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Developing countries have, in the last few decades, attached a lot of significance to the role of  ducation in the development process. Education, both formal and non-formal, must playa crucial role in development programmes if they are to be meaningful. The International Council for Adult Education held a conference in Dar-es-Salaam in 1976 where issues and problem areas pertaining to adult education were identified.1 Won;len were seen as a definite target group for the simple reason that all over the world literacy rates amongst women are lower than among men. If women are indispensable to the development process, literacy among women must increase. Therefore, governments and planners in several developing countries have made efforts to enhance literacy rates and educational levels among women both as a welfare measure and a developmental necessity. However, spreading literacy among adult women has been a complex, difficult and time-consuming task in all these countries. In tradition-bound societies like India, China and Bangladesh, the task has not been an easy one. This article looks at literacy and education among women in pre- and post-Iiberation China. I have considered the women-specific problems that promoters of adult education in China have faced after the country's liberation in 1949. I have also highlighted the endeavours of the state to overcome these problems. In the end I have attempted to compare the Mao period (roughly 1949-76) with the post-Mao (reform) era (1977-78 onwards) in terms of the state's commitment to remove illiteracy among women.

This article is based mainly on the following sources: (i) primary material available in Chinese collected during my visit to China between October 1992 and March 1993; (ii) secondary material in the English language; and (iii) information gathered through interviews which I conducted in China between December 1992 and February 1993. The interviewees included literacy workers, activists in the area of women's development, academics and officials.2 

Women's Education In China

Although from an advanced civilisation which attached great importance to education, women in traditional China were deprived of its benefits as it was primarily a male domain. While embroidery, stitching and various other household skills were given importance for women, skills in sports, martial arts and dance eluded them due to the cruel custom of foot-binding.3 These skills were, however, confined to the rich, i.e., the gentry. Since education was also family- and clan-oriented, occasionally women acquired reading and writing skills. We do hear of a few exceptionally good women poets and artists. Peasant women, whose knowledge of agriculture was profound, remained completely illiterate and deprived of any formal or non.formal schooling. The notion that "a talentless woman is virtuous" (nuzi wucai bianshi de) became almost an established tradition in China.

With the impact of Western influences from the second half of the 19th century, the concept of education for women began to change gradually. The introduction and encouragement of missionary schools for both the sexes, and more particularly for those who converted to Christianity, saw girls going to school on a formal basis. Undoubtedly, the number of such girls was very small both in absolute terms and in comparison with boys. Nonetheless, it was a landmark in the development of women's education because for the first time girls were leaving the confines of the home and attending classes in schools on the same fooling as boys (Lewis 1974).

Women's literacy and education received a boost with the May Fourth Movement.4 This movement, among other things, was also the first women's liberation movement in China as its leaders called for the overall emancipation of women. Education was seen as the primary tool for emancipation. Many women's organisatiGl1s were active during this period; as a concession to their demands, In March 1921 girl students were, for the first time, admitted to Beijing University. By 1922 co-education became common. The Chinese Communist Party, which was formed in 1921, set up its Women Department and entrusted it with the task of organising women workers. Since the low level of women's education was a hindrance to political indoctrination, the Chinese communists began to emphasise on female literacy. In the period 1931-34, when the communists set up bases in the province of Jiangxi and later at Yanan in north China, they continued to maintain their emphasis on literacy and education, particularly for women with a poor peasant background, who comprised nearly half their constituents. The education policy of the base-area government of Jiangxi was to enhance, by every means, the education level of the workers and peasants. For this purpose, every possible political and material support must be given to the masses. Reports say that following implementation of this policy in 1933 in 2,932 towns, there were 6,462 night schools and 2,388 literacy classes. As a result, some 250,000 workers and peasants -both men and women -benefited (Zhongda 1987). Women's associations as well as peasant associations under the Communist Party played an active role in the gigantic task of spreading literacy in the countryside.

Detailed statistics on rural women's literacy levels in the pre-1949 era are not available. A survey of rural areas carried out by John L. Buck in the 1930s found that only 2 per cent of the female population aged 7 years and above had ever attended school and that only 1 per cent could read a common Chinese letter, while among males 45 per cent attended school and 30 per cent were able to identify commonly used letters (Buck 1937: 373). Another more recent study points out that the rise in the literacy levels of females began in the early 1940s and accelerated through the decade. The study further notes that until 1982 there were two periods when progress peaked -the first time in 1951-57, during which period female literacy grew at the rate of about 3.5 per cent per year, and the second time more briefly during 1970- 74 when literacy grew at about the same rate. Between these peaks lies a period which includes five yeras of negative growth (1960-64) caused by the famine, and a period of accelerating production (1965-69). The study reveals that the immediate post-Mao period (the first four years only, as this study is based on China's 1982 Census) saw a de-acceleration to a zero growth rate. The famine of 1959-62 is seen as a watershed for education; it also most adversely affected rural women's education (Lavely et al. 1990). However, the fact remains that in the post-1949 period there was a rapid rise in female literacy as is evident from the 1982 census. For instance, among women aged 55 to 59, 90 per cent were illiterate; among those aged 15 to 19 years only 15 per cent were in the illiterate category (ibid.). Tables 1 and 2 show the literacy levels of women in both rural a'nd urban areas and compare the same with those of men. From these figures what is still not clear and not possible to discern is the contribution of adult literacy programmes in quantitative terms. Nonetheless, the role of these programmes continues to be important as the drop-out rate among girls is still quite high. According to official Chinese sources, as cited in a research paper, nearly half the enrolled girls do not complete primary school (Rosen 1992: 257).

