Lives bound by parties and gifts

Women of China - Women of the long march

February 25, 2000

Delia Davin explores a long road to freedom for China's women.

These two books each make valuable, albeit very different contributions to the history of Chinese women in the 20th century. Women of the Long March is a highly readable account of the lives of the women communists who joined the Red Army columns that broke through the Guomindang blockade of the communist-controlled area, the Jiangxi Soviet. They trekked 6,000 miles north to Shaanxi province, fighting innumerable skirmishes en route. The expedition began in October 1934 with about 80,000 men. Only about a tenth of these were still with the main force when it reached north China a year later.

The great majority of communist women were left behind in Jiangxi with the rearguard, as were children and those too sick to march. Of the 30 women who set out on the Long March with the main force, 19 completed it. Several were ordered to drop out in the early stages to do political work in Yunnan province. Others were captured much later by Muslim forces in the northwest. Interestingly, no women appear to have died on the march despite a high casualty rate.

The women's suffering was, however, appalling. Like the men they went hungry, had to eat grass and wild seeds, and clad in thin, ragged clothing, crossed some of China's most difficult mountain ranges. But they also endured problems particular to their sex. At least six of them gave birth in terrible conditions. All the babies had to be left behind with peasants and are believed to have perished. Modern contraception was not available in the communist areas.

Even in more settled times, pregnancy represented a real threat to the lives and work of women comrades as the story of Mao's second wife, He Zizhen, illustrates. She gave birth to six children in the ten years after she married Mao in 1928. One was handed over to peasants when she was with guerrilla fighters in Fujian, a two-year-old was left behind when Jiangxi was evacuated, and one born on the march was abandoned at birth. Two others died, and Jiao Jiao, a daughter born in Shaanxi, was brought up from the age of ten in the household established by Mao with his third wife, Jiang Qing. Exacerbating He Zizhen's loss, the little girl was renamed Li Min (incorporating Jiang Qing's original family name of Li). He Zizhen's health was undermined by her pregnancies, by privation and by shrapnel wounds she received on the march. In 1937 she went to the Soviet Union for treatment, was divorced by Mao, and having been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, spent most of the rest of her life in mental hospitals. She emerged again only after Mao's death and the arrest of Jiang Qing. It had become possible, and indeed politic, to give her the recognition to which her revolutionary record entitled her. Her failed marriage to Mao reduced an energetic, self-confident young activist to a dispirited, confused woman. As the former wife of a leader, she was deprived forever of a normal life.

Although some of its detail remains murky, He Zizhen's story has been known for some time. Lily Xiao Hong Lee and Sue Wiles also present biographical material on some of the less well-known women of the communist movement - material that has previously been available only in Chinese. Perhaps the most poignant story is that of Wang Quanquan. In 1936, aged 23, she was placed in charge of the Women's Vanguard Regiment in northwest China. The regiment was attacked by anti-communist Muslim cavalry, most of her comrades were killed and she was captured. After months of imprisonment she was forcibly married to one of their commanders. She succeeded in escaping nearly two years later, but when she re-established contact with the Communist party in 1939, she was informed that more than two years out of contact with the main group of the Red Army meant automatic expulsion. She was given five silver dollars and told to make her own way. She resorted to a marriage of expediency in order to avoid starvation. Later she managed to return to her village in Jiangxi where she once more became a peasant. Even after the communist victory in 1949, her pleas for re-acceptance and recognition were ignored, probably because she was seen as having betrayed the party both politically and sexually. She was finally rehabilitated in the 1980s.

