The ‘Seventeen Years’ of New China (1949-1966) is an important topic if you want to study how women’s rights changed in China. Since the founding of New China on 1st October 1949, the social status of women in Chinese society has changed dramatically, with most women gradually moving from domestic spaces to the public spaces and gaining more rights and privileges themselves. However, many studies have also pointed out that the image of public womanhood in the media during this period was influenced by political motives and women were not yet free from feudalism. 

From the founding of New China to the period of reform and opening up: promoting

After the New China was founded, the government began to promulgate policies and laws to give Chinese women more rights, aiming to correct some problems that had accumulated since the May Fourth Movement. For instance, the Common Program of the Chinese People’s Republic, adopted on 29th September 1949, provided equal rights to men and women in political, economic, and cultural spheres, acknowledging that women have the right to be in public spaces. Women’s rights were further consolidated through the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Land Reform, implemented on 30th June, which established women’s economic equality in rural areas.

The establishment of women’s rights in the public space meant more women could participate in social activities; their personal life was no longer only focused on the family. Instead, they stepped into society and participated in different social activities to enrich their daily lives, as well as helping other women and disadvantaged groups make the same liberating choices. The protection of women’s rights in marriage, law and private spaces in China had the potential to help women resist domestic violence and improve their status within the family. We can see that Chinese women became more empowered by the law to make choices, and these rights were no longer just theoretical, but were being put into practice as women put aside their hand weaving and farming to take on active roles in society that were otherwise ascribed to men. 

Reform and opening up period to mid 1990s: accelerating

Over time, until China’s reform, the traditional role of women in the family gradually disappeared from the media, and the public image of Chinese women underwent a process of gender disintegration, with women in the media losing their gender identity. For example, the Chinese Women magazine, founded in Yan’an in 1939, has been the mainstream media form accessible to generations of Chinese women. It is the magazine which reflects and represents the spirit of the All-China Women’s Federation and Chinese women the best. It has published many articles recreating the dramatic changes in Chinese women’s lives. At the beginning of the New China, the cover of Chinese Women magazine featured several photos of women excelling in different fields. Examples include: workers at the Daxing Yarn Factory in Shijiazhuang beating gongs and drums to celebrate the liberation of China, photos of female students at the Northeast Medical University doing experiments in a laboratory, photos of female train drivers and photos of female delegates to the National Conference of Labour Delegates of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers.

Following reform, Chinese women slowly said goodbye to their gender defiance and freedom of being able to “hold up half the sky”, as they regained the gender roles they had lost for so long. Chinese women were once again presented to society as emotional and family figures, rather than as educated, strong and powerful ‘genderless’ figures. As a result, media sources like China Women once again focused more on domestic matters. In an article in China Women magazine, issue 8, 2007, a cartoon about a husband and wife arguing over their duties illustrated the rigid gender roles: “The man works to earn money, while the woman does housework at home to support her husband and cannot ask for too much”. This cartoon is a legacy of the traditional distribution of roles in the Chinese family. 

During the period between the founding of New China and the reform and opening up of the country, the reason why the image of women in the eyes of  society changed dramatically and became ‘genderless’, was that the gender identity of women was dominated by political identity. The opposition to the struggle for women’s liberation in twentieth-century China was not the powerful male political, economic and cultural hegemony, it was the three mountains of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism that gave women their ‘valiant presence’ in society after the founding of New China.

Thus, the leaders of the Chinese women’s liberation movement were not the Chinese women themselves, but instead, men and the male-dominated people in power. The acquisition of this power and the transformation of the image was top-down, and although women have gained more rights, the fundamentals remain the same. However, we can’t deny that the social status of Chinese women from 1949-1966 did improve. The shift of the perception of women from ‘something to nothing’ has also led to more women becoming aware of the rights they could have had. With women becoming educated and aware of their position, more women could become more assertive about their own rights. Finding the importance of awakening and self-realisation, would accelerate the emergence of feminist ideas in New China.