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Long March of China's Women Continues
by Nailene Chou Wiest
Reuters

 
Zhang Qixin will be busy at the Shanghai Fortune Global Forum in October, helping top foreign business leaders and high Chinese officials understand each other.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic of China on October 1, she will be switching between Chinese and flawless Japanese on business, finance and management.

A top graduate of Shanghai's Foreign Language University, Zhang has a master's degree in business administration from Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo and is working on her doctorate in management science.

''Access to education is most important for women,'' she said, glancing at the screen of a sleek laptop computer on her desk.

Education has taken Zhang from her working class family background to rank among the intellectual elite at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, where she is a researcher.

She embodies one of Communist China's most remarkable achievements: the education of millions of women.

About 110 million women have learned to read and write - 63% of the adults who attained literacy. In 1990, 96.2% of girls attended elementary school. In 1950, that figure was under 20%.

Chairman Mao Zedong said women ''hold up half the sky.''

But politics and economic change have thrown up other hurdles on the road to empowerment and the long march of China's women continues.

The Bad Old Days
Zhang's mother, Zhou Muying, spent her childhood in the Dickensian squalor of Shanghai's industrial slums and started working at a cotton mill at the age of 14.

Life, already hard for the urban poor, was made more miserable by hyperinflation when the Nationalist government, which would flee to Taiwan the next year, printed money with abandon in 1948.

''I cannot tell you how much I made a month, because the money was worthless,'' she said, sitting in her living room in a high-rise apartment building.

''We were paid in bundles of banknotes that were losing value by the minute.''

In the first decade of Communist rule, working class women gained many rights such as keeping their own names and the freedom to choose who they marry, rights now taken for granted.

''Women found dignity,'' Zhou said.

Zhou dated Zhang Renkang, a chemical factory worker, and they were married in 1956.

New laws also guaranteed equal pay for equal work and granted a woman worker 56 days of paid maternity leave.

In the 1950s, a pregnant young mother with two toddlers in tow was a common sight as Chinese women responded to Mao Zedong's call to bear lots of children to replenish the loss of an estimated 30 million people during the Japanese invasion and the the civil war with the Nationalists in the 1930s and 1940s.

Kong Chahua married her high school sweetheart right after graduation in the early years of Mao Zedong's New China and had three children in six years.

Staying home to take care of her young brood, Kong managed the household budget on a shoestring, while her husband worked as a technician at a factory that makes aviation glass.

''Everything was rationed,'' she said. ''A woman scrambled from daybreak to late at night, standing in long lines for basic necessities, cooking, cleaning, sewing, knitting, darning, and even making slippers from scraps of fabric for the family.''

Better Life under Deng's Reforms
Then the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 rattled Kong's young family as they were often ordered to attend mass rallies and dig air raid shelters.

''The psychological stress was enormous,'' she said. ''People did not dare to say anything that might brand them as counter-revolutionaries,'' she said. Kong said the liberation of women really came in the last 20 years after Mao's eventual successor, Deng Xiaoping, pushed market-oriented economic reforms which brought a measure of prosperity and freed women from many daily drudgeries.

In the early 1970s, when her youngest child went to the elementary school, Kong took a job at a waste paper recycling plant that paid 40 yuan per month - about $8 at the time.

The economic reforms since 1978 opened up more job opportunities and her income rose by leaps and bounds. At an arts and craft shop, Kong received a base salary of 500 yuan a month plus a bonus, which added up to almost 1,000 yuan.

''Every household in our apartment complex got gas stoves and a refrigerator,'' she said. ''I did not have to shop every day and could trust my children to do some simple cooking before I came home from work.''

The family became smartly outfitted with clothing bought at department stores.

''I knit just for fun and relaxation,'' Kong said, with a laugh.

New Economic Pressures
But the economic reforms brought new pressure to bear on women, especially with the restructuring of state-owned firms and the rise of unemployment.

In a controversial book titled ``Who Creates Rice Bowls for the Chinese,'' well-known economist Zhong Pengrong suggested one way to ease the mounting unemployment pressure was to send working women home.

Zhong argues that women can better afford to lose their jobs and unemployed women are less destabilising to society than men.

By Chinese law, women workers can retire at 50 and in Shanghai as early as 45.

Kong took early retirement to care for her grandchild.

''No one forced me to leave the job,'' she said, adding that she has always preferred domestic life.

But many women retirees were unaccustomed to the idleness and some became followers of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement based on the ancient Chinese arts of meditation and calisthenics.

''They crave for the kind of socialising that they used to have at the workplace,'' said Gu Hongdi, a woman in her mid-30s.

Since Falun Gong was outlawed in July by the Communist government, which feared a threat to its rule, women followers have basically severed their ties with the group and turned to other types of exercise and social activities, Gu said.

Slowing economic growth also highlights the plight of poor women in the countryside in the sad statistics of rural suicide.

Between 1990 and 1994, an average of 173,230 rural women a year took their lives - a rate 11.29 percentage points higher than suicides among rural men, according to a 1998 study by Zhejiang University.

The economic downturn also brought more incidences of wife battering, more girls dropped out of school and prostitution rose, it said.

Still, at 69, Zhou has seen the change of women's status in China over the half century of Communist rule and maintains that education and economic progress offer the best hope for a woman to lead a better life.

''Ignorance is the root cause of many evils,'' she said. ''In an enlightened society, every one benefits - women as well as men.''
 

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