Not all the stories of the Long March women are so tragic. Lee and Wiles argue convincingly that they were less successful than men with similar revolutionary records, but some did hold important positions after 1949. Kang Keqing, wife of the military commander, Zhu De, had been an illiterate peasant girl when she joined the Red Army. She learnt to read and write through the revolution and became a respected leader, although she was not allowed the military career she longed for. Kang, like Deng Yingchao, another successful woman leader, had the dual advantages of being happily married to an important leader and of being childless. Some of the other communist women faced demotion when their marriages broke down and others found their energies absorbed by childbearing. Yet even a successful marriage to a high leader blocked advancement. Deng Yingchao's husband was Zhou Enlai, the first prime minister of the People's Republic. He was once asked if his wife, like male colleagues with similar records of revolutionary service, might be made a government minister. Zhou, who was strongly opposed to all forms of nepotism, said that this would not occur so long as he was premier.

Women of China is a collection of articles by female Chinese scholars on the gender impact of the post-Mao reform. They confirm and add detail to much earlier literature that argues that while most women have benefited from improvements in living standards that have come about with economic growth, the gendered impact of the reforms has often been negative. Wang Qi shows that in the political arena, the withdrawal of the party-state from many areas that it had previously controlled has also meant the end of the promotion of women's political participation. In her study of rural reforms, Heather Zhang is sceptical about the gains collectivisation is sometimes said to have brought women, but argues that economic reform has introduced new forms of gender inequality such as the feminisation of agriculture.

Lina Song and Huang Xiyi show in great detail that women are disadvantaged in both rural and urban labour markets and that their inferior earning power relates to, and reinforces, their different migratory behaviour and their family strategies. Zhao Minghua's account of labour in a Chinese textile mill affirms that the gender division of labour typical of state industry, whereby men held technical and managerial posts and women were shop-floor workers, persists under the economic reforms. Changes have occurred in working hours and practices. Meal breaks have been abolished and there is compulsory overtime. This intensification of work has impacted adversely on both the domestic lives and the health of the women workers.

In a section on family and household, Mu Aiping covers familiar ground. Although family-size aspirations have fallen rapidly in China in recent years, there is tension between the one-child family policy and the persistence of preference for sons, especially in the rural areas. Interestingly, her findings from different research sites seem to indicate that this preference can be weakened with the development of industries that employ women and thus enhance the value of females.

Chang Xiangqun explains the importance of the exchange of gifts in Chinese villages. Kin and households related by marriage help each other out in times of difficulty and major life events such as birth, marriage and death, by giving presents. The system of gift-giving based on a mutually accepted web of obligation and responsibility, provides security and support in communities where state institutions are not yet highly developed. Women play an important part in maintaining these family networks and in deciding on the appropriate value of a gift for a particular occasion. An investigation of women in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang by Zhang Mei finds that gender divisions of labour are as strong as ever since the privatisation of the rural economy, but that women have gained a little economic independence and retain the right to choose their husbands.

The final chapters are concerned with ways forward. An optimistic piece by Sheng Xiaoyuan argues that urban Chinese women still show a strong interest in political activism through grass-roots campaigning. Unfortunately she supplies little detail of the organisations surveyed and the action they are involved in. Min Dongchao chronicles the development of women's studies in China and claims that women's-studies groups have provided women with an opportunity to influence public thinking.

Of these two books, the first is likely to appeal to a more general reader. It is impossible for us to know how it felt to be one of the women on the Long March, sacrificing everything, even their children, for their cause. Nor can we ever know if, in the end, these women shared the view of their biographers - that the revolution ultimately failed to deliver its promises to women. But the women of the march certainly deserve to be remembered. In skilfully reconstructing their stories, Lee and Wiles have brought them to life.

Women of China is essentially a collection of academic studies. Its publication reflects the increased awareness of women's issues and problems that arose from preparations for the United Nations Conference for women held in Beijing in 1995. Its authors, Chinese women whose work is strengthened by personal experience, want their research to bring about better conditions for their fellow countrywomen. They are working in very different ways from the women of the Long March but share some of the same hopes.

Delia Davin is professor of Chinese studies, University of Leeds.

Women of China: Economic and Social Transformation

Editor - Jackie West, Zhao Minghua, Chang Xiangqun and Cheng Yuan
ISBN - 0 333 74088 2
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 238

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