Women’s Rights
From Past to Present

Primary Sources


“Purchase Marriage is Not Allowed”
Li Kuei-ying, China - 1960

Starting in the 1930s, the Communists made a conscious effort to free peasant women from their subjugation to fathers, husbands, and in-laws. In 1950, now in government, they passed the Marriage Law of 1950 giving women full legal equality to men inside the family. When it came into conflict with the realities of the lives of poor peasants, opposition developed. The surge in divorces created the most attention. Since the law gave women equal rights to the land as part of the requirement for their emancipation, upon divorce a woman could keep her land allotment and equal share of any property gained during marriage. This undermined the new land reform movement in which the central purpose was to provide economic justice to the poor exploited male peasants. Men complained that they stood to lose both their wives and their property.

By 1958, however, the government needed women’s labor as it tried to increase industrial production in a campaign called the Great Leap Forward. In rural areas farmers were mobilized into communes. In 1960, Li Kuei-ying, who was an official in the Liu Ling village People’s Commune, described her efforts to change attitudes through the state’s effort to create a “new woman” and new society.

“I was head of the women’s organization in Liu Ling from 1955 to 1961....[One task] was to give help and give advice over marriage or other problems of wedded life....That was when Tuan Fu-yin’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Tuan Ai-chen, fell in love with a boy from Seven-mile Village. But her parents refused to let her marry. They said that the boy was poor and that they wanted her to marry someone better off. One evening Tuan Ai-chen came to me and wept and complained. I went with her to her cave and talked to her parents. I said to them: ‘You have no right to prevent your daughter from marrying, you know that, don’t you? Purchase marriage is not allowed in the new society. It is a crime to sell your daughter these days. Before you could sell your daughter like a cow, but you can’t do that any longer.’ I told them about the things that used to happen in the old days, about girls drowning themselves in wells, of girls hanging themselves and that sort of thing, about all the unhappiness purchase marriage caused. At first, Tuan Fu-yin tried to stand up to me. He said: ‘I had to pay dearly for my wife. Now I have been giving this girl food and clothes. I have brought her up and she just goes off. It isn’t right. I just lose and lose all the time. I must get something back of all the money I have laid out on her. If she can’t fall in love with a man who can pay back what she cost, then it isn’t right for her to marry.’...

In the end I said: ‘You don’t live badly in the new society. If you ever have difficulties, your daughter and son-in-law will help you. They are not rich, but they won’t refuse to help you.’ Then they replied: ‘We must think about it.’ The next time I went there, only the girl’s mother was at home. She had thought about it and she now told me her own story.... She said: ‘I was sold to Tuan Fu-yin when I was a little girl. I was sold in the same way you sell a goat. But my parents got a lot for me. Tuan’s father had to take out a loan. That made them nasty to me. I was forced to work hard so as to make the loan worth while. They were all nagging at me. I can remember how much I used to cry. Now that I think of that, I don’t want my daughter to marry someone she can’t like.’ Then she wept. Tuan Fu-yin didn’t say anything more.”
Source: Jan Myrdal, Report from a Chinese Village, Pantheon Books, 1965

  • Make a list of the traditional practices mentioned in the reading that today are considered rights abuses. Why do you think these customs existed? What arguments did Li Kuei-ying use to convince the family to change its beliefs?

  • What are your opinions about state involvement in a family’s personal decisions. In this case was it effective? Would such an interference work in similar cases today? Why or why not.

  • Research more recent family changes in China: the 1978 laws for strict limits on the number of children each family could have; the greater numbers of males to females in China; recent adjustments to China’s Marriage Codes; recent divorce rates.


Poster of first female tractor driver Liang Jun, who was a child bride in the 1930s. She was trained to drive heavy machinery and became a symbol for the socialist new woman.

Marriage should be based
on free choice of partners

Married women have
equal right to the land

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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