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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 17, April 13, 2013

Political Role of Women in the Chinese National Movement (1921-1949)

Sunday 14 April 2013

by Namrata Hasija

The Communist Party of China (CCP) was formed in 1921, under the influence of Marxist-Leninist thought and the October Revolution in Russia. The phase from 1927 to 1949 was most crucial in the history of Chinese nationalism. This period can be further divided into two periods, that is, from 1927 to 1937 (civil war between the Communist Party and Kuomintang) and 1937 to 1945 (war against Japanese aggression). During this period the position of women was pathetic because of foreign attack. Constant harassment and rape became a part of the Chinese women’s life. On the other hand, the economic condition of people declined due to famine and foreign invasion. Peasant families indulged in female infanticide or sold their daughters for as low a price as ten catties of rice. The condition of the working women was also deplorable. The example of a slum area in Nanchang Shi, where many of them lived in 1930, illustrates their condition. ‘With the exception of a few houses, most of the homes of the slum area of Nanchang Shi are cheaply made huts...small, damp and poorly ventilated. With the exception of one bed, one table and one chair, all worn out and filthy, there is hardly anything left....the monthly income of these women’s families range from Chinese $ 7-8 to slightly over Chinese $ 20’.1

In this context, there are two points that the reader should keep in mind before venturing into this topic. The first is that two United Fronts were formed between the Communist Party and Kuomintang, and second, that the Communist Party’s approach to “the woman question” as it related to revolutionary strategy was embodied in concrete programmes for preparing leadership personnel and creating a mass base.2 Thus, from here on we see two movements, that is, the women’s movement and the nationalist movement going hand in hand.

Over the past two decades, gender studies in general and sexuality studies in particular have exploded throughout the world. Gender studies, in particular, have received much scholarly input from across the globe. It has had immense scholarly input from all the continents. Let us first understand what we mean by gender studies. Gender (masculine/feminine) is a social and cultural connotation while sex (male/female) is a physical distinction. Biologically, male and female aren’t discriminated/categorised, but structurally, that is, from a gender perspective, they are. When we study gender in a society, we look at men and women in relation to one another along with their individual roles in a society. It is one of the most important aspects while studying the social history of society since gender relations determine how the members (that is, men and women) of a society direct their actions. It also defines their outlook on life. Therefore, by studying gender we can determine the societal and cultural settings of a society.

The current essay intends to look at the Chinese society where women were being subordinated. This essay does not intend to look at the ways in which this subordination was exercised. Instead it looks at a period where Chinese women broke a lot of shackles and actively participated in the national movement. During the Chinese national movement two parties were actively involved, that is, the Communist Party and the Kuomintang. Finally, it was the Communist Party that came to power in the Chinese mainland and our current focus is on the participation of women in the movement carried out by this party (1921-1949).

Bobby Siu, in his work Women of China, has commented that many historians have ignored the contribution of women in history-making. But of late a picture has emerged of women who were actively involved in the anti-Japanese movement, anti-imperialist wars, and so on.

To discuss their involvement in these activities further, it is very important to look briefly at the period when the Chinese women became aware of their identity. The Chinese society, under the influence of Confucianism, feudalism and many other processes, subordinated women in many forms. Foot-binding,3 female infanticide, illiteracy were the various ways through which this subordination was carried out. In physical life, women were subjugated by a trinity of authorities, that is, the ruler, the father and the husband. The book of Odes tells us that the new-born female baby was kept on the floor and given earthen pots to play whereas the male baby was laid on cot and given jade.4 A good bride, according to the Chinese culture, is considered to be a woman who can “cook, look after her husband and give him sons” and be willing to “eat bitterness”.

