Collectivisation, designed in part to liberate women from the shackles of patriarchy, made matters worse. Although work patterns varied hugely from one end of the country to the other, in most of the north women rarely worked in the fields before the Great Leap Forward. Even in the southern regions, it was often only the poor who joined the menfolk outdoors. Besides taking care of domestic work, women and even children usually engaged in other occupations, making handicrafts in their spare time to supplement the family’s income. Entire villages sometimes specialised in producing a defined range of commodities for local markets, from paper umbrellas, cloth shoes and silk hats to rattan chairs, wicker creels and twig baskets, all from the safety of the household.1 Even in more isolated villages, women by custom worked from home, weaving, spinning and embroidering for family and for cash.

As women who had never worked in the fields were mobilised in the rush to modernise, they were required to turn up every day at the sound of the bugle, and march off in teams to plough, sow, rake, weed and winnow. But despite full employment in communes, women were paid less than men, no matter how hard they toiled. The work-point system devised by the communes systematically devalued their contribution, since only strong men were able to reach the top of the scale. And as women joined the collective workforce, the state did very little to lighten the load at home, as there was no shortage of domestic tasks which still needed to be carried out, from mending clothes to raising children. Kindergartens, for instance, were supposed to help with babysitting, but, as we have seen, many were far from adequate, which meant that women often had to juggle childcare with full employment.2As family life was buffeted by constant campaigns, the exigencies of mobilisation took a heavy toll on women, exhausting many even before famine began to bite. In those villages drained of able-bodied men who joined the exodus to the city, women were left to look after relatives and dependants.

Most of all, women were vulnerable because in a regime which mercilessly traded food for work every weakness led to hunger. In the relentless drive to achieve ever higher targets, at the furnace, in the field or on the factory floor, menstruation was widely seen as a flaw. Menstrual taboos of popular religion, which feared the polluting potential of women during their periods, were swept aside seemingly overnight. Failure to come out to the field was punished, the most common form of retribution being a reduction of work points for each day of absence. Some male cadres abused their positions of power, humiliating those women who asked for sick leave. Xu Yingjie, party secretary of the Chengdong People’s Commune in Hunan, forced those who requested a rest on the grounds of menstruation to drop their trousers and undergo a cursory inspection. Few were willing to undergo the humiliation, and many became ill as a result, several dying under the strain of labouring while suffering severe menstrual pain or gynaecological problems.3 Expectant mothers were also compelled to work, often until the last stage of pregnancy, although they too were commonly penalised. In one district in Sichuan alone twenty-four women miscarried after being compelled to work in the fields. Chen Yuanming, who objected, was kicked between her legs by the cadre in charge and crippled for life.4

Where abusive cadres assumed power unopposed, punishment could go much further. In the same Hunan commune just mentioned, pregnant women who did not appear at work were made to undress in the middle of the winter and then forced to break ice.5 In Qingyuan, Guangdong, hundreds of villagers at a time were made to work in the middle of the winter without cotton-padded clothing; no exceptions were made for pregnant women or those with small children, and people who protested were deprived of food.6 In Panyu county, just outside Guangzhou, a cadre grabbed seven-months-pregnant Du Jinhao by her hair and forced her to the ground for not working sufficiently hard. He kept her pinned down and shouted abuse at her until she passed out; her husband cried with fear but was powerless to intervene. After she regained consciousness she staggered back home looking dazed, then sank to her knees, collapsed and died.7 Some women were so desperate that they preferred to die: Liang Xianü, pregnant yet obliged to work in the winter, jumped to her death in a cold river.8

Exhausted and hungry, women became so weak that they stopped menstruating altogether. This was common everywhere, even in the cities, where women were given some medical care. In the Tianqiao district, to the south of Beijing, half of all female workers in a metallurgy factory suffered from lack of menstrual periods, vaginal infections or a prolapsed uterus. As the only available washroom was always occupied, some of the women went for months without ever washing. When combined with endless hours in a poorly ventilated environment, even political activists like Yuan Bianhua would spit blood and sometimes even lacked the strength to stand up on their own.9 Other studies, conducted by the Women’s Federation, made similar observations. In the Beijing Electron Tubes Plant, for instance, half of all 6,600 women had some form of gynaecological disorder. Wu Yufang, aged twenty-five, had arrived at the factory as a sturdy young girl in 1956 but in 1961 suffered from headaches, irregular menses, sleeplessness, irritability and lack of strength. Married for five years, she was still without children – a medical examination showed that she, like many of the other workers, had mercury poisoning.10

