Course:HIST481/Women and Education in Contemporary China

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May Fourth Movement

The May Fourth Movement grew out of student demonstrations in Beijing on May 4, 1919. It was a cultural, political and anti-imperialist movement in response to the dissatisfying reaction of the Chinese Government to the Treaty of Versailles. As a result the new Chinese nationalism of the May fourth period emerged. The student protest of May 4, 1919 over the Shandong problem gave rise to a “new era of Chinese intellectual and political awakening” (Pepper 89).

Effects on the Chinese Society

Prior 1919 China strongly advocated and put idealistic devotion in the power of Western science and democracy to modernize China on the grounds of a cultural renewal. After 1919, the student protest stirred up doubt within the population in regards to the pursuit of Western emulation. From then on Chinese intellectuals would reassess their position and devotion to foreign trends. The May 4th generation was seeking cultural, political and anti-imperialist answers (Pepper). The student protests brought attention to China’s national rights and dedicated their devotion to reach greater equality within the Chinese society. This had wide-ranging influences and affected the position of women, as it aimed to set them free of cultural restraints and increase educational opportunities. Following political demonstrations of 1919 against the imperialist authorities and the weak government, the questions of educational equality became more dominant.

The Role of Females

After 1919 female students started to play an important role in the protest movement. Many women who were part of the demonstrations had either “graduated from or were currently at the women’s schools established since 1901” (McElroy 363). Tianjin’s Zhili First Women’s Normal School provided unprecedented leadership and guidance for women in the demonstrations. After student arrests in Beijing on May 4, the students at Zhili First Women’s Normal School understood to contribute to the demonstrations. “Within a few days they decided to form a women’s patriotic organization and tool several important preparatory steps” (363). They urged Beijing government to refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles and release students that had been arrested during demonstrations. Additionally they instigated the boycott of Japanese products and promotion of Chinese goods.

The Role of Women in the Great Leap Forward

The era of “The Great Leap Forward” was a time of social and economic campaign in China spearheaded by Mao Zedong under the umbrella of Communist Party of China. This campaign was aimed at transforming the country from the traditional agrarian economy to a modernized communist economy in social status. The entire text will highlight the input of women’s participation in Chinese revolution during Mao’s era. The role of women in this revolution brought remarkable progress and changes for the people of china. This comprehensive research will discuss women’s contribution in legal status, education, political development, and economic progress.

During the revolution, in 1958, China focused on making speedy steps for industrialization in order to put up with capitalist states in the region and beyond (Lee and Guobin 24). In this period, China was occupied by foreign authorities who had been in china beyond a hundred years. The Soviet Union was funding development projects throughout china under Nikita Khrushchev, head of the Soviet Union in china (Ebrey 23). Mao and Nikita came to a point that they differed in their political ideologies that lead to Nikita withdrawing the projects from china. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, China lost the facility to continue with these projects. According to Andors, Chinese economic progress was performing “poorly due to the corrupt political environment”.

It was in the course of this historical period that Mao Zedong, the prime frontrunner of the communist party began a revolution with the goal of developing China on capitalism (Andors 12). Mao believed that china had the capacity to develop on itself without the support of the Soviet Union. The project brought some essential reforms yet, on the other hand, disastrous moments were witnessed in Chinese economy. Zedong’s political plan was met with hostilities in some quarters. He had proposed policies that would propel china to make a massive leap forward economically. However, during the implementation of these policies, a crisis was generated throughout China resulting in a widespread disaster after his death (Andors 37). His plan had failed in the implementation stage, and there was a total collapse of all systems of governance. The country experienced acute famine in the aftermath and so people were doomed to hunger.

The Role of Women

The “Great Leap Forward” program had many benefits in women’s movement, in china. Because of their extreme low status in china, they had suffered seriously just like many women in other parts of the world. The “filial piety” of the women, in china, subjected them in total abuse of their rights as equal citizens (Lee and Guobin 29). They experienced abusive practices like wife beating, female infanticide, and sale of women. At the time, china was considered to be the most brutal towards women in the world. In the cause of time, educated women in china began advocating for democracy which would provide for equal rights. Their main motivation in advocating for women liberation was to revolutionize the Chinese society, and make it stronger and equal for both genders than was before [1].

