When Revolution in China Elevated Women and Took Prostitution off the Market 

By Mary Lou Greenberg

During the recent Beijing Olympics, the Washington Post reported that up to 10 million women in China earn income from prostitution, including those for whom it’s the main source of income to others who sometimes exchange sex for money or rent. The Post quoted Jing Jun, a sociology and AIDS policy professor at Tsinghua University: “There was no open prostitution 25 years ago. Fifteen years ago you didn’t find sex workers in remote areas and cities. But now it’s prevalent in every city, every country.”

What a change from when I visited China in 1971 during the Cultural Revolution. Women were making giant strides towards genuine liberation. Female crane operators, agricultural and hospital workers, political and military leaders alike held their heads high when they talked about “holding up half the sky,” the revolutionary slogan that I heard everywhere and that increasingly described women’s lives and Chinese society overall.

After the 1949 revolution, the government outlawed arranged marriages, female infanticide, bound feet (where a girl’s feet were crushed and forced to grow into small stumps – considered “beautiful” in old China), and other relics of women’s complete subjugation to men. Divorce was made easy for women – and there was a flood of women who came forward to rid themselves of abusing, loveless marriages. Most of all, the new government encouraged and unleashed the women themselves to step up, speak out and struggle against the old practices, customs and ideas that kept women in virtual slavery to men.

Prostitution was essentially eliminated a few years after 1949. Brothels were closed and the countless thousands of prostitutes – one estimate was 100,000 in Shanghai alone – were given new jobs that enabled them to take care of themselves and their families, good health care and medical treatment (venereal disease was rampant at the time.) Just as important, political and health workers gave the women a sense of new dignity and respect by explaining that they had been forced into prostitution by poverty and oppression, and that times had changed and women were no longer to be abused and treated as sex objects.

In pre-revolutionary China, women were bound by the Confucian values that females must obey their fathers when young, their husbands when married (or their mothers-in-law who acted as patriarchal surrogates) and their sons in old age. In 1971, I heard the new revolutionary slogan proclaimed everywhere: “Times have changed; whatever men can do, women can do,” and during the Cultural Revolution, women stepped to the fore in many arenas.

There was intense political struggle around the role of women, as well as around the direction of society overall, and some shortcomings and problems. But overwhelmingly, socialist China concretely offered a glimpse of a future where there was no need, no desire, no compulsion for women to turn themselves – or to be turned by others – into commodities, and women were valued for their varied contributions, their intelligence, creativity and full participation in all of society.

Today’s capitalist China has reversed all of that.

September 12, 2008

Mary Lou Greenberg is Associate Editor of On The Issues Magazine.

Also See: Divide, Conquer and Sell by Merle Hoffman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


The Café