It was only with the liberation of China in 1949 that a massive literacy drive, encompassing almost all of China, could be launched. In the 1950s, in the first phase of adult education, "it developed in all walks of life, including cadres and staff members of central and local government institutions at various levels, workers and staff members of factories, mines and other industrial enterprises, members of rural cooperative teams, craftsmen of cities and towns and urban residents, etc. Most of them went to night schools and literacy classes." (Rosen 1992: 16). Reports say that a large number of women attended these classes but we have no figures to say what percentage of the total number of students were women. No doubt women greatly benefited from these classes. At liberation, female illiteracy rates were as high as over 90 per cent. Since then, as mentioned earlier, there has been a sharp increase in the number of women with access to education.


Table 1: Percentage of Illiteracy by Age and Sex: China 1982

Age Group



15-19 14.7 4.2
20-24 23.3 5.7
25-29 36.1 9.6
30-34 40.3 13.2
35-39 43.4 14.2
40-44 57.3 22.4
45-49 74.5 32.3
50-54 85.2 40.5
55-59 89.7 47.5
60+ 95.4 60.9

Source: Census of China 1982. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Almanac 1986, pp. 314-15.


Table 2: Illiteracy In Urban and Rural Areas In China (1982 Census)

per 100 per cent Urban Rural
Age Group Male-Female Male Female Male-Female Male Female
12 Plus 16.4 8.9 24.6 34.8 21.1 18.4

Sources: Raja Roy Singh, 1986. Education in Asia and the Pacific: Retrospect and Prospect. Bangkok: IJNESCO, p. 92. cited in Huang Shiqi. 1992. 'Nonformal Education and Modernization', in Ruth Hayhoe (ed.), Education and Modernization: The Chinese Experience. Oxford: Pergamon, p. 147.

For example, in 1952, the proportion of girls among primary school pupils was only 28 per cent. By 1988 the figure had risen to 45.6 per cent. In the age group 7 to 11 years, 95 per cent of the girls were enrolled in school. The proportion of female to male teachers increased as well, rising from 17.1 per cent in 1952 to 41.5 per cent in 1988. More women were also participating in literacy and continuing education programmes (Basic Education and National Development 1991: 65-66), The dmployment rate for women also rose during this period. Table 3 shows the trends of female employment based on a sample survey conducted in 1987,

Table 3: Female Occupations

Form of Employment Per Cent Female
All Occupations 44.5
Professional and Technical 44.3
Government, Party, Mass Organization, Enterprises, Institutions 12.3
Office Workers, Clerical 29.8
Commerce 45.8
Service Workers 50.9
Labour, Farming, Forestry, Animal, Husbandry, Fishery 47.4
Industrial workers, Transport and related jobs 35.8
Others 41.7

Source: China Statistical Yearbook, 1988. Based on 1 per cent Sample Survey, 1987.

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Obstacles to Women's Progress

While it is true to say that women's literacy in China has made great strides, compared with its own past as well as with several other developing countries, the task is not complete and a lot still remains to be done. The problems therefore need to be looked into and ana lysed. Problems such as a large population, vast territory -much of which is rough and mountainous, -underdevelopment and poverty, are some of the general factors affecting the spread of literacy and are applicable to both men and women. Here, however, I shall focus on women-specific problems, and for this I have relied largely on my informants as many of them have first-nand knowledge of the situation, particularly in remote areas. 

According to most of my informants, the primary cause of women's illiteracy is the continuation of traditional and outdated ideas. Women have been treated like slaves in China for centuries and their position still remains low in the minds of people in rural areas. The poorer the region, the lower is the status of women, remarked one literacy activist. In the minority areas the situation is bad because women are treated as unequal to men. Women themselves hold traditional notions about their position and many avoid attending classes intended for them. Areas where the message of communism has not penetrated are particularly problematic, according to my informants.

In some cases where women themselves have risen above the traditional bias, resistance comes from families, mainly husbands and mothers-in-law. The resistance is stronger in cases where the husband too is not literate. From the data available it appears that this is the second most important reason for continued illiteracy among women and therefore a block to the dissemination of literacy. According to informants, this resistance is also based on the outdated beliefs that a woman's place is inside the house, and that literacy and education are of no use to her.5

Household responsibilities are considered the third most significant reason which keeps women away from attending literacy classes and continuing with their studies. Not only older women but young girls too are expected to do household chores and are left with no time or energy to do anything else. That household work is the sole responsibility of women, is a long established practice, and I was told that although husbands share housework with wives in the urban areas, in rural China this is rare. Moreover, in rural and specially backward areas, modern household gadgets are not common, a fact that makes household chores tiresome and time-consuming. Also, large-sized families hinder women from finding time to attend classes. Small families are a more recent phenomenon.

Farm work, in addition to family responsibilities, is identified as another cause which keeps rural women away from literacy classes or forces them to relapse into illiteracy. In rural areas men have more free time for other activities than women. This is because, in many households menfolk still stick to the conventional arrangement that indoor chores are women's work even if they are full-time farm workers. Women themselves accept this, particularly in backward or relatively poor areas and make no effort to change it. Literacy workers and activists find it most difficult to make much progress in these areas.

