Established by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 as a public portrayal of the regime’s interest in protecting and advancing the rights of women, the All-China Women’s Federation floundered for years as an ineffective pawn of the government until finally surging forth as a powerful advocate of women’s rights following a widespread escalation of sexual and physical violence against women in the 1980’s.
During that decade, thirty years after the Communist Party’s rise to power, violence against women in forms of infanticide, abuse, and rape rose noticeably after China’s traditional social order broke down in the wake of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution.
As the rate and frequency of violence against women evolved into a socio-cultural epidemic, the All-China Women’s Federation, which had yet to establish itself as a legitimate advocate for women’s rights over its lifespan, was reinvigorated to the cause.
With renewed spirit, the Women’s Federation broke from its traditional role as a promoter of Chinese Communist Party activities, and instead actively engaged in a new campaign to stop violence against women by offering legal counsel to the abused, establishing support centers, campaigning for new laws, and publicizing abuse issues through an increasingly freer and more female Chinese media.
The All-China Women’s Federation did not emerge as a popular women’s movement, but rather a state-run organization that promoted official Communist policies towards women under direct guidance and supervision. The first Chinese Communists sought to actively incorporate women into their revolutionary activities by guaranteeing equal economic rights and job opportunities.
The Early Chinese Communists and Women’s Rights
As Yuan-tsung Chen explains in her autobiographical novel The Dragon’s Village, part of the Communist appeal in rural areas was based on their advocacy of overturning ancient patriarchal traditions that dominated the countryside. With their rise to power, the Communists established the All-China Women’s Federation (referred to hereafter as ‘Women’s Federation’ or ‘ACWF’) to promote the Party’s state-based goals that included land reform, marriage law campaigns, construction, and economic reconstruction (Andors 30).
In post-Cultural Revolution China, women faced a persistent vulnerability to sexual and physical violence simply on the basis of being female (Honig 274). The traditional culture of China was such that women were subordinate and obedient to men. Yet during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party encouraged an upturning of traditional societal norms, hoping that a promotion of class warfare would strengthen the country and the Party.
But as a result, the ethical and moral bases of China’s Confucian values were largely lost. This breakdown prefaced a notable rise in violence against women in the 1980s.
Patriarchal traditions in China led many to prefer a son because he would carry on their family name, earn money to support the family, and assume the role of the parents’ caretaker in their old age (Honig 273). But the institution of the Communist “One-Child Policy” actually endangered the lives of thousands of female babies born to parents who desperately relied upon the birth of a son.
The Rise of Infanticide
From their very birth a female baby was susceptible to murder by her parents. It is estimated that in 1981 alone, as many as 232,000 baby girls were abandoned or murdered by their families (Honig 275). If a baby girl survived the very real prospect of infanticide resulting from China’s patriarchal culture and the One-Child Policy, she grew into a young woman facing the possibility of rape by strangers, possible suitors, neighbors, or even relatives. Like many abuses against women in the 1980’s, rape was on the rise. In 1983, statistics from one coastal Chinese city showed a 75% increase in incidents of violent rape from the year previous (Honig 277).
Even with such a startling rise in reports of rape, many of the crimes went unreported. Rape victims feared “social prejudice, fear of public humiliation, and family wrath,” all of which dissuaded from coming forth to report the attacker to authorities (Honig 283). Falling victim to rape was a horrible ordeal in itself, but backlash — not against the perpetrator, but against the victim — would often prove insufferable to many Chinese women. Harsh social stigmas imposed a permanent shame of dishonor upon the victim, one that was nearly inescapable: “shunned by her family, judged by her neighbors, a rape victim frequently saw no course open to her other than suicide” (Honig 283).
While sexual violence was a constant threat, spousal abuse occurred more frequently. Considered by the state to be a private family issue, wife-battering was often “under-reported and infrequently prosecuted” (Honig 291).
A married woman was likely to be abused by her husband and even members of his family for trivial offenses and supposed wrongdoings. Women who objected to their abuse and attempted to divorce their husbands were likely to be further battered, have their tongues cut out, or even murdered (Wolf 262). Other times, battered women found the only escape to be suicide. As violence against women grew rapidly in the 1980’s, the Women’s Federation took the issues upon itself, with the assistance of the resources of the Communist Party, to make efforts to curtail such practices as they became more and more commonplace in Chinese society.
