The period of the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s in China was planned to become the most prosperous and progressive time in the Republic’s history. Many significant changes were expected to be implemented by Mao Zedong, the country’s chairman. The greatest innovation of the campaign was to transform China from the country based on the agrarian economy into the one with socialist politics. The process was supposed to be launched through collectivization and industrialization.
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The Great Leap aimed to make China one of the world leaders by regenerating its industry and splitting with the Soviet Union. Apart from those general goals, there was a specific aim of making women equal with men by giving them a possibility to participate in industrialization, engage in traditionally male professions, and dedicate less time to attending to their families, spending it on their nation instead.
At the end of the 1950s, inspired by ambitions and full of hope, people in the Republic of China were looking forward to enormous positive changes. The representatives of art, especially literature, dedicated their compositions to the new promising wave. One of the most popular stories of the period was “A Brief Biography of Li Shuangshuang” by Li Zhun. The story was so popular that it was revised into a film and a book of comics (Tang 647-649). People admired the main character for her power and persistence. Li Shuangshuang was the embodiment of the Great Leap as it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, though, it never happened as it was planned and expected.
“A Brief Biography of Li Shuangshuang” as the Planned Emancipation of Women
The character of Li Shuangshuang is a perfect illustration of what a leading party expected women to become. The story begins by mentioning Li Shuangshuang as “the wife of Sun Xiwang” (Zhun 15). By such a beginning, the author draws attention to the fact of how disrespected women used to be before the Great Leap. Apart from this reference, the woman is also called “the one in my home” and “Little Chrysanthemum’s mother” by her husband (Zhun 16).
However, the most humiliating name is another one applied by her spouse – “the one that cooks for me” (Zhun 16). These names and titles testify that a woman’s life in China was far from being full of decency and respect. Women were mostly regarded as their husband’s wives rather than independent individuals. In his story, Zhun describes women’s life as it was supposed to become a result of the industrial revolution. By the end of the story, contrary to the beginning, the woman is no longer referred to as Sun Xiwang’s wife but is called by her real name. With such an approach, the author explains the noble plans of the Great Leap. Unfortunately, the plans and expectations did not become true.
The reason why the story had such tremendous success was obvious. It was published right at the beginning of the movement when everyone was hopeful about the changes that were going to happen very soon. Thus, Zhun’s story was the way of getting the most vulnerable groups of the Chinese population involved in the movement. The example of Li Shuangshuang encouraged females to believe that they could make a difference and that their voice could be the decisive one.
Women had always been one of the most underserved minority groups in many countries, and China was not an exception. However, in Zhun’s story, the main character was the embodiment of someone who could change the current state of things and change the whole country and its citizens.
Rural Women’s Activity Represented in “A Brief Biography of Li Shuangshuang”
Females’ emancipation of the Great Leap period was not the first attempt to proclaim the equality of women’s and men’s rights. The first feminist movement in China, which took place in the 1910s and 1920s, was called May Fourth Feminism (Li 31). However, that campaign involved a few women, being held mostly by men. Moreover, females participating in May Fourth Feminism belonged to elite and urban classes (Li 34). Unlike that campaign, the one that happened at the end of the 1950s was aimed at inducing rural women to take an active part.
Li Shuangshuang was a typical representative of such a female type. She lived in a village and did a lot of household chores that required much physical work. However, unlike all other village women, Li Shuangshuang was not going to accept the conditions in which she was put. Being an educated person, Li wrote a poster in which she drew the public’s attention to the fact of how hateful females’ duties were.
The poster began with the words “Household chores / are such a bore!” (Zhun 17). Further, Li Shuangshuang explained that the duties about the house distracted women from the noble purposes of the Great Leap: “If we’re stuck home to cook all day, / how can Great Leap plans get underway?” (Zhun 17). The poster drew much attention from the public. Not only ordinary villagers read it but even the secretary of the township party committee, Luo Shulin, got interested in the person who had written it.
In that situation, two more indications of females’ oppressed state became noticed. The first case was when Uncle Leap, the Commune’s Old Party Secretary, could not identify the woman’s name: “These young women nowadays, I just can’t keep track of them all” (Zhun 17-18). The second example of inequality was when Li’s husband, Sun Xiwang, was asked about the poster. He did not want to admit that it was his wife’s handwriting. He was afraid to admit that (Zhun 20). Such behavior testifies that women were not allowed to express their opinions freely, and Xiwang was worried that he might undergo some punishment for his wife’s open-mindedness.
The Reflection of Community Spirit in “A Brief Biography of Li Shuangshuang”
During the Great Leap, rural women were mobilized by the Communist Party to replace men in agricultural activities (Hairong 579-580). Meanwhile, the men were sent to work on mining, irrigation, and other projects (Manning 574). As a part of such mobilization, women initiated building and maintaining canteens to save time on cooking at home (Manning 574). In Zhun’s story, the main character also paid efforts to arrange the functioning of a canteen in her village (Zhun 28-35).
All women in the village took part in the arrangements. It was admitted that setting up the canteen was “for the benefit of all commune members” (Zhun 34). Li Shuangshuang repeatedly emphasized the importance of working together as a team and helping the country to reach the most prosperous outcomes of the industrialization.
Even her husband, who was afraid to acknowledge her authorship of the poster at the beginning of the story, gradually realized what a prominent person in the village his wife was and how she inspired others to unite their efforts. When somebody tried to confront Li Shuangshuang later, Sun Xiwang resolutely told them that they had no right to offend such an outstanding woman and a member of the community (Zhun 56). Her efforts to make her village a better place and unite the women to create a better future for themselves, their families, and the whole country could not remain unnoticed by anyone.
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The outcomes of the Great Leap Forward in China were tragic and rather far from what had been expected. As a result of the ineffective planning of the campaign, there was a famine in which millions of people died (Bianco 85-88). Mao Zedong planned to overtake the US and the Soviet Union, but he failed to reach those goals (Callahan 984). However, people living in those times ardently believed in those plans and needed encouragement to participate in changes that were happening in the country.
In such conditions, Zhun’s “A Brief Biography of Li Shuangshuang” was a great source of inspiration and propaganda of the ideas asserted by the Communist Party of China. The main character of the story, Li Shuangshuang, symbolized a woman-patriot who saw productive activity on the terms equal with males as the only possible way of supporting her nation. Li Shuangshuang was energetic, enthusiastic, and public-spirited. She was the symbol of emancipation and gender equality and a role model for millions of women in China.
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Callahan, William A. “History, Tradition and the China Dream: Socialist Modernization in the World of Great Harmony.” Journal of Contemporary China, vol. 24, no. 96, 2015, pp. 983-1001.
Hairong, Yan. “Spectralization of the Rural: Reinterpreting the Labor Mobility of Rural Women in Post-Mao China.” American Ethnologist, vol. 30, no. 4, 2003, pp. 578-596.
Li, Yuhui. “Women ’s Movement and Change of Women’s Status in China.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2000, pp. 30-40.
Manning, Kimberley Ens. “Making a Great Leap Forward? The Politics of Women’s Liberation in Maoist China.” Gender and History, vol.18, no.3, 2006, pp. 574-593.
Tang, Xiaobing. “Rural Women and Social Change in New China Cinema: From Li Shuangshuang to Ermo.” Positions, vol. 11, no. 3, 2003, pp. 647-674.
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