the Mao leadership for retreating from the struggle for sexual equality. Ting contended that women in Yenan, while certainly better off than in the rest of China, remained unemancipated. Despite the "free-choice marriage" laws, social pressure forced most women to marry anyone who would have them:
"But women invariably want to get married. (It's even more of a sin not to be married, and single women are even more of a target for rumors and slanderous gossip.) So they can't afford to be choosy, anyone will do—"
Once married, Ting went on, women were pressured into having children whether or not they really wanted to. In this way they were forced back into a life of housework, curtailing their political activity and education. Then they were accused of "backward-
ness," a standard ground for husbands suing their wives for divorce:
"Afraid of being thought 'backward', those who are a bit more daring rush around begging nurseries to take their children. They ask for abortions, and risk punishment and even death by secretly swallowing potions to produce abortions. But the answer comes back: 'Isn't giving birth to children also work? You're just after an easy life, you want to be in the limelight. After all, what indispensable political work have you performed?'... Under these conditions it is impossible for women to escape this destiny of 'backwardness'."
The Maoists reacted strongly to these bitter barbs. Ting Ling was banned from writing and sent to "study" with the peasantry in order to overcome what they called her "outdated feminism." In 1943 a new CCP document on "woman-work" criticized "tendencies to subjectivism and formalism which isolate us from ordinary women" (reproduced in Davin, op. cit.). This document presents increased economic productivity as a cure-all for women's oppression. The actual retreat from the liberating goals of authentic communism expressed by this rather abstract document was spelled out in a speech by Kai Chang, a leading Maoist spokesman on "woman-work": "Our slogans are no longer 'free choice marriage' and 'equality of the sexes' but rather 'save the children', 'a flourishing family', and 'nurture health and prosperity'" (quoted in Davin, ibid.).
While condemning the bureaucratic way in which Ting Ling and her co-thinkers were treated, how are we to judge the substance of the debate? The Maoists argued in Yenan that a more radical policy on the woman question would have alienated the peasant masses, women as well as men. However, when a few years later the Maoists under the pressure of civil war confiscated the landlords' property and gave peasant women an equal share of the land, these women responded with unbounded enthusiasm. The agrarian revolution laid the basis for a revolution in sexual relations.
If the Maoists were guilty of opportunism, then Ting Ling can be convicted of idealist voluntarism. She appears to have been blind to the economic obstacles to social transformation in this most backward province and to the fundamental difference in social outlook between workers and peasants. Working-class and professional women were potentially in a position to be economically independent of their menfolk, and this shaped their consciousness. But the peasant women of Yenan had no independent means of livelihood. How could a young woman who left her father's home and chose to remain single support herself? How could an older woman with young children survive if she abandoned an abusive husband? Ting expected and demanded for the Yenan area full sexual equality in advance of the nationwide political and social revolution which alone could bring this about. Some of the policies advocated by Ting in 1942 were in fact carried out after the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China (a bureaucratically deformed workers state) in 1949. But this required that the Maoists break their alliance with Chiang and place themselves at the head of an agrarian revolution which they had previously sought to suppress.
Women Under Kuomintang Reaction
Whatever the limitations, contradictions and retreats of Communist "woman-work" in Kiangsi and Yenan, the difference between that and the policies of the Kuomintang was like day and night. The inability of the "national bourgeoisies" in the colonial countries to shatter the feudal past and carry through a bourgeois-democratic revolution was conclusively demonstrated in China. Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, the dominant bourgeois force, depended on relics of the feudal past (the corrupt warlords, landlords, gangsters). The native bourgeois classes in the colonial world are unable to separate themselves from the entanglement with imperialist domination for fear of setting off forces— principally the anti-capitalist struggle of the workers, in alliance with the peasantry—which will sweep them from power as well.
While the immediate target of the Kuomintang counterrevolution was "the Red menace," anti-Communism was soon extended to attacks on "decadent" Western liberalism in all its manifestations, especially on the woman question. In 1934 Chiang launched the New Life Movement based on an amalgam of Neo-Confucian, Christian and European fascist ideologies. The New Life which Chiang prescribed for Chinese women was the Kuomintang equivalent of the Nazis' "Kinder, Kuche, Kirche" (children, kitchen, church).
