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University of California Press
Finding Women in the State: A Socialist Feminist Revolution in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1964 / Edition 1

Finding Women in the State: A Socialist Feminist Revolution in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1964 / Edition 1

by Zheng WangZheng Wang
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Finding Women in the State is a provocative hidden history of socialist state feminists maneuvering behind the scenes at the core of the Chinese Communist Party. These women worked to advance gender and class equality in the early People’s Republic and fought to transform sexist norms and practices, all while facing fierce opposition from a male-dominated CCP leadership from the Party Central to the local government. Wang Zheng extends this investigation to the cultural realm, showing how feminists within China’s film industry were working to actively create new cinematic heroines, and how they continued a New Culture anti-patriarchy heritage in socialist film production. This book illuminates not only the different visions of revolutionary transformation but also the dense entanglements among those in the top echelon of the party. Wang discusses the causes for failure of China’s socialist revolution and raises fundamental questions about male dominance in social movements that aim to pursue social justice and equality. This is the first book engendering the PRC high politics and has important theoretical and methodological implications for scholars and students working in gender studies as well as China studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292291
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Wang Zheng is Professor of Women’s Studies and History and Research Scientist at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories and the coeditor of From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society, Translating Feminisms in China, and Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era.

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Finding Women in the State

A Socialist Feminist Revolution in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1964

By Wang Zheng


Copyright © 2017 Wang Zheng
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96586-7


Feminist Contentions in Socialist State Formation


FOUNDED WITH THE ENDORSEMENT OF top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in April 1949, the All-China Women's Democratic Federation (later renamed the All-China Women's Federation, hence ACWF) was designed as an umbrella of existing women's organizations to lead the women's liberation movement in socialist China. Led by senior women Party members (the first cohort of Communist women) who had gained extensive experience in grassroots organization of women during the Communist Revolution, the ACWF went through rapid institutional development in the early 1950s, setting up local branches at each administrative level, reaching down to rural villages and urban neighborhoods. By 1953 there were already over 40,000 officials of the Women's Federation (WF) system nationwide working at and above the district level on the government payroll. How was such impressive institutional development accomplished? What implications did it have in the formation of a socialist state in the aftermath of revolution? Archival research and fieldwork confirmed the pioneering role that the Shanghai Women's Federation (SWF) played in feminist organizing in urban areas. Focusing on the SWF activities around its creation of a grassroots organization, the women's congress, in the early 1950s, this chapter explicates the power-laden and tension-filled process of the WF system's institutional building. Gender dynamics and contentions were replete in "socialist state building," a grand program in which state feminists inscribed their visions with their innovative, though not always successful, struggles.


One month after the People's Liberation Army had entered Shanghai, on June 26, 1949, the preparatory committee for the Shanghai Democratic Women's Federation (renamed the Shanghai Women's Federation later) was established. It immediately started to investigate and register existing women's organizations in order to "unify the Shanghai women's movement." Following the program set forth at the first national congress of the ACWF and inscribed in "The Resolution on the Current Tasks of the Chinese Women's Movement," the SWF identified women workers as the group it intended to organize first, followed by students, teachers, artists, professionals, and, last, housewives (jiating funü). Establishing six contact lines to connect these various groups of women in Shanghai, the SWF intended to be an umbrella organization unifying all women, although with a clear awareness that its efforts might "bump and press" (pengzhuang) others.

Indeed, the emphasis on workers as the primary target group of urban women-work, although ideologically correct, soon brought the SWF into conflict with the newly established Department of Women Workers (DWW) of the Trade Union, which regarded it as its job to organize women workers. This conflict must have been a nationwide problem, for the ACWF stepped in, in 1949, to resolve it, by specifying that organizing women workers would be in the realm of the DWW of the Trade Union but that the DWW would be a group member of the Women's Federation at each of the levels of their hierarchical system. Although this appeared to turn the DWW into a Women's Federation branch, by making the top officials of the DWW members of women's federations' executive committees, cooperation between the two organizations was guaranteed.

This model of cooperation between the two organizations, however, created a challenge for the SWF not faced by other urban women's federations, because in Shanghai, the nation's largest industrial city with a population of more than 5 million in 1949, 170,000 women factory workers were removed from their agenda. The SWF felt compelled, therefore, to actively look for an alternative constituency, a constituency that would define and legitimate its role in socialist state building. Of the twenty-two existing women's organizations in Shanghai that had been either CCP peripheral organizations or sympathetic to the CCP before 1949, the SWF had identified six jiating funü [housewives] organizations and had combined them to form the Shanghai Housewives Association on August 22, 1949. Although originally ranked last among the SWF's intended constituency, it was these housewives who by their sheer numbers — more than one million — as well as their detachment from any other branch of the CCP organizational apparatus, soon became the SWF's central constituency, with the Shanghai Housewives Association becoming the basis of further organizing at the grassroots level.