ACWF Utilizes the Media to Raise Awareness
The Women’s Federation employed a number of strategies to attempt to bring relief to threatened and abused women in China. The first major effort was to employ a public campaign against women’s abuse through the media. It was perhaps the first time in Communist China that an organization furthered their cause through the freer media. Also in the 1980’s, more and more women were entering the media professionally, and they sought to bring more attention to the growing abuse problem. Their efforts were overwhelmingly successful.
Daily newspapers and weekly magazines ran hundreds of stories about the horrors of women’s abuse; periodicals contained letters written by abused and raped women who offered their personal and heartbreaking stories to the public, attempting to dissuade men from being abusive and persuade battered women to come forth to the authorities if they needed help. This public effort helped gain public sympathy and also caused major concern amongst politicians in the government.
The concern for the growing abuse epidemic led to the creation of a government-initiated campaign, headed by the Women’s Federation, that sought to protect the rights of women and children in 1982. The campaign enabled the Women’s Federation to open legal counseling offices in several cities to help women “cope with such problems as ill-treatment by husbands and parents-in-law, infidelity, and worries about property and child support after divorce” (Honig 319).
New Legal Rights and Women’s Rights Advocacy
Unheard of in previous years, the Women’s Federation offered free legal advice to women and girls who had been subject to abuse or rape and wanted counseling or to press charges, and sought guidance about divorce (Andors 168). The public response to the Women’s Federation’s programs was so overwhelming that they were forced to train more women to serve as free legal advisers (Honig 319).
Local branches of the Women’s Federation used new and creative means to attempt to curtail violence and promote their women’s rights campaign. Several cities adopted local regulations that allowed the Women’s Federation to investigate claims of abuse and work in conjunction with local authorities to punish men found guilty of violating women’s rights (Andors 111).
Guilty parties were subject to substantial fines or even being sent to labor reform camps (Honig 319). Other branches held legal consultation services in public areas such as city parks, and trained volunteers “to act as courtroom advocates in cases of wife abuse” (Honig 297). Networks of support groups in the forms of cadres of women who were driven to see justice served formed, visiting abused wives and offering personal encouragement (Honig 298).
The campaign to raise public awareness of violence against women encouraged Chinese women to take part in an open dialogue about their abuses for the first time. Through moral support and encouragement, more and more women came forth to report incidents of rape and abuse, publicly declaring their names in newspapers and rejecting the customary deterrence of social stigmas. Local branches of the Women’s Federation took the liberty to establish alternative means of promoting women’s rights, such as in public forums and through newspapers, which previously would have been unacceptable in the eyes of the public.
Gaining Credibility in the Public Eye
These efforts, in conjunction with increasingly persistent efforts to investigate cases of infanticide and abuse, helped the Women’s Federation gain credibility in the eyes of women, who considered it a new forum of empowerment rather than a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.
The success of the Women’s Federation will be based upon an evaluation of their ability to accomplish the following: (1) raise public and state awareness of the issue of violence against women, (2) lowering rates infanticide, physical abuse and rape against women, (3) encourage new feminist thought, (4) establish itself as representative of the interests of Chinese women, even under the Communist regime.
The All-China Women’s Federation was overwhelmingly successful in raising awareness about women’s abuse issues in the 1980s, amongst the general public and the government. While it is impossible to determine how far-reaching the efforts of the Women’s Federation were in advancing awareness of abuses against women, it is clear that the organization helped the issues become a part of general knowledge, spreading awareness through media outlets, newspapers, and other print publications.
Through these efforts, the Women’s Federation gradually became perceived to be a group representing the interests of women’s rights, and fulfilled an actual role in advancing the social standing of women in China (Honig 320). Official rates of infanticide, physical abuse, female suicide, and rape in the 1980s are either impossible to find or are completely nonexistent — a direct product of the guarded and secretive nature of the repressive Chinese Communist regime. However, in the 21st century more studies have been released to the public by the United Nations and the All-China Women’s Movement.
