Ding Ling （1904－1986) was a writer whose career took off in 1927, during the Republican era. She was eventually imprisoned by the Guomindang, who tried to convince her to use her popularity to fight for their cause, which she did not. She eventually escaped and made it to the Communist base at Yenan, where intellecutals were gathering, and she became an important writer advocating, in some cases criticizing the communist organization that had formed there. In this particular instance, she was criticizing the hypocrisy and double standards for women that she saw in Yenan. As to be expected, she was criticized heavily for this, the criticism was her putting women’s rights before the “more important goal” of political rights for the proletariat. She was sent away for re-education from the peasants. So much still rings true today. (To switch between Chinese and English versions, click language preferenceat right)
When will it no longer be necessary to attach special importance to the word ‘woman,’ and to give it special attention?
Each year this day comes round. Every year on this day, meetings are held all over the world and womens’ forces are inspected. Even though Yenan has not been as lively these last two years as in previous years, there is at least always a few people busy at work. And there will certainly be a congress, speeches, telegrams and essays.
Women in Yenan are happier than women elsewhere in China. So much so that many people ask enviously: ‘How can the female comrades become so rosy and fat on millet?’ It doesn’t seem to surprise anyone that women make up a big proportion of the staff in the hospitals, sanatoria and clinics, but they are inevitably the subject of conversation, as a fascinating problem, on every conceivable occasion. Moreover, various female comrades often become the target of deserved criticism. These accusations are serious and justifiable.
People are forever interested when women comrades get married, but that is never enough. Female comrades are not allowed to get to friendly with their male comrades, even more so, they cannot become close with more than one. Cartoonists ridicule them: ‘A department head can get married too?’ The poets say: ‘All the leaders in Yenan are horsemen, and none of them are artists. In Yenan it’s impossible for an artist to find a pretty girlfriend.’ But in other situations they are lectured: ‘Damn it, you look down on us old cadres and say we’re country bumpkins. But if it wasn’t for us country bumpkins, you’d never be in Yenan eating millet!’ But women invariably want to get married. (It’s even more of a sin not to be married, single women are even more of a target for rumours and slanderous gossip.)
Whether he rides horses or wears straw sandles, whether he’s an artist or a supervisor, anyone will do. Women inevitably have children. Such children have their own fates: some are wrapped in soft baby wool and decorated felt to be looked after by governesses. Others are wrapped in soiled cloth and left crying in their parents’ beds, while their parents consume their child bearing allowance. But for this allowance (25 yuan a month, or just over three pounds of pork), many of them would probably never get a taste of meat. Whoever they marry, the fact is, those women who feel compelled to bear children will most likely be publicly derided as ‘Noras who have returned home’. [*] Those women comrades in the position to employ governesses can go out once a week for the most sanitized dance party. Behind their backs will be the most incredible gossip and whispering, as soon as they go somewhere they cause a great stir, and no matter if it is horse riders, those in straw sandals, artists or supervisors, all eyes are glued to them. This has nothing to do with our theories, our doctrines or the speeches given at meetings. We all know this to be a fact, a fact right before our eyes, but it is never mentioned.
It’s the same with divorce. In general there are three conditions to pay attention to when getting married. (1) Political purity; (2) both parties should be more or less the same age and comparable in looks; (3) mutual help. Even though everyone is said to fulfill these conditions—as for (1), there are no open traitors in Yenan; as for (3), you can call anything ‘mutual help’, including darning socks, patching shoes and even feminine comfort—everyone nevertheless makes a grand show of attention to these. And yet, the pretext for divorce is invariably the wife’s political backwardness. I am the first to admit that it is a shame when a man’s wife is not progressive and retards his progress. But let us consider in what sense they are backward. Before marrying, they were inspired by the desire to soar to heavenly heights and lead a life of bitter struggle. They were married partly due to physiological necessity and partly as a response to the sweet talk about ‘mutual help’. Thereupon they are forced to toil away and even becoming ‘Noras returned home’. Afraid of being seen as ‘backward’, those who are a bit more daring rush around begging nurseries to take their children. They ask for abortions, and risk punishment and even death by secretly swallowing potions to induce abortions. But the answer comes back to them: ‘Isn’t giving birth to children also labor? You’re just after an easy life, you want to be in the limelight. After all, what indispensable political work have you performed? Since you are so frightened of having children, and are not willing to take responsibility once you have had them, why did you get married in the first place? No-one forced you to.’ Under these conditions it is impossible for women to escape this destiny of ‘backwardness’. When women capable of working sacrifice their careers for the joys of motherhood, people always sing their praises. But after ten years or so, they have no way of escaping the tragedy of ‘backwardness’ (and divorce). Even from my point of view, as a woman, there is nothing cute about such ‘backward’ elements. Their skin is beginning to wrinkle, their hair is growing thin, and fatigue is robbing them of their last vestiges of attractiveness. Their tragic fate seems self-evident. But whereas in old society, they would probably have been pitied and considered unfortunate, nowadays their tragedy is seen as something self-inflicted and deserved. Aren’t there discussions as to whether divorce should be granted on simply the petition of one party, or on the basis of mutual agreement? In the great majority of cases the husband petitions for divorce. For the wife to do so, she must be leading an immoral life, of course she deserves to be cursed!
