An Intrerview with Mary Lou Greenberg

Breaking All Tradition's Chains

A Glimpse of the Future from Maoist China

Revolutionary Worker #1045, March 5, 2000

The following excerpts are taken from an interview with Mary Lou Greenberg which appeared in Revolution magazine. Mary Lou Greenberg is the spokesperson for the Revolutionary Communist Party, New York Branch. She was active in the women's liberation movement in the 1960s, visited revolutionary China in 1971, and is currently active in the struggle for women's reproductive rights.

Q: You said in your article "Women Are Not Incubators" that when you visited revolutionary China during the Cultural Revolution in 1971, "It was like being on another planet. I never thought I could feel so different as a woman. That it would be possible to walk down a city street, head up..." Why don't you expand on that.

A: I've thought about my experience in China a lot lately what with all the bourgeois commentators talking about...the so-called "death of communism." What we saw in revolutionary China was on the far edge of history. It was like going on a time machine into the future--not some future as it's pictured in most science fiction where people are the same (men are macho explorers, fighters and dominators over women) and only their surroundings are different. I mean a future where the people are different and are creating a totally different society.

In China in 1971, just past the high tide of the Cultural Revolution, we saw a new world coming into being. As a revolutionary who had been active in the women's liberation movement, I was especially attuned to the situation of women, and from our first experience with Chinese women I knew something remarkable was happening there. Young women greeted us when we landed at the Shanghai airport and performed revolutionary songs and scenes from the new model operas and plays while we waited for our connection to Peking. They were dressed in simple jackets and trousers, flat cotton shoes, their hair in braids or cut short, their faces glowing without a trace of make-up. And how proud and self-assured they were! The airport itself was such a difference from the airports in Pakistan and Egypt we'd stopped at en route and that we saw in Hong Kong on our way home six weeks later, filled with people begging and selling trinkets--we saw none of that in China.

Let me tell you, to be in China for six weeks, including in Shanghai, one of the largest cities in the world, and not be hassled or accosted once by some man was almost unbelievable. We saw no women displayed as sex objects in advertisements, on billboards, in magazines at newsstands or on the street. And what a huge relief it was to throw off that burden of on-guard tenseness a woman has to maintain in this country--on-guard against unwanted attention, unwelcome comments, or physical assault. We women could make eye contact with men as well as women on the streets, smile and nod at people without thinking it would be interpreted as a come-on. And I'm talking about even walking at night on the streets of Shanghai. And I loved not having to worry about what to wear. On our first shopping trip to a Chinese department store, we all got Chinese jackets and shoes, which we wore the rest of the trip.

We saw women working alongside men in heavy industry, on the docks, in army units, universities and in the countryside. Women leaders greeted us along with men wherever we went. There were still fewer women than men in most of the leading groups we met with, although the genuine revolutionaries were waging a battle to promote women leaders. And the stage was lit up with newly created plays, ballets and operas which featured women as strong central characters--political and military leaders, not as "love interests," sexpots or aristocratic ladies. We talked to many women, and many quoted to us the then-popular slogans popularized by Chairman Mao: "Women hold up half the sky" and "Times have changed. Whatever male comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too." At the same time they hastened to add that much still remained to be done and there were still backward ideas and customs that had to be overcome if women were to be fully liberated. But to us, fresh from the battles of the '60s, it seemed like they were a good ways toward that future we'd dreamed of.

When I got back I read a book called Daily Life in Revolutionary China, by Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, where she quotes from a young woman: "There's still a revolution to be made in the family. We have to criticize it from a revolutionary point of view, based on the destruction of the five old concepts and their replacement with the five new concepts: (1) Destroy the notion of the uselessness of women and replace it with the idea that women must fearlessly conquer half of heaven; (2)de-stroy the feudal morality of the oppressed woman and the good mother and instill in its place the ideal of revolutionary pro-letarians; (3) destroy the mentality of dependence on and subordination to men and instill the firm determination to free one-self; (4) destroy bourgeois concepts and replace them with proletarian concepts; (5)destroy the concept of narrow family self-interest and instill in the family the open proletarian concept of the nation and the world."

These five principles were often cited in the Chinese press and referred to by women that she had talked to. The people who wanted real change were using these guiding principles to set the terms for all society.

The Chinese began working at the liberation of women from many sides. The role of work outside the home was a very key aspect of the whole emancipatory process. First of all, it enables women to become economically independent from men. In addition, working outside the home in socially useful labor gives women a broader view of the world and of society than if they just stayed within the confines of their four walls and are only concerned about their husband and family. It also develops cooperation among women working together to create something, to make something happen. And it develops a sense of collectivity that people in their individual families, in their individual houses aren't able to get. It strengthens women's overall position in society as valuable and productive members and it increases their social as well as economic independence. All these things are necessary to the whole process of women's liberation.

