Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bay Area Revolutionary Union

Red Papers 3: Women Fight for Liberation

The women of China

On International Women’s Day in 1924, in a park in Canton, China, students and workers gathered for a demonstration. They raised the slogans “Down with imperialism!” “Abolish child brides and polygamy!” “Same work, same pay!” and “Equal education!”

These students and workers were part of the movement to resist the Japanese imperialists, who at the time were slowly eating away at Chinese territory and forcing their rule on the Chinese people. At the same time, many of the activists were fighting against Chinese capitalists and landlords who kept millions of people in poverty and cooperated with the imperialists to sell the wealth of China. And they were also battling many old traditions that prevented the people from rising up to defeat their oppressors.

Women in particular were bound by these cruel traditions. Women who were raped were expected to commit suicide. Women whose husbands died were deprived of their children if they remarried. Parents sold their daughters as wives when they were mere children–and these young “wives” were actually unpaid slaves in the households of their husbands’ parents. Prostitution was widespread, especially in the “treaty port” cities like Shanghai run by the British, American, and Japanese imperialists. In 1919, the students of the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement had proclaimed “Down with the human devouring ritualistic traditions:” including especially oppressive marriage traditions.

Today, of course, women’s conditions in China are very different. Women have full equality with men in all legal relations including marriage; they participate and take leadership in all economic and political activity.

How was this transformation achieved?

The women of China were freed along with the other poor and working people, as they defeated the Japanese imperialists, overthrew the capitalists and landlords, and began to build socialism. The women of China played important roles in the revolutionary struggle for their own liberation and for the liberation of the Chinese people.


And this only succeeded because of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, which from its earliest days organized and developed women fighters and leaders, and struggled against male supremacy in its own ranks and among the people.

In 1924, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party made the following statement on the women’s movement:

1. Women’s party work emphasis: carrying activities to the common people;
2. Women workers are the movement’s backbone but students are important in bridging party-worker gap and are important in breaking up familistic (authoritarian Chinese family) thought and habits;
3. Peasant women are important and must be trained for women’s movement;
4. Women’s publications must be in simple and popular style, about women’s intimate experience of suffering and practical needs;
5. Increase number of women Party members and leaders in women’s movement.

As party members acted on this resolution, every province of China produced leading female fighters–like Shih Hsiao-mei, who was called Mother Revolution. Born in 1889, she started work at the age of twelve in a Shanghai textile mill run by foreign capitalists. By the time she was 33, she was leading her fellow workers in a successful strike against the exploiters. In 1927–the year of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and Chiang Kai-shek’s massacre of the Communist Party–Shih Hsiao-mei battled the warlords and the imperialists. She smuggled guns to comrades on the front lines, including her eldest son, who was killed by Chiang Kai-shek’s terrorists. He was the first of three of her sons to be killed in the fight for liberation.

Chiang’s reactionaries hunted Mother Revolution, but they failed to capture her. She eluded them and lived to see the People’s Republic of China established. As late as 1964, she was living in a small house in Shanghai, giving lectures as a veteran Shanghai worker.’


Throughout the countryside, in the areas liberated by the Red Army from the Japanese and Chiang’s reactionaries, thousands of women joined the fight against the landlords. The landlords were brought before the people to “settle accounts,” and entire villages accused the landlords of beating, starving, robbing, and killing the peasants. Often the women in the villages had suffered these landlords’ cruelest abuse. But at first many women were afraid to come to meetings because their husbands beat them if they left their houses.

The Chinese Communist Party helped set up Women’s Associations to involve the “other half of China” in the war against the landlords and the Japanese. In one of these liberated areas in 1948, for example, in Long Bow Village, a man explained to the Women’s Association that he beat his wife when she went to a meeting because he believed that women left the house just to meet other men. The women exploded. They rushed at him from all sides, kicking, hitting, screaming, “Beat her, will you? Beat her, and slander us all, will you? Well.. .maybe this will teach you.”

“Stop! I’ll never beat her again,” gasped the panic-stricken husband.

