Mapping Gender Onto the Cultural Revolution: Masculinity’s Triumph in a ‘Genderless’ Struggle

August 9, 2017

Schwarzman Scholars worked together to create an academic journal, reflecting their ability to think critically about the Middle Kingdom and the implications of its rise. These collections of thoughts come together to form “Xinmin Pinglun,” our Journal dedicated to the publication of the informative and analytical essays of our scholars. As the application deadline for the class of 2019 is approaching and the arrival of the incoming class is on its way, we are sharing pieces from Ximin Pinglun to give insight into the critical thinking and scholarship taking place at Schwarzman College. Here, Maggie Wedeman, (Class of 2017) shares her insights on the effects of gender in international relations.

As the discipline of international relations has developed, so too have the number of different lenses through which conflict can be analyzed and understood. In the past decade, feminists and gender theorists have made important contributions to international relations theory and practice by illuminating the way in which gender impacts an individual’s experience of conflict. Gender theory has also played a central role in reclaiming women’s experience in past armed conflicts. In examining international relations and the armed conflicts of history, gender theorists do not present a unitary theory as such, but rather consider the implications of a person’s gender and societal gender norms in their analyses of conflicts. A focused analysis of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) is a revealing case study of the value of this theoretical lens. In this conflict, women frequently became militant at rates higher than typical conflicts because of society’s erasure of femininity and adoption of a “universal masculinity.”

Gender in international relations

Though identity is inherently intersectional, one of the important components of identity is gender. Gender is socially constructed and people perform masculinity and femininity based on what society teaches them is natural, on life experiences, and on what a person finds most comfortable performing. Gender theorists suggest biological sex difference does not determine gender, but rather is made meaningful in that sex organs primarily determine whether a person will be socialized to be feminine or masculine, and thus as a woman or a man. Despite this lack of causation between sex organs and gender identity, women are predominately associated with a feminine gender role, while men are associated with a masculine gender role.

Gender is significant in international relations because it is often the basis of societal hierarchy. Most societies are patriarchal, meaning female gender roles and women are subordinate to the masculine gender and men. Within this, certain types of masculinities and femininities are prioritized over others. As a result of this hierarchical ordering of society, gender very much impacts one’s lived experience in peacetime and in conflict. Specifically, one’s position in society is often determinant of whether or not a person is directly involved in combat, the kinds of harms they experience, and in post-conflict the type of justice available to them.

The gender lens is important to examine in terms of modern and historical conflicts, as it allows scholars and practitioners to analyze how gender can fuel conflict, and therefore how being aware of gender can help prevent conflict in the future. From the feminist historian perspective, the gender lens recovers women’s experiences that have been absent from official records. This process in turn validates these experiences and helps bring attention and significance to women’s experiences in modern life. However, when examining historical and ongoing conflicts there are indeed limitations to this analysis as gender dynamics are different in every culture and culture is not monolithic. Moreover, this type of analysis is often susceptible to the negative externality of neo colonialism, imperialism, and cultural relativism. Despite these limitations, gender analysis in international relations and of historical conflict is relevant because it brings an awareness of the ways in which gender can play into conflict and gives scholars and practitioners another avenue to address conflicts in the future.

Within gender theory, one important sub-division is masculinities and femininities theory. On the surface level, one of the central claims of masculinities theory is that societal expectations of masculinity pressure males into public spaces, and often to join conflict as soldiers and rebels in order to demonstrate their “manliness.” Conversely, social norms of femininity relegate women to support and service roles behind battle lines, within private spaces. While this is indeed a common theme, these surface level observations of masculinity and femininity theory fail to explain why in some conflicts women traverse “traditional” gender norms and enter combat positions on front lines.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

From 1966-1976, Chinese political and civil society was overwhelmed by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was set into motion by Chairman Mao as a result of competing factions within the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Margery Wolf argues Mao believed the competing factions would challenge his leadership and divert China’s path away from communism, so he unleashed the Cultural Revolution to reassert his leadership. While not an overt civil war, this period was characterized by an immense amount of political violence perpetuated by and inflicted on civilians. The violence primarily took place in urban spaces, where Mao and other political elite believe bourgeois tendencies had developed.

Specifically, young urban people (primarily students) were encouraged to violently confront the “four olds”: old ideas, old habits, old customs, and old traditions and culture. These young people were collectively known as Red Guards. This period of national disruption lasted for ten years, ending only with the death of Mao in 1976, and it remains a sensitive and controversial subject within the Chinese psyche.