During the late 19th century things began to change under the influence of Western ideas and the spread of education. Scholars and reformers like Kang Yu-wei advocated the emancipation of women and even formed the Anti Foot-Binding Association. In the early 20th century not only the reformers but women themselves slowly became aware of their identity. The main reason for this was modernisation of education and, most importantly, the introduction of education for women in the late Qing dynasty. The first school for girls was opened by a Christian missionary in 1844 and later on many private and public schools were opened by the Chinese during the reform movement, the first in 1898. Some women went to Japan for education where they formed various clubs to examine the deteriorating state of the Chinese state. Some joined Sun Yat Sen’s Tongmenhui. It is from this point that women’s participation in the national movement began. Though a fair number of women were involved in the revolution of 1911, but the real upsurge of women’s partici-pation actually took place after this revolution. After the revolution a republican government was established at the Centre though the whole country was still fragmented and under the warlords. A lot of women’s societies turned themselves into suffrage societies and there was an influx of several women’s organisations. Thus, a mix of many factors, including struggle against imperialism, development of democratic thought and rise of a bourgeois democratic revolution, propelled the women’s liberation movement in China.5

The high point in the women’s movement however, came during the May Fourth Move-ment in 1919 because it was from here that the movement for women’s liberation gradually gained more participation and momentum, as well as consciousness of the woman’s economic, social, political and cultural needs. For some Chinese, it marked the ‘national renaissance or liberation’.6 The movement started as a patriotic movement against the backdrop of the ill-treatment of China after the First World War. But later on it encapsulated many more issues and Chow Tse-tung has very rightly defined it as a complicated phenomenon including the ‘new thought tide’, the literary revolution, the student movement, the merchants and workers strike as well as other social and political activities of the new intellectuals. As far as the issues related to women were concerned, many intellectuals like Chen Du-xiu, Lu Xun, etc. wrote about various issues related to women. One of the path-breaking plays of this time was A Doll’s House, written by Henrik Ibsen. It was Lu Xun, who introduced Ibsen’s play in China. He wrote two articles in Japan praising how his plays challenge old traditions. The central character of the play, Nora, breaks the bonds of tradition, of marriage and motherhood and leaves home. This in a way portrayed the changing mind of women and it also served as an inspiration for all those who were still bonded. Many women in China looked up to Nora as inspiration and rebelled against the suppression of their individuality. Another essay which created ripples was of Lu Xun, titled ‘What happens after Nora leaves home?’ In this essay he vividly brings out the fact that until women are economically independent, individual or political liberalisation has no meaning. From this point we can see a major change in the position of women and their role in society. The nationalist movement had also gained momen-tum after the May Fourth Movement.

The four most eminent women in the early national movement were Xiang Jing-yu, Zai Zhang, Deng Ying-Zhao and Yong Zhi-Hua. Xiang Jing-yu was appointed as a Central Committee member and head of a new women’s bureau. After the formation of the first United Front the women’s activities were organised under Ho Xiang-ning in Canton. Zai Zhang and Deng Ying-Zhao worked under her to organise women belonging to all sections. They formed a liberation society, female telephone workers and the All Kwantung Women’s Alliance. The Communist Party also formed peasant organi-sations which, mobilising people, also undertook many women-related issues like marriage, divorce etc. that gave many women the strength to walk out of difficult marriages. During the Northern expedition hundred women were involved in propagandising. A women’s training school was set up in 1926 in Hankow where women were trained.

The movement among factory women surged ahead in this period. The reason for this was the presence of a large number of women in the factories. Many strikes were organised by the women members of the CCP. In 1927, the first United Front came to an end and it was the Kuomintang which dominated China’s politics. It was also a very important time for the CCP as it built one-to-one contact with the masses. Even during the United Front, the CCP had always been more close to the masses and built a mass base in the countryside which became the reason for its ultimate victory over the Kuomintang. During 1927-37 the labour move-ment was also suppressed by the Kuomintang. After the 1927 massacre the number of strikers dropped and so did the number of women involved in the strikes. However, a few violent strikes did take place, for example, in 1929, 400 women workers rushed into factories and smashed many windows. Women workers also held many public meetings for educational purposes. From 1928 to 1937, at least 26 women organisations were founded to carry out many tasks. These were: the Philanthropic Association of Shanghai Women, the Patriotic and Coura-geous Anti-Japanese team of Nanjing Women, 1931, the Women’s Nursing Team, the Asso-ciation of Women in the Capital for Promotion of National Products, 1931, the Organisation of Guangzhou Women for the Care of Refugees, and the Guangxi Military Troops, 1937. Thus, we see that women were in a range of activities from taking care of refugees to the boycott of foreign goods and even forming troops to directly fight the enemy.