Q: But how does this differ from the situation in the U.S. today where many women already work outside the home--and many, not by choice, but because they have to support themselves and their families?

A: How it differs first of all is that the whole nature of the work process itself would be transformed under socialism. In China it was relatively rare for women to work in factories, shops and so on, because China was much less industrialized and developed to begin with than the U.S. is. But there, work became, as it would in any future socialist U.S., very different from what it is under capitalism. Under social-ism, workers are still paid according to their work, whereas under communism men and women will work freely to create what's necessary to live and to make life more pleasurable and will get back in turn what they need to live. Socialism is a transition period between the old--capitalism --and the future communism, and is characterized by conscious efforts to eliminate the old inequalities and ideas and bring into being new economic and social relations.

In the U.S. today, working outside the home is a double burden for women because work outside the home is extremely unsatisfying, is very tiring, women don't get paid very much for it, and then they go home and have to put in another shift doing housework, cooking meals, and caring for the children. Plus, frequently when a woman works outside the home, she is subjected to another layer of sexual harassment, just for being a woman. Both getting to work as well as on the job itself. So we are talking about transforming the whole work process--for both women and men--under socialism. First of all, work is part of making revolution throughout the world. I heard a lot of people say, "I'm doing this for the world revolution." Because the proletariat really did control society, people saw their work contributing not just to their own or their family's well-being, or even to China's, but to help strengthen revolutionary advances worldwide.

We're also talking about working being part of transforming relations between people. In Chinese factories, for instance, you didn't have a situation where the vast majority did the same backbreaking work day after day, and a small number of supervisors walked around, writing up people who didn't work fast enough or who talked on the job. Workers supervised themselves and each other, and there were real steps taken to break down the division of labor between mental and manual labor. That's one of the big divisions in society that has to be overcome during the period of socialism. So there were workers' committees that would develop technical innovations, take apart problems that would arise and solve them. And individual workers would be encouraged to contribute to that process, as well as to criticize the leaders in the shop or the factory or the institution. There was a sense of people really working together, using the knowledge that they had accumulated and acquired to solve the problems of that plant or that factory. And by doing that they would be contributing to solving China's problems as a whole, and thus enabling China to contribute more to the world revolution.

And they were constantly studying to raise their political consciousness and understanding. Workers at a large textile mill we visited in Shanghai under the leadership of revolutionaries set up hundreds of study circles that had involved thousands of workers. They studied major Marxist works such as Engels' Anti-Dühring and Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Workers eagerly took up the study of Marxism-Leninism so they could understand better what they had to do to continue the revolution and contribute to the world-wide revolutionary process. This is a good example of the kind of incentive people had--not the green-in-your-pocket, "look out for Number One" incentive but incentive based on political awareness to make the greatest contribution possible to revolution. And that incentive, we saw, unleashed the masses' initiative to do all sorts of wonderful things to transform society.

Now all this didn't happen spontaneously or magically. The leadership of the party was critical to unleashing this kind of initiative. Leadership in the factories, for instance, was exercised by a combination of technical/administrative staff, the workers themselves, and the party cadre. This kind of "three-in-one" combination was applied very broadly throughout society. Still more important, though, is the whole overall direction of society that enabled these kinds of transformations to take place--this could only happen based on a strong vanguard, dedicated to going forward towards communism.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about the relations between husband and wife? One of the ropes binding not just the Chinese peasant but the Chinese people was patriarchal authority.

A: Mao talked about the "four thick ropes" binding the Chinese people, particularly the peasantry, before the revolution. These ropes were political, clan, religious and masculine authority. The first task of the communists was to unleash the people to break these ropes.

At every stage of her life a woman was subordinate to some man. The "three obediences" ruled their lives: obedience to their father when young; obedience to their husband when married; obedience to their eldest son when widowed. The only authority she ever had was over her daughter-in-law, of course, under the overall patriarchal authority of the household. Marriages were arranged, and girls were married off very young to be virtual slaves for their husbands and in-laws. Some young women fought ferociously and had to be taken to their bridegroom's home by force. There were also many instances of young women who refused to go through with their marriages and committed suicide instead, some on the way to their weddings. In 1919, during mass demonstrations of revolutionary youth, the suicide of a young woman, Miss Chao, inspired protests against forced marriage. Mao Tsetung wrote about her suicide, and blasted the society responsible for it. He himself refused to marry a woman his parents had selected for him.

