Mao's `iron girls' back at home

ON an auspicious day in 1967, Pan Shuzhen dressed in a bright red gown, rode in procession to a neighboring village, and was wedded mid a burst of firecrackers to a man she barely knew. In cities nearby, Mao Tse-tung's fanatical Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was at a peak. Red Guards were burning books and smashing ancestral shrines in a bid to ``turn the old world upside down.'' But for a woman married in this northeastern farming hamlet, ancient traditions prevailed.

In keeping with Chinese custom, a village matchmaker had selected Mrs. Pan's husband and arranged the betrothal with her parents. A ``lucky date'' for the wedding was set by the lunar calendar. To symbolize nuptial happiness, the 19-year-old bride wore a traditional red qipao, a long fitted dress slit at the side. When Pan left home, her family tightly shut the door behind her: As a wife she would belong to her husband's household.

``My husband was very poor. At the wedding, all we had to eat was steamed dumplings,'' said Pan. Indeed, marriage had exiled Pan to Daqiuzhuang, one of the poorest villages in the area because of its salty soil.

```Better to eat grain husks for three years than to marry a man in Daqiuzhuang' - that was the saying in those days,'' Pan laughed. ``No one wanted to come here.''

But custom held it highly improper for a girl to voice her desires in marriage, as in most other things, and Pan yielded. According to Confucian dogma, she was born to be a virtuous wife and good mother, the clas- sic ideal for Chinese women.

Today, Pan, a middle-aged housewife and mother of three, happily fulfills that classic role in a more modern setting.

``My goals are to cook good meals and wash the clothes so they are very clean,'' Pan said in an interview in her brick farmhouse. ``I want to help my husband and children go off to work - to make them happy.''

Pan's acceptance of the Confucian duties of wife and mother reflects how deeply rooted sexist attitudes toward Chinese women have stubbornly survived 30 years of Maoist rule to reemerge with force in the past decade of reform.

Mao's idea of ``liberating'' Chinese women was to force them - virtually without exception - to take part in often grueling collective labor. In the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, millions of women organized into ``red women's shock brigades,'' marched to fields and factories to work shoulder to shoulder with men.

``Every day I went to the fields, even when I was pregnant,'' Pan said. ``The hardest time was when we had to dig irrigation ditches in winter. Even if I was tired and wanted to rest, I couldn't. If I didn't work, I couldn't eat.''

Pan earned about 40 fen (10 cents) a day. In the harvest season she labored from dawn to well after dusk reaping corn, beans, and Chinese sorghum. Leaving the fields exhausted, she returned home to cook, sew, and care for her young children.

Glorifying China's work force of ``iron girls,'' Mao proclaimed that ``women prop up half the sky,'' a propaganda slogan hailing equality of the sexes under communism. But in fact, only a handful of Chinese women rose to leading posts in the workplace, Communist Party, or government. The majority remained victims of the deeply ingrained Confucian belief that women are inferior to men. Lacking educational opportunities, most labored at monotonous, lowly jobs with little hope of advancement.

``I never went to school and I can't read [Chinese] characters,'' Pan said. ``I have no culture.'' Pan is not alone. Today, two-thirds of China's 220 million illiterates are women, according to official statistics.

In 1978, the Maoist policies that had superficially emancipated Pan and other women from the home began to collapse under the pragmatic reforms of leader Deng Xiaoping. As Deng subordinated Mao's radical feminism to his drive for rapid economic growth, many women across China began quitting the work force, while others met with heightened discrimination.

``The traditional division of labor between men and women - men work outside and women at home - has emerged again,'' the official New China News Agency reported earlier this year.

While leaders like Deng have not openly sanctioned the unfair treatment of women, neither have they taken effective measures against it. For example, Deng's reforms had granted factory directors more power to hire and fire - in essence, more power to discriminate. The state-run press, however, has justified the widespread layoffs of women by publishing statistics indicating that women are less productive than men.

Moreover, articles have recently appeared in the official press endorsing the concept of women's returning home as ``a more realistic approach to women's liberation.''

In Daqiuzhuang, officials took advantage of market-oriented reforms to diversify from agriculture into rural industry. As the village economy boomed, the average yearly income for its 3,000 peasants increased nearly sixfold, to 1,000 yuan ($270).

Enjoying unprecedented wealth, Pan and the majority of Daqiuzhuang's working women gladly quit their jobs to become housewives, reviving the age-old Confucian role that Maoist campaigns had failed to eradicate.

``After we got rich, I stopped working right away,'' said Pan. ``Now I cook, do the marketing, straighten up the rooms, clean house, and wash the clothes ... I'm very satisfied.''

Pan said her husband is also pleased with the new arrangement. He doesn't do any housework. ``Why should he?'' Pan exclaimed. ``I'm here.''

Each morning, Pan rises at 6 a.m. and walks to a market to buy a breakfast of freshly fried, twisted rolls - a northern Chinese favorite - for her husband, two sons, and daughter.

At noon and dinner time, Pan often cooks homemade wheat noodles or steams baozi, wheat buns stuffed with meat, over a tiny two-burner gas stove. ``I try hard to make good food for my family,'' she said, proudly showing off a new refrigerator.

Pan sews her family's clothing on an old-fashioned, foot-powered machine and knits woolen sweaters for winter. For the daily load of laundry, she has a small washing machine.

In her leisure time, Pan chats with her neighbors, baby-sits for friends, or watches television. ``I watch all kinds of shows,'' she said, ``especially operas.''

While reform has proved a blessing for traditionally minded women, it has created a nightmare for others, especially young, better-educated women, who want or need to work.

As reform intensifies competition among Chinese firms, profit-minded employers are openly discriminating against women, who are stereotyped as weak-willed and less competent than men. As companies move to cut millions of redundant workers from their payrolls, women are most often the first to go, according to official surveys.

``Women employees are likely to be the first to be fired when a unit is overstaffed and the last to be hired when new employees are needed,'' the official China Women's News reported. Women represent 61 percent of Chi- na's unemployed youth.

Many Chinese employers are rejecting women applicants to avoid the costs of paid maternity leave and substitute labor. A nationwide survey by China's trade union federation showed that only 5 percent of employers were willing to hire women for jobs that could be done by either sex. Women are required to score higher than men on qualification tests for some enterprise jobs, according to official press reports.

``The problems of women are becoming more serious in all fields,'' said Kang Keqing, chairwoman of the All-China Women's Federation.

Traditional forms of abuse of women are also reappearing after being curtailed under Mao. Women no longer bind their feet into ``lilies,'' a symbol of subservience until early this century. But in rural areas today, thousands of young women are sold as wives, and even concubines exist, according to press reports.

Baby girls are more likely to be abandoned by their parents, and daughters to be kept out of school. More than 80 percent of school-age children who have never entered the classroom are girls. Peking's ``one-couple, one-child'' population regime has caused instances of female infanticide, as most couples want a son to secure the family line. And the deliberate abortion of female fetuses has created a slight population imbalance in some localities, according to official press reports.

Sitting on a bed in her spacious farmhouse, Pan said she supports her 18-year-old working daughter. But if the daughter marries, has children, and decides to be a housewife, Pan said, she would also approve.

``Housework is an important job, too,'' Pan exclaimed. On a nearby bedroom chest hangs a flowing, red silk qipao. Is it Pan's? ``Oh no,'' she laughed, ``it's my daughter's.''

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