Although the strategic value of organizing housewives would seem compelling on its own, it nonetheless took some debate within the SWF before it decided to include housewives in women-work. The class standing of housewives, in the perception of the CCP, was dubiously close to bourgeois; so it was necessary for officials in the SWF to stress that of one million Shanghai housewives (all women without gainful employment at the time were lumped into this category), the majority were not "bourgeois parasites" but lower-class and poor women. Appealing to Engels's theory of women's liberation, they argued that "her work is unpaid and has no significance for social production, but she is not a sheer consumer in society." A policy of preparing housewives for their liberation was articulated with mixed themes of representing both the interests of these women and the socialist state:

The long-term goal of organizing housewives is to liberate them from subordinate positions and to engage them in social production. The immediate goal is to prepare housewives intellectually and technologically so that our society will have a large reserve labor force. Meanwhile we should raise women's consciousness and make them understand that social liberation precedes women's liberation. Therefore we should closely connect social production with our work to support the front line. We should organize housewives and send some of them to factories and other occupations. The process of organizing one million housewives will gradually enable them to participate in various production departments.

The shift in the targeted constituency of the WF would have unexpected long-term ramifications. Reclassification of "housewives" would be achieved eventually in socialist China by both the Women's Federation's redefinition of the class standing of this group and the theory of women's liberation that defined those participating in social production as "liberated women." "Housewives" thus connoted not only a group of lower-class women but also backward elements (not yet liberated) in the public perception. The irony is that by identifying housewives as its main constituency, the WF failed to gain esteem in the eyes of "liberated women," urban professional women.

Nonetheless, there were positive consequences from this shift in focus that cannot be underestimated. The identification of housewives as its organizational base led the SWF to explore new methods of organizing that had far-reaching implications. By late 1950 the Shanghai Housewives Association (SHA) had set up twenty-one district branches with individual housewives as members and through them intended to reach women in all neighborhoods. Thus, in late 1950 when the ACWF urged local women's federations to speed up their grassroots organizing by forming "women's congresses" like those that had been created in the CCP-liberated areas to organize rural women, the SWF had an organizational structure already in place to accomplish this. Women's congresses already existed in the villages where representatives were elected to a "congress" that in turn elected an executive committee to manage routine work relating to women. These women's congresses were representative bodies responsible for expressing local women's demands to the government and, in turn, explaining government policies to them. As such, it was hailed by CCP women leaders as the best organizational form for connecting women broadly and democratically. With the CCP's power extending to urban areas, the ACWF hoped to establish women's congresses in cities as well as a new institutional base for a unifying national women's movement. The SWF was quick to see the utility of its neighborhood-based housewives associations in this endeavor. Thus the chair of the SWF, Zhang Yun (1905–1995), a Communist woman among the first cohort CCP feminists who had been a leader of women-work since she joined the party in 1925, sent out work teams of SWF officials to selected neighborhoods to explore new methods of organizing women in urban areas.

At the same time, however, the municipal government began implementing a "mode of spatial organization" to organize the unemployed, self-employed, and nonemployed and placed its Department of Civil Administration in charge of organizing residents in Shanghai lanes and streets into residents committees, constituted, initially, mostly by male residents. A district government branch, called the "street office," was set up in each precinct of a public security station to supervise approximately ten residents committees. And then, in December 1950, the SWF also decided to establish its grassroots organizations in the precincts of public security stations. In less than one year, women living in 10,009 lanes elected a total of 42,900 representatives and 6,000 chief representatives, and 120 housewives committees with 1,300 members were established. Was the scene set for another "bump and press" in the neighborhoods?

At first, at least, the SWF at the neighborhood level worked seamlessly with the municipal government's efforts to organize residents committees. The CCP's creative ritual of mobilizing women was a well-developed practice in the Party's long history, dating back to the early 1920s, of mobilizing the "masses." What deserve our attention are the responses of women. The archival documents and memories of interviewees reveal that women were highly enthusiastic about participating in SWF mass rallies. In 1951 the Shanghai municipal committee requested that the SWF mobilize women for its "central work," which at the time included a patriotic campaign against American imperialist intervention in Korea, suppressing counterrevolutionaries, promoting production, and improving state finances. A municipal directive called for a mass rally and parade on March 8, International Women's Day, with the theme of protesting the U.S. re-arming of Japan, for which the SWF successfully organized over 300,000 women, of whom 250,000 were housewives. The internal report reveals that many women joined the parade spontaneously.

Laoza District underestimated the number of participants. They thought five thousand women would come out, but actually ten thousand did. Among them were elements with complicated backgrounds such as prostitutes and bar maids, who created a sensation among the spectators. Although we originally decided not to ask old women to participate, there were also sixty- to eighty-year-old women traipsing along with the parade. There were also women parading with their kids. The spectators were so numerous that they crowded into the street and pressed the six parade lines into three lines. The police and guards were so busy keeping order that they were soaked with sweat.