Women cadres belonging to and working in remote parts of China (which are often inhabited by minority nafionalities)6 complain that in addition to distances, local customs and beliefs compound the difficulties to the spread of literacy. The sensitivity of the local populace, once hurt, is very hard to heal. Superstitions and false beliefs are the result of illiteracy and backwardness, and literacy is difficult to spread in the context of such backwardness -this vicious circle frustrates many an activist. Few enjoy working in backward areas over a length of time. An activist belonging to the Zhuang nationality and working with people of her own ethnic background, said that it was most difficult to convince people to have small families not withstading the fact that large families hinder education and literacy of the mother and the girl child. Paucity of funds is also a major problem. Precise statistics for expenditure on adult women's literacy are not available. However, the overall recurrent expenditure on education has been kept stable at 9 to 10 pre cent of state expenditure since 1983 (Henze 1992: 110-29). No one openly admitted that the state did not provide enough money to sustain literacy campaigns and programmes over a long period of time. Whenever I asked activists, officials or academics about what more, in their opinion, is needed for the successful implementation of the spread of literacy (I normally asked this question at the end, when interviewees were expected to say anything they wished to add), almost all of them said that more money is needed from the government -local or central. Although community resources have gone a long way in spreading literacy in China (some primary schools are completely run on local resources in the rural areas), it appears that there is need for more funding which, the concerned people feel, only the government is capable of providing.

Another problem which was not directly addressed but became quite evident was the shortage and low morale of personnel require to carry -out literacy programmes. Finding a breed of dedicated, full-time literacy workers who would willingly face all hardships in exchange for limited gains is as difficult in China as anywhere else. In the early post-liberation phase, during the period of euphoria which the new system gave rise to, this was not so difficult. The All-China Democratic Women's Federation (now the All-China Women's Federation), the peasant associations, trade unions, Communist Youth League, etc., were able to provide full-time cadres, both professional and voluntary, for this gigantic task. With the passage of time this became more and more difficult. Fluctuations in the political scene made the implementation of many plans and programmes erratic. Depending on which way the wind was blowing, the activists found their contributions either rewarded or overlooked. During the period of reforms (i.e., since 1978), the difficulty has been even greater. The need to get rich fast and lead a comfortable life with all the modern amenities seems to have engulfed all of China. In this context it is worth noting that social workers in the form of literacy activists are dwindling in number. Young people looking for jobs have been shunning opportunities to work as literacy activists.

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Massive Literary Campaigns

During the pre-reform period which can also be called the Mao era (i.e. up to 1978), massive propaganda campaigns were carned out to encourage literacy drives. The targets were both the prospective beneficiaries of the literacy programmes as well as potentialliteracy activists. The All-China Women's Federation adopted the task of publicising the relevant issues in its journal Zhong Guo Funu (Women of China) in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. This journal ceased publication dunng the Cultural Revolution (1966- 76). Some issues of this journal carried several pieces on the state's efforts to promote literacy and education among women, mainly in the remote and poor areas. The articles or news reports also highlighted women's endeavour to acquire literacy and persevere in their efforts despite adverse circumstances in an often hostile environment.

One such case discussed in the journal is that of the suburb, Xiao Miao, in Tian Men county in Hubei province. Here, an evening school was started to spread literacy and technical education among the general population. Some 207 such schools had been started in the county. In a few cases the whole family, including husbands, wives, mothers-in-law, daughters-in-Iaw, grandfathers and grandchildren, studied in the same class. The total number of female students was 2,314 (almost 50 per cent of the male students). Whatever theoretical knowledge the women gained in the evening would be put into practice the next morning and tned out in "the experimental field." Very often male heads of families objected to the idea of women working in experimental fields as it affected their income. Sometimes, cooperatives refused to sell fertilisers to women because they felt that they would not know how to use them effectively. Women, the report says, overcame the problems and managed things well. For example, they sold eggs to raise money for fertilisers, but never felt inclined to give up their literacy classes. In three years' time, Xiao Miao had many women technicians, and women's production per unit of land was higher than men's. Hard work and eagerness to learn brought success to these women, the piece concludes (Zhong Guo Funu 1958).

Propaganda campaigns aimed at literacy activists as well as prospective beneficiaries were carried out through radio (and later television) broadcasts, film shows, posters, banners, etc. Leaflets, flyers and booklets too were printed for free distribution. Ppasant literacy textbooks printed in large numbers were widely distnbuted. These books varied from province to province and at times from county to county as local conditions had to be taken into account. In an article on anti-illiteracy campaigns in China, Wang Yanwei (n.d.: 6- 7) of the Division of Peasant Education, Bureau of Worker-Peasant Education, Ministry of Education of China, stresses the importance of reading the "Peasant Literacy Textbook". He cites the example of Hu Ailiang, a woman mernber of Litan commune of Ming Qian county, Hunan province. She had a plot for growing cotton. The output per mu (1 mu is approximately one sixth of an acre) was only 10 kg because she did not have knowledge of scientific farming. She consulted with the agro-technical centre of the commune and asked why the yield was so low despite the rich soil, sufficient fertilisers and hard work. The technician handed her a book entitled "Scientific Management of Cotton Plots" but she returned it saying that she was unable to read, and remarked, "Although agro-technique is a treasure, an illiterate like me cannot possess it". Wang says that from then onwards she actively attended literacy classes. Several months later she was able to read the "Peasant Literacy Textbook". Eventually she could also read and understand writings on agro-technical know-how. A year later she applied her knowledge to the plot of land and it resulted in a bumper crop: eight times more than the previous yield. Wang Yanwei provides another example of a woman who joined literacy classes after a personal crisis. This happened in Tungwan commune, Wu Suan county in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. A board on the edge of a grassland read, "Keep your cattle off this grassland because insecticide has been sprayed on it". The woman who could not read took her cow there, which died soon after eating the grass. This incident not only brought this particular woman to the literacy classes but also many others who were alarmed by this incident.

