Life in Yan’an

From 1936 to 1947, Yan'an was the political, military, and symbolic center of the CCP. Located on the bleak Loess Plateau in northern Shaanxi Province, the steep Yan'an valley is dominated by the now-famous Baota Pagoda. This period is often portrayed as the ideologically pure era of the CCP. Yet, Yan'an was no idyllic Communist paradise. Even famous and well-respected Communist writers, such as Ding Ling and Wang Shiwei, learned how quickly the political winds could shift (9.7, 9.8). Even Mao, seeing the significance that art and literature played in shaping popular opinion, weighed into the complex nature of such discussions (9.9). Part of the insecurity of Yan'an came from the CCP leaders' precarious circumstances. Engaged in a perilous game of brinksmanship with the KMT, Japan, and the Soviet Union, they sought to retain a political, ideological, and practical footing. This was no simple task, given the demands of waging a war against Japan, withstanding constant KMT censure, and the USSR's constantly shifting directives.

Ding Ling’s “Thoughts on March 8, Women’s Day” (1942)

WOMEN'S DAY" (1942)

Ding Ling's early success as a leftist feminist writer in the 1920s and 1930s (7.13) had made her one of the darlings of the May Fourth-era writers. Yet the traits that might have been admired among the Beijing and Shanghai elite did not have the same effect in Yan’an. Her caustic portrayal of women at the hands of Communist cadres in Yan’an reflects her tendency to offer an unsparing (if accurate) analysis of life under the CCP. Her column, published in 1942, highlights the most common abuses women faced in Yan'an. It hints at a pattern among top CCP leaders (including Mao Zedong) to divorce their aging wives and choose younger women available in Yan'an. The following article originally appeared the day after Women's Day (March 8) 1942 in the literary section of the Liberation Daily, Yan'an's main newspaper. Soon after its publication, Ding Ling was accused of taking an overly feminist line in her writing. She (and many other writers) immediately offered self-criticisms, and she accepted the party's reproach of her writing as "divisive" in order to be rehabilitated by the party.

CADRE—In the Chinese Communist context, a term meaning "functionaries" or "administrators," often used as shorthand for essential or particularly revolutionary "backbone" members of the CCP.


  • 1. What does Ding Ling suggest are the primary problems women face in Yan'an?
  • 2. In what ways does she suggest there is a double standard for woman revolutionaries that does not exist for men in Yan'an?

When will it no longer be necessary to attach special weight to the word "woman" and to raise it specially?

Each year this day comes round. Every year on this day meetings are held all over the world where women muster their forces. Even though things have not been as lively these last two years in Yan'an as they were in previous years, it appears that at least a few people are busy at work here. And there will certainly be a congress, speeches, circular telegrams, and articles.

Women in Yan'an are happier than women elsewhere in China. So much so that many people ask enviously: "How come the women comrades get so rosy and fat on millet?" It doesn't seem to surprise anyone that women make up a big proportion of the staff in hospitals, sanatoria, and clinics, but they are inevitably the subject of conversation, as a fascinating problem, on every conceivable occasion. What's more, all kinds of women comrades are often the target of deserved criticism. In my view these reproaches are serious and justifiable.

People are always interested when women comrades get married, but that is not enough for them. It is impossible for women comrades to get onto friendly terms with a man comrade, even more so with more than one. Cartoonists ridicule them: "A departmental head getting married too?" The poets say: "All the leaders in Yan'an are horsemen, and none of them are artists. In Yan'an it's impossible for an artist to find a pretty sweetheart." In other situations, they are lectured at: "Damn it, you look down on us old cadres and say we're country bumpkins. But if it wasn't for us country bumpkins, you wouldn't be coming to Yan'an to eat millet!" Yet women invariably want to get married. (It's even more of a sin not to marry, and single women are even more of a target for rumors and slanderous gossip.) So, they can't afford to be choosy, anyone will do: whether he rides horses or wears straw sandals, whether he's an artist or a supervisor. After marriage, they inevitably have children.... In general, there are three conditions to observe when getting married. These are (1) political purity; (2) similar age and comparable looks; and (3) mutual help. Even though everyone is said to fulfill these conditions—as for (1), there are no open traitors in Yan'an; as for (3), you can call anything "mutual help," including darning socks, patching shoes, and even feminine comfort—everyone nevertheless makes a great show of giving thoughtful attention to them.

And yet the pretext for divorce is invariably the wife's political backwardness. I am the first to admit that it is a shame when a man's wife is not progressive and retards his progress. But let us consider how backward they really are. Before marrying, they were inspired by the desire to soar in the heavenly heights and lead a life of bitter struggle. They got married partly though physiological necessity and partly as a response to sweet talk about “mutual help." .. . But after ten years or so, they inevitably pay the tragic price (i.e., divorce) of "backwardness." Even from my point of view, as a woman, there is nothing attractive about such "backward" elements. Their skin is beginning to wrinkle, their hair is growing thin, and fatigue is robbing them of their last traces of attractiveness. It should be self-evident that they are caught up in a tragedy. But whereas in the old society they would probably have been pitied and considered unfortunate, nowadays their tragedy is seen as something self-inflicted, as their just desserts. Is there not a discussion going on in legal circles about whether divorce should be granted simply on the petition of one party or on the basis of mutual agreement? In the great majority of cases it is the husband who petitions for divorce. If the wife does so, she must be leading an immoral life, so of course she deserves to be cursed!... But we must also hope for a little more from our women comrades, especially those in Yan'an. We must urge ourselves on and develop our comradely feeling.

People without ability have never been in a position to seize all. So, if women want equality, they must first strengthen themselves. There is no need to stress this, we all know it. Today there are certain to be people who make fine speeches about the need first to acquire political power. I would simply mention a few things that any front liner, whether a proletarian, a fighter in the war of resistance, or a woman, should pay attention to in his or her everyday life:

  • 1. Don't allow yourself to fall ill. A wild life can at times appear romantic, poetic, and attractive, but in today's conditions it is inappropriate. You are the best keeper of your life. There is nothing more unfortunate nowadays than to lose your health. It is nearest to your heart. Keep a close watch on it, pay careful attention to it, cherish it.
  • 2. Make sure that you are happy. Only when you are happy can you be youthful, active, fulfilled in your life, and steadfast in the face of every difficulty; only then will you see a future ahead of you and know how to enjoy yourself. This sort of happiness is not a life of contentment, but a life of struggle and of advance. All of us should every day do some meaningful work and some reading, so that each of us is in a position to give something to others. Loafing about simply encourages the feeling that life is hollow, feeble, and in decay.
  • 3. Use your brain, and make a habit of doing so. Correct any tendency not to think and ponder, or to swim with the tide. Before you say or do anything, think whether what you are saying is right, whether that is the most suitable way of dealing with the problem, whether it goes against your own principles, whether you feel you can take responsibility for it. Then you will have no cause to regret your actions later. This is what is known as acting rationally. It is the best way of avoiding the pitfalls of sweet words and honeyed phrases, of being sidetracked by petty gains, of wasting our emotions and wasting our lives.
  • 4. Resolution in hardship, perseverance to the end. Aware, modern women should identify and cast off all their rosy, compliant illusions. Happiness is to take up the struggle in the midst of the raging storm and not to pluck the lute in the moonlight or to recite poetry among the blossoms. In the absence of the greatest resolution, it is all too easy to falter in mid-path. Not to suffer is to become degenerate. The strength to carry on should be nurtured through the quality of “perseverance." People without great aims and ambitions rarely have the firmness of purpose that scorns petty advantages and a comfortable existence. Only those who have aims and ambitions for the benefit not of the individual but of humanity as a whole can persevere to the end.

Dawn, August 3,1942 Postscript

On rereading this article, it seems to me there is much room for improvement in the passage about what we should expect from women, but because I have to meet a deadline, I have no time to revise it. Yet I also feel that there are some things that, said by a leader before a big audience, would probably evoke satisfaction. But when written by a woman, they are more than likely to be demolished. However, since I have written it, I offer it as I always intended, for the perusal of those with similar views.

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