They apportioned blame of poor Chinese economy to poor a family structure that undermined women. Women without education as Ebrey argues could not “bring up a healthy family” (134). Their future was also grim and hopeless without education. Consequently, the need to liberate women against humiliation was developed with the few educated ones spearheading the push. The “Great Leap Movement” in china was a landmark season in Chinese women history. This season brought profound benefits and developments to women. On February 1960, women federation of china convened the second executive delegation of women. In this conference, women’s role in “The Great Leap” was improved and adjusted (Lawrance 122).

Economical Participation

Lawrence, states that, although the end of The Great Leap Forward Movement was disastrous, women’s labor force and “their participation in national building were increased substantially. During this time, there were establishments of communal kitchens in the effort of freeing women to work in agricultural fields. Women participation in agriculture was increased during this season. Women labor force was mobilized to contribute in rural development (Andors 56). Their role in rural development was mainly in intensive land cultivation through cooperatives and communal service groups. Out of this mobilization, women’s participation in Chinese development rose to 60 percent. Mao’s belief that a woman can as well do what a man can do seemed to be the motivation behind the inclusion of women in the workforce.

Another productive role that women undertook was on domestic labor, which included shoe making, sewing, food processing, and child care. Women’s participation in the workforce brought substantial gains in the overall national production. According to Wemheuer and Kimberley, inclusion of women in the workforce improved “their social status and financial standing in life” (47). Their participation earned them economic independence thereby improving their image in the society (Andors 87). The general public attitude towards women and their social identity changed. Working women were praised for being part of Chinese revolution.


Formal education before the revolution was reserved for men. There were a high number of illiterate women especially in rural china where formal education was traditionally a reserve for men. However, numerous campaigns were conducted to combat women illiteracy around the country. In Mao era, women were given equal treatment in education for the first time, enhancing their roles in the education sector [2] These campaigns resulted in a sharp decrease of illiteracy among women. Educated women took up roles in various companies and political positions to foster national building, which was most needed during this great revolution.(Andors 123)

Political participation

Mao launched an added campaign to include women in politics of the country. This was part of his policy that targeted gender equality. Educated women were given political positions as part of this policy. “Cadre management system” ensured that women got political positions by being appointed to these positions by the state (Hershatter 45). This system enabled women to participate fully in political scenes. The only thing that stood on the way for women not to be appointed for political positions was illiteracy which resulted from previous denial of education for women. However, women’s future participation in political structures was well assured with the necessary education. They were well accommodated in the political structures, and the impact of their service could not be denied [3].


In this study, the role of women during the “Great Leap Forward” was highly significant to achieve the goals the revolution although political mismanagement collapsed these efforts. During Mao’s era, the presence of ladies in the work place created high revenue collection and speeded the goal of the revolution. Education of women, on the other hand, assured the country an added workforce and talents for positive developments of the Chinese future. Undoubtedly, there were greater achievements of the entire country following the participation of women in all sectors of society.

Women's role in the Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution had many social and political goals, including the achievement of gender equality and an equal participation of women in the revolutionary cause. As previously stated, there were greater achievements in various sectors following the participation of women. The Cultural Revolution emphasized this point through state policies, striving to reduce gender inequality and stress how both men and women should devote themselves to the revolution. Thus, women’s role during the Cultural Revolution was also reformed to include their duties to the movement while traditional roles of women in the family were maintained.

Women’s Role and the Double Burden

The main role of women during the Cultural Revolution was to contribute to the revolutionary movement, usually through their participation in the labour force. There was also enormous pressure to publically display ones “redness” and political participation to the proletariat. Young women did play a major role in Red Guard activities; young, unmarried women as Red Guards had an easier time in living up to their revolutionary roles. During the Cultural Revolution there was strong encouragement of women’s participation in political affairs and in areas of production during this period. [4] For married women, however, it was not so easy. This pressure created a double burden for a married woman, who had to not only devote herself to the care of her husband and children but also now had to participate in political activities which further taxed her time and energy. Traditional patriarchy preserved in that women still expected to have roles as wives and mothers in addition to their new roles in the revolution. Propaganda of the time included slogans such as “times have changed, men and women are equal” and “what men can do, women can do too”. However, this propaganda ignored women’s lives as wives and mothers and their “inside” work demands for the family were ignored. The state also perpetrated this burden by their emphasis on “proletarian consciousness” as a solution to all problems, which had implications of “blaming the victim”, regarding women’s problems and their conflicting demands as a woman’s own responsibility. [5] Women were expected to undertake all domestic work but this contribution to the economy was not recognized.