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Mao Zedong Thought

During the pre-reform period (1949-1978), literacy was stressed for the dissemination of political propaganda as well. All those familiar with Chinese politics of the post-liberation Mao period are well aware of the significance of massive propaganda campaigns, on some issue or the other engulfing all of China fairly frequently. Implict in all these campaigns were Mao's political ideas, which the Communist Party and all its front organisations zealously spread. Although Mao's thoughts were propagated orally, campaigns were more effective through the print media; therefore the emphasis on literacy could not be underestimated. In fact, zealous propaganda of the Mao period helped the spread of literacy all over China. The urge to spread the thoughts of "the great helmsman, revolutionary and teacher", as his followers liked to call him, made many a Party cadre turn into a voluntary literacy activist. Similarly, this zeal created among many an illiterate peasant or worker the desire to become literate, to be able to read, and be enlightened on the subject of Mao's greatness. The Chinese government also invested a lot of money in bringjng out printed materials. The little Red Book, which was more popular than the Bible had been in the Christian world, was printed in millions during the Cultural Revolution.7 For the younger Chinese of that period it was fashionable to be in possession of the Red Book and to be able to pull it out at an instant's notice in any situation and read out the relevant (in the readers' opinion) passages aloud. The environment of the Cultural Revolution made literacy a political necessity. Despite the negative aspects of propaganda, one can say with a certain amount of assurance that it gave a boost to the spread of literacy. In post-reform China, as I saw and was told, the absence of such zeal has adversely affected the dissemination of literacy.

As far as women's literacy is concerned, Mao's thoughts and the publicity given to his Red Book did help. Study sessions were common since the Great Leap Forward (1958) and continued up to 1976. These sessions involved intensive reading and discussions of Mao's thoughts, and used to be held at all levels: commune, brigade, team, village and neighbourhood. It was more or less compulsory for all members, regardless of gender, to attend and "fruitfully participate" in such meetings, "struggle sessions" or re-education classes. The impact of politics on literacy classes was quite visible and direct. Contents of the texts or primers were loaded with praises for Mao and lor Mao's Thoughts. The intensity of these overtly politicised sessions varied from time to time. During the radical phases (the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution), it reached a peak.

After attaining a basic level of literacy, women read Mao's works and discussed them. It was said that during the Great Leap Forward the political awareness of the people had increased, although to bring about more awareness among (rural) women it would require a long time and was "a very difficult and complicated task and Marxism-Leninism and Mao's works will playa very important role to fulfil this task". According to an article titled "Vigorously Study Chairman Mao's Work" published in Zhong Guo Funu (1960), since the Great Leap Forward women have come out of the world of the household and arranged time to study as they "want to understand the problems". The article claims that since 1958, because of the Great Leap, "illiteracy has been wiped out", and the people's dream of studying further has become a reality. Despite their household responsibilities, women are taking an interest in education and the acquisition of skills. "The conditions are ripe for learning". This report obviously hides the truth, as by 1958 there was hardly any rural region which had achieved complete literacy. What is significant about this report is that, without saying so, it highlights the importance of political propaganda in the spread of literacy, particularly reading and writing skills. For example, the report mentions the achievements of the women of Feng Tian area during and after their study of Mao's works. It says:

"The women's organization of Feng Tian has also played an important role. The women cadres took initiatives to study the Theory [of Mao's Revolution] and formed a vital team along with other women. They continuously mobilized more and more women to participate in the studies. They also imparted training to women to become (political) theory instructors. They also helped women to solve their problems so that they could come to study. All these efforts created enthusiasm for studies among women and strengthened the movement to study Mao's work." (Zhong Guo Funu 1960).

At another place it talks about women who have just acquired literacy and mentions that the "more the study, [the] more they love to study, [the] more they read, [the] more they do it wth enthusiasm", and keep themselves busy the whole day.

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Literacy Workers

Political stability enables China's literacy movement to penetrate, sometimes with impressive results.1 Open meetings were held in every village when strategies to implement literacy programmes were discussed. Prospective participants in the programme along with teachers would discuss matters together to figure out the most effective method. Groups of literacy activists along with party cadres visited homes to sort out matters with each family. Discussions involved mothers-in-law and husbands as opposition to women attending classes came mainly from one of these categories. Literacy activists encouraged husbands to help in household chores so that wives could make it to classes. Mothers-in-law were also advised to support and help. My informants told me that convincing husbands in rural areas to help in domestic matters is most difficult. Household work continues to be looked down upon by men in rural China. "Things are improving", some said, "it is not as bad as it was in earlier times". They added that many among the younger generation were trying to overcome the "feudal ideas of male domination and superiority", In the village of Shi Ba Li Dian (about 18 km from Beijing), I was taken to a model peasant household. It was a weekday; the mother, who worked in rural enterprise was out working, the two girls were at school and the peasant father took care of the household all by himself during the day, throughout the off-season. This case was, however, almost an exception.8

The literacy workers, while counselling husbands and in-Iaws, stress the benefits of education. Families are told that women's literacy and education will add to their dignity and also make women more self-confident,which in turn would lead to the acquisition of skills useful to their families, society and socialism. What would the response have been if, in the course of persuasion, the economic aspect were excluded and stress were laid only on factors like dignity or determination? The informants said that they had never tried this tack but admitted that "beneficial consequences" must ordinarily include perceived economic advantages or else the target group would not give an encouraging response.

