The body of historical writings I selected in this project gives a throughout analysis on the issue of women’s liberation in the early twentieth-century from the late Qing dynasty to the period of the May Fourth Movement, in terms of women’s access to education, its impact on women’s thoughts about their own identity, and in terms of the creation of women’s citizenship and rights. These academic researches all treated the issue of women’s liberation in the context of social and political changes in Chinese society shaped by the infusion and clash of four currents of ideas: foreign influence, conservatism, nationalism and feminism.
Firstly, historians agree that Western Europe, the United States and Japan had exerted significance impact on China. As the late Qing dynasty suffered defeats and humiliations from foreign imperialist powers, China’s elites including government officials and intellectuals believed that the source of China’s weakness was more than military and technological backwardness, political system and traditional ideas were the roots of the humiliating defeats China endured. Historians argue that China’s elites intended to borrow Western political systems, such as democracy and the republican system, and ideas of equality and progress in order to modernize itself. For Chinese women these imported ideas and practices nurtured sprouts for their liberation, foreign influences provided models and ideological weapons to campaign for gender equality, access to education and women’s rights as citizens of the Republic of China. Foreign countries were seen as examples of modernity and progress that compared the status of women with a country’s level of civilization. The west’s criticism of China’s gender inequality was accepted by Chinese reformers who considered the lack of physical strength and the backward mindsets of women as the source of China’s weakness. Historians’ studies agree that it was the elites’ belief in this connection that made women’s liberation a possibility and a necessity, and that male and female intellectuals with experiences abroad became the leaders of women’s liberation movements. Western ideas of citizenship and rights also provided weapons for women to fight for suffrage and participation in nationalist movements. More importantly, the presence and threats of foreign imperialist powers urged Chinese women to learn from them in order to modernize themselves, and to participate in the project of rebuilding China.
Secondly, conservatism which stood for traditional and Confucian values was regarded as the main obstacles to women’s liberation in historians’ studies. They argue that traditional Chinese gender norms, such as the dichotomy between virtue (de) and talent (cai) in the conservative discourse on womanhood posed challenge to the expansion of women’s access to education. Paul Bailey’s analysis of “modernizing conservatism” and Yuen Ting Lee’s discussion of the role of the educator Cai Yuan Pei offer explanation of the influence of conservatism in shaping the direction of women’s education. Paul Bailey and Steven Sarah E. agree that conservatism surfaced throughout the period to retain control over women’s education, reflecting the conservative male elites’ anxiety and uncertainty about modernization. Joan Judge argues that conservatism undermined the radical call for women’s equal citizenship by projecting women as the mothers of future citizens whose roles in the new citizenry and the new China were only biological and racial. On the other hand, some authors argue that Chinese traditions did not all serve as obstacles. Louise Edwards argues that the Confucian link between educational and political authority gave female suffrage campaigners reason to promote education as the forefront of the women’s rights movement; Weikun Cheng’s article suggests that Confucianism’s reverence for education and its link with the right to rule enabled educated women to legitimize their claim for rights and involvement in politics. These studies illustrate the complex and contradictory influences of conservatism in shaping women’s liberation and women’s active efforts to appropriate or rebel against conservative discourse. Historians generally agree that conservatism was gradually overpowered by progressive and radical voices, especially during the peak of the May Fourth movement.
Thirdly, historians all emphasis on the development of Chinese nationalism and the concept of modern nation-state in early twentieth-century. Nationalism was generated by many forces; as monarchy came to an end, China had to create a new way to bind people together, and the national crisis imposed by foreign imperialist powers evoked a sense of belonging to a “imagined communion” . The symbolization of women as the bearer of national identity elevated women’s liberation to the forefront of the nationalist agenda, to reinvent national identity became parallel to the creation of the New Woman. The core of Chinese nationalism in early twentieth century was the pursuit of modernity, progress and national security, and women’s vision of their own liberation was contextualized in the pervasive nationalist agenda. Although the nationalist project was male-dominated, women integrated their liberation into the nationalist mainstream by modernizing themselves with education and participating in politics. Historians discover that in that period, women’s education focused on encouraging women to fulfill their duties to the country, some studies point out that women used the nationalist discourse to transcend the traditional gender boundaries. On the other hand, some authors argue that the homogenizing power of nationalism produced tension with women’s liberation; Joan Judge’s article points out that although nationalism provided a context for women to develop their own consciousness and political power, it also objectified women as symbols of nationalism and left no room for them to develop alternative identities. As women used nationalism as a vehicle for self-liberation, they were controlled by the discourse of nationalism and they had to accept the consensus on womanhood which constrained their own subjectivities. Historians deconstruct nationalism as an artifact in a flux that changes with context of gender, illuminating the tension and ambiguity in the nationalist discourse.
