Women in Modern China: Presenting the Past

A New York Times op-ed published this past Monday has generated a considerable amount of attention, particularly in conservative spaces, with US Senator Ben Sasse among many complaining about its apparent glossing over of the grisly realities of Chinese Communist rule in China.

It seems that this frustration stemmed largely from a decision made by those controlling the NYT Opinion twitter account to frame the article in a way that implied a certain amount of moral relativism with which Sasse and many others were very uncomfortable.

So, what does the article say and does it in fact gloss over important historical context?

In short, the piece is a balanced examination of public and private roles available to women in China since the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, with some framing at the beginning and the end that brings us towards the “for all its flaws” language. Helen Gao points out that the Chinese Communist Party can and actively does lay claim to various acts of gender equality in China. Communist rhetoric specifically refuted the patriarchal rituals and norms of dynastic Chinese society from the inception of the Chinese socialist movement. Mao Zedong himself famously wrote a piece in 1919 when still a relatively young and inexperienced participant in the embryonic Chinese Communist movement decrying superstition and the “cheap tricks” of the institution of marriage, finding systemic gender inequality to be the root cause of a young woman’s suicide in the city of Changsha. In 1950, the party passed the New Marriage Law that specifically enforced civil registration of marriages and intentionally undercut existing social practice with a clear emphasis on equal rights for both men and women to enter and leave what was now a clearly defined legal and civil contract.

Helen Gao correctly points out, at length, that this particular discourse celebrating the profound impact of Chinese Communism on women’s rights is optimistic at best with many of the advances supposedly available to Chinese women stopping “at the household doorstep.” Historically, few women attained significant leadership roles within the party during the Maoist Period (1949-1976), and women found themselves the target of familiar sexist accusations during the politically energizing but emotionally enervating chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Beyond this, women’s labor roles persisted in being defined by gendered expectations, and the alleged improvements in marriage culture reached significant roadblocks in the countryside.

So, from where does the anger come? Well… the publicization of the article using the phrase “For all its flaws, the Communist revolution taught Chinese women to dream big” is far from ideal. However, it does reflect the framing of the article itself, which seeks to utilize elements of the author’s personal experience in a manner that is far from alien to op-ed writing. I would agree with Senator Sasse that choosing to reduce the numerous problems of the Chinese postwar period of highly ideological state-driven Communism, specifically the deaths of millions of Chinese, to an aside is regrettable. At the same time, Senator Sasse and I are coming at this from two different angles. For one thing, as an historian my disgust with the horrors of the Great Leap Forward must not overcome my ability to analyze, discuss and evaluate the realities of Chinese history in the last seventy years. Secondly, I’m not an American.

Americans have a specific relationship with Communism and anti-Communism unique to this country’s experience. Now, growing up in a Catholic household in Ireland in the 1980s, I cannot say I was raised with a glowing vision of the merits of socialism. However, there is very little room in American discourse for some of the open admiration for Soviet Russia held by European figures of note from George Bernard Shaw to EP Thompson and Jean-Paul Sartre, though the latter two were part of a Western European intellectual elite that drew the line once tanks drew into Budapest in 1956. McCarthyism is shorthand today for ideological witch hunts, but the American anti-Communism of the postwar period does reflect a clear identification of what many Americans see as the refutation, in the existence of Communist states, of the values for which the United States stands: individuality, freedom, and so on.

There are larger implications in American politics vis a vis suspicion between left and right, some more nuanced and some less so, that I need not get into here. What does interest me is how quickly a choice in framing a specific historical inquiry colors the reception of that inquiry by potential audiences. If one was to take Gao’s piece and chop off the beginning and end the reader would still be left with an intelligent and well written discussion of the limitations of women’s rights in post-revolution China. It’s that framing, which of course was the author’s choice to include, that changes the entire tenor of the article, pushing it into offensive territory for some. When I teach, I talk to my students an awful lot about how sources, whether they be textual or otherwise, are constructed: who created this, who was the intended audience? We talk about interpretation, that is to say the audience side, quite a bit. What of presentation? Gao’s framing effectively takes her historical argument and clambers over into another, very different kind of historical argument. I found it a little odd, to be honest. This ends up being a well written piece of judicious history sandwiched between awkwardly worded bookends. It also shows the perils of writing about history, and the difficulties in anticipating one’s audience.

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