Some of the more concrete measures adopted in the literacy drive for women include "spare-time classes", night schools, and "door-step education", all of which have been tried at different places with different degrees of success. "Spare-times classes" provide flexible school hours to peasant women who work in the agricultural sector. Some of these "spare-time" classes would be open for 16 hours a day and students could walk in whenever they had free time and took lessons from teachers who would be available for them. I tried to get more information on what I thought was a novel way tc impart literacy -as I thought implementing this method would not be easy. I tailed to learn much about it, which makes me think that its incidence is exceptional.

Door-step education is a system by which the student does not go to school but the school comes to her. Textbooks would be assigned to different households, and schedules would be planned in advance following discussions between members of the family, cadres and teachers. This scheme also allowed a great deal of flexibility and helped those women with small children and/or elderly relatives to look after. For other reasons as well, such as to avoid walking during advanced stages of pregnancy, to nurse a baby or to save time, many women prefer door-step classes. As pointed out to me, a positive fall-out of this system was that the teacher often became very close to the families and was "like another family member" .The influence of teachers has often been so deep that the "targets" not only achieved literacy but improved themselves with more knowledge and skills. In other words, the desire to learn and a quest for knowledge emerged as personality traits. 

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Education Targeting Women

Winter schools, off-season schools and mobile schools were other innovations that facilitated the spread of literacy among women. In cold and mountainous areas, where agricultural work was intensive in the summer, women found it hard to attend classes during the peak season, and were therefore expected to enrol in these schools. As 40 per cent of China is I mountainous, the number of such schools was not small. Mobile schools were particularly useful where people had to walk long I distances over rough terrain or when classrooms were in short supply, or when the teacher did not live in the vicinity and came I into the countryside from a nearby town or city.

Despite these measures, women's family responsibilities consistently remained a handicap; mothers of young children I -of infants in particular -often kept away from classes. To resolve this problem, a variety of creches were introduced. The most effective and popular of these have been the cooperative creches. Here, women pupils share the responsibility of looking after each other's children. When one group attends classes, another looks after the children and vice versa. This saves the ," trouble and funding required to set up a nursery and pay day-care workers. This system of cooperative creches first began informally in a village in Hebei province and because it proved to be successful it was replicated in areas where women's literacy was taken up in eamest.

Other steps included classes exclusively tor women although classes for both men and women together was the norm. My informants pointed out that in more "culturally backward" (i.e., conservative) areas, the idea of women attending classes with men was frowned upon. This seemed to be true of minority nationality areas and other remote regions as well. I wanted to know if Chinese Muslims had, orf)b!ern on this account. The communists had always upheld the idea of co-education as opposed to the missionary systerr~ of separate convents for girls. Since the segregation of women in orthodox Islamic communities is commonplace, .1 wanted a clarification. The answer I got was "may be".9

In addition to these practical measures, the adult educators of China have evolved other methods too, which I thought were effective and worth emulating. For instance.. husbands were encouraged to help wives in sustaining their literacy skills. Basic literacy would be imparted by the literacy worker/teacher and the husband had to carry on from there and make sure that the literacy levels reached by their wives did not decline. Similarly, children attending formal schools were encouraged to teach their mothers and grandmothers at home. Where husband and wife were both illiterate, they Were both expected to acquire literacy together and later mutually help each other to maintain their levels of proficiency. To ensure that the husband-tumed- teachers and child-turned-teachers were doing their job with interest and seriousness, a check on them was made periodically.

A system of rewards exists at all levels to extend recognition to individuals who turn out to be good students or teachers. During the pre-reform period. material incentives were not encouraged, so one frequently heard of "model literacy workers" and "model students". Anyone who selflessly and with a deep sense of devotion spread or acquired literacy was regarded to have shown a commitment towards socialism and Chairman Mao. Such a person was called a model and others would be urged to emulate him/her. The press, radio and television would give them and their achievements enjoy wide coverage. They would be asked to share their experiences with others and help those who were not so successful in improving their performance. After their accomplishments were widely publicised leaders and cadres would urge the rest of society to "learn" from them. This type of recognition was most heard of during the days of the Cultural Revolution.

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Reform Period

In the reform period, ideological or non-material rewards of the earlier era were stopped. Literacy activists as well as beneficiaries have been offered cash prizes, medals (made of expensive metal), raises in salary, promotions, farm implements, draught animals and so forth, in addition to certificates and commendations. Wide publicity is given to such people. While talking about this, one of my informants told me about an unfortunate incident which smacked of the continued existence of feudal and backward ideas. A poor peasant woman (in a village in Gansu province) was judged the best student in her literacy class and was invited to receive a prize at a public function organised by the county authorities. At the meeting she shook hands with the village head and also sat next to him. This offended her husband so much that he beat her up after she returned home. The husband was outraged by the fact that his wife did not mind being seen publicly with another man even if the formalities of the occasion demanded it. On hearing of this case, the local Women's Federation brought the man to book and he had to apologise to his wife. The informant who narrated this story was trying to highlight the complexities and difficulties which cadres have to face because rural China still does not grant equality to women.