Many girls didn't even get a chance to grow up. As males were valued much more than females, girl babies often meant just another mouth to feed, and many peasants never had enough to eat for the families they already had. Infant girls were drowned or left by the roadside to starve or be picked up by someone. Today, with capitalist relations and male domination restored in China, the terrible phenomenon of female infanticide is happening again.

Girls would also be sold to the land-lord--or brutally taken by his hired thugs --to pay their parents' debts. In the city perhaps she would be sold to a house of prostitution. Landlords would also take girls and women at will and rape them.

When I talked about patriarchal author-ity, sometimes it sounds a little remote, or academic. But it meant the most brutal subjugation of women and vicious cruelty inflicted on them from the moment of birth. One of the proverbs from that time for men was, "a wife married is like a pony bought; I'll ride her and whip her as I like."

Q: Can you talk about how that kind of thing was transformed?

A: The communists early on took up the question of the liberation of women. In the liberated areas, the Communist Party immediately banned foot-binding, arranged marriages, and abuse of women. But these decrees wouldn't have meant anything without the mobilization of the women themselves. The communists encouraged and helped build organizations of women which would initially draw together some of the most courageous, self-confident and independent women in the village. These women would then set out to find family situations where the woman was treated badly. They would tell the mistreated woman that times were different now and that such abuse was not allowed, and they would try to win her to come to a meeting and speak out publicly against what had happened to her. Then they would organize meetings of all the women in the village and summon the woman's husband or father-in-law to answer the charges against him. If he didn't come before the women's association, they would drag him there physically. Both Jack Belden and William Hinton talk about this in their books on the early days of the Chinese revolution. The women would compel the man to come, confront him with his abusive behavior, tell him that this kind of thing had to stop, that this was a new society and men could not treat women like this. Some men were so shocked by this that they agreed to abide by what the women said. Others just scoffed at the women and spit on them and said, "What right do you stupid women have telling me what to do?" In that case, the women would exercise some proletarian authority and would beat the shit out of him until the man begged for mercy and said that he would stop treating his wife like that. Now, some of these men would go back and be truly ashamed of their bad behavior, or would be so fearful of the wrath of the women, or maybe both, that they would change. For others, it took repeated sessions with the women's association. As you can imagine, when this started happening, it didn't affect just one woman or one family. Word about this would get around. It was the cause of great struggle, great upheaval and great chaos in families and in communities. Here were women who were acting in ways that were absolutely unheard of and unthought of for literally centuries in China. Through such "speak bitterness" meetings, the Chinese women came to understand that it wasn't their personal "fate" to have to undergo such abuse.

Women were really unleashed by this. Some were very fearful at first and didn't want to speak out, or didn't want to get involved. But going through this process, both of patient discussion and struggle with people as well as the exercise of proletarian authority, if you want to call it that, more women began to lift their heads and to refuse to take what they had been forced to endure at home for so many years. They also began to see that the way forward for China's women was the communist revolution. When the Red Army of workers and peasants would go through an area, people would initially be skeptical--oh, this isn't going to do anything for the state of the peasants, we've seen what armies do before, rape and pillage and fill their own pockets. But when fundamental relations between people began to be transformed, and people saw their own lives changed by what this army and the Communist Party leading it represented, then they became strong supporters of the revolution. And women were some of the strongest.

Q: I think the saying among the peasants was: heaven and earth had changed places.

A: That's right. And by the way, one of the things that some of these women would then do was go and struggle with their men to become part of the red army. Many of these women, too, were organized into the militia units that were very much an integral part of the Chinese revolution.

Another thing that happened immediately was that legal equality was guaranteed, including guaranteeing women the right to own property, which had never been allowed before. When nationwide power was seized in 1949, laws were changed to make women have equality with men in all spheres. A new marriage law was enacted which made divorce a possibility for women. Before it was easy for men to divorce women, but not easy for women to divorce men. But, without really mobilizing people, particularly the women from the bottom, these laws wouldn't have meant much. Passing these laws was really just the first step in a process to emancipate women. What Mao said in an interview is really important here: "Of course it was necessary to give women legal equality to begin with. But from there, everything remains to be done. The thoughts, culture and customs which brought China to where we found it must disappear, and the thoughts, customs and culture of proletarian China, which does not yet exist, must appear. The Chinese woman does not yet exist among the masses, but she is beginning to want to exist. And then, to liberate women is not to manufacture washing machines."

To get back to this question of changes in the family, the Chinese worked at things both from the side of the material base for the changes--women working outside the home--as well as the ideological side, culture, education, etc. For instance, we talked to the workers at the Nanko locomotive repair factory, a factory outside of Peking where the workers had reached a high level of political consciousness during the course of struggle during the Cultural Revolution. A woman worker told us: "In the past, men and women were politically equal, but economically not. Women were not working. The man would go home and be unhappy if the children cried or if the food was not tasty. Now the man and woman go home together and must take care of the home together."

