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WOMEN AND RAPE IN CHINA
Interview with Ethel Weichbrod by Jackie MacMillan and Freada Klein
Feminist Alliance Against Rape Newsletter Apr/May 1975


Following are excerpts from an interview conducted with Ethel Weichbrod by two members of the F.A.A.R. editorial staff. Ethel is 55 years old, and maintains this fact as an important aspect of how she looks at things. She defines herself as a political economist, with special interest in the economic development of the People's Republic of China. May, 1974 she spent visiting China on a tour sponsored by The Guardian - A Radical Newsweekly. Since returning, Ethel is working with the U.S. China People's Friendship Association, sharing the experiences of her trip.

Our purpose in seeking out this interview was to gain a sense of the existence of rape, its definition, and how it is dealt with in a society whose prevailing ideology is markedly different than our own. Just as we have found that an understanding of rape in the U.S. can best be achieved when it is linked to an understanding of other aspects of our society, we sought an understanding of these same aspects - particularly the scope and function of the criminal justice system and the position of women relative to men - within the context of Chinese society.

The interview is included to raise questions and to broaden our perspective as we seek to assess the origins of rape. It is neither an interesting tidbit to be completely divorced from feminist anti-rape projects here, nor is it intended as a "blueprint" for uncritical application. Of particular importance is to consider the unique patterns of economic and cultural development within each society, which prohibit strict comparison.

From our conversations with Ethel, we emerged with a sense that China is now a society characterized by a remarkable consistency in its collective approach to all issues. As tempting as it might be to merely adapt the Chinese approach to crime and 'rehabilitation', we must consider how the same approach is applied to other issues. While we in no way wish to minimize the significance of China's progress at building a new society, we must note that many demands formulated by contemporary U.S. feminists have no counterpart there. (In the interview which follows, several examples of this can be found; specifically, the Chinese orientation toward birth control and heterosexual bias.)

As Judith Stacey observes: "The anti-individualist ideology of the Chinese Communists is particularly limiting in the area of women's emancipation. The rejection of private life as a sphere of bourgeois decadence means that many strategic Western feminist concerns are theoretically off-limits." ("When Patriarchy Kowtows: The Significance of the Chinese Family Revolution for Feminist Theory", Feminist Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2/3, 1975, p.102)

Again, when undertaking a comparison of societies, we must evaluate each society's ideological framework. (If nothing else, this interview contributes more evidence to our view of the complexity of sexism, and the need for the development of feminist theory.)

The following interview begins with Ethel recounting a story that we felt illustrates China's general approach to resolving problematic situations, while simultaneously providing a feel for the vast difference in the prevailing values of each society.

Ethel Weichbrod: Let's see, there's a story we heard about a young man who was riding a bicycle one rainy and windy day, when the hood flapped down over his eyes for a short number of seconds. He lost sight of where he was going and ran into an old man and knocked the old man down, and he was fairly severely hurt and taken to the hospital. Now, how did they take care of the problem? The people concerned all got together and they looked into the situation. They found that the old man was by himself, and he needed some special attention that would ordinarily be given by the members of the family. Since there were no members of the family, this was the task the young man had to provide. since he was in a sense responsible for having knocked him over. Society looked at the story and the young man had to make recompense, not in money, but in terms of time and energy.

When I happened to tell this story to some young lawyer here when I got back, he said, "That's ridiculous, this young man wasn't responsible for knocking him over; it was just an act of the wind that blew the thing over his eyes. He can't be responsib1e~" I said, "You didn't hear me~ Because this wasn't a question of pushing responsibility on anyone person - sure it was the wind that was originally responsible, but the young man had to take care of the situation because he was the weapon or the arm of the wind." So there's a whole different set of values as to how things are taken care of when things go wrong, whether it's antisocial acts or other things that happen.

Jackie Mac Millan: We've heard that crime or antisocial acts in China have been eliminated.

E: From what we were able to observe and from our discussions, antisocial acts by and large have been eradicated. One of the things they talked about and helped us understand was that acts of violence or acts of oppression or acts of victimization - which I presume includes rape - are products of the society which people live in. Since the revolution in 1949 they've tried to build a society and consolidate relationships among people which involve concern for each other. This does not include exploiting each other either economically or politically or socially. Therefore it stands to reason that they would have devised ways of overcoming the necessity and the opportunity of people to commit antisocial acts.

J: So they see the individual rapist as a product of the old society, as opposed to the way the individual rapist is seen in this society - operating as an individual, as a deviant.

