In semi-colonial and semi-feudal old China, women were for a long time kept at the bottom of society. It was not until the first half of this century that the Chinese Communist Party led the Chinese people to wage a great and profound national democratic revolution on this ancient land. At the same time, a large-scale women's emancipation movement was launched, resulting in the historic liberation of Chinese women which won worldwide attention.
The impact of the several millennia of oppression and devastation imposed by the feudal patriarchal system on Chinese women was exceptionally grave. In political, economic, cultural, social and family life, women were considered inferior to men. This was profoundly manifested in the following ways:
Possessing no political rights, women were completely excluded from social and political life. Economically dependent, women were robbed of property and inheritance rights and possessed no independent source of income. Having no social status, women were forced to obey their fathers before marriage, their husbands after marriage and their sons if they became widowed. They had no personal dignity or independent status, and were deprived of the right to receive an education and take part in social activities. They enjoyed no freedom in marriage but had to obey the dictates of their parents and heed the words of matchmakers, and were not allowed to remarry if their spouse died. They were subjected to physical and mental torture, being harassed by systems of polygamy and prostitution, the overwhelming majority of them forced to bind their feet from childhood. For centuries, "women with bound feet" was a synonym for the female gender in China.
The successive invasions by the Western powers after the Opium War in 1840 aggravated the plight of Chinese women. In the full-scale war of aggression launched by Japan against China from 1937 on, most of the over 30 million Chinese who were brutally killed were women and children. Within a month after the Japanese troops occupied Nanjing, they committed over 20,000 rapes. The cruel oppression and exploitation of the Chinese people by imperialist and feudalist forces as well as bureaucratic capitalism pushed China to the brink of national subjugation and annihilation. It also plunged Chinese women into an abyss of misery never witnessed before.
For national salvation and self emancipation, Chinese women, along with the entire nation, waged a dauntless struggle that lasted for over a century. They also launched a succession of movements for women's liberation. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom enacted and promulgated a series of policies on sexual equality. The Reform Movement of 1898 advocated and ignited the wave to ban feet binding and establish schools for women. The 1911 Revolution kindled a feminist movement which focused on equal rights for men and women and participation by women in political affairs. These movements promoted the awakening of Chinese women. Nevertheless, they all failed to bring about a fundamental change in their miserable plight as victims of oppression and enslavement.
Ever since its birth, the Chinese Communist Party has made the achievement of female emancipation and equality between men and women one of its goals. Under the leadership of the Party, women were mobilized and organized to form a broad united front with working women in industry and agriculture as the main body. Women of all ethnic groups and walks of life united to stage popular women's liberation movements closely tied to the Chinese revolution. In Communist Party-led base areas in particular, the revolutionary political powers issued a series of decrees and regulations to ensure the rights of women and raise their status. This brought light and hope to women throughout the country.
For the women of China, the founding of the People's Republic of China ended the thousands of years of feudal oppression and enslavement and the history of being trampled and bullied by foreign aggressors. With an entirely new face, they have stood up and become the masters of new China like all citizens of the country. In 1949, the First Plenary Session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference was convened in Beijing. The 69 women present accounted for 10.4 percent of the delegates. They represented women throughout the country in discussions together with men delegates on matters of vital importance for the country's construction. At the conference, Soong Ching-ling was elected vice-chairperson of the Central People's Government. Li Dequan, Shi Liang and some other women were also placed in leading posts in the government. The Common Program, adopted by the conference which had the nature of a provisional constitution, solemnly declared the toppling of the feudal system which fettered women and stated that women enjoyed equal rights with men in the political, economic, cultural and educational fields and in other aspects of social life. Thus a new era in the emancipation of Chinese women was ushered in.
After the founding of the People's Republic, there was a surge of mass movements throughout the country to quickly change the backward economic and cultural outlook left over by old China and eradicate the antiquated system and outmoded customs that fettered, discriminated against and humiliated women. This effected an earth-shaking historic change in the social status and condition of women.
