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About this book

Paul J. Bailey provides the first analytical study in English of Chinese women's experiences during China's turbulent twentieth century. Incorporating the very latest specialized research, and drawing upon Chinese cinema and autobiographical memoirs, this fascinating narrative account:

• explores the impact of political, social and cultural change on women's lives, and how Chinese women responded to such developments
• charts the evolution of gender discourses during this period
• illuminates both change and continuity in gender discourse and practice.

Approachable and authoritative, this is an essential overview for students, teachers and scholars of gender history, and anyone with an interest in modern Chinese history.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Towards the end of the 1956 Chinese film New Year’s Sacrifice (Zhufu), based on a 1924 short story by the celebrated author Lu Xun (1881–1936), the protagonist — a widow who has been exploited by her mother-in-law, forced to remarry and then to suffer the death of her new husband and young son, and who finally is contemptuously dismissed as a domestic servant because of the purported ‘bad luck’ (as a remarried widow who has experienced the death of both husbands) she brings to the household — stumbles in the snow as a lonely beggar woman. Abandoned by her former employers and ignored by the local community, she dies a pitiful death (Lyell, 1990, pp. 219–41). 1 A voiceover commentary (not part of the original 1924 story) then portentously declares that the widow, despite being an honest and hardworking woman, endured countless sufferings and humiliations before dying tragically; however, the voiceover continues, such a phenomenon happened ‘forty-odd years ago’ and was a feature of the ‘old society’ (i.e. pre-Communist China). ‘Happily for us,’ the voiceover concludes, ‘such a time has gone forever and will never return.’
Paul J. Bailey

1. Women in Pre-Twentieth-Century China

Abstract
During the last two decades or so more attention has been paid to how political, economic, legal and even technological change impacted upon women’s lives and gender discourse (Ebrey, 1990, 1993; Bray, 1997; Bernhardt, 1999; Birge, 2002).1 Women’s experiences, roles and status are now seen as very much influenced by age (life cycle), class and ethnicity, as well as fluctuating over time. Influencing much of this research is the aim of highlighting the ways in which women’s lives were shaped by their own choices and participation in family and social life, in other words attributing some form of agency to women rather than portraying them simply or only as the passive, voiceless and exploited victims of an unchanging Confucian patriarchy.
Paul J. Bailey

2. Reform, Nationalism and the ‘Woman Question’ (1897–1912)

Abstract
In 1905 Qiu Jin (1875–1907), a female Chinese overseas student in Japan who two years later became a ‘revolutionary martyr’ when she was executed for being implicated in an anti-dynastic uprising, began writing a prose/verse narrative (known as a tanci, a traditional literary genre usually recited and sung and which was popular amongst female audiences).1 In the preface to this utopian tale of the political awakening of five ‘beauties’ transformed into revolutionary heroines, Qiu Jin drew a bleak picture of China’s current womanhood, trapped in a ‘world of darkness, as though drunk or dreaming’. She continued:
Let me ask you, of our 200 million women, how many shall grovel at the feet of tyrannical men? Alas, today they continue to powder and paint themselves, chatter about their hairdos and bind their feet, adorn their heads with gold and pearls, and drape their bodies with brocade … . They are no more than the servile and shameless playthings of men. (Dooling and Torgeson, 1998, pp. 43–4)
As with many reformers and revolutionaries of the time, Qiu Jin highlighted the ‘failings’ of Chinese women in order to explain the country’s weakened state.
Paul J. Bailey

3. Gender Discourses in the Early Republic

Abstract
The euphoria that women had felt in the wake of the 1911 revolution did not last long. During the republican transition period, the vigorous call by women’s suffrage organisations for equal political rights evoked derision amongst mostly male commentators. In March 1912, following the promulgation by the National Assembly of a provisional constitution that pointedly omitted any reference to gender equality, members of the Women’s Suffrage Alliance stormed the assembly buildings (in Nanjing) in angry protest. The hostile male reaction to the women’s suffrage campaign that followed was part of a wider conservative gender discourse that characterised the early years of the Republic, especially pertaining to education.
Paul J. Bailey

4. ‘A World Turned Upside Down’: Mobilising Women for the Revolution

Abstract
On 1 May 1928 the thirty-three-year-old Xiang Jingyu, first director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Women’s Bureau, was publicly executed in Wuhan (capital of Hubei province) on the orders of the newly established Nationalist (Guomindang) regime. Xiang’s execution marked the final and tragic end to an extraordinary period in the twentieth-century history of Chinese women, when they had been mobilised in unprecedented numbers to participate in the cause of national revolution, a revolution led by an alliance (the United Front) that had been forged in 1923 between the Nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party in the quest to rid the country of provincial and local warlords and reunite the country under a more legitimate government. With the breakup of the United Front in 1927 and the violent suppression of the CCP by the Nationalists, Xiang had had to operate underground before finally being apprehended in the French Concession area of Hankou (one of the three ‘sub-cities’ making up Wuhan, the others being Hanyang and Wuchang) and handed over to Nationalist authorities. Like her predecessor, Qiu Jin, Xiang’s death earned her subsequent mythologisation in Chinese communist historiography as a martyred heroine who unflinchingly sacrificed her life for a grand cause — in Xiang’s case the communist revolution.
Paul J. Bailey