The physical decline among rural women was so extreme that many suffered from a prolapsed uterus, meaning that the womb, held in place inside the pelvis by muscles and ligaments, collapsed inside the vaginal canal. Even without overwork and lack of food, weakness can cause the uterus to sag or slip out of its normal position. This happens when women experience a difficult childbirth or suffer from a loss of oestrogen. But the term refers to a variety of different stages, from a drooping cervix to the uterus coming completely outside the vagina: the latter was the syndrome observed again and again by medical authorities. The statistics they provided – even if classified – could not possibly reflect the reality, and varied from 3 to 4 per cent of women in the countryside just outside Shanghai to one in every five working women in Hunan.11 The real incidence must have been much higher, given that many women would have felt too ashamed to report the condition, many cadres would have been reluctant to report medical disorders associated with starvation, and too few trained doctors actually existed in the countryside to have even a rough idea of what was happening.

A prolapsed uterus was difficult to cure because the underlying causes – lack of food and lack of rest – were hard to remedy in times of famine. Even if they had money to pay the fees, many women simply did not have the time to leave their children and their work to visit a hospital, which were few and far between in the countryside. Many villagers also feared hospitals, and they resorted instead to local treatments. In Hubei, female healers used a variety of recipes, some handed down from generation to generation, to assist women suffering from gynaecological problems, heating and grinding ingredients into a powder that was smeared on to the vaginal walls and mixing medicinal herbs to cure menstrual disorders. Aunt Wang, as she was known in a village in Zhongxiang county, helped hundreds of women, her house often harbouring four or five patients being nursed back to health as her husband went foraging for leaves and roots in the forest.12 But such traditional remedies were rarely tolerated under forced collectivisation, and in the absence of effective medical care most women simply had to bear their condition and labour on.

Women were vulnerable in other ways. Socially marginalised in what remained, after all, a tough, male-oriented world, they were prone to sexual abuse. Huge power was given to local cadres, while famine gradually eroded the moral fabric of society. As if this combination were not bad enough, many families were separated or broken up as menfolk joined the exodus, enrolled in the army or laboured on distant irrigation projects. As the layers of social protection surrounding women gradually crumbled, they were left almost entirely defenceless to confront the naked power of the local bully.

Rape spread like a contagion through a distressed moral landscape. A few examples will suffice. Two party secretaries of a commune in Wengcheng, north of Guangzhou, raped or coerced into sex thirty-four women in 1960.13 In Hengshui county, Hebei, three party secretaries and a deputy county head were known to have sexually abused women routinely, one of them having had sex with several dozen.14 Further north, a secretary of Gujiaying village raped twenty-seven women, and an investigation showed that he had ‘taken liberties’ with almost every unmarried woman in the village.15 Li Dengmin, party secretary of Qumo, raped some twenty women, two being under age.16 In Leiyang, Hunan, girls as young as eleven or twelve were sexually abused.17 In Xiangtan, a cadre set up a ‘special team’ (zhuanyedui) of ten girls whom he sexually abused at whim.18

And even if women were not raped, they were subjected to sex-specific humiliations, as collectivisation swept aside the customary moral values of sexual restraint and bodily propriety. China was undergoing a revolution, turning upside down moral codes of behaviour passed down from generation to generation, which led to perversions that would have been unthinkable before 1949. In a factory in Wugang county, Hunan, local bosses forced women to work naked. On a single day in November 1958 more than 300 went about their jobs in the nude. Those who refused were tied up. A competitive system was even devised by which the women most eager to strip were granted a reward, the top gift consisting of cash to the value of fifty yuan, more or less equivalent to a month’s salary. While some women may have embraced the opportunity to advance their careers, many were no doubt repelled, although nobody dared to speak their mind. But a few did write. After some of the women fell ill – Hunan can be bitterly cold during the winter – a series of anonymous letters were sent to Mao Zedong. Whether he actually read these letters we do not know, but someone highly placed in Beijing phoned the provincial committee in Changsha and demanded an inquiry. The factory leaders, it came to light in the course of an investigation, had apparently ‘encouraged’ the women to take off their clothes in a ‘spirit of emulation’ which aimed to ‘break feudal taboos’.19 Seemingly anything could be justified in the name of emancipation.