— Land reform. In old China, poor farmers and farm laborers, who accounted for 70 percent of the rural population, owned only 10 percent of the land. Women had no right to own any land. In the very early days of the People's Republic, a widespread and profound land reform movement was carried out, in accordance with the principle of distributing land on the basis of the number of members in a family. Rural women obtained land, just like their male counterparts, and became masters of their piece of soil. This fundamentally altered the situation of economic inequality between men and women.
—Universal balloting. The Electoral Law of the People's Republic of China promulgated in 1953 clearly stipulated that women enjoy the same rights to vote and stand for election as men. The subsequent elections conducted at grass-roots level nationwide in December that year were the first large-scale general ballot in Chinese history. More than 90 percent of women cast their vote, and the number of women people's deputies elected at grass-roots level accounted for 17 percent of the total. Among the deputies to the National People's Congress, elected somewhat later, women made up 12 percent, with females accounting for 11 percent of all representatives from ethnic minorities. This indicates that ever since the founding of the People's Republic, the participation of women of all ethnic groups in state administration has been not only written into the law but also an actual practice. In some Western countries, only one or two centuries after their founding, did the law stipulate that women had equal voting rights with men.
—The move out of the home. Along with the economic rehabilitation and development, there appeared a nationwide upsurge of women stepping out of their homes to take part in social production. In 1957, around 70 percent of rural women engaged in agricultural work, and the number of urban women workers and staff reached 3.286 million, representing a 5.5-fold increase over 1949. This thoroughly transformed the situation in which women were excluded from social productive labor, providing them with an independent source of income.
— Illiteracy eradication campaign. In old China, as many as 90 percent of women were illiterate. In order to raise the cultural level of the entire nation, New China launched a planned campaign to gradually wipe out illiteracy. The mass campaign witnessed three upsurges in 1952, 1956 and 1958. Various literacy classes, popular evening schools and workers' spare-time schools mushroomed in both rural and urban areas, and women attended these in their millions. By 1958, 16 million women had learned to read, and this represented an initial step in eradicating the ignorance and backwardness of Chinese women.
— Publicity and implementation of the Marriage Law. The Marriage Law of the People's Republic of China, promulgated in 1950, was the first statute enacted by New China. It clearly declared the abolition of the feudal marriage system characterized by arranged and forced marriage, male superiority and female inferiority, and disregard for the interests of children. Implementation of the new system was marked by freedom for both men and women in marriage, monogamy, sexual equality and protection of the legitimate rights of women and children. This signified a profound revolution in the patterns of wedded and family life that had prevailed for several thousand years in Chinese society. In the months that followed the law's promulgation, a large-scale mass campaign was staged throughout the country to publicize and implement the Marriage Law. This action resulted in the annulment of numerous feudal engagements, a rapid reduction in wife bashing and maltreatment, and freely chosen love marriages became prevalent. Through several years of hard work, the shackles imposed upon women by the millennia-old feudal marriage system was smashed and freedom of marriage was basically established.
—Ban on prostitution. Brothels, prostitution and whoring were among the disgusting social phenomena left over by old China. Immediately after its founding, New China adopted resolute measures to outlaw prostitution. In November 1949, the Second People's Representative Conference of Beijing Municipality took the lead in adopting a decision to ban prostitution. The municipal government immediately closed all brothels and gathered prostitutes in designated places where they could be educated, have their thinking reformed, receive treatment for venereal diseases, and be provided with guidance to help them start normal lives and support themselves through their own work. Following the example of Beijing, all large, medium-sized and small cities in the country, including Shanghai and Tianjin, waged campaigns to wipe out prostitution. In a very short period of time, the sale of sex, a chronic social malady that seemed impossible to eradicate in old China and which seriously damaged the physical and mental health of women and degraded their dignity, disappeared, enabling society to take on a brand-new outlook.
By means of these large-scale mass movements, New China took only a few years to clean up the filth and mire left over from a feudal society that had lasted for thousands of years. It effected fundamental emancipation for women in all aspects of political, economic, cultural, social and family life. This represented a significant transformation in the history of contemporary social development that China can be proud of. It was also an important contribution made by the Chinese revolution to the worldwide movement for women's liberation.