5. Women in the City and Countryside before 1949

Abstract
In 1934 an extraordinary silent film entitled The Goddess (Shen’nü) and starring the famed Shanghai actress Ruan Lingyu (1910–35) drew attention to the temptations, dangers, cruelties and human tragedies of city life through its depiction of the travails endured by the eponymous heroine, a single mother compelled to earn a living in Shanghai as a prostitute in order to bring up her son. As a devoted mother committed against all the odds to ensuring the education of her son, the heroine incarnated the traditional ideal of the virtuous, nurturing and self-sacrificing mother; as a streetwalker she embodied a popular and ambivalent perception of the cosmopolitan metropolis, represented by Shanghai, as a site of potential moral and human degradation amidst a relentlessly alluring and hedonistic consumer culture.1 Exploited and abused by a local thug and pimp, the Goddess attempts to keep money aside (without telling her pimp) to pay for the schooling of her son. After the pimp discovers the hidden cache of money and spends it all, the Goddess in desperation and anger kills him. The film ends with her being sent to prison, but not before the kindly principal of the school which her son had attended offers to adopt the child and guarantee his continued education. The Goddess is happy to accept that she will never see her son again (instructing the school principal to tell her son that she is dead) as long as she knows that the child will succeed in life.2
Paul J. Bailey

6. The New Communist State and Marriage Reform in the 1950s: ‘Public Patriarchy’ in Practice?

Abstract
In the classic account of the Chinese communist revolution, China Shakes the World (first published in 1949), the journalist and war correspondent Jack Belden (1910–89) recounted the story of a twenty-one-year-old peasant woman called Kinhua (Gold Flower) whom he had met while staying in a village in Hebei province (north China) in 1947 (Belden, 1970, pp. 275–307).1 Forced by her parents at the age of fifteen to marry a man many years her senior, Gold Flower suffered cruel and abusive treatment from her husband and father-in-law. Her salvation came in the shape of the village Women’s Association that had been formed with the encouragement of a male communist cadre recently arrived in the village (shortly before, a unit of the communist 8th Route Army had also passed through the village). The father-in-law was confronted by several members of the Women’s Association and hauled off to a mass meeting of women to face public criticism. Gold Flower herself was emboldened to denounce her father-in-law openly:
The crowd groaned. In the heavy swelling voices, the sound of shuffling feet could be heard. Gold Flower felt herself being pushed aside. A fat girl was at her elbow and others were crowding close. ‘Let us spit in his face’, said the girl. She drew back her lips over her gums and spat between the old man’s eyes. Others darted in, spat in his face, and darted away again. The roar of voices grew louder. The old man remained standing with his face red and beard matted with saliva. His knees were trembling and he looked such a poor object that the women laughed and their grumbling and groaning grew quieter. (Belden, 1970, p. 293)
Paul J. Bailey

7. ‘Women Hold Up Half the Sky’: The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution

Abstract
Two of Mao Zedong’s major initiatives in his quest to build a ‘Chinese road to socialism’ were the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). In both, ultimately disastrous, movements women and gender issues occupied — wittingly or unwittingly — a significant place. The Great Leap was an audacious attempt to break with the Soviet model of development by decentralising economic decision-making, industrialising the countryside through the agency of rural communes (amalgamations of producers’ collectives), and shifting educational and health resources from urban centres to rural areas. An integral aspect of the Great Leap was the wholesale mobilisation of women in production (especially in the countryside), both to take advantage (in Mao Zedong’s view) of China’s untapped reservoir of human labour and to fulfil the Engelsian prediction that women’s participation in productive labour would inevitably lead to gender equality. During the course of the Great Leap an interesting difference arose between the ‘maternal socialism’ of male cadres and the Party leadership, and the more radical approach to women’s labour exhibited by grass roots female activists from the Women’s Federation, who insisted that women be treated exactly the same as men in terms of work allocation. In many ways, however, Great Leap practices and innovations merely reinforced existing gender attitudes and assumptions.
Paul J. Bailey

8. Women and Socio-economic Change in the Post-Mao Era

Abstract
In the 1994 Chinese film Ermo (directed by Zhou Xiaowen), the female protagonist of the title is a determined woman who supports her physically disabled and sexually impotent husband (a former village chief who has now lost all authority) and son by making noodles and selling them in the local market. She becomes obsessively fixated on acquiring a television set that will be ‘bigger and better’ than that of her neighbour, the sole possessor of a television set in the village, thereby making her household the principal social attraction for all the villagers (including Ermo’s son, much to her annoyance and envy). Ermo becomes progressively more desperate to earn and save money, relying on her neighbour’s husband (with whom she has a brief affair) to drive her into the nearby town to sell her handmade noodles as well as working for wages at a restaurant (ironically supervising the making of in-house noodles). She even resorts to selling her own blood to acquire extra cash. Although she finally succeeds in purchasing the television, and invites the whole neighbourhood in to watch, she herself is completely exhausted and drained (literally and metaphorically) of all energy and enthusiasm. The overpowering drive of consumerism that has obliterated Ermo’s self-dignity as a person and autonomous worker is also graphically symbolised by the villagers’ appropriation of Ermo’s ladle (with which she had made her noodles) to serve as the television antenna. Furthermore, the television programmes presented to the excited village audience are an American football match and a dubbed American soap opera, clearly having no relevance or meaning to the increasingly bemused and puzzled spectators. The film ends with Ermo asleep alone in front of a crackling screen of snowy static.
Paul J. Bailey

Conclusion

Abstract
In October 2010 the Miss World Pageant was held in Sanya, Hainan province (the fifth time, in fact, that China had hosted the event since the beginning of the twenty-first century); Miss China, the six-foot-tall Zhang Zilin (a graduate in business administration), won the title, the first Miss World of East Asian origin. Although the Women’s Federation as early as 1993 had criticised beauty contests for their commercialised objectification of women, the regime itself had continued to promote beauty contests (and fashion shows) for their showcasing of ‘oriental female virtue’. In a sense, the Chinese official valorisation of ‘oriental female virtue’ in the early twenty-first century harked back to Shimoda Utako’s educational ideal of a particular ‘Asian womanhood’ at the turn of the twentieth century.
Paul J. Bailey
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