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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: October 2017

15 - The position of women in China: 1978

from Part III - Around the World


This report was first published in John Reid and Anne Gollan (eds), Visiting China, Waverly Offset Publishing Group, Canberra, 1979, pp. 43-9.

All of our group of sixteen — eleven women and five men — were interested in the position of women in China, though the questions we wanted to ask varied greatly from one individual to the next. One of our number was primarily concerned with sexuality and sexual satisfaction among Chinese women, a matter he gained little information about. Others brought to China questions arising directly from issues concerning the Women's Movement in Australia, issues which assumed somewhat different shapes when translated into a different language and society. But we all wanted to learn how women's lives had changed with the huge changes in Chinese society during this century, and what their lives are like now. We gathered answers to our questions wherever we went: at the Lung Tan neighbourhood in Peking, at the Chiang Chiao people's commune on the outskirts of Shanghai, in conversations with our guides on the bus or train, but principally in a three-hour discussion organised for us with representatives from the Shanghai branch of the All-China Women's Federation.

Our guides had asked us to prepare a list of questions for that discussion before it took place. The discussion then began with a long and beautifully constructed response to our list. The speaker was Mrs Wu, head of one of the departments in the Shanghai branch of the Women's Federation, a stocky woman whose greying hair suggested that she was probably between forty and fifty years old. She took the brunt of our later questioning, too, answering us seriously but not without humour. Parts of her opening reply summarised much of the information that we had been picking up piecemeal.

Before the liberation of 1949, she told us, all China had been oppressed by foreign imperialists and Chinese bureaucrats. But women had led a particularly bitter life, for as Mao noted as early as 1927, they were oppressed not only by the political, religious, and class authority systems which oppressed everyone, but also by the authority of men. There were limitations imposed on the employment of women, so that only 180 000 were employed in productive (as distinct from domestic) labour, and they — like children — were cheap labour, paid lower wages than men.