E: Absolutely. All crime is seen by the Chinese as a product of social conditions and social forces. Therefore, the onus for helping criminals is on society, it's not necessarily on the individual. Society has to find ways to help the person who does antisocial acts see what's wrong, why he's doing it. This happens even with petty crimes - pilfering - which exist to some small extent. If a young person steals something from a store, then it's discussed - why have you done this? What made you do it? Why was it necessary? Do you see what it does to society?

Freada Klein: How do you think they'd deal with the act of rape within their own society today?

E: I don't know precisely how they would handle it, but I would assume they would find some way of setting him to work in a supervised setting. Probably in the very setting out of which. he arises, whether it's a commune or a rural area or urban area. because taking people out of where they are and just putting them in some other place doesn't seem to fit their needs. The number of institutions they have I think is very limited, so they try to do all their remedial work within where people are.

I assume they would have some discussion with a person who committed an act like this and try to figure why he committed it, and then set about finding some regime of work for him so that he gets a good feeling of what the society needs, and that the society needs his labor in order to grow. And then they probably have sessions to check up on things.

Labor is often a way of not punishing people, but helping people transform.themse1ves. I don't think the Chinese see punishment as a way of transforming people.

F: I've read that there are two different types of labor; let's see there's supervised labor where they remain in society, but they have to report in at certain times. A slightly more stringent kind of sanction is what they call "rehabilitation through labor", where they're actually resettled in a labor camp. Is this accurate?

E: They would never call them labor camps. There are things called May 7th cadre schools, and it has nothing to do with rapists. The May 7th schools were set up originally during the Cultural Revolution to help people who only work with their heads - who do mental or intellectual labor - overcome some of their bourgeois ideology that arises from constant exposure just to mental labor. And they were set up where professors and managers and people of that sort came to work - to literally do work, manual work. Originally it was set up to do that, but since, it has become an honor for people who do intellectual work to apply for thosess10ts that exist in the May 7th schools. They are not looked at as an onerous thing nor is it a question of punishment.

The contradictions they always speak of as the three contradictions - the contradiction between manual work and mental work, between peasants and workers, and between, I guess the other category would be rural and urban - have to be overcome. They emerge out of the old society. Mental labor was always looked at as preferred, whereas manual labor was only done by people without intellect; rural people have always been looked down on, etc., and so these concepts have to be overcome.

There are always efforts to do it. You do know, I think, that in the urban areas, cadres of people who don't do production work are required, to one degree or another. to perform labor. For instance, in the hospitals, professionals do manual labor they'll serve in the cafeteria or they'll stuff the furnace or they'll wash floors. One way or another, one must combine manual labor with intellectual labor.

J: Well, all that leads to people understanding each other to the point where they're not going to be as likely to commit antisocial acts, getting back to rape.

F: From reading about the legal system and the way the Chinese approach defining crime apparently the crucial distinction is between contradictions among the people and ' contradictions between the enemy and the people.1 I was trying to decide which category rape fell into.

If you consider what we were talking about earlier, that is, that the rapist is himself a victim of society, then the contradiction would have to be one among the people.

The term enemy is not used widely because the Chinese take very severe measures against whoever is considered to be an enemy. But there can be wrong things done, and you have to figure out who did them and under what circumstances, and find ways of removing those circumstances that made for those wrong acts.

J: Through what structures would that be done?

E: Oh, the structures are very interesting, from what we could tell. For petty crime, the structure is through a neighborhood committee if it's in a city. The administrative and political organization in China is very decentralized. Everyone is part of some kind of group. In the city there are residential committees, and then within the residential committees there are lane committees which just take up several score of families. And within each of these groups there's a concern for each other. Everyone knows about what's concerning everybody else - not in the sense of poking into people's lives, but in being aware of what problems people have so that they can be solved in a collective way. So if there's a petty crime, there's a special group within that committee that sits and discusses these questions.

F: You talked earlier about every person having to integrate manual and mental labor. How is the distribution of manual and mental tasks for women in that society as compared to the distribution of tasks performed by men?

E: Well, you know that the work that women do in the home has always been considered onerous, and has always prevented women from entering the labor force - the fact that she's' tied to household tasks and childrearing. Now one of the important things that happens in the Chinese society is a drive to bring women into the labor force. In China, they are needed there, and so there's the pull of women into the labor force, and then there's the push by society generally to provide the childcare facilities that make it possible for her to enter the labor force. And also some of the socialized services. Like when you go into a store, you'll find some kind of prepared foods - not in the way we find it here where things are frozen - but you'll find plates that can be picked up with prepared cuts. All you have to do is take it home, throw it on the fire and get it ready. And also there are other socialized things like the repair of clothes. You still do your own washing, there's no socialized washing.