Equally crude and humiliating were the nude parades, which happened across the country: women, occasionally men, were made to march through the village entirely naked. In Suichang county, Zhejiang, men and women accused of larceny were stripped naked and paraded. Zhou Moying, a grandmother aged sixty, was forced to undress and then lead the procession by beating a gong – despite the pleas for pardon from fellow villagers.20 Some of the abused women felt too ashamed to return to their homes. Twenty-four-year-old Zhu Renjiao, stripped and paraded for petty theft, ‘felt too ashamed to face people’ and asked to be moved to another village. She killed herself when her request was turned down.21 In another small village in Guangdong, the militia stripped two young women and tied them to a tree, using a flashlight to explore one of the girl’s private parts, and drawing a large turtle – symbol of the male organ – on the other woman’s body. Both committed suicide.22

Less often mentioned in the archives or in interviews, but part of a distinct social trend in any famine, was the trade in sex. Women provided favours for almost anything, from a morsel of food and a better job to a regular but illicit relationship with a man who could offer some sense of security. Most of these transactions went on undetected, but there was also a whole underworld of prostitution which the authorities tried to monitor. One correctional facility in Chengdu kept well over a hundred prostitutes and delinquent female children. More than a dozen were sex workers who had been ‘re-educated’ after the communist victory in 1949, but refused to reform themselves. Wang Qingzhi, who went by the nickname of ‘Old Mother’, in turn introduced other women to the trade. Some of the new sex workers formed bands with male thieves and roamed the country, travelling to Xi’an, Beijing and Tianjin to make a living. A few worked independently, one or two even regularly handing over money to their parents – who turned a blind eye to the source of the income.23

Village women also offered their bodies for food after escaping to the city, as we have already seen. The logical extension of this trade in sex was bigamy, as country girls lied about their age or their marital status in order to secure a husband in town. Some were only fifteen or sixteen, well below the legal age of marriage. Others were already married but committed bigamy to survive. A few were prepared to abandon their children from a previous marriage, but not all of them deserted their families: some returned home only a few days after the wedding had taken place.24

Trade in sex flimsily disguised by the pretence of marriage was even more common in the countryside. In one closely studied Hebei village the number of weddings increased seven-fold in 1960, the worst year of the famine. Women poured into the village from distressed areas, marrying for goods, clothes or food for relatives. Some were as young as sixteen, others left soon after the wedding. A few of the women introduced other family members to the groom, resulting in half a dozen cases of bigamy.25

And then there was trafficking in women. From Inner Mongolia, for instance, teams spread out over the country, hauling back hundreds of women every month. Most came from famished Gansu, a few from Shandong. Some were mere children, others were widows, although married women were also trafficked. The victims ranged across all social categories, including students, teachers and even cadres. Few came voluntarily, and some were traded several times. Forty-five women were sold to a mere six villages in less than half a year.26

Always marginalised, sometimes humiliated, invariably exhausted and often abandoned by the men, women, in the end, were the ones who had to make the most heart-rending decision, namely how the meagre food ration should be divided. This was not so at the onset of famine, as men were normally in charge and demanded to be fed first. In the same way that women were systematically given fewer work points than men under collectivisation, a patriarchal society expected that priority be given to the feeding of all male members of the household. As men provided, women abided, a cultural imperative that dictated that even in normal times women were given a smaller share of the food. And as famine took over, women were deliberately neglected in the interests of male survival, a choice that was justified on the grounds that the entire family ultimately depended on the ability of men to go out and find food. But once the men were gone, women had to endure the agony of their starving children without being able to help. Not all could live with the constant crying and pleading for food by their children, made so much more unbearable by the stark choices they had to make about the distribution of scarce resources. Liu Xiliu, deprived of food for six days as punishment for being too sick to work, finally succumbed to the pangs of hunger and devoured the ration allocated to her child, who soon started crying of misery. Unable to suffer the torment she swallowed caustic soda to put an end to her life.27

There is no doubt that the emotional distress and physical pain – to say nothing of the self-abasement and humiliation many had to endure – were enormous, and much of this was a direct consequence of sex discrimination. But historians have shown that in many other poor, patriarchal societies women did not die in much greater numbers than men, however problematic recorded rates of mortality may be. In the Bengal famine, male mortality even exceeded that of females, leading the historian Michelle McAlpin to write that ‘females may be better able than males to withstand the trials of a period of famine’.28 As we have seen in previous chapters, women excelled at devising everyday strategies of survival, from foraging in the forest and preparing substitute foodstuffs to trading on the black market. In the end, the greatest victims of the famine were the young and the elderly.

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