State Policies Towards Women

The Cultural Revolution officially sought to deconstruct gender inequality. The official policy towards women in the 1960s clearly expected women to sacrifice themselves for the revolution. During this time, there was an ambiguous policy towards women in simultaneously emphasizing the duty of women to participate in production but also to keep their duties at home. [6] The policy had a one sided emphasis on production without taking into consideration the dynamics of the family. Additionally, the Red Guards included both male and female students, showing no gender bias in who was participating in Mao’s mobilization. However, feminism was severely criticized as being a bourgeois manifestation and counterrevolutionary; women were urged to become like men in terms of political activities and labour. Thus the Cultural Revolution proclaimed to achieve gender equality but in reality, women’s roles were merely reformed to allow them to have traditional male roles and state policy focused on how women should emulate men in joining the revolutionary cause.

Women’s Education during the Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution disrupted education for all students between 1966 to 1968, with some schools not opening again until the 1970s. The participation of university and middle school girls in the Red Guards highlights the more equal gender distribution of students in the cities but the trends of female education lagging behind males was still evident in the countryside. In rural areas, it was traditionally more valuable to invest in a son’s education than a daughter’s because girls married out of the family. To mothers, it seemed “the boys are mine and the girls belong to others”. [7] Overall, the most gains in female literacy and education occurred during the Mao era, especially during the Cultural Revolution. The expansion and structure of mass education during the Cultural Revolution allowed easier access to schooling for rural villagers. The Cultural Revolution decade’s expansion of mass education thus increased quantitative gains in the number of children, girls and boys, attending school.

Post-Mao women's education

Institutional Discrimination against Women

In spite of the revival of educational system after the ten-year hiatus of the Cultural Revolution, the 1980s of China still showed unequal and unfair treatment to women. According to a sample survey conducted by the National Women's Association in five engineering universities in Beijing, 36.9% of the answers from 622 female students point to the fact that professors pay more attention in the classroom to male students. [8] These professors unjustly showed prejudice and favouritism. Female students were hence being neglected for their educational needs. Worse than this would be the evidence that many educational institutions had in fact set quotas for the admission of female students, who entered the schools in much lower numbers than male students. In order to meet the quotas, these institutions set different criteria for male and female students. For example, in 1982 and 1988 respectively, women accounted for only 16.5 percent of students at Qinghua University and 20 percent at Beijing University, two of the most prestigious higher educational institutions in China. [9] Despite the fact that some female students might have the potential and intellect to join these schools, they were still deemed as unfit and disqualified in the eyes of these institutions. These female students were made to believe that “girls were intellectually, physically and emotionally inferior to boys - an old belief newly clothed in scientific garb - helps to legitimize the limiting of educational and career opportunities for girls.” [10] Such stereotypes hindered the possible learning opportunities for female students, who thus lacked the interaction, identification and support that their presence could otherwise promote.

Re-institution of All Girls’ Schools and the Emergence of Women’s Studies

As a result of this institutional discrimination, all girls’ schools were re-instituted in order to give women greater opportunities to develop intellectually. As the president of Fudan University, Xie Xide said: “Separating schools for girls are very important; they give girls more self-confidence because they have no boys to compare themselves to.” [11] Female students did not have to live under constant stereotypical and societal pressure that asserted their sense of “inferiority” or “deficiency.” They could enjoy a sense of intellectual freedom and individuality among themselves. In addition, women's studies sprang up into existence all over the Chinese intellectual landscape to reconstruct the significance of women as a social category. [12] In a way, women’s studies empowered and vitalized the gender identities of female students, who could hence become more confident and comfortable in expressing their opinions.