Yet, the results from those studies are abysmal for women in China. In June 2007, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) State of the World Population Report claimed that the practices of infanticide and abortion are responsible for a deficiency of at least 60 million women in Asia today. In late November 2007, the All-China Women’s Federation released a report detailing a continued rise in domestic violence complaints in modern China. In 2006, the ACWF received 50,000 of such complaints, a rise of over 70% from the previous year.
In November 2006, the ACWF and health officials discussed reports from 2001 released by a survey group in China called the Domestic Violence Network. Their report concluded that nearly 35% of Chinese families suffer from domestic violence. Worses, 80% to 90% of the victims of domestic violence are female. Of the 170,000 Chinese women who die of suicide every year, Xie Lihua, the director of the Cultural Development Center for Rural Women, claimed that 66% of those deaths were a direct result of domestic violence.
The Women’s Federation actively encouraged open dialogue on women’s issues and thus, through bringing concerns on women’s abuse into a public forum, brought the question of Chinese feminism to the mainstream. Their ability to raise awareness of women’s rights issues was indeed impressive; no other minority group possessed the ability to raise such awareness in a closed Communist society.
By the mid-1980’s, local and regional print media raised questions about feminist thought which contributed to increasing consciousness and legitimacy of women’s issues in China (Honig 308). While the Chinese Communists perpetually advocated equal rights in China, women were seldom given the opportunities promised to them. The Women’s Federation was responsible for advancing these ideals.
The All-China Women’s Federation was not an independent women’s movement, but rather a governmental organization. During the 1980’s, the organization assumed the nickname of “Niangjia,” which translates to mean “the biological family of a married woman.”
The organization’s name represented the women’s genuine desire to assume the role of “family” with abused and oppressed women in China. Yet, for all their efforts, the Women’s Federation still remained a “top-down, government-sponsored organization” with many of its policies dictated directly by the Communist regime (Honig 320).
For these reasons, the Women’s Federation could not be considered a feminist movement that succeeded in breaking the repressive grip of the Communist Party, and advanced the rights of women against the government’s will. From the birth of their revolution, the Communists advocated equal rights for women, though largely in an economic sense of equality.
However, as violence and discrimination became increasingly explicit and overt in the decade after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the members of the Women’s Federation — albeit a governmental organization — made respectable strides to combat the patriarchal traditions of China that allowed for such abuses to take place, and successfully established themselves as a group representing the interests of women. And while women’s rights issues persist in modern China, the future offers brighter possibilities for the development of women’s rights than the past. In 1995, the All-China Women’s Federation declared itself a non-governmental organization. Indicative of the increased political liberalization of Communist China, the largest women’s organization is separating from the regime and truly evolving into an independent women’s movement.
Were it not for their remarkable strides in advancing awareness of women’s rights in the 1980’s, the All-China Women’s Movement would have simply remained a puppet of the government. Today, it offers hope to abused and exploited Chinese women as their family, the “Niangjia.”
“Becoming the Niangjia: The All-China Women’s Federation’s emergence as the Chinese Woman’s ‘natal family’ in post-Cultural Revolution China,” is a political study by Dave Ursillo on women’s rights in modern China, originally published Dec. 7, 2007. Cited sources and other views copyright their respective owners. All Rights Reserved.
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 The murder of (female) infants at birth; an unintended byproduct of China’s “One-Child” Policy.
 An initiative by the CCP to rid the country of supposed “liberal-bourgeoisie” influences; the movement manifested into wide scale social, political, and economic chaos, claiming thousands of lives and upturning traditional Chinese society.
 A cornerstone of Communist political philosophy.
 More on suicide as a result of spousal abuse presented later in the paper.
 Karabin, Sherry. “Infanticide, Abortion Responsible for 60 Million Girls Missing in Asia”. 6-13-2007. (12-9-2007). http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,281722,00.html.
 Xinhua, “China sees marked increase of domestic violence complaints”. 11-25-2007. (12-9-2007). http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-11/25/content_6277278.htm
 Wu Zhuoqiong, “Action demanded to stop violence against women”. 11-28-2006. (12-9-2007). http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2006-11/28/content_744329.htm