Men and Women Are the Same?: Politicized Gender Inequality of Female Sent-down Youth during the Chinese Cultural Revolution

March 19, 2018


The Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) has long been characterised as a period of “gender erasure”. Indeed, many researchers have argued that gender and sexuality were completely erased from Chinese society during this time in the name of equality between the sexes and the proletarianization of the masses. Into this void, Chairman Mao’s slogan “the times have changed, men and women are the same” was propagated as a powerful message to millions of Chinese women, in particular, that men and women were equal.


To present a more nuanced understanding of women’s image in the Cultural Revolution, we focus on the gendered images of “sent-down” youths during the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement (shangshan xiaxiang). The movement was a national political campaign in which millions of privileged urban youth were sent to mountainous areas or farming villages to learn from the workers and farmers there. The movement is a fascinating case study as the young participants or “sent-down” youths were not only targeted for intense communist political indoctrination, but also subject to and influenced by the combined and sometimes conflicting gender images and messages of urban education, rapid social changes, and deeply-rooted rural conventions concerning gender differences.


By examining the gender images of female sent-down youths, we illustrate that what disappeared from public discourse in the Cultural Revolution was not gender per se but any discussion or acknowledgment of gender inequality. Mao’s famous slogan—women are the same as men—conflated equality and sameness. In doing so, the Maoist party-state effected a form of political suppression, killing any real possibility for gender equality through the projection and insistence upon the reality of their own political and cultural utopia.   


Gender Images of Female Sent-down Youths

We focus on three dimensions of female sent-down youths’ experience affected by gender imagery and discourse: physical appearance, mode of labour, and spouse choice.


First, the female sent-down youths who were transferred to rural areas had fewer choices regarding clothes than those who stayed in cities because of the underdeveloped conditions in these remote regions. The masculine appearance of female sent-down youths was closely related to their political mission. During the Cultural Revolution, it was asserted that real female revolutionaries should abandon their pursuit of individual beauty to contribute to the political project of strengthening the nation and reshaping society. This shift not only ignored individual differences among various women, but also denied their very existence as a distinct gender with needs, experiences, and contributions different in any number of ways from those of men.


Second, the Maoist party-state during the Cultural Revolution considered sent-down women an important and “undiscovered” source of labour to develop rural China. Spurred on by the popularity of Chairman Mao’s slogan, women eager to participate in social production behaved as if they were fulfilling an imperial edict, and could not wait to engage in manual, traditionally “masculine” labour. Their behaviour was both motivated and reinforced by government propaganda portraying female labourers as heroines.


Third, given the politicisation of every aspect of people’s daily lives during this period, love became the least significant consideration when it came to marriage, with class background being the most important. If a sent-down woman’s family class status was not revolutionary, it would severely limit her future career development. However, because marrying a peasant was considered revolutionary, a woman could gain this “revolutionary” political credential through marriage, thus alleviating the political discrimination against her. In this way, ironically, marrying a poor and lower-middle peasant—a far from ideal choice for young urban citizens—was implied by the government to be a guarantee of a promising political future for female sent-down youths.


The Annihilation of Femininity

What specific factors contribute to the gender images of female sent-down youths? We focus on both social and political phenomena in which female sent-down youths engaged in in the rural areas, as well as the use of the Maoist discourse on gender as a tactic for suppressing gender-based demands rather than just being blind to difference.


First, there were clear rural-urban differences in gender image. The disjuncture between comparative gender equality in the cities and the conventional gender discrimination in rural regions was exacerbated by the unequal class status between local peasants and the cadres of sent-down youths. According to Mao’s instructions on December 22, 1968, “It is necessary for educated young people to go to the countryside to be reeducated by the poor and lower-middle peasants”. In Mao’s framing, sent-down youths were the ones who needed to be “reformed,” while peasants or herdsmen were seen as having pure revolutionary credentials, making them ideal teachers to reeducate privileged urban youth. When it came to gender issues, the female sent-down youths had little possibility to challenge misconceptions about and discrimination towards women in rural regions. Furthermore, such issues as liberating women were seen as having lower priority and ordered to concede to the goal of mobilising peasants. Dogmatic and 'uneducated' peasants, not 'educated' young women, held discursive power.


Second, women’s liberation was an idea caught in multiple contradictions. On the one hand, the party-state and media proclaimed the equality of the genders and celebrated the role of women in the revolution. But on the other hand, women themselves were constrained and discouraged in their daily lives from developing a specific gender consciousness, and even more, warned against attempting to bring up gender issues when class issues were given such unquestioned supremacy.  


As a result, women’s liberation was reduced to a sort of amiable competition between females and males for revolutionary performances. Administrative and legislative intervention by the government stimulated the process of Chinese women’s liberation, but at the same time, the structure of the system itself impeded and even discouraged women’s gender awareness. What “liberation” women achieved came to them as passive recipients of legislation and administration—something (male) power holders bestowed upon women as a donation or prize. This was the case during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and was intensified by people’s adulation of Chairman Mao.


Overall, under the extreme political atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution, conflict between the genders was concealed by the class struggle constructed by the party-state. In this sense, gender inequality was subordinate to politics. This is not to say that gender issues were completely forgotten by the public, but that they were framed as less important, even dangerously distracting. Through political rhetoric, women were granted a superficially equal social status with men, but the cost was the annihilation of femininity and individuality. They were given a chance to be as thoroughly “red” and revolutionary as their male counterparts, and the only thing they were required to do was to become indistinguishable from men, that is, to forget that they were women.

Wenqi Yang is a doctoral student at the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 


Fei Yan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Tsinghua University. He received academic training from University of Oxford and Stanford University. His research focuses on political sociology, historical sociology, and Chinese societies.Image credit: Chinese Posters







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