Job Preference over Male Employees

In spite of the gradual development of female empowerment and self-identities, state-centralized admission and job assignment procedures in the 1980s had been modified to permit for greater autonomy in recruitment on the part of the employer. One result was that the long-standing problem of making full use of the talents of female graduates had further intensified. [13] In 1985, a third of Fudan University graduates who were assigned by the state were rejected by potential employers. [14] Female employees were thus not given equal opportunities. One cause of rejecting female potential employees was the so-called “distinctive female characteristic.” Female intelligence was considered to be fundamentally different: verbal and intuitive rather than analytical and technical, so not suitable for managerial or other decision-making positions. The other cause was a woman's biological difference and her family roles. [15] Once again, they were seen as inadequate and incompetent. Their “feminine” traits became the impediments to their potential success in the job markets.


Most Chinese women of the 1980s still did not receive just and equal benefits. The emergence of all women’s schools and women’s studies seemed to be reactionary responses to their unfair treatments. However, chauvinist institutions and employers narrow-mindedly deemed female candidates as weak and inferior simply because of their biological difference. They could not accept the idea of women working and learning with them. The majority of the Chinese women were hoping that one day they could be emancipated from this gender discrimination.


  1. Ebrey, Patricia B. Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook. New York: Free Press [u.a., 1981. Print.
  2. Hershatter, Gail. Women in China's Long Twentieth Century. Berkeley: Global, Area, and International Archive, 2007. Print.
  3. Andors, Phyllis. The Unfinished Liberation of Chinese Women: 1949-1980. Bloomington: Indiana university press, 1983. Print.
  4. Tamara Jacka, Women's work in rural China: Change and continuity in an era of reform. Cambridge University Press, 1997. 37.
  5. Kay Ann Johnson, Women, the family, and peasant revolution in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. 182.
  6. Vibeke Hemmel and Pia Sindbjerg, Women in rural China: Policy towards women before and after the Cultural Revolution. Curzon Press, 1984. 73.
  7. Margery Wolf, Revolution postponed: Women in contemporary China. Stanford University Press, 1985. 127.
  8. Sheng Shihan et al. “Participation of Women in Higher Education in China.” Women's Participation in Higher Education: China, Nepal and the Philippines (Bangkok: UNESCO, 1990) 39-40.
  9. Hooper, Beverley. 1991. "Gender and Education." Chinese Education: Problems, Policies, and Prospects. Ed. Irving Epstein. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991) 352-74.
  10. Emily Honig and Gail Hershatter. Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980s. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988) 20.
  11. Honig and Hershatter, 322.
  12. Carol C. Fan. 316.
  13. Ibid. 305-6.
  14. Ibid. 305-6.
  15. Hooper. op. cit. 359.
Carol C. Fan. “Mixed Blessings: Modernizing the Education of Women.” Higher Education in Post-Mao China. Ed. Bob Adamson and Michael Agelasto. HK: Hong Kong University Press, 1998. 307-8.

Hemmel, Vibeke, and Pia Sindbjerg. Women in rural China: Policy towards women before and after the Cultural Revolution. Curzon Press, 1984. Print.

Honig, Emily and Gail Hershatter. Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980s. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988. Print

Hooper, Beverley. "Gender and Education." Chinese Education: Problems, Policies, and Prospects. Ed. Irving Epstein. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991. 352-74.

Jacka, Tamara. Women's work in rural China: Change and continuity in an era of reform. Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Johnson, Kay Ann. Women, the family, and peasant revolution in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Print.

Lawrance, Alan. China Under Communism. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Lee, Ching K, and Guobin Yang. Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China. Washington, D.C: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2007. Print.

McElroy, Sarah. “Forging a New Role for Women: Zhili First Women’s Normal School and the Growth of Women’s Education in China, 1901-21” Education, Culture, and Identity in Twentieth-Century China. Ed. Glen Peterson, Ruth Hayhow, Yongling Lu. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2001. 363. Print.

Pepper, Suzanne. Radicalism and Education Reform in 20th-Century China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 89. Print.

Sheng Shihan et al. “Participation of Women in Higher Education in China.” Women's Participation in Higher Education: China, Nepal and the Philippines. Bangkok: UNESCO, 1990. 14-64.

Wemheuer, Felix, and Kimberley E. Manning. Eating Bitterness: New Perspectives on China's Great Leap Forward and Famine. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. Print.

Wolf, Margery. Revolution postponed: Women in contemporary China. Stanford University Press, 1985. Print.