Furthermore, feminism was introduced to China and became embedded in the nationalist project. In these writings, early female activists are not portrayed as feminists in the strict sense, the campaigns for women’s rights were a means to promote the nationalist agenda and the activists’ endeavors to promote women’s education and call for gender equality were driven by the longing for modernity and progress than for individual rights. Another instrumental motive was to have women become ‘good wives and wise mothers’ whose essentialized female roles were invested with the nationalist purpose of nurturing future citizens of the nation. During the first decade of the Republican era, the discourse of the New Woman as a modernized image of the Chinese women was created, while some authors such as Lu, Meiyi and Stevens and Sarah E applauded the New Woman’s representation of modernity, Carol C. Chinraises question on the contested goals and authenticity of the discourse, Wen-hsin Yeh also points to the discrepancy between male elites’ agenda and women’s own experiences. Joan Judge concurs with Helen M. Schneider’s argument that female students and activists in that period did not challenge traditional obligations ascribed to them. The traditional and conservative ideas about womanhood remained influential and the emerging female identity was a hybrid of Chinese cultural traditionalism and western conceptions women’s rights and gender equality. Women’s movements achieved significant success in anti-foot binding campaigns and the promotion of education, which was seen as the key to women’s empowerment to redefine their relationship with men and with the nation. as historians’ studies demonstrate, the nationalist project opened the possibility for feminism to rise; women gradually contested the subordination of their rights to national interests, gradually their demand for equal voting rights became the center of the awakened feminist project. Historians debated over the strength of the suffrage movement; Louise Edwards’s articles suggest that the conservative oppositions to the suffrage movement was undermined by the radical’s desire for modernity, in which social change was considered as an essential part of progress, however Lu. Meiyi ascribed the movement’s eventual failure to the perpetuating influences of patriarchy and conservatism. Some authors argue that even during the May Fourth movement, the extent of independence and strength of feminist movements to form women’s new identities was confined by the nationalist and conservative discourses.
The body of studies I selected for this project covered a wide range of topics on women’s liberation and provided persuasive arguments to articulate their engaging debates. Historians used statistics, press, textbooks and images of the period as the primary source of data collection. However, there is a lack of personal records, such as memoirs or interviews that could support their arguments and reveal the subjectivity of women. These historians’ analyses of women’s education, campaigns for equal rights and women’s citizenship within the frameworks of nationalist project, foreign influences and conservative resistance painted a fascinating picture of history. However, the concepts of nationalism and debates on gender are intriguing complex that deserve further study to examine their specific application and ramification in different societies throughout history, future studies on Chinese women’s liberation should consider the tensions and ambiguities in examine this period of history through these frames.What is also missing from thees studies is the account of women’s own experiences and writing on women who did not fit into the dominant frameworks: voices of women to explain what nationalism, modernity and feminism meant to them and what kinds of conservative constraint they had to overcome are needed to produce a fuller picture. A future research can build on this body of writings and use women’s personal account of memories to supplement historical records and literate debates. I recommend future study to look into one particular individual’s life, using her personal account and interviews to testify whether her experiences accorded with the nationalist, feminist or conservative discourse ; and what was the alternative modes of subjectivity was nurtured in women’s liberation movements.
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The role of women in China has changed dramatically, from one of servitude and repression in ancient China, to one of equality in modern communist China. For two thousand years in ancient China women lived under the rules set by Confucius in his analects. Confucius doctrine said women werent equal to men, because women were unworthy or incapable of a literary education. Other than this Confucius says little about women, which perhaps shows better than anything else how a standing they had in ancient Chinese society. The author of the books that set social standards in China for two thousand years barely mentions them.
This was probably because most Confucians accepted the subservience of women to men as so natural that it wasnt really needed to write it down in the first place (Andrea and Overfield, pg. 82 - 90). Throughout ancient Chinese women were in a position of servitude from birth till death. They were actually considered a mans private property (Heng) This was justified because it was said, disorder is not sent down by heaven, it is produced by women (womeninworldhistory. com pg. 3). Women were subject from birth to their fathers and brothers. They had to obey them without question.
Women were often despised by their fathers, so much so that many Chinese women had no name. They were simply called daughter No. 1, Daughter No. 2 and so on. After women got married conditions remained much the same, only instead of being subject to a father they were subject to their husbands. Like they had to with their brothers and fathers they had to obey their husbands absolutely and without question. Their husbands often had two or three wives.
A major change though when a woman got married was that she was also subject to her mother in law, a relationship that was often very nasty (Zhou). When a womans husband died she couldnt remarry, that would be disloyal to her husband. Even if she had no food it was better for a woman to die of hunger than remarry. If a woman did remarry she had her skin peeled of the bones to death. Some women even committed suicide when their husbands died (Wudunn, pg. 1). A woman could rarely hold a job outside the house.
