The Chinese constitute one quarter of all humanity, and when the Communist Revolution, led by Mao Tse-tung, succeeded in 1949 to gain power, the participation of women in the new dispensation and the radical improvement of their status became a cornerstone of the new regime. Most recent research has concentrated on answering the questions (a) whether, as the Chinese government today claims, the emancipation of women and the objectives of socialism are not only compatible but the same; (b) whether the Communist Revolution has materially, legally and socially improved the status of women; (c) whether Chinese women have indeed been emancipated to the extent that equality with men in the three aforementioned areas is not just an ideological slogan but a real, measurable achievement; and (d) whether the Chinese claim of real political equality between men and women is indeed the case. The amount of research has been impressive. 1
In claiming that there was no conflict, only mutual reinforcement between the emancipation of women and socialist development, the Chinese were echoing the standard analysis which had come to them via the Soviet Union's interpretation of the women's question begun with Lenin. This analysis held that women's emancipation depended on two things: one, their participation in production outside the home and, two, the socialization of domestic labor. Since both of these were socialist goals, women's emancipation and socialism were mutually supportive. 2 But unlike the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government were prepared to have the success of the Revolution measured by women's progress. Both the party and the government have held that the degree of women's liberation is an index of social progress. In 1980 China also ratified the U.N. Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
In old China women lived at the lowest level of a suffocatingly strict patriarchal society. A woman had no right to divorce her husband, no matter how much he ill-treated her. Women, in fact, had no rights at all, except through their sons. In traditional China, Phyllis Andors pointed out, girls were freely sold as concubines or as second wives. Widows were not allowed to remarry. Betrothed girls were considered widows if their husband-to-be died before the wedding. The young widow, said Andors, could then either serve her parents-in-law, enter a Buddhist convent or commit suicide. Poorer families