Twisted Improvement on China’s Marriage Policy: Love in an Oppressed Age

How society’s gender equality were generally improved yet the choices for free marriages decreased during China’s Cultural Revolution, in which time Mao’s ideology affected everywhere in people’s life. 

by Julianna Wu

It is called an anniversary of the “golden wedding” if you’ve been married with someone for more than 50 years. For half of the century, Grandpa Zhang and Grandma Qin have been holding each other’s hands and standing by each other.

Grandma Qin’s braid hair that used to have a pleasant smell of soap has turned into white and grey. While her handsome husband’s back, which used to carry their children everywhere in the city with joyful laugh, now hurts badly in rainy days. But Grandpa Zhang still calls his lover the nickname she was called in the old time, “HuiQiong”.

Grandma Qin and Grandpa Zhang at the time they just married. The picture has been hang on their bedroom for 50 years no matter where they lived.

“In that hard time 50 years ago, your father and I were separated away in different remote villages, we can’t hear for each other for a long time” said Grandma Qin to her 20-year-old granddaughter: “many times I heard rumors said that he had abandoned us and fled or had died, I just didn’t believe that. I knew from my heart that he loves me as well as I love him.”

On the only letter left from the old time, Grandma Qin still recognize the blurred “Dear HuiQiong” in the hand-writing she familiars with. Although they had been through hunger, separation, bullying and the painful Cultural Revolution, they still manage to raise up their three kids and watch them settling well in their own families.

Grandpa Zhang and Grandma Qin are a lucky pair. However, not all other lovers had made it through the misery decade of the Cultural Revolution.

Not only in economics, culture and society, the 10-years’ mind-washing sociopolitical movement also had significantly influenced on Chinese people’s family life, by promoting female’s social statue, yet changing the way people choose their mates and set China’a leader Mao Zedong as everybody’s spiritual mentor.

In May 1966, Mao Zedong, also the Chairman of the Communist Party of China, launched the “Great Cultural Revolution” that aimed on preserving the “true Communist ideology” in the country by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society, and to re-impose Maoist thought as the dominant ideology within the Party.

During the time, millions of scholars, businessmen, landlords and their children were labeled as “counter-revolutionaries” and were persecuted on both physical and psychological ways. As a result, people who were original born in wealthy or scientists’ families became low class “enemies,” people born in farmer or worker’s family were turned into the ruling class and exploiter.

The cover of the book: Mao’s Quotations.

“If you’re a child of the ‘counter-revolutionaries’, you can’t fall in love with a child of ‘five red categories families’, which includes farmer, worker and revolution cadres,” said Mr Fu Yushan, an 83-year-old man who used to be a university student in the Cultural Revolution.

Mr Fu entered the university at the first year of the Cultural Revolution, when he and his wife were just married and had their first son.  “They said that I said something wrong in an university discussion, which I didn’t even remember I said it…I was sent to a village in Sichuan province, but since I’m still a farmer-born young man, they didn’t persecute me much.”

Mr Fu’s wife, who used to be a daughter of a businessman, was left in the city with their 2-year-old son: “It was such a hard time for her,” said the husband: “because of her father’s identity, she became a target of Red Guards while I was away.”

Red Guards asked Mr Fu to officially “draw a clear line between his ‘landlord and counter-revolutionary’ wife”, by providing him a better life in the city, he refused.  

“She was a princess in her family and had never gone through insult and bullying like that. I was the only hope she had, I couldn’t leave her,” said the old man, whose wife died in 2010 for illness.

Other than the married couples, some unmarried young people also suffered tragedies due to the label they were forced to bear. “I heard that some girls in my middle school, during the ‘Down to the Countryside Movement’, were raped by Red Guards,” said Grandma Qin.

One particular rape case shocked Grandma Qin was that, after committed the crime, the rapist said he did so to “save the girl”, because she was a daughter of “counter-revolutionaries” and he was from a “purely red family”.