All those involved in fields related to adult literacy are well aware of the importance of post-Iiteracy work because the tendency to relapse into illiteracy is quite common. To prevent this a series of steps have been adopted in China. Government checks the enduring effect of the campaign and discovers new problems. The Adult Education Bureau of Beijing, for instance, expects neo-literates to be able to read Beijing Ribao (Beijing Daily) when its investigation team goes in and around the city to check the level of literacy as part of its post-literacy work. According to officials, post-literacy measures take more time and effort. For women, visits to their houses by officials are not rare although in most cases periodic tests are organised by literacy workers which are held at the village primary schools. Often, the atmosphere at home is not conducive to the maintenance of their new skills. To overcome this problem skills are taught and training is given so that literacy is useful in daily life. Booklets in simple language dealing with harvests, crops, pig-raising, fish ponds and vegetable growing are distributed periodically. Women who have difficulty in reading these are advised to take the help of literacy workers.10

Those with high literacy levels are encouraged to study more, so that after completing basic education they are sometimes able to go for higher education. The Radio and Television University set up in the 1960s caters to the needs of many such beneficiaries of literacy programmes. In the post-Mao period the Central Radio and Television University (CRTVU) expanded greatly and by 1984 more than 600,000 students had enrolled in it (Hawkridge and McCormick 1983).

Handbooks on hygiene, child care and family planning are also made available to women, particularly the younger ones. In a few cases the family planning, health and literacy worker is the same person. This streamlines the work and makes it more effective, according to a few informants. For example, in some places the literacy activist who teaches women to read also writes out a leaflet as a family planning worker in which she explains the various methods of contraception, their side-effects and advantages, etc. The newly-literate women are expected to read them on their own and discuss them with the family planning worker. In the process the women's reading skills are enhanced. I was told that women do make a great effort to read these, as this so directly affects their lives.

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Diminishing Priority

The overall view I have of China's efforts to expand literacy is that it is fainy commendable. Of course I am well aware that much of this information was not verifiable. I had to rely greatly on the informants' views and analyses. There was not much divergence in their opinions as most of them would reiterate the government's point of view. Moreover, the Chinese have not officially singled out women as a special target in their literacy drives. Women-specific policies in the literacy campaigns do not really exist. One has to discern the gender aspect in it through some effort. I had to rely a great deal on Women's Federation activists and officials who provided me with sorTie of the required information. However, even before starting my research trip in China, I believed that post-Mao reforms with an emphasis on a market economy, would have had some adverse effects on literacy campaigns, especially on women's literacy. But it was difficult for me to ask directly as no one would give me a straight answer. However, through more indirect and informal ways I was able to determine that on adopting a liberal economy, adult literacy in general and women's literacy in particular has taken a back-seat. "Get rich quick" seems to be the general philosophy although it is not quite expressed that way.

The spread of literacy, it appears, is not a top priority in the government agenda. Earning money has become an end in itself. The nature of the reforms is also such that it tends to take people away from literacy classes. For example, the production responsibility system (which entails going back to family farms) n[1N applicable to almost the entire Chinese countryside, after the dismantling of communes in the early 1980s, has created a greater demand for labour at farms and homes. Women and their family members find this more lucrative than attending literacy classes, which brings in no direct income. "Money is more important than education", one eldeny activist said in an unguarded moment. The state supports the idea of non-formal education through the CRTVU but few have any idea have the time for it. Another informant admitted that it was far easier to convince people to get over traditional beliefs and persuade women to attend literacy classes than dissuading them from their money-earning ventures to save time to reading and writing. Official Chinese views will, however, give us a different interpretation. For instance, one author, while saying that literacy had dropped in China from 80 per cent in 1949 to 43 per cent in 1959, also says that:

"During the long period of 15 to 16 years from the late fifties to the mid-seventies, the country was in the grip of political movements coming one after another, and economic development suffered severe setbacks. As a result, adult education, both general and technical, was regarded as heresy and it virtually came to a complete halt. It was only in 1976 when the ten-year nation-wide internal disorder was finally terminated, and especially after the Third Plenary Sessions of the Eleventh Congress of the Communist Party of China which decided to shift the stress of the whole Party of economic construction, that adult education could be restored and developed systematically again." (Yao Zhongda 1987: 17). 

The role of the Women's Federation has also changed with the reforms. The dedication of committed social workers was not quite visible to me. Professional women (engineers, academicians, scientists, etc.) have joined the organisation in large numbers and among the jobs they assign to themselves, literacy work hardly figures. From my conversations with many top officials of the Women's Federation I got the idea that women are encouraged to start their [1Nn businesses and become successful entrepreneurs. This seems to be in tune with the policies of the government. Education, which had always been the domain of the government and funded through public resources is n[1N gradually beginning to rely on private funds. Among a large section of the Chinese academia, privatisation of education seems to be the ultimate aim. However, people agreed when it was pointed out that even if higher education gets some funding from private resources, literacy cannot be left to private funding alone as both the government and the community must playa vital role in this essentially welfare measure. On being directly asked as to how the literacy and basic education campaigns could become more achievement-oriented, almost everyone stressed the role of the government in providing both direct funding and creating other resources. The official viewpoint, however, undermines the importance of literacy campaigns and restructures adult education in order to be more development- and profit- oriented rather than welfare-oriented (Guan Shixiong 1987: 197). No longer is the problem of women's illiteracy addressed as seriously as before, nor are anti-illiteracy drives given the importance they deserve.

