Soong Ching Ling and the Women’s Movement in China

If on the occasion of International Women’s Day we wanted to find some striking proof of the ability of women to transform themselves and society through courageous struggle, there could be no better place to start looking than the history of revolution in China.  To learn more about this question, it is worth reading something written nearly seventy years ago by a Chinese woman whose own individual courage and tenacity were second to none.

Madame Sun Yat-Sen

The name of  Rosamond Soong Ching Ling is less well known in the West than that of her husband, Sun Yat Sen, whom she survived for many years after his death in 1925.  Yet she is a key figure in the revolutionary history of the last century.

Through her whole life, which spanned all the great revolutionary events culminating in the liberation of 1949, Soong Ching Ling fought tooth and nail to pull the Kuomintang (KMT) back to its revolutionary democratic origins.  Again and again she challenged those who claimed to inherit Sun Yat Sen’s legacy, insisting on adherence to the Three Principles of unity, democracy and independence which served as the essential foundations of the movement he had founded.

Unity meant working together with the Chinese Communist Party and recognising the progressive role of the Soviet Union. Democracy meant unleashing the revolutionary potential of the masses in country and town alike.  And independence meant joining together to repulse all imperialist efforts to dictate China’s future, whether through economic subjugation or in the form of outright military aggression.

When in 1927 the hold upon the KMT exercised by reactionaries under the tutelage of imperialism became so strong as to thwart all patriotic efforts at cooperation, Soong Ching Ling had no hesitation in breaking decisively with the KMT leadership, preferring exile in Moscow.  Yet she never neglected any opportunity to work for unity amongst all the revolutionary democratic forces, urging on the return to a united front in 1937.  In this policy she was in agreement with the Chinese Communist Party, under whose leadership the liberation was finally achieved in 1949.

The regard in which Soong Ching Ling came to be held by the Chinese people was reflected in the fact that she served as Co-Chairman of the Peoples’ Republic of China from 1968 to 1972, and was honoured shortly before her death in 1981 by the award of the honorific title of President of the PRC.  In the Soviet Union too she was highly honoured, in 1951 receiving the Stalin Peace Prize.

Women in Chinese history

In an article entitled “The Chinese Women’s Fight for Freedom” which appeared in “Asia” magazine in July 1942 (republished in “The Struggle for New China” in 1953), Soong Ching Ling gave a gripping account of women’s struggles in China, beginning with great warriors like Hua Mu-lan (“a Chinese Joan of Arc”) and historians like Pan Chou (who helped compile and edit the Han Chronicles) as well as great female poets and composers.  Even under feudalism the example of such women shone out in spite of the subordination in which the sex as a whole were kept.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, she noted, things started to shift, thanks to contact with the West and the rise of the national revolutionary movement.  Women from the upper and middle classes became doctors and teachers; proletarian women entered the factories and became wage earners.  Women played a significant role in the struggle to overthrow the Manchu Dynasty.  For example, Chu Ching, second-in-command of “an underground republican operation with its own armed forces” gave up her life in  a failed assassination bid against En Ming, the Manchu Governor.

World War I and the Northern Expedition

The birth of the republic in 1911, she said, “was not the end but only the beginning of the fight for a new China”, with for example the new republican parliament voting down a proposal by two female KMT leaders to put equal rights for women on the statute book.  However, the shot in the arm which the First World War gave to indigenous capitalism, with the proliferation of Chinese-owned factories employing both men and women, also signalled the birth of a mass labour movement.

Increasingly the fight for democracy widened to include not only women from the middle class but also women from the factory and the field – so much so that by the time of the successful military struggle against the northern warlords in 1925-1927, young women were frequently at the sharp end.  As the author noted wrily, “It was not for nothing that the feudal leaders of reaction paid the homage of bitter hatred to the ‘bob-haired girls’ of the time and made the gutters of our cities run red with their blood”.  At the highest level, too, Communist women like Teng Ying-chao (wife to Chou En-lai) and Tsai Chang gave crucial leadership in their role as elected members of the KMT’s governing body.   

KMT treachery and popular patriotism

When treachery within the KMT broke up national unity and inflicted reverses on the revolutionary democratic movement in 1927, this also set back the movement for female emancipation.  Careers in “politics and administration were again barred, as if one out of every two human beings in China had no conceivable right to participate in the ordering of the society in which all lived”. The KMT ditched its woman’s department (which had been a major contributor to the revolutionary effort) and pushed women out of public life.