Q: Well, one thing that occurs to me when you say that, is that there are factories that I've worked in where the women and men work together, in the same factory, and they go home at night together, but the woman does then, in fact, spend her time getting the tasty dinner together while the husband has a cold beer and falls asleep in front of the television. So, you've got to say a little more.

A: Well, the problem has to be attacked from different directions, and especially in the superstructure, through education, culture and the all-around battle against old, traditional ideas about men's and women's roles. This was an important aspect of the new cultural works we saw in China.

For the first time in history in such a major way, workers and peasants were the leading characters on the stage, struggling to transform themselves and society, engaging in fierce battles with the class enemy. There were stories about China's revolution, but also about the battles to transform things at that time, during the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was that in every one of these productions there was a strong, leading woman character, frequently the principal leading character. This woman would be the local party leader, or the militia leader, or an ordinary peasant who rises to become a leader. Readers may be familiar with some of these works of art. If they aren't, they should certainly look at the videos of Red Detachment of Women and The White-Haired Girl. We saw some works of art that were popularized in the West at that time, such as the Red Detachment of Women ballet, and some that were just beginning to be developed. And, in fact, some of the ones that we saw in their "preview" stages went even farther than some of the earlier ones as far as dealing directly with the question of women's leadership and authority. For instance, in one, Azalea Mountain, there was a point at which one of the male peasants was having trouble following this woman's leadership. Another peasant who, it was revealed later, was working for the Rightists, took advantage of this and said, "What are you? You used to be strong and independent. Now, you are listening to a woman?" So you can see, even in 1971 when we were there, the struggle over the role of women was still very much a part of the battle to transform China overall.

The main importance of these works of art is that they put forward and propagated a whole new view of humanity and of people's role in society--and with high artistic quality. And they were taken to heart and were loved by the masses of people. We saw the performed throughout the countryside by amateur troupes. Red Detachment of Women, for instance, both the ballet and the opera, was performed in schools, by youth groups, by commune members after working in the fields. A real explosion of people's cultural creativity and energy was being unleashed. It wasn't just stage work. In the countryside, peasants were painting and taking a brush into their hands and making works of art. Before, peasants were considered to be too uncultured to as much as hold an artist's brush. Instead we saw peasants not only holding the brushes, but creating works of art that gained worldwide attention during that period.

We saw many new revolutionary works of art that were being created and which Chiang Ching* had a leading role in helping create.

Not only was the battle around the role of women depicted in these art forms, but it was a battle to create them to begin with. It wasn't just a question that Chiang Ching would come and work with the troupe, and they'd get these works down and present it. But there was fierce opposition and struggle to transforming traditional forms of art --such as Peking Opera which had been around for centuries--so that they would convey the ideas, values and goals of the new society, and thereby help to push the revolution forward. Based on an investigation by Chiang Ching, who went around the country and saw what was being performed on China's stages, Mao made the comment that, unless it changed, the Ministry of Culture "should be renamed the Ministry of Emperors, Kings, Generals, and Ministers, the Ministry of Talents and Beauties or the Ministry of Foreign Mummies." This was quite an astonishing thing, coming as it did after years of the revolution. The battle against these old ideas and the old ways of doing things, the idea that certain cultural forms couldn't be touched and you couldn't really put the New China on stage, was a very fierce battle. Chiang Ching played the key role, not only in investigating but in leading struggle to change things. And she was fiercely opposed by some of the very people who seized power after Mao's death and imprisoned her and her revolutionary comrades.

You see, there's a real connection between what is depicted on the stage and what goes on throughout society. Seeing strong women on the stage, seeing Red Detachment of Women where women danced, guns in hand, must have had a tremendous influence on the young women who formed the Iron Girls teams, for example. I don't think you really could have had the transformations, such as the housewives' factories and in the family, if you didn't have these images, and the battles in the superstructure over the role women should play. Women were unleashed by all this--just as they had been unleashed in the early days of the revolution by the "speak bitterness" sessions--to break tradition's bounds even further and play leading roles in revolutionizing all of society.

@NOTE = * Chiang Ching was a great revolutionary leader in China. Married to Mao, she played a crucial role in the 1960s and 1970s in the Cultural Revolution and the last great battle against Deng Xiao-ping. She was arrested in the military coup following Mao's death in 1976; four years later she courageously defied her persecutors in a show-trial and electrified the world. She died in prison in May 1991 under suspicious circumstances.

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