The impact of the new economic reforms on welfare-related activities, particulany women's welfare, appears to be adverse. This has been confirmed by many authors who are concerned with gender studies connected with China (e.g., Croll 1983). As far as the spread of literacy is concerned, the Mao period saw more advances. Women had to leave their homes to attend political classes along with men, and in the process learned to read. The communes and brigades saw this as their responsibility and this decentralisation of literacy work helped in the dissemination of literacy. Public funding (government and community) also supported literacy activists who therefore did not have to worry about looking for alternative sources of livelihood to sustain themselves and their campaigns.

The Chinese are also aware of the adverse effect of the reforms on women, and as a consequence passed a law in 1992 on the protection of Rights and Interests of Women. Article 18 of this law states:

"People's government at various levels shall, in accordance with relevant provisions, incorporate the work of elimination of illiteracy or semi-Iiteracy among women into plans for illiteracy elimination and post- elimination education, adopt organizational forms and working methods suitable to women's characteristics, and organise and supervise the relevant departments in the implementation of such plans."12

This is clearly a recognition by the state of its obligations towards the people to fight illiteracy.

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The Girl ChIld

Recently, the Chinese have also expressed concern regarding the problems of the girl child. It is widely believed that if the girl child is made the target, then the problem of illiteracy among adult women will ultimately disappear. With this goal in view, the Eighth Five-Year Plan of China (1991-95) has specially targeted the four backward provinces of Ningxia, Guizhou, Gansu and Qinghai to promote primary education among girl children. It should be pointed out that regional variations in terms of development and hence education and literacy are quite remarKable in China. The Lingnan region (in south China) has always had a better literacy rate than the north China plain (Lavely et al. 1990). An experimental and research project sponsored by UNESCO in coordination with the State Education Commission is studying the problems of education of girl children in the above- mentioned, less developed and mainly minority-inhabited areas. The aims of the project are: to devise ways and means by which primary education would become universal; to remove illiteracy; and to eliminate unequal educational opportunities for men and women by the end of this century. The researchers in this massive project are evolving various methods to operationalise the policies and decisions.

Regarding their own perceptions on the issue, my informants, by and large, agreed that the economic reforms have not been particularly helpful towards illiterate and poor women in the backward areas, but they are hopeful that as wealth will finally "trickle down", these areas will benefit; widespread literacy an~ more education will be part of this benefit. Within two or three decades, said an informant, literacy drives will become irrelevant, as China would reach .100 per cent literacy like Japan". The compulsory education law of 1986 13 (education was always compulsory but a law to enforce it was passed for the first time in 1986) as well as the law on women just quoted will take care of this. In the next generation there should be no illiterate adult women. My attention was drawn to Article 17 of the 1992 law on women's rights which states:

.Parents or guardians must perform their duty of ensuring that female school-age children or adolescents receive the compulsory education. When parents or other guardians fail to send female school-age children or adolescents to school, the local people's government shall admonish or criticize them and, by adopting effective measures, older them to send their school-age female children or adolescents to school, with the exception of those who, on account of illness or other special circumstances, are allowed by the local people's governments not to go to school. The governments, society and schools shall, in the light of actual difficulties of female school-age children and adolescents in schooling, take effective measures to ensure that female school-age children or adolescents receive compulsory education for the numer of years locally prescribed."14

This law if translated into action will eradicate illiteracy among Chinese women and that would be a red-Ietter day in the history of the Chinese women's struggle for emancipation and empowerment. The Chinese experience, moreover, could also be valuable for other populous, developing countries like ours.

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The socio-cultural features of the two countries -India and China -being fairly similar, each can gain from the other's experience. The rural situation, in particular, has many striking similarities in the two societies. In both societies traditional ideas have been the main hindrance to the spread of female literacy and also to problems like time-consuming household responsibilities and the burden of large families (in China's case due to the small family norm, women of the younger generation have relatively small families, but joint families are still common). Men in rural India, as in rural China, do not share household chores with their wives. In China the existence of communes along with common kitchens, mess halls as well as nurseries and day-care centres, freed both men and women from household work. However, such an organised commune system existed for barely two years, i.e., 1958-60. After this brief period very little socialised household services existed for Chinese women. (By the early 1980s, communes were totally dismantled.) Even taking these difficulties into account, the Chinese have a better record of female literacy in comparison with India. This is essentially due to the effective means and the novel methods invented and applied by the Chinese government and the Communist Party. Unlike India, China has so far not involved non-governmental organisations (except the UN and its agencies in welfare and developmental projects). Non-formal education is an area where NGOs in India have put in a lot of efforl It may be worthwhile for them to try out Chinese methods of disseminating literacy among rural women. Without widespread female literacy in rural India, programmes for health care, family planning, rural industrialisation and so on cannot hope to achieve much.

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1. B. Hall and J.R. Kidd (eds.), Adult Learning: A Design for Action (Oxford: Pergamon) 1978, cited in Gordon Selman, 'Adult Education: An Awakening Force' in Chris Duke (1987: 67).

2. I went to China as a post-doctoral fellow under the India-China Bilateral Cultural Exchange and was there from October 1992

to March 1993. I was affiliated to the Beijing Normal University. I would like to express my gratitude to the Education Department of this University and particularly to Dr. Shi Jinghuan, Deputy Dean and Associate Professor, who did all that was possible to help me in my research. Thanks are also due to Ms. Zhu Weiqing, Graduate Students at BNU, Professor Sun Xiaomei of the Women's Cadre Training College, Beijing, and Anita Sharma, friend and colleague at Delhi University, for their help at different stages of this work. In addition, I would like to thank Mr. Ramachandran of UNICEF, Beijing, and Mr. and Mrs. P.N.G. Subramanian (India's Consul-General and his wife) for their help during my stay in Shanghai.