These Women’s Associations fought for the equality of women and worked to mobilize women in the overall struggle. An observer in one of the liberated areas wrote: “Without the successful transformation of society, without the completion of the land reform, without the victorious defense of the Liberated Areas against the probing attacks of the Nationalist Army, it was impossible to talk of the liberation of women. Many women realized this as if by intuition, and they made the Women’s Association an instrument for mobilizing the power of women behind the revolution in all its aspects... All their activities were intimately linked up with the struggle for equality, with the demand on the part of the women that they should no longer be treated as chattels... If this demand alarmed the men the all-out support the women gave to the over-all revolutionary goals disarmed them and won from them a grudging admiration. In their hearts they had to admit that they could not win without the help of ’half of’ China.’”

With the liberation of the entire Chinese mainland in 1949 the movement for the emancipation of women went into high gear. A new marriage law did away with child brides, selling daughters for marriage, and interference with remarriage. Divorces were given immediately when both husband and wife asked for them if the children “are taken care of.” The Marriage Law took 17 months to draft, and was based on thorough discussion and study and on the experience of the 90,000,000 people in the Liberated Areas.

Laws were passed guaranteeing that women are hired and trained equally with men and at equal pay. And millions of illiterate women (and men) learned to read in a country-wide literacy campaign. The government, factories, neighborhoods, and communes developed hundreds of thousands of child care centers, freeing many women for productive labor. Women began to play active and leading roles in every branch of industry, government, and culture. By 1955, 14.5% of the army officers were women.

Examples of outstanding and heroic women were publicized–as were examples of the struggles of women against male supremacy in the homes, villages and factories–to encourage women to, assert their rights and to encourage men to change their ways. Prostitution and other sexual exploitation of women was quickly ended by political work among the masses, coupled with education and vocational training for the former prostitutes.

Anna Louise Strong, one of the few Westerners who lives in China, writes of “women whose husbands had grown away from them because they were tied to household chores, but who now have gained a new companionship in studying and going to meetings together... One feels the yearning of many women who in the past were unable to keep up with their husbands in knowledge and development, and so lost contact, but who are now free to study as well as to work.”

In 1953 a nationwide socialist education drive was launched to combat the old feudal ideas which were still keeping women back and hindering the development of the new socialist society. The government realized that it would take a long, concentrated effort to get rid of the old ideas about women’s place in society and about the relationships between men and women.


Of course, even in China today, there are still battles to be won. The old land-lords and capitalists have tried to push their way back into power. But led by Mao Tse-tung , the hundreds of millions of Chinese working people in the mines and factories, on the docks and farms, got together to put down the old rulers and their front men, to defend their workers’ state, and to strengthen their new socialist society. This struggle against the old bosses was called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The period of intense struggle lasted for three years, from 1966 to 1969, and the transformation of the superstructure of Chinese society, the schools army, factories, newspapers, cultural centers, and collective farms, is still continuing.

In every major battle women were in the forefront of the struggle against the old slave masters. The Cultural Revolution’s first “big character poster” (a big wall poster criticizing some aspect of Chinese society) was written by a woman. And women shared leadership in all the organizations formed to carry out the Cultural Revolution, from the Red Guards to the Revolutionary Committees that were elected to lead factories, communes, schools, ministries, and other social institutions. And when the new Communist Party Congress was called in 1969 to sum up and consolidate the struggle, not only more workers and more poor peasants, but more women were there as leaders of the Chinese people.

The struggle for the emancipation of Chinese women, like the emancipation of the Chinese working people as a whole, is surging forward, smashing down barrier after barrier, under the political rule of the Chinese working class and the leadership of its vanguard, the Chinese Communist Party.

In China today, International Women’s Day is a holiday for all women. It is usually celebrated with parties, programs, and discussions of the achievements of women in China and of the struggles yet to be waged. And, especially on International Women’s Day, they express their solidarity and support for all the oppressed women of the world, inspiring us to courage and confidence in our victory.