They were supposed to spend their time cleaning the home for their husbands, indeed it was said, the woman with no talent is the one who has merit (womeninworldhistory. com). A womans main job in ancient China was to produce sons. A somewhat trivial, yet disturbing aspect of aristocratic Chinese marriages was the tradition of foot binding. It is said that foot binding was started around 1000 because an Emperor that his concubines small feet were beautiful. What happened is when a girl was between three and eleven years old, her toes were turned under and pressed against the bottom of her foot.
The arches were broken as the foot was pulled straight with the leg, a long narrow cotton bandage would then be tightly wound around the foot from the toes to the ankle to hold the toes in place. After two or three years, the girl's feet shrank to about three inches long. Her feet where then called lily feet. Lily feet were deformed and very painful to walk on.
Sometimes the toes even fell off, because blood could no longer reach them. This identified women of the aristocracy, because in the in China, a good marriage would be impossible to arrange if the girl had big ugly feet. Lily feet also prevented women from wandering, because a woman with bound feet wasnt able to walk unassisted. Going even a short distance was very painful. Women had to walk with very short steps and could stand only with difficulty (ascetic. org).
Perhaps nothing shows the low status of women in ancient China than a custom that was done girls three days after their birth. On that day a girl baby was placed under the bed and given her a piece of broken pottery to play with. Then her birth was announced to her an offering. Lying the baby below the bed meant that she was lowly and weak, a second-class human, that her parents would have preferred a child. It also signified that it was her duty to humble herself before others. Giving her a piece of broken pottery signified that she should practice labor and consider it her duty to be productive.
Announcing her birth in front of her ancestors meant that she should to consider it as a duty to continue the observance of worship in the home (Zhou). In China as I have discussed above for thousands of years were considered inferior in every way to a man. They had almost no rights and little freedom. Then suddenly in the twentieth century, everything changed. Women went almost overnight (in terms of the history of China) from second-class humans, mens property, to equals. This was probably because at the start of the 20 th century, western ideas began filtering into China.
A womens movement began to spread, reformers demanded greater literacy for women and an end to foot binding (which was finally outlawed when the communist came to power, ) (Wuddun). Another main factor that helped womens rights was communism. Communist believed that women were equal to men; Mao Zedong (the communist leader) even said that that women held up half the sky. The communist government thought that the liberation of women, who make half the population of China, was necessary for China to have complete freedom (Heng). Child weddings were banned, concubines were outlawed and brothels were closed. Women were allowed to hold real jobs.
Some went to night school, or worked at the factory (Wooden). Laws were passed that equalized women under the law. The major ones were, The Chinese constitution of the early which 1950 s. Which stated that Chinese women enjoyed equal rights with men in political, economic, social, cultural, and family life. The state protected women's rights and interests, practiced equal pay for equal work, and provided equal opportunity for women's training and promotion (Heng). The Marriage Law, which eliminated arranged marriages, saying that both women and men were free to choose their marriage partners, and widows were allowed to remarry (Heng).
The Inheritance Law, which recognized the equal right of women to inherit family property (Heng). The Labor Insurance Regulations Law of 1951 guaranteed women 56 days of maternity leave with full pay (Heng). The Land Reform Law of the early 1950 s provided rural women with an equal share of land under their own name, protecting their economic independence (Heng). These laws and other have worked dramatically.
Today 35 million, 40 % of agricultural workers are women. 6 million businesswomen are employed in Chinese cities (Heng). In large cities, 80 - 90 % of working age women are employed in factories and businesses (Heng). Women are now mayors or vice mayors in 250 of the 514 cities in China (Heng). In Beijing, 345, 453 women are government official, 44. 26 % of the total (Heng). 275, 415 women are technical workers in business enterprises they make up 51 % of the total. 200, 000 women are university graduates 33. 3 %. Women make up over one-third of workers in the fields of trade, industry, finance, and communication, and almost half of those in education, culture, and health (Heng). Despite the rapid success of recent years women still face many challenges in China.
While they are equal under the law, not all Chinese sees them as so. Because of Chinas recent moves towards capitalism (meaning that businesses have to efficient) women have found it harder to find well paying jobs. Factories and businesses prefer to recruit men more because of women's traditional responsibilities of having kids and maintaining households. Women are not seen as efficient as men are; so many women have gone into low-paying jobs or are receiving lower pay for the same work (Heng). Another more starting fact is that China currently has a one-child policy, which with a 1. 3 billion people thats understandable. This though has had unfortunate side effect.
Families, especially those in the country, want to have a boy to do heavy farm work and to continue the family line. If they get a girl it isnt uncommon for her to be killed (Heng) Fewer girls than boys are enrolled education in China today, especially in poor areas. More than 70 % of school dropouts are girls, some because many fathers want them to take a traditional role and look after the house. This has led to more than 70 % of China's 220 million semiliterate or illiterate people being women (Heng) In conclusion, as I have shown above women in China have made phenomenal progress in the past fifty years and there is still quite along way to go. But considering that the changes I have described above only took fifty years in China, they took hundreds in the West, it wont be long until we see a woman President in China, probably before we get one in America.
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