“To be taken seriously as a Red Guard and militant, one had to don a masculine appearance.” 

A discussion of the Cultural Revolution is relevant to the study of the intersection of gender and conflict because it was a conflict that, on the surface level, promoted gender equality and a conflict where women were highly involved in perpetuating violence. Using masculinities and femininities theory, it can be seen that women were influenced to join the violence as Red Guards because of the erasure and rejection of femininity and feminine spaces and the adoption of masculinity as the “generic human,” or in this case the generic revolutionary and generic Chinese citizen. Evaluating the Cultural Revolution in terms of gender is complex because in many ways the public motivations of the campaign were to eliminate “feudal practices” that often negatively impacted women’s lives. Kay Ann Johnson has said that despite calls for gender equality and the active participation of women in this conflict, the gender equality propagated in the Cultural Revolution was not substantive and actually resulted in the erasure of femininity and the feminine sphere. This erasure can be seen in the Cultural Revolution’s promotion of the public sphere over the private sphere and the conflation of femininity and the bourgeois.

Operating from the larger principles of communism, the Cultural Revolution promoted the participation of people in the public sphere, while it sought to eliminate the existence of the private sphere. All labor should serve the broader masses and there should be no private gains or profits. While this had been a critical tenet of the communist revolution since before 1949, the Cultural Revolution was a time that the dissolution of the private sphere was accelerated. This had significant implications for women and “women’s issues,” as they have traditionally inhabited the private sphere, while men and masculinity dominate the public sphere. As the private sphere was increasingly challenged, so too were women’s traditional places in society and femininity.

While the encouraging of women to enter into public, political life was a step towards increased gender equality, this equality was not substantive because as Kay Ann Johnson explains, the Cultural Revolution did not address women’s responsibilities within the private sphere or suggest that men should expand their role in the household. To illuminate this contradiction, Johnson recounts a Red Flag article entitled “What do women live for?” She explains that the issue of women fulfilling dual burdens of household duties and an expanded public role of serving the revolution was really an issue of whether or not women had “true revolutionary proletarian consciousness.” Put more simply, if a woman spoke out against her household duties and enlarged public responsibility, she should be considered an enemy to the revolution and in the Cultural Revolution this was grounds for violent torture and even death.

Femininity was also erased in the Cultural Revolution by the conflating of feminine dress with the bourgeois – the ultimate enemy of the proletariat (and thus all of China). According to the research of Emily Honig on the personal accounts of female Red Guards, one women recounted that anything that would “make girls look like girls was bourgeois. We covered up our bodies so completely that I almost forgot I was a girl.” This demonization of femininity and conflation of feminine space, jobs, and dress with the bourgeois meant that (urban) females could not openly and safely be feminine women during the Cultural Revolution, for fear of violence.

Taking a pause to return to the masculinities and femininities theory explored above, the Cultural Revolution is indeed an armed conflict where gender was at play. China has historically been a patriarchal society, and while the communist revolution had brought increased awareness to the issue of gender equality, this equality lacks substance and is imbalanced. For example, Mao famously stated, “Women hold up half the sky,” meaning that women had an important and equal part to play in public society. However, as women were encouraged to grow their roles in public spheres, they often had to continue to tend to roles traditionally relegated to women such as taking care of elders, cooking and cleaning, and raising children. In essence, Mao’s statement of equality represented a double-bind, forcing women to actually hold up far more than half the sky.

Due to the lack of true equality and reliance of the patriarchy, one would expect that hypotheses of masculinity theorists like Hearn and Dolan to predict that men would reacted to conflict by joining the fight, while women would reacted in an opposite way by retreating from the front lines and inhabiting support roles as cooks or nurses. However, young, urban men and women operated highly similarly because femininity in its entirety was erased. To more holistically explain female militants, it will now need to be shown not only how femininity was erased, but how masculinity became the universal gender for all “revolutionaries.” This adoption of masculinity can be seen in the dress of female combatants and the promulgation of militant images.

Emily Honig observes, “if there is anything at all noteworthy about women’s participation in Red Guard violence … it is that women invariably dress as men, or more precisely, as male army combatants.” Honig cites accounts of female Red Guards who say it was “glorious” to wear army uniform and would tuck their long hair under their caps to blend in as males. This practice indicates that to be taken seriously as a Red Guard and militant, one had to don a masculine appearance, and thus that the masculine gender was the only gender worthy of value and dignity. This societal idea/norm was reinforced by the dissemination of images of masculinized, female militancy.