The CCP knew the importance of mass support and was well aware that women constituted nearly half of this support. They were also aware of the rising awareness among women as far as their rights were concerned. Thus, the CCP by its support to various issues related to women won their support. The Kiangsi Soviet7 enacted marriage laws in 1931 and then in 1934. The laws gave freedom to women in divorce cases and if a woman moved to another place after divorce she was given the right to claim land. The CCP also advocated equality between men and women in land allotments. A pragmatic reason for land reforms was the need for women to work in the fields in order to keep the men free to fight.8

During the Long March undertaken by the Communists to escape the onslaught of the Kuomintang, women played a supportive role. Though the women participated in it but their main help came in the form of production, communication, transportation and public health. Women like Kang Ke-ching served the combat troops. The Women Aid Corps was a large organisation which rescued and nursed the wounded and carried supplies. From 1937 to 1945 women worked on the field as men fought the Japanese. The handicraft and textile industry was revived as the Japanese had occupied areas where the textile factories were located. Thus, again women became involved heavily in this field. Other occupations where women contributed were production of vege-table oil, cured leather, and paper. The organi-sations relating to women increased immensely and they were not only involved in the national movement but along with it they worked for the liberation of women as far as societal norms are considered. Several women were helped to walk out of their unhappy marriages by these organi-sations. Women actively participated in vital issues like division of land, disposal of the landlord’s confiscated property and the treat-ment of individual landlords. Both the land reforms as well as a boom in textile production helped women to come out of their shell and increase their participation in the larger affairs of society. The number of women in the Congress of the CCP also rose tremendously during this period.

After the formation of the CCP Government in 1949 at the end of three years of war, the All China Women’s Congress clearly stated that ‘contemporary work with women, while ensuring that work with peasant women is not jeopardised, should treat the urban women’s movement as its focus of concern’. After the end of the national movement one can say that women had broken old traditions to a greater extent and were equal partners in the success of the Chinese national movement. In the words of the 1948 resolution, they had ‘started on the road to complete liberation’.

Thus, the feminist movement in China gained momentum after the May Fourth Movement. At one point we see the two movements, that is, the national movement and the women’s movement running parallel to one other but with the emergence of the CCP the movements merged at one time. Both the movements needed each other’s support and the CCP played an important role in this. Women made tremendous strides during this period and women of China moved out of the darkness of ignorance. Another peculiar feature was that initially it was a tussle between men and women but the emer-gence of the CCP as a political party turned this tide. The role of women in the national move-ment carried out by the CCP can by no means be underestimated as this also provided women the much awaited platform for their emanci-pation. 


1. Bobby Siu, Women of China, Zed Press, 1982.

2. Delia Davin, Women Work, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1976.

3. Huang I-shu, ‘Women’s Emancipation’, China Report, sept-1974.

4. Jane Price, ‘Women and Leadership in the Chinese Communist Movement,1921-1945’, Bulletin of Con-cerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 7, 1976.

5. Chow Tse Tung, The May Fourth Movement, Harvard University Press, 1967.


1 Bobby Siu, Women of China, Zed Press, 1982, p. 87.

2 Jane Price, ‘Women and Leadership in the Chinese Communist Movement, 1921-1945’, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 7, 1976.

3 A custom where a girl child’s feet were bound together which most of the times crippled them and hampered their normal movement.

4 Huang I-shu, ‘Women’s Emancipation’, China Report, September 1974, pp. 61-67.

5 Lu Meiyi, “The Awakening of Chinese Women and the Women’s Movement in the early 20th Century’, Holding up Half the Sky: Chinese Women—Past, Present and the Future, Shirley Mow, Tao Jie and Zheng Bijun.

6 Chow Tse Tung, The May Fourth Movement, Havard University Press, 1967.

7 It was formed in 1931-34 when the Communists controlled and governed a sizeable number of populations.

8 Delia Davin, Women Work, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1976.

The author is a Research Officer of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. She is a researcher at the IPCS’ China Research Programme. She can be contacted at: hasija.namrata @gmail.com

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