Women and Education in China: How Much Progress?

China's Economy and the Maoist Strategy

by John G. Gurley
Monthly Review Press, 325 pp., $5.95 (paper)

China's Economic Revolution

by Alexander Eckstein
Cambridge University Press, 340 pp., $7.50 (paper)

Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping; drawing by David Levine

After thirty years, how successful has the Maoist regime been in conquering the terrible poverty and inequality which China suffered under capitