How Women Were Affected by the Cultural Revolution in China

Mao Zedong encouraged women to dress in military uniform and to participate in violent mass criticism campaigns.
... China Photos/Getty Images News/Getty Images

China's Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution had many negative consequences for women, many of whom continue to be affected by the traumatic events they witnessed. Throughout the decade-long upheaval women were beaten, raped, tortured, kidnapped, and imprisoned by Red Guards, who targeted anyone with "bourgeois"-like characteristics. The Cultural Revolution, officially launched in 1966, was used by Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong to oust his successor, Liu Shaoqi, and to discipline the governing bureaucracy through mass criticism campaigns, to diminish class inequalities and to provide a revolutionary experience to China’s youth.

1 Red Guards, Gender and Violence

Mao quickly mobilized youth to fulfill his political objectives, locking down schools and forcing students, both male and female, to form Red Guard units used for the mass criticism campaigns. During the campaigns officials, capitalists and ordinary citizens were attacked and interrogated by Red Guards, who would sometimes beat them to death if they failed to respond to their criticisms accordingly. Women were encouraged to participate in the violence and were told to dress as men and to wear military uniforms during this time.

2 Female Leadership and Political Maneuvering

Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, used her political leverage to grab control of the propaganda and culture departments which she used to demonize critics and to win over the support of the people. In 1969 Jiang was given a seat on the politburo, as was Zhou Enlai’s wife, Deng Yingchao and Lin Biao’s wife, Ye Qun. Jiang later formed her own group of radical nativists who battled for control of China’s leadership with Zhou’s moderate camp. Jiang and three other members of the group were arrested and imprisoned after the moderates took control of the country soon after Mao’s death in 1976. Jiang reportedly committed suicide in 1991 while she was still in prison.

3 Death and Forced Labor

Estimates for the number of deaths resulting from the Cultural Revolution range anywhere from 500,000 to 7 million, however, finding a reliable source for the number of either male or female victims is difficult due to the CCP’s ban on materials related to the Cultural Revolution. Women who survived Red Guard attacks often found themselves working in labor camps, split from their children who were forced to stay at home and raise the family alone.

4 Overcoming the Trauma

Women living in China from 1966 to 1976 continue to be affected by the trauma and memories of the events that took place during the Cultural Revolution. Even so, many women have proven the trauma can be overcome. One such woman is Ping Fu, who at age 8 was taken from her home by Red Guards and forced to live in a government dormitory in Nanjing. According to an article by, at the dormitory Ping was “brainwashed, starved, tortured and gang raped." Ping eventually came to the United States where she and her husband started a software company called Geomagic. She also served on the U.S. Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship under the Obama administration and is a member of the National Council on Women in Technology.

Scott M. Albright graduated from the University of Hawaii with a Masters degree in China-U.S Relations and holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of New Mexico. His work has appeared in "The Independent," "Taos News," "Alibi," "Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability" and "Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art."