At the same time, some young people of the “five black categories,” which stands for landlord, rich farmers, bad guys, counter-revolutionaries and rightists, were sent to factories and to serve as workers. They were called “apprentice” and were not allowed to have a relationship during the time they worked in the factories.

A sample of marriage certificate in the Cultural Revolution. On the left states a sun-like profile of Mao and a quote from him: “the core power that guides us is the Chinese Communist Party; the value that guides our thinking is Marxism-Leninism.” The stamp on the right reads “the revolutionary committee”.

Some people couldn’t get married, or even fall in love with anybody for years, said Mr Li Bingquan, a history professor of Peking University, it ended up with a lot of middle-aged “apprentices” in the factories, after they getting out of the factory years later, they were too old to find suitable girlfriends.

Except for all kinds of rules in choosing mates, Mao also penetrated into people’s spiritual world by emphasized the cult of his personality everywhere.

In an love letter wrote in the 1970s, Mao’s words were quoted several times as life guide mentor: “President Mao taught us that ‘there were no love or hatred in the world that comes no reason behind’…our love is the greatest proletarian revolutionary love…While I was sick on the bed (due to too much work), it became the perfect time for me to read and learn Mao’s Quotations, which teach us how to be a qualified successors of the proletariat…”  

“Also, couples need to vow to Mao’s portrait when they registered married”, said Mr Li: “Mao’s picture appears on their marriage certificates, like a sort of god”.

In the wedding, also, married couple had to praise Mao by singing songs like “Red Sun”, with a book of Mao’s Quotation on the hands, waving. Even the wedding gifts were simply Mao’s Quotation books in different versions at that time.

However, from a historical perspective, said Mr Li,  the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward movements marks a transition of women’s social statues regarding marriage in Chinese history.

Since the marriage law in 1950 and the campaigns of the early 1950s, women were given full equality in the matters of marriage, divorce, and property ownership, said Mr Li.

In the Great Leap Forward Movement, Mao gave women more recognition in terms of labour force by saying “women hold up half the sky”. Girls suffered physically as they had to take the same amount of work as man does, but they enjoys a much more free life on politics and society then before.

For a more clear view, please click on:

“Mao put an end to the centuries-old practices that discriminate women, like the foot binding custom, which binds women’s feet since they’re very little to stop the feets’ growth, in order to looked pretty. For a time, communism was a girl’s best friend,” said Mr Li.

Women suddenly gained the power to rule others, under the background of Cultural Revolution, it resulted in violent cases, said Ms Ng Lai-ping, a scholar in the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Female Red Guards could be even more radical than male on bullying and beating the ‘enemies’,” said Grandma Qin: “Once in a struggle session, a young girl hit her teacher with wood board heavily. The board crashed within a second and the teacher never got back on his foot.”

In her research report, Ms Ng find out that female Red Guards and other women in power at that time had to give up some of their feminine figure like beauty, gentleness and softness, to turn into cold-blooded, fierce and violent, in order to ingratiate the social value of “proletariat war against the capitalism”.

Grandma Qin and Grandpa Zhang in 2011, their anniversary of golden weeding. The photo was taken as a make up wedding profile, which they didn’t have the chance to take 55 years ago

“The twisted social class value and attitude towards relationship in the Cultural Revolution caused a lot of consequences,” said Mr Li: “it’s the main reason why there so many rape and sex related crimes occurred in the late 1970s.”

“In most societies these changes would take generations. In Mao’s China they were compressed into a time period, of two or three years. Changes involving women are probably more important than the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution,” said Harvard University’s professor Martin Whyte in his research report.  

Grandpa Zhang and Grandma Qin still complain with each other occasionally nowadays, about how they owe their children a better life in the early year during the Cultural Revolution. “I always feel that our first son deserves a better growing environment than what he had then,” sighed Grandpa Zhang: “he grew up with Red Guards bullying around in the poor village.”

Except for that, they barely talk about the hard days they went through: “afterwards, past is past, ” said the old man whose hair is already in snowy white: “once you married the right person that you trust, your memory would be full of endless happiness, and you would forget about the pain.”   

Further reading on the issue:


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