issue 170 - April 1987
The beckoning kitchen
As with most revolutions, the claim to sexual equality in China
did not bear close scrutiny. But the worst male excesses were outlawed
and communes did much to free women from household drudgery.
Now the swing away from communal living is threatening the little
that women have gained, as Marie-Ange Donzé explains.
'What man can accomplish, woman can too,' said Mao Zedong. In the name of this principle, over the last 30 years women have engaged in the most back-breaking work. In the factories of heavy industry or sweeping snow from the streets of northern towns you would see them in their short hair and the practical, unisex outfit required during the Cultural Revolution. Socialism failed to deliver real equality but it did at least offer women a recognized role in the economy. And now that Maoist policies are being swept aside they may be losing much of what the Revolution gave them.
Chinese women were the first beneficiaries of the Revolution - the marriage law of 1950 proclaimed 'the free choice of husband and wife, monogamy, equal rights for both sexes' whereas until then their rights had been practically non-existent. At Liberation in 1949 China had no more than 600,000 paid women workers. Today there are more than 43 million - about 37 per cent of the waged population. The creation of creches, kindergartens and canteens freed women to participate in the world of paid work. This meant they could contribute to the family budget, which in turn gave them more confidence in their dealings with their husbands and the wider world.
But, as in Western countries, women are only equal in theory. Chinese women's pay, for instance, has in general stayed 25 per cent lower than that of comparable men. China's representative politics may be marginally more open than that of the West - more than 21 per cent of deputies to the popular assemblies are women - but the number of female cadres (party officials) remains insignificant. There are less than 300 women involved in research in the whole country and, at the other end of the spectrum, 70 per cent of the 200 million illiterates in China today are women.
And if the traditional woman has passed into legend - tottering along with her tiny feet bound to stop them growing and pander to male ideas of beauty - the Chinese woman of 1987 is still a prisoner of Confucian dogma. The recent economic reforms have provoked a race towards money and profitability which has allowed old demons to rear their heads.
In the rural areas, where three quarters of the population live, families often still think it useless to make financial sacrifices so that a girl may study. They reason that she will soon be leaving the house and so will not help her parents in their old age - for according to custom the girl leaves her family to enter that of her husband. Faithful to tradition, mothers continue to teach their daughters that they are less intelligent than their brothers, as Cheng, a single woman of 35, testifies.
'My mother didn't want me to study. She wouldn't have been able to bear my being more learned than my brother. I have learned French all on my own, with the help of the television and then with books I've borrowed. Now I speak it a lot better than many who have spent years in specialized schools. I keep my salary for myself; and economize or buy whatever I want. But it isn't easy to be independent. Since my childhood I have dreamed of being able to sleep alone in a bedroom at least once. In China we can never be alone, whether we are at home, in a bus, at work, in a restaurant or even in toilets. I was 30 when I found myself alone for the first time in a hotel bedroom in the course of a trip for work. I was so overwhelmed that I didn't sleep a wink. I walked ceaselessly up and down the room; I was so distressed that I kept going hot and cold. The next day I was ill.'
Achieving independence is a struggle for Chinese women. Especially since Deng Xiaoping came to power, they are persuaded that their liberation will come via the control of knowledge and as a result are perhaps even more obsessed than men by the desire to learn. You see them everywhere with a book in their hand - at bus stops, at work, behind shop counters or selling train tickets. And they are turning increasingly to the private sector for their work: to restaurants, minibus companies or sewing workshops. They want to succeed and to be respected. 'Do business', the women's magazines advise their readers. More and more peasant women living close to towns practise market gardening and rear ducks or chickens. Since 1985 there has even been an association of women business chiefs.
But these are just the lucky few. In the regions which are less favoured or farther from the industrial zones, the suppression of the people's communes has made life harder for peasant women who can no longer claim a decent income. Deng's economic policies mean that the family has again become the basic unit of production and consumption in rural society. This has had two results. First, it has returned financial control to the man as 'head of the family' - whereas in the people's communes, women's financial share could not be denied or diverted. And second, it has meant extra work for women: the household tasks of which the commune had previously relieved them have been dumped back on them again, often at the same time as they are continuing to do exhausting jobs.
Almost 50 per cent of marriages are still arranged. Most Party members stay faithful to this practice in order to avoid an unsuitable marriage. Arranged or not, marriage often resembles a bargaining process and women's demands can be sky high. Take this 23-year-old Shanghai office worker. 'I want a husband who earns money and who owns a house. I would also like him to have relatives abroad. If his family has been rehabilitated it will be even better, because they will have been paid money in compensation and they will be able to help us set ourselves up.' Her demands reflect the growing materialism of young women in the towns. In general, brides-to-be demand of their suitor that they provide at least a bicycle but hopefully also a television, a quartz watch, a sewing machine and a fan - as many as possible of the costly objects coveted for so long by young Chinese women. A marriage settlement can cost the boy's family five or six thousand yuan, when an average monthly wage is around 100 yuan.
Many marriage problems arise after the birth of the first child. The draconian politics of family planning - a Dengist reform, since Mao was suspicious of population control - have provoked much excess. Now that just one child is allowed the birth of a girl is often considered a curse - only male children can practise the cult of ancestors and perform the rites which allow the souls of the disappeared to rest in peace. More practically, when a boy grows up he will stay in the family home and take financial care of his parents.
Despite the warnings of the authorities, a few parents actually kill their baby girl to give themselves the right to try again for the eagerly-awaited boy. In the big cities like Shanghai, the better-informed and most astute women do their utmost to find out the gender of their foetus via an amniosentesis test in the first months of their pregnancy so that they can have an abortion if it is to be a girl.
Today love is officially rehabilitated. Sex education is taught in the schools. But if the night clubs or the discos open their doors to the more fortunate, the Party still remains very puritanical. Despite the free availability of contraceptives, the best means of obeying the Government slogan 'only one child per family' remains abstinence. Abortions are very widespread, especially in the towns, because in each work unit delegates regularly have to verify that women workers who have already given birth to a child are not pregnant. If they are, the psychological pressure exerted on the 'sinner' will be such that she will decide in most cases to abort.
The reappearance of prostitution, notably in the big cities, seems linked to the increase in disposable income and the new overtures towards the West. Many of the prostitutes dream of marrying a 'Foreign Chinese' (from Hong Kong or Singapore, perhaps) or a foreigner so as to leave China. In the south of the country, and especially in the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, polygamy is timidly reappearing - and not just among peasants but among workers and even cadres too. A second wife is an ostentatious sign of wealth. Networks which sell young women to peasant husbands from regions lacking marriageable females have been dismantled again and again in Sichuan, Guangxi and other provinces.
The spread of television means that young Chinese women's dreams of an easier life are conditioned by looking at models or TV advertising. The moral and revolutionary stories which made their mothers cry are no longer told in the schools. As for their fathers, they seem to have forgotten that a long time ago, in the days of communes and kindergartens, men participated in household tasks.
There may be more material wealth around, but the lot of Chinese women is more difficult today than it was ten years ago. Women, having participated in the great movements which have shaken their country, too often find themselves victims on the altar of profit. And if the economic boom goes on making gods of productivity and competitiveness things are going to get worse. Chinese women are going to need all their realism and imagination to hold on to what they have won.
Marie-Ange Donzé is a journalist and filmmaker based in Paris. She was a co-producer of the NI film Man-Made Famine.