Here is how the leading ideologue of Neo-Confucianism, Lin Yu-tang, defined the role of women in society:
"There are talented women as there are talented men, but their number is actually less than democracy would have us believe. For those women, self-expression has a more important meaning than just bearing children. But for the common people, whose number is legion, let the men earn the bread to feed the family and let the women bear children— Of all the rights of women, the greatest is to be a mother."
—quoted in Elisabeth Croll, Feminism and Socialism in China (1980)
A leading inspirer and organizer of the New Life Movement was Madame Chiang Kai-shek, one of China's wealthiest women and a Wellesley graduate, who declared that "virtue is more important than learning." It is poetic justice that some of the hoary Neo-Confucianists around Chiang's court criticized Madame Chiang herself as too Westernized and attacked her public political appearances as "immod¬est" (sort of the Phyllis Schlafly of her day)!
The moral climate in Kuomintang ruling circles is well depicted in the memoirs of writer Han Suyin, who was trained abroad as a doctor. Han returned to China in the late 1930s to marry an officer on Chiang's staff, who constantly admonished her that "a woman of talent is not a virtuous woman" and that "to contradict your husband is a sign of immorality" (Birdless Summer ).
If this is how the women of the educated elite were treated, one can imagine the situation facing women of the lower classes. Behind a faqade of bourgeois-democratic laws, a carryover from the revolutionary upheaval of the 1920s, the subjugation of the mass of Chinese women was fundamentally unchanged from the days of the Manchus or, for that matter, the Mings.
Deformed Social Revolution and Women's Liberation
It is now widely recognized that the American nuclear bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Naga¬saki in August 1945, even though Japan was ready to surrender, were dropped mainly to intimidate the Soviet Union. An even more immediate target for the American imperialists were the Chinese Communists. Having fought and defeated Japanese imperialism in large part to dominate and exploit China, the U.S. was not about to let Mao's Red Army stand in its way. With the guidance and support of Washington, Generalissimo Chiang was supposed to physically annihilate the Communist-led forces. For a year following the Japanese surrender the Generalissimo consolidated his position while spinning out phony negotiations with the CCP for a coalition government. Then in mid-1946 Chiang struck, initially with great effect. The Red Army was driven out of central China entirely and had to retreat on all fronts.
Stalin, as usual, was prepared to sacrifice his foreign "comrades" for the sake of "peaceful coexistence" with U.S. imperialism and its allies (in this case, Chiang's China). The Great Helmsman in the Kremlin later told Yugoslav Communist Eduard Kardelj that he advised the Chinese comrades to "join the Chiang Kai-shek government and dissolve their army" because "the development of the uprising in China had no prospect" (quoted in Stuart Schram, MaoTse-tung ). Stalin's advice to the Chinese "comrades" was in effect that they commit suicide.
With their survival at stake the Maoists finally unleashed their most potent weapon: the mobilization of the Chinese peasantry against the landlords. A powerful wave of agrarian revolution carried the initially smaller Red Army, with its greater combativity and discipline, to victory over Chiang's forces, totally demoralized and grotesquely corrupt (Kuomintang generals sold food on the black market while their men went hungry).
Integral to the agrarian revolution and Red Army victory was the liberation of women from their previous total economic dependency. The Agrarian Reform Law promulgated by the CCP in 1947 divided the land equally between men and women. Women were given their own certificate of ownership, if they so chose, or joint ownership with their husbands. The impact of this revolution in property relations on the women of the Chinese countryside was electrifying. American journalist William Hinton, an eyewitness to these events, reported some typical responses: "When I get my share, I'll separate from my husband. Then he won't oppress me any more." "If he divorces me, never mind, I'll get my share and the children will get theirs. We can live a good life without him " (Fanshen ). Particularly strong partisans of the Communist land policies were widows for whom the traditional Confucian code prescribed suicide at the death of husbands and providers.
