During the first half of the 20th century, the people of China waged an epic struggle to throw off oppression. It was Mao Tsetung who pointed out that three mountains weighed on the Chinese people. They were feudalism, bureaucrat-capitalism, and imperialism. Each of these mountains produced untold suffering for women. But in 1949, after more than 20 years of armed struggle led by the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Tsetung, the Chinese people overthrew these mountains. From 1949 until 1976, there was great struggle against women's oppression and the life of women improved dramatically. Today, these three mountains of feudalism, bureaucrat-capitalism, and imperialism have returned, and so too the most horrendous oppression of women. Once again, these mountains will have to be destroyed.
"Women hold up half the sky!"
"In many rural areas they still think women are useless. They do field work, give birth, take care of the husband, the children, the in-laws. So to them if there is a family problem they think the sky has collapsed."
LUTOU, China--Wang Xuexia remembers vividly the cool May night when the minibus raced past fields of rice and corn and dropped her high school classmate at the emergency room, disheveled and semiconscious, exuding the sickly sweet odor of pesticide.
Though fresh out of nursing school, Ms. Wang knew the drill: pump the stomach, then give oxygen, a shot of Atropine and, intravenously, an antidote to the lethal poison. Such patients were so common at the hospital in Lutou that the diagnosis was never in question: another desperate rural woman attempting suicide.
In fact, just three nights later, Ms. Wang was at it again, this time working to save an elementary school friend. But in this case, by the time the tractor pulled up to the four-story white concrete hospital, the woman's heart had stopped.
In Lutou, a remote rural town of 36,000 people in Hubei Province, the emergency room treated 48 attempted suicides from January 1996 to June 1997--43 were women 20 to 45 years old.
China has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and the highest female suicide rate in the world. It has been estimated that some 56 percent of female suicides in the world--about 500 a day--occur in China. And most of these women taking their own lives are young, rural women.
In China there are three times as many suicides in the countryside as in the cities. It is the only country where more women than men die as a result of suicide each year--twice as many in the age group under 45.
In 1996 one women's magazine in China decided to publicize and address this problem by paying readers to send in stories of women who had killed themselves. The magazine received hundreds of responses and, for the next two years, ran monthly profiles of suicides. The letters showed how many women in the countryside feel hopeless and have no sense of self worth.
According to China's officials, the overall rate of suicide in China comes out to 18 per 100,000 deaths a year. But this number doesn't include many suicides recorded as "violent death" or "accidental death, cause unknown." Taking these deaths into account, the rate would be much higher. Also, official suicide statistics in China only tally deaths--and don't reveal the many suicide attempts that are unsuccessful. In Lutou there were eight deaths among the 48 patients who attempted suicide in 1996 and the first half of 1997. And the death rate is almost certainly higher in more remote towns with less sophisticated hospitals.
Researchers from the World Bank found that the overall suicide rate in China was about three times the average for the rest of the world and that the rate among women was five times that for other countries.
Many of the women killing themselves in China are doing it by drinking organophosphate pesticide. Although it is painless to swallow, this chemical quickly produces a wide range of symptoms, including chest pains, wheezing, cramps and, later, seizures and coma. Most of these suicides in the countryside occur during the summer, when farm work is exhausting.
In 1919, when he was a young revolutionary student, Mao Tsetung wrote a series of essays advocating equal rights for women. After the suicide of a young girl in Changsha whose parents had forced her to marry against her will, he wrote nine articles in 13 days denouncing the oppression of women in feudal society. Mao wrote about the death of Miss Chao:
"Yesterday's incident was important. It happened because of the shameful system of arranged marriages, because of the darkness of the social system, the negation of the individual will, and the absence of the freedom to choose one's own mate. It is to be hoped that interested persons will comment on all aspects of this affair, and that they will defend the honor of a girl who died a martyr's death for the cause of the freedom to choose her own love...
"The family of the parents and the family of the future husband are both bound up with society; they are both parts of society. We must understand that the family of the parents and the family of the future husband have committed a crime, but the source of this crime lies in society. It is true that the two families themselves carried out this crime; but a great part of the culpability was transmitted to them by society. Moreover, if society were good, even if the families had wanted to carry out this crime, they would not have had the opportunity to do so...
"Since there are factors in our society that have brought about the death of Miss Chao, this society is an extremely dangerous thing. It was capable of causing the death of Miss Chao; it could also cause the death of Miss Chieh, Miss Sun, or Miss Li. It is capable of killing men as well as women. All of us, the potential victims, must be on our guard before this dangerous thing that could inflict a fatal blow on us. We should protest loudly, warn the other human beings who are not yet dead, and condemn the countless evils of our society."
In 1949, China was liberated and the people began building a new socialist society. In 1950, a new Marriage Law went into effect which abolished the old feudal marriage system, proclaimed equality between men and women, established the right to divorce, equal rights to property, and equal responsibility for the care of children. It outlawed bigamy, child marriages, and interfering with widows who wanted to remarry. And it called for families based on a new kind of marriage, based on free will and mutual respect.
The new Marriage Law was clear on the relationship of marriage to society: "Husband and wife are in duty bound to strive jointly for...the building up of the new society." The Communist Party launched mass campaigns to educate people about the new marriage and divorce laws, and through this many men, as well as women, changed their way of thinking. People came to see that if the women were not free, the people as a whole could not be free. And that if women were kept in an enslaved position, then half of society could not be mobilized to participate in the building of a new socialist society. For over 25 years, fighting the oppression of women was an integral part of revolutionizing society and women were liberated to participate fully in every sphere of building socialism.
In 1976 Mao died and his enemies in the party who had been trying to restore capitalism staged a military coup and seized power. Proletarian rule and socialism were overthrown and capitalism was brought back. Now, the oppressive ways of class society, including the oppression of women, are in full effect in China. And feudal tradition, free market capitalism, and the "countless evils of society" are once again causing the death of Miss Chao.
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