Journal Article

The Anatomy of Rural Family Revolution: State, Law, and the Family in Rural China, 1949–1966 Part One

Neil J. Diamant

in International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family

Volume 11, issue 2, pages 149-191
Published in print August 1997 | ISSN: 1360-9939
Published online August 1997 | e-ISSN: 1464-3707 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/lawfam/11.2.149
The Anatomy of Rural Family Revolution: State, Law, and the Family in Rural China, 1949–1966 Part One

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This article, which is in two parts, takes a new look at how the 1950 Marriage Law of the People's Republic of China shaped family dynamics in rural areas between 1949 and 1966. In contrast to previous studies which have depicted the law (which banned arranged marriages, bigamy, concubinage and made it easier to divorce, among other things) as ineffectual in changing family relations, and rural society as basically stable and patriarchal throughout this period, this article demonstrates that Chinese peasants, women in particular, clamoured to take advantage of many of the law's articles, particularly those expanding the right to divorce. This happened even as many women and men still held what we would consider ‘traditional’ views towards the sexual division of labour. The result of the law, in combination with other state policies (such as collectivization and the famine after the Great Leap Forward), was a notable shift in power away from family elders and village men towards young women, who sometimes used their rights to a ‘free love’ marriage and divorce to pursue goals the state considered quite unorthodox. Rather than emphasize stability and patriarchy, this article argues for a reconceptualization of law-induced social change in China that emphasizes fluidity and power shifts. This case of family change in rural China also suggests that there is little incompatibility between an understanding of sexual inequality as the natural order of things and the willingness to take an active role in changing one's family situation. Achieving gender ‘equality’, a principle concern of western feminists and often the criteria by which they judge women's progress in the Third World, was not a precondition for social change in the rural Chinese family. Part One deals primarily with the revolutionary period and Part Two with the period of consolidation of the revolution and the impact of collectivization.

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Subjects: Family Law ; Marriage and the Family

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