The civil war itslef reinforced the agrarian revolution in radically changing the postion of women in society. The transition for guerilla to large-scale positional warfare drew masses of men into the Red Army and so created labor shortages in many villages. Large numbers of women were thus drawn into agricultural production out of sheer economic necessity. According to Teng Ying-chao (Deng Yingzhao), a leader of the CCP-led Women's Association and also Chou En-lai's wife, whereas in 1945 it was still unusual for women to work in the fields, by 1949 in the older liberated areas 50-70 percent of women worked on the land. In some villages peasant women were the main activists in confiscating the landlords' property.
More than any other aspect of CCP policy, it was the mobilization of women which shocked the Chinese ruling class as it was being destroyed. In her memoirs, Birdless Summer, Han Suyin recounts the absolute horror with which the'Kuomintang ruling circles in their last days viewed the revolt of women in the liberated areas:
"They actually had women in the Red armies, girls dressed as boys and carrying guns! They encouraged slave girls and concubines to revolt against their masters! Their widows remarried! They did not insist on 'chastity'! They incited the peasant women to stand up and denounce their husbands misdeeds."
For China's rulers, these were among the worst of the "crimes" of the Communists.
A social system which had oppressed women for millennia was overthrown in the course of a few years of civil war. The first years of the People's Republic of China saw the effective elimination of foot-binding, the general establishment of free choice in marriage, mass campaigns to overcome illiteracy and the drawing of most women into work outside the home.
Yet Mao's China was the product of a bureaucratically deformed social revolution, and that deformation imprinted itself on all aspects of social and political life. The popular enthusiasm and authority which the Maoists gained by overthrowing the old order was dissipated through the insane economic adventurism of the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the bureaucratic delirium of the Cultural Revolution (1966-69). The deeply nationalist character of the Maoist regime eventually led it into an alliance with U.S. imperialism against the Soviet Union, dramatically signaled in 1971 when the Chairman embraced Richard Nixon as American B-52s bombed Vietnam. And today the "People's Liberation Army" is the main instrument by which the American ruling class seeks to wreak vengeance against the heroic Vietnamese people, who inflicted upon U.S. imperialism the most humiliating defeat in its history.
The deformed character of the Chinese revolution has naturally also affected the condition of women. To take but a few of the more glaring manifestations: the policy toward contraception and abortion has zigzagged between extremes, from practically eliminating any means of birth control during the disastrous Great Leap Forward to the present policy of pressuring women to have abortions they do not want in order to reduce the population. Official puritanism has the force of law, making premarital sex a crime. Many jobs are still typed by sex, and there is unequal pay for equal work, especially on the collective farms.
Women and Revolution, in an article on Maoism and the family (subtitled "In China, women hold up half the sky—and then some," W&R No. 7, Autumn 1974), wrote of both the historic achievements and fundamental limitations of Maoist-Stalinist China in furthering the liberation of women:
"The revolution has, among other things, given women legal equality, freedom of choice in marriage, greater access to contraception and abortion, a greater role in social production and political life and, for some, child care centers, dining halls and schools. It is indisputable that the lives of Chinese women, who in pre-revolutionary times were barely recognized as human beings, have been radically transformed and that Chinese women are less oppressed in many ways than are women in bourgeois democracies. "But while we note such gains and therefore call for the unconditional military defense of China against imperialist attack, we are also aware that China has not achieved socialism—a historical stage marked, among other things, by the withering away of the state—and that the Chinese bureaucracy sabotages those measures leading toward the emancipation of women which could be undertaken by the dictatorship of the proletariat in even a poor and underdeveloped healthy workers state. Chinese women, therefore, continue to be specially oppressed."
The key to understanding the interrelationship between the Chinese deformed workers state and the family lies precisely in the fact that while the bourgeoisie has been smashed and the means of production nationalized, the working class does not wield political power. The state is administered by a bureaucratic caste which, in order to maintain its undemocratic rule, must, among other things, rely upon and foster the nuclear family as one more point for reinforcing respect for authority.
Only a proletarian political revolution which ousts the Maoist-Stalinist bureaucracy, establishes workers democracy and places the resources of the Chinese workers state fully in the service of world socialist revolution can open the road to fulfilling the struggles for women's liberation which have been integral to the tumultuous history of China in the modern era. And only the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution offers the enslaved women of the East—from India to Iran to Sri Lanka and Indonesia—the path to emancipation."