During the Cultural Revolution, female militancy and ferocity was markedly valorized. Honig gives examples of this valorization in Mao’s poem “Militia Women,” his public praise of women such as Song Binbin, who led an attack on her middle school vice principal who was beaten to death. Additionally images of masculine women can be seen in the Eight Model Operas of the Cultural Revolution, such as The Red Detachment of Women. Even though some might argue that operas as an art form is rather feminine in nature, this opera includes scenes of ballerinas dressed as soldiers, dancing with rifles and publicly criticizing and beating the landlord class. In comparision to American musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and Funny Girl that same year (1964), there is a clear removal of femininity and standard feminine characters, while “de-gendered” (but really masculinized) characters take the lead.

Though not specifically militant, praise of the “Iron Girls” is also indicative of this promotion of female ferocity and masculinity during the Cultural Revolution. Gail Hershatter explains “Iron Girls” were women who were said to rival men in terms of the ability to endure hard labor. While these cultural images suggested to women that they too could hold the same jobs and societal roles as men, images of the Cultural Revolution did not, in turn, validate the roles traditionally held by women. This dynamic seems to have encouraged women to take up more masculine characteristics, and for young women this frequently meant joining the Red Guard as combatants.

In an effort to make sense of gender dynamics in the chaotic Cultural Revolution, some well versed in this period history might point to the paradoxical and hypocritical situation of Mao hosting lavish parties where he invited exotic female dancers to entertain him and his guests at the same time he espoused the “Iron Girls” rhetoric. As cited in Li Zhi Sui’s memoir The Private Life of Chairman Mao, at these parties very feminine women would gain access to Mao, and thus there might be a to propensity to assume this access came with increased authority. However, this was not the case and Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) retained a high level of authority and was a central driver behind the Cultural Revolution as a member of the Gang of Four and director of the revolutionary operas – all of which reinforced a de-gendered and generic solider/worker/peasant detached of almost all feminine qualities.

Lessons forty years on

From the perspective of masculinities and femininities theory, during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese women, and particularly young urban women, were put in a position where in order to have societal worth they had to abandon the spaces and societal roles traditionally adopted by women, don a masculine appearance, and become combatants. If women continued their traditional, feminized roles and dress they would be established as enemies and have exposed themselves to potential violence. At first glance, the traditional line of masculinities theory put forth by scholars such as Hearn and Dolan appears insufficient in explaining large scale participation of women in combat roles. If expectations of masculinity are only applied to males in society, then males would be the only members of the military and other violent organizations. However, as seen in the Cultural Revolution this was not the case.

Terrell Carver’s work can help make sense of women’s participation in militancy because he explains that males and masculinity constitute not only male and masculine roles in society, but also are seen as the “generic human.” The case of the Cultural Revolution is verification of Carver’s premise. It was a period where being a young feminine women would expose you to a heightened potential for violence. This environment seems to have pushed young women into combat roles as holding such roles were a method of gaining authority and safety during this period of civil unrest and violence.

This analysis does not suggest that women did not have agency in becoming combatants, or that societal gender dynamics were the sole factor in women’s decision to join combat. Rather, this analysis posits that the societal expectations of masculinities and femininities (covertly) influenced their decision, and more specifically that the gender equality professed by leaders of this conflict was actually a total erasure of femininity and a universal adoption of masculinity. Furthermore, these calls for masculinity were not just appealing to women, but called men to action as well. Perry and Dillion have commented that the impact of a universalized masculinity and masculinized discourse on men can be seen in the mobilization of worker rebels in Shanghai and their invocation of ideas of brotherhood and fraternity.

By applying gender theory, and specifically masculinities and femininities theory to historical conflicts such as the Cultural Revolution, scholars and practitioners are able to put existing theories to the test and develop new ideas regarding how gender maps onto conflict. The case of the Cultural Revolution reinforces the idea that gender is not binary, but rather fluid and can change not only cross-culturally, but also over time depending on gendered expectations defined by those in power. Masculinity does not only influence men to pick up arms, but because masculinity is often interpreted as generic and universal. In times when femininity is erased, expectations of masculinity can also encourage women to become combatants.

China is now over forty years removed from the Cultural Revolution. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the impact this tumultuous time had on gender dynamics in China in its immediate and long term aftermath. This topic, however, is outside the direct subject of the intersection of conflict and gender and moves into gender studies and sociology more broadly. Sinologists and gender scholars alike should continue to examine the ways gender maps onto conflict and how gender shapes Chinese society and politics moving forward.

Maggie Wedeman (Class of 2017) is from the Untied States of America, and graduated from George Washington University.