I myself am a woman, and I therefore understand the failings of women better than most, but I also have a deeper understanding of their suffering. Women are incapable of transcending the age they live in, of being perfect, or being like iron. They are incapable of resisting all social temptations, or silent oppressions, each has a history of blood and tears, they have experienced great emotions—in elation as in depression, whether engaged in the lone battle of life or drawn into the humdrum stream of life. This is even truer of the female comrades who come to Yenan, and I therefore have much sympathy for those fallen women classified as criminals. What is more, I hope that men, especially those in positions of leadership, and women themselves will consider the mistakes women commit in their social context. It would be better if there were less empty theorizing and more talk about real problems, so that theory and practice are not divorced, and if each Communist Party member were more responsible for his own moral conduct.
But we must also hope for a more from our women comrades, especially those in Yenan. We must encourage ourselves, we must develop a feeling of comraderie.
The world has never seen incompetent people in a position to seize what they need. Therefore, if women want equality, they must first strengthen themselves. I don’t need to say it, and we all understand it. Today there are certain to be people making fine speeches bragging about the need to first acquire political power. I would simply mention a few things that any frontliner, whether a proletarian, a fighter in the war of resistance or a woman, should pay attention to in his or her everyday life:
1. Don’t allow yourself to fall ill. A wild life can at times appear romantic, poetic and attractive, but in today’s conditions it is inappropriate. You are the best keeper of your life. There is nothing more unfortunate than the loss of health. It is closest to your heart. The only thing to do is keep a close watch on it, pay careful attention to it, cherish it.
2. Make yourself happy. Only when you are happy can you be youthful, active, fulfilled, and steadfast in the face of all difficulties; only then will you see your future and know how to enjoy yourself. This sort of happiness is not a life of contentment, but a life of struggle and of advancement. Therefore we should all do some meaningful work each day and some reading, so that each of us is in a position to give something to others. Laziness simply encourages the feeling that life is hollow, feeble and in decay.
3. Use your brain, and make a habit of doing so. Correct any tendency to not think or ponder, or the problem of going with the tides. Before you say or do anything, think whether what you are saying is right, and whether yours is the most suitable way of dealing with the problem, whether it goes against your own principles, and whether you feel you can take responsibility for it. Only then will you be free of any regrets about your actions. This is called acting rationally. It is the best way of avoiding the pitfalls of sweet words and honeyed phrases, of being sidetracked by petty gains, of wasting our emotions and wasting our lives.
4. Be resolved to ‘eat bitterness’ and persevere to the end. Be aware, modern women should identify and cast off all their rosy, compliant illusions. Happiness is taking up struggle in the midst of the raging storm, and not strumming a lute in the moonlight or recite poetry among the blossoms. In the absence of the greatest resolution, it is easy to falter in mid-path. Not suffer is becoming degenerate. The strength to carry on should be nurtured through the quality of one’s ‘perseverance.’ People without great aims and ambitions rarely have the firmness of purpose that does not covet petty advantages or seek a comfortable existence. But only those whose aims and ambitions benefit not the individual, but all of humankind can persevere to the end.
Postscript: On re-reading this article, it seems to me that there is much room for improvement in the passage on what we should expect from women, but because I have to meet a deadline with this manuscript, I have no time to revise it. But I also feel that there are some things which, if said by a leader before a big audience, would probably evoke satisfaction. But when such views are written by a woman, they will probably be discredited. But since I have written them, I offer them as I always intended, for the perusal of those people with similar views.
Printed in Yenan’s Liberation News, March 9, 1942
[*] A reference to the heroine of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a proto-feminist heroine who left home to achieve her freedom.
[…] Hat tip to Danwei for calling attention to Sinopop’s translation of a 1942 Women’s Day essay by Ding Ling on marriage, divorce, aging, and how women could “strengthen themselves” to gain a more equal […]