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Women, the Family and Peasant Revolution in China

January 30, 2010

Kay Ann Johnson. Women, the Family and Peasant Revolution in China. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Miriam Gross (2006)

Johnson, publishing in the early eighties, joined an outpouring of other scholars who wanted to assess the effect of socialist revolution on transforming women’s lives. For many early feminist scholars, China had been a challenging topic because women supposedly had lived within an oppressive unchanging Confucian family structure for the last 1000 years. Given that women’s domain was within the bounds of a static family, what sort of history could be told? Thus by forcing change in family structure, providing more freedom in marital choice and divorce, recognizing women’s equality to men, and encouraging women to undertake public roles and external production, the party brought hope not only to women, but also to gender historians. It is thus with profound disappointment that Johnson discovers not only the differences between rhetoric and reality, but also the instrumental use the party made of women for its own overarching goals.

Johnson begins by defining the main parameters of the traditional family and then looks at the parties’ interaction with women in the pre-revolutionary days, 1921-1949, in the Jiangxi and North Shaanxi (Yenan) soviets. Next she focuses on family reform and the marriage law during the early period, 1950-1953. Then she looks at the fate of a true alteration of women’s roles over the traumatic decades from 1955-1980, which included collectivization, the Cultural Revolution, and the Anti-Confucian Campaign. She concludes by assessing women’s current (in the late seventies) situation in rural China. An appendix helpfully provides the full text of the 1950’s Marriage Law.

Johnson discovers a number of underlying dynamics explaining why the marriage and other laws meant to benefit women could never be fully realized. First the Engelsian approach to women’s liberation, which shaped party ideology, stated that the key to empowering change was through economic production outside the home. In this view, once women were wage earners, power dynamics within the family would automatically improve. Johnson feels this is a fallacy. She believes old structures of interaction are so ingrained that they need to be attacked directly. Throughout the book she laments that the party did not undertake what she views as a more fundamental transformation. A second dynamic is that the party’s power base was the male peasantry whose needs precluded the full empowerment of women, particularly the ability to remove oneself from an unwanted marriage. In general, Johnson discovers the party fights actively for changes that were necessary for its continued survival (such as encouraging women to engage in productive labor), but backtracks on innovations that are too unsettling for male peasants or lower-level cadre. Women’s groups, no matter what their official purpose, seemed willing to directly fight for women’s rights. However, they were held in check by their subordinate position within male organization and by accusations of sponsoring bourgeois selfish individualism. Concerns over the bourgeois nature of women’s rights continued to haunt many attempts at substantive change. A final difficulty was that over time, the party discovered that successful production and maintenance of party control within the countryside (such as stopping mass migration to the cities) was dependent on supporting traditional hierarchies and bonds. As a result, change happened intermittently and in the end reflected the needs of the party, rather than the emancipation of women. If anything, Johnson finds that the openness and activism initially displayed in the Jiangxi Soviet had given way to empty rhetoric and continued support for the traditional family and social structures of the countryside.

Johnson has written a fine book. However, some of her assumptions and goals lead her to problems. For example, like most scholars of her generation she believes in the unchanging nature of the Chinese family. Further she judges the revolution’s success based on whether it has fully achieved all the rights of western women. Anecdotally we know that even if women could still not choose their own mates, they experienced the ability to refuse a truly bad partner as an enormous gain in personal choices. Perhaps Johnson has tumbled into this problem because the true focus of her work is assessing the party, rather than on listening to the voices of the women involved.

Reviewers at the time (Emily Honig, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2, 1985, Norma Diamond, The China Quarterly, No. 103, 1985) were generally quite positive about the book, but they too were concerned that the absence of women made them once again appear as the passive victims of the party. Given the lack of direct sources at the time, Johnson has done an excellent job at unearthing changes not only in party policy, but also in alterations of attitudes on the ground.

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

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