Although the theme of the parade was patriotism and anti-imperialism, interestingly, the report commented on its effect on women's empowerment. "Participants in the parade all felt that women have power and status now. Even men said, now women are a big deal. The Communist Party truly has its way, and even women are organized by them." Leaving the praise of the Party aside, it is still clear that the parade had a gender overtone that both women and men recognized. If the CCP intended to use women to demonstrate popular support for their politics, women were also quick to utilize the new government power to cross gender and class boundaries. Parading in a public space with official endorsement, women in households and women of various subaltern groups all symbolically staged their legitimate position in the new political order. A patriotic parade carefully designed by the CCP was thus appropriated by women of different social backgrounds to produce political meanings important to them.

The parade had its special meaning for the SWF, too. From the beginning the SWF regarded it as a golden opportunity to mobilize women. Its plan for the March 8 celebration consciously aimed at combining the parade preparations with further organization of a representative system of women in residential areas. SWF's work did not rank high on the municipal agenda and ranked even lower at the district level. The municipal Party committee's attention and support was therefore a great opportunity not to be dismissed. Equipped with a mandate from the city authority, SWF officials were able to utilize district resources and assistance to extend its reach in neighborhoods and reportedly identified 5,792 new women activists in the process. Proceeding rapidly in the favorable political atmosphere, the SWF completed establishing the neighborhood women representative system and housewives committees in late 1951, which laid the institutional ground for the formation of women's congresses in the following year. Needless to say, the impressive performance of women on March 8 enhanced the stature of the SWF in the eyes of the municipal authority as well as the public. It demonstrated that the SWF had a large constituency and an important function in socialist state building.

By 1952 the SWF was ready to restructure its neighborhood organization by replacing chief representatives and housewives committees with a women's congress in the jurisdiction of each residents committee (the local organization of the municipal government). Women representatives elected by women in several lanes on the same block or adjacent area (usually with about five to six thousand residents) formed a women's congress. They in turn elected a women's committee that paralleled the residents committee. By early 1953, women in Shanghai lanes and streets formed 1,684 women's congresses with 16,964 members of women's committees and about 50,000 women representatives. Since then the women's congress has remained the grassroots organization of the SWF. Zhang Yun's pioneering work in creating urban women's congresses and in organizing housewives was acknowledged by her supervisors. In 1953 she was promoted to the position of vice chair of the ACWF. Significantly, in 1953 its "Resolution on the Future Tasks of the Women's Movement in the Country" emphasized that work on housewives was an important part of urban women-work. Also in 1953 the revised Constitution of the ACWF specified clearly that the women's congress in rural townships and urban streets was the basic organizational unit of the national organization. Thus in the first few years of the PRC, state feminists completed the institutionalization of a women's movement led by the ACWF.

This brief introduction to the development of the SWF inevitably fails to adequately capture the intensity and excitement experienced by SWF officials and housewives representatives in those days, encouraged undoubtedly by the pageantry the SWF displayed in establishing a women's congress. In order to attract housewives to the first congress meeting and to make elected representatives proud of their new identity, the work teams would advertise the agenda of the meeting, which usually included talks by the district head and leaders of the SWF and special shows by professional performers. On the day of the congress meeting, housewives in each lane were organized to send their representatives away with fanfare. "The representatives all wore silk red flowers on their chests, walking in an orderly line, entering the auditorium. Behind them, teams of gongs and drums and yangge followed into the auditorium with drum beating and dancing. Every representative had a smile of pride and pleasure on her face." Inside the auditorium, colorful silk flags were hanging all over and flowers were displayed on the platform. In some districts, representatives donated over one hundred silk flags and dozens of flower vases to celebrate the convening of the women's congress. But women's enthusiastic response could, at times, dismay SWF officials. One work report criticized, "Although it was the representatives' wish to celebrate the founding of their own big family, it was still too extravagant and wasteful ... Shanghainese like to fuss in a grandiose style."


Excerpted from Finding Women in the State by Wang Zheng. Copyright © 2017 Wang Zheng. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


part one
the women’s federation and the ccp
1 • Feminist Contentions in Socialist State Formation: A Case Study of the Shanghai Women’s Federation
2 • The Political Perils in 1957: Struggles over “Women’s Liberation”
3 • Creating a Socialist Feminist Cultural Front: Women of China
4 • When a Maoist “Class” Intersected Gender

part two
from feminist revolution of culture to the cultural revolution
5 • Chen Bo’er and the Feminist Paradigm of Socialist Film
6 • Fashioning Socialist Visual Culture: Xia Yan and the New Culture Heritage
7 • The Cultural Origins of the Cultural Revolution
8 • The Iron Girls: Gender and Class in Cultural Representations
Conclusion: Socialist State Feminism and Its Legacies in Capitalist China

List of Interviews

Customer Reviews