The men of China are justifiably proud of China since Liberation, New China. But the women, a visitor soon senses, are unreservedly joyous over it. After sensing this for some time on a recent visit to the Middle Kingdom, I asked one woman whether my perception was correct; she said absolutely it was. Why? “We got our freedom,” she replied immediately.
There is scarcely a woman one meets in China who has does not remember a grandmother or mother with bound feet. One woman told me that her grandmother felt as though razor blades cut into her feet with every step. That torture persisted in Chang Kaishek’s China, supported by the U.S., until Liberation of 1949 when China “stood up” as Chairman Mao put it.
On October 1, 1949, the binding of feet came to an end forever. But in addition to land reform giving the peasants their own land to till which also found its way to China then, the Communist Party of China (CPC) mandated the end of arranged marriages and the right of women to own property and to own half the property of a married couple. Women were now full citizens in the New China and had “stood up” on unbound feet.
A good idea of what this meant came from my conversations on a recent trip with a Chinese women who grew up in a very remote village. Let us call her Yi. Even up until the Cultural Revolution in the remotest villages of China, where the writ of New China’s government could be eluded, the customs of Old China prevailed. To get to Yi’s mountainous village of about 150, even today one must walk five hours up hill after departing the nearest road passable to wheeled transport. When approaching government officials there are spied in that village, the extra children in violation of the one-child policy are quickly hidden. And the men still routinely, even proudly, beat their wives.
Yi told me the following story of her life. As an adolescent girl in her remote village during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s (properly, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution or GPCR), she wanted nothing of education nor did her parents want her to go to school located in a neighboring village. Then a university student was sent to her little village during the GPCR to be re-educated by the peasants. “We punished him,” Yi said. How? By making him farm and work very hard in the fields. But in his spare time he started a school in the village. He took an interest in Yi and at the age of 13 he convinced her to start at the school. Infuriated, her parents tossed her out of the house and for three years she lived in the house of the teacher (no romantic attachment) until with his help she went off to a town in the locale for middle school from age 16 to 19. And then on to a larger city where she learned English, became a tour guide, married an educated man and had one son. After marriage and motherhood, her parents finally spoke to her again. She cried as she told us this.
Interestingly the student remained in the village and ran his school even after the GPCR came to an end. He married a local women and had three children, a law breaker, and is now retired. In the most recent educational reforms every village over 200 has been sent a teacher – this time for pay and privilege, not for re-education. That teacher has now replaced Yi’s who has retired. The new teacher calls out the retiree for having used old fashioned methods. The retiree rails against the younger man’s lack of heart and proper attachment to the people.
As far as the GPCR goes, one wonders upon hearing stories such as this. The great majority of Chinese lived in rural areas or were laborers in the cities at the time of the GPCR and for them it either did not mean much or they supported it. As Yi put it, the city people did not like the GPCR but the rural people supported it. Perhaps the GPCR, the official line of which is that it was a great failure, is yet to have its final verdict. Its target was the Party and the intellectuals but its foot soldiers were also young intellectuals, the students. This writer would agree that the GPCR was an economic set back. But was it a setback in terms of a social or egalitarian movement, a movement to create a just society. The verdict may not have yet been rendered.
Yi wa obviously a very talented woman. Her English was better than that of many Chinese who have studied it more and even at the university level. And now YI is a leader of tours at the national level. What a great advance for a Chinese woman who might still live in bondage but for Chairman Mao’s revolution. We now celebrate the 60th anniversary of that Liberation. And how sad it is that among the Western intelligentsia, Chairman Mao is regarded as a sexist for his dalliances with young women in his old age. But on one day in 1949 Chairman Mao and the CPC did more for the liberation of women than perhaps had ever been done before in history. If China stood up in 1949, women had taken to flight. It is that day whose 6oth anniversary we celebrate on October 1, 2009.
JOHN V. WALSH can be reached at John.Endwar@gmail.com.