I think there's an enormous difference between what life was like for women before, and what it's like now. We were always reminded, wherever we went, that there's a long way to go, and that it's a whole process. As soon as you achieve one measure of equality, you find there are other areas that need attention. There's no sense that there's a finite place to go on these questions of women's equality or emancipation. It's a constant struggle.

F: Is there any feeling of sisterhood, specifically on women helping each other to struggle with men today?

E: There are stories we heard in our discussion with the Women's Federation2 where representatives of the Women's Federation will go and speak with a husband, maybe not by themselves, but with a member of the place where he works. And they'll layout what the problem is, and raise the question of why he behaves this way - who does it serve? And there's no sense of, "I'd rather not discuss it" or "It's my business and not your business." Well, I guess there must have been at some earlier period, but over the years it's been overcome. Anyone's problem is our business, is society's business to one degree or another.

J: How important are sexual relationships?

E: The relationship between a man and a woman - either before a marriage or in a marriage is not necessarily the most important thing in either of their lives. In other words, there are other relationships in society - one's relationship with fellow workers, t one's relationship with older and younger siblings - all those other relationships in society that are also important. Their attitudes about sexual relationships are such that they discourage sex before marriage.

I did want to say one or two words about abortion and birth control. Birth control is considered a political issue which has two aspects. For the Han, which is the majority population, there's a very wide ranging birth control program. The program is handled at the lowest level, right in the neighborhood in those lane committees.

Among the minority people, birth control is discouraged. And that's because they conČsider any minority group having suffered because of their oppressive situation. PopuČlation has been decimated as a result of hunger, lack of good medical facilities, and so there is an encouragement to build up their 'population.

F: Can you explain what it was like for women before the revolution?

E: They have a saying that women used to suffer from the four ropes. The first one was the political authority of the landlords. The second was the clan authority. The third, religious authority. Those three most everyone in society suffered from. And women suffered from the fourth one which was masculine authority. So in addition to all those other oppressive situations in society, women would suffer even more. The other thing that we were told came out of the old society was the concept of the female sex as backward - that a woman cannot expect to have a bright future, that a woman's future is determined by that of her husband, and that a woman must devote herself to her husband. They they speak of the ideology or philosophy that came out of very feudal times, and that this carried over into society until the revolution.

The Three Cardinal Guides they speak of are that subjects should be guided by the sovereign, and this is for people generally, and that the son should be guided by the father, and that the wife should be guided by the husband. So there's this whole hierarchy of authority, all of which are oppressive situations.

Oh yes, the Three Obediences and the Four Virtues - they always have things in numbers - obedience to the father and the elder brother when young, obedience to the husband when married, and obedience to the sons when widowed. When they speak of the Four Virtues, the Four Virtues are: women's virtue, women's speech, women's appearance, and women's chore, and the they explain what each one is. Women's virtue is that a woman must know her place under the sun and behave herself, and act in every way in compliance with the old ethical code. Women's speech - a woman mustn't talk too much and take care not to bore people. Women's appearance - a woman must pay attention to adorning herself, with a view towards pleasing the opposite sex. Women's chore - a woman must willingly do all the household chores. Now this is the kind of philosophy or culture that was prevalent.

The other thing is the question of binding women's feet. Well, actually it had a class nature because if a woman's feet were bound, she couldn't work. So it was only the upper classes that were the ones that had their feet bound. But you could still see it - and really the feet are not more than 3 or 4 inches long - and you see older women hobbling around. It is unbelievable to see someone's limbs reduced like that.

Women are very conscious of their victimization in the old society. But both men and women today in China speak of their being masters of the new society. They literally use those words. Now the word "master" itself is an oppressive term, but they use it in practically the opposite way - masters of their own society.

1[Ed. Note: The Chinese concept of the enemy is somewhat difficult to grasp. As noted above, the Chinese crimes fall into two categories, contradictions among the people and contradictions between the enemy and the people. Contradictions among the people are crimes committed by individuals who have retained the values of the old society (i.e. competition and individualism). The "enemy" can of course refer to foreign, invading persons. However, it is also used to describe members of the Chinese society who actively promote the destructive ideology of the old society. ]

2[Ed. Note: The Women's Federation (set up in 1949 as the All-China Democratic Women's Federation) had two primary functions - it performed as a liaison between women factory workers or peasants and the Communist Party. Their second task was "{r}esponsibility for formulating and enforcing these new laws which related to women (marriage and divorce laws)." (Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution, p. 185)]