3. Foot-binding was a very cruel custom prevalent among the wealthy classes of north China. Girls from a tender age had to have their feet bandaged tight every night for years till their feet became deformed and remained small. The justification was that small feet looked beautiful and were an added qualification for marriage. Since the turn of the century, this oppressive custom was attacked by revolutionaries and progressive elements. In 1905, it was declared illegal but the practice continued for some more time in the countryside and among conservative sections.

4. The May Fourth Movement was an intellectual upsurge which engulfed urban China from 1915 onwards, although the name comes from the incident of 4 May 1919, when students of Beijing University as well as others protested and demonstrated at Tiananmen Square against some proposed provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Anti-imperialism was a crucial component of this movement ()nd it also marked the beginning of a women's liberation movement (see Chow Tse-tsung 1960).

5. Literacy workers connected with the All China Women's Federation, researchers at the Shanghai Institute of Human Resources Development, and students of the Women's Cadre Training College, Beijing, constitute my sources on this subject.

6. Minorities comprise 8 per cent of China's population; the majority 92 per cent are called the Han. The former occupy approximately 60 per cent of the land as well as the frontier regions. For an informative work on China's National Minorities, as they are officially called, see Dreyer (1976).

7. The Cultural Revolution was Mao's last effort to take China away from the capitalist road. Among the well-known works on the subject are, Hong Yong-Lee (1978) and Butterfield (1982).

8. In urban China, it is common for husbands and wives to share all household chores. I have observed this myself.

9. China has about 8 million Muslims who inhabit major parts of Gansu and Xinjiang provinces as well as the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

10. information gathered from Ms. Zhang, Deputy Director at the Beijing Adult Education Bureau, during interviews in December 1992.

11. Deng Xiaoping announced the reforms at the Third Plenary Session of the Communist Party's Eleventh Central Committee in December 1978. These have had far-reaching consequences and hence the Third Plenum has become a historic event.

12. Called "Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women" (adopted at the Fifth Session of the Seventh National People's Congress on 3 April 1992).

13. A copy of the unpublished proposal (in Chinese) entitled "Present Situation and Problems of Girt Child Education in Villages and .its Counter-measures" was provided to me by Dr. Shi Jinghuan of the Beijing Normal University.

14. Text of the 1986 Compulsory Education Law is available in a volume called Educational Laws and Regulations of the People's Republic of China 1949-1989 (Beijing, 1991).


Basic Education and National Development: Forty Years of Chinese Experience. Shanghai Institute of Human Resource Development and UNICEF, 1991.

Buck, John L. Land Utilization in China. Nanjing: University of Nanjing Press, 1937. Census of China (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Almanac 1986), 1982 China Statistical Year Book, Beijing: Foreign Languages Pres, 1988.

Croll, Elizabeth. Chinese Women Since Mao. London: Zed Books, 1983.

Dreyer, June T. China's Forty Millions: Minority Nationalities and National Integration in the People's Republic of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Duke, Chris (ed.) Adult Education: International Perspectives from China. London: Croorn Helm, 1987.

Hawkridge, D. and R. McCormick. "China's Television Universities", British Journal of Educational Technology, 14(3): 1983, pp. 160-73. Henze, Jurgen. "The Formal Education System and Modernization", in Ruth Hayhoe (ed.), Education and Modernization: The Chinese

Experience, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1992, pp. 110-29.

Lavely, William, Xiao Zhenyu, Li Bohua and Ronald Freedman. "The Rise in Female Education in China: National and Regional Patterns", China Quarterl.K 121 (March), 1990, pp. 61-93.

Lewis, Ida Belle. The Education of Girls in China (Teacher's College, Columbia University, Contribution to Education No.104). San Francisco: China Materials Center (reprint), 1974.

Rosen, Stanley. "Women, Education and Modernization", in Ruth Hayhoe (ed.), op. cit., 1992. pp. 255-84.

Selman, Gordon. "Adult Education: An Awakening Force" in Chris Duke (ed.), Adult Education: International Perspectives From China. London: Croorn Hel, 1987.

Shiqi, Huang. "Non formal Education and Modernization", in Ruth Hayhoe (ed.), op. cit., 1992, pp. 141-82.

Shixiong, Guan."Developing a Socialist Adult Education System in China", in Chris Duke (ed.), Adult Education: International Perspectives

From China, London: Croorn Helm, 1987, pp. 196-200.

Tse-tsung, Chow. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Yanwei, Wang n.d. "People's Participation and Mobilization: Characteristics and Measures of Anti-Literacy Campaigns in China", in Adult Education in China and Tanzania {Post-M.A. Diploma Papers-V}, Department of Adult Education and Extension, University of Delhi.

Yong-Lee, Hong The Politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: A Case Study. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of Cahfornia Press, 1978.

Zhong Guo Funu {Women of China}. "Zai wenhua jixu yexiaoli" {At the Night School of Culture and Technical Knowledge}, No.7, 1958. ."Vigorously Study Chairman Mao's Works", No.2, 1960.

Zhongda, Yao. "Adult Education Theory and Development in China", in Chris Duke {ed.}, op. cit., 1987, pp. 13-18.


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