Half way to liberation


China for Women: Travel and Culture
Spinifex Press, 1995. 357 pp., $24.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Eva Cheng

China for Women is a useful introduction to women's issues in China. It is handy for non-Chinese speakers, carrying enough in one collection to establish a sense of perspective on the history of women's oppression in China as well as some of the current issues. But it stops short of providing an understanding of the origins of that oppression.

A thread is needed to link the 52 articles in this collection, but there is no overview piece to give a sense of coherence. There is no attempt to explain why the very diverse subjects were put together.

The inclusion of a travelogue section, the last of four, titled "Landscapes and Cityscapes", may justify the book's subtitle "Travel and Culture". But that component seems to be out of place with the remaining three sections, which deal with social and political issues.

But China for Women does carry interesting material from a feminist point of view. The sections on "History and Politics" and "Contemporary Life" provide brilliant examples of the bold and courageous fights of Chinese women against patriarchal oppression.

The creation of nushu, a script by women and for women, was a reaction to patriarchy and is probably unique to China. It is amazing that this script has been in use for over a thousand years during a period when most women had very limited education, if any, and had their feet brutally bound to increase their subservience.

The frequent strikes of the women silk workers in southern China at the beginning of the century are a testimony to how production and social relations were driven and remoulded by the expansion of capitalist industries. As a result, women broke out of their domestic cocoons to join the industrial army.

With new-found economic independence, they realised the power of class solidarity as a means to improve their plight. Like many other women in China, they rebelled against arranged marriages. Many women resisted by taking their own lives. The silk workers rebelled by organising themselves in secret societies as "sworn sisters" who were devoted partners, vowing to have nothing to do with men, marriages or the patriarchal lot. Patriarchal apologists were outraged, attacking them as "lesbians". Agnes Smedley's article "Silk Workers" is inspirational reading. This is a reprint, like a few others in the collection.

The opening article on China's matriarchal past describes the exciting story of a matriarchal clan of about 6000 which was still very much alive even in the 1950s in Yongning, which lies on a plateau between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Sadly, oppressive sexual relations were imposed on them after they were "liberated" by the Maoist People's Liberation Army in the early 1950s.

Many articles cover the period after 1949. Of them, "Economic Reform and Rural Women", "Love, Marriage, and Violence: Sexuality in China" and "A Successful Woman Is Not Normal" are the most informative. Most of the rest are loose, in their language as well as focus, partly because of translation gaps.

Many contributors are women in China. The characteristic narrowness in their perspectives is a measure of how entrapped they are within the illogic of oppressive sexual relations under the Maoist regimes. Patriarchy still dominates in practice. Many women still consider domestic chores and child-care their primary responsibilities and are grateful that men help, if they do.

Women were told they were liberated because they were entitled to a job. Many women thought so too, but remained puzzled why they were still trailing behind men on almost every front and carrying most of the burden of unpaid labour.

Economic backwardness has made these multiple burdens much less bearable. The market reform, which has thrown an increasing number of workers out of jobs and left them without essential welfare and services, has greatly increased the load on women. But no attempt has been made in the book to explain why this is happening. Nor are there attempts to investigate whether patriarchal sexual relations have changed in fundamental ways since 1949, and if not, why not.

The suggested reading list is useful.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.