Yet the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931 spurred thousands of university students into growing protests against the treacherous refusal of the government to organize resistance against this imperialist occupation of the homeland.  Women as well as men students took part in the successful mass action to prevent the establishment of a puppet government in Beijing, and “the casualties among them were as great”.  Out of this student-led movement grew the National Salvation Associations embracing all patriotic Chinese.  A thousand women marched through Beijing behind a banner proclaiming, “Women can emancipate themselves only through participation in resistance!”

Next into the anti-Japanese struggle came the textile workers of Shanghai and Tsingtao who in their tens of thousands – predominantly women – staged a mass walk-out from the enemy owned cotton mills, braving not only violence but also starvation.  Soong Ching Ling painted a vivid picture. “These miserably underpaid factory girls, with patched clothing and wisps of cotton in their hair, working sixteen to eighteen hours a day from early childhood, many of them already coughing from the tubercular seeds of death in their chests, will always remain heroic figures in the annals of our awakening.” A strikers’ support group was formed, seven members of which were arrested and threatened with death, including a woman lawyer.  The resultant public outrage spread the patriotic backlash still further.

Outrage at the treachery of the government had long been felt by many of the government’s own military forces, especially those who had been ordered to sit on their hands whilst the Japanese occupied Manchuria.  When these forces decided to intervene in a radical fashion – kidnapping Chiang Kai-shek and persuading him to stop red-baiting and start resisting the invaders – it is noteworthy that one of the demands which the Generalissimo faced was for the release of those seven strike-supporters. 

Under pressure from this irresistible wave of popular patriotism, the KMT leadership at last consented to the suspension of the civil war and the formation of a united front against Japan, long urged by the Chinese Communist Party.

The War of Resistance

The war of resistance against Japan gave enormous impetus to the woman’s movement in China.  Soong Ching Ling recounted how thousands of patriotic women left the relative safety of Beijing and Tientsin and made their way behind Japanese lines to take the battle to the enemy.  Some joined guerrilla groups in the hills around Beijing, others headed west to join the Communist-led Eighth Route Army.  Women were engaged in publishing underground papers, setting up clandestine links between the occupied cities and the guerrillas, engaged in espionage “and in general constituted a fighting column operating in the rear of the enemy”.

The author explains that it was in the border areas of the Northwest and in the guerrilla bases behind enemy lines, under the noses of the occupiers, that “a true woman’s movement was created, carrying on the great tradition of 1925-1927.  Here the women organized into associations numbered not thousands but hundreds of thousands, and their functions did not deal only with relief but involved full participation in the war and in political and economic self-rule.”

These parts of China were very backward, thanks both to feudal tyranny and periods of Japanese occupation.  Women still had their feet bound and girl babies were frequently sold or killed.  Into this nightmare marched the comrades of the Eighth Route Army, men and women together.  The very sight of these “strange and terrible ‘girl soldiers’at first sent local women scurrying back indoors.  They could only by degrees be won over to a sense of their rights in relation to their men.  Yet after just a few years of patient work, these same women had become “real fighters, not only matching but often outdistancing the men”. Many thousands of women had been voted into leadership positions by their fellow villagers of both sexes.  Woman’s organizations were now raising livestock, supplying uniforms, guarding wells and crossroads, rooting out traitors and conducting espionage.

No less impressive were the wartime changes to the position of women accomplished by means of industrial cooperatives.  The author detailed one such venture which had begun by opening a couple of textile cooperatives for some evacuated factory girls and three years later found itself organizing “some twenty-five thousand soldiers’ wives, refugee and peasant women for home spinning of wool”, running schools for over seven hundred children and adults and sponsoring “a production programme for crippled veterans and Japanese war prisoners”.  These cooperatives were frequently managed by women at district level.

Connection between women’s movement and anti-imperialism

All the gains for women which Soong Ching Ling described were won in struggle, against reactionaries at home and against imperialists from abroad.  They were won in the 1925-1927 united struggle against the northern warlords; they were won in the years of agrarian revolution and the Long March from 1927-1937; they were won in united struggle against imperialism when possible; they were won in civil strife with the KMT when the destruction of national unity by reactionaries made such strife unavoidable.  Every achievement won for women helped strengthen the revolution, and every achievement won for the revolution in turn helped strengthen the women’s movement.

Soong Ching Ling had no truck with what she dismissed as “the banner of a barren feminism”, instead seeing women’s struggles as “part and parcel of the democratic movement as a whole”. We can imagine for ourselves how high an opinion she would have had of today’s barren feminists in the West who help imperialism hide its escalating war crimes in Afghanistan behind a pretended concern with the rights of women.  Let the women of Afghanistan link hands with the women of China who all those years ago inscribed on their banner the legend: “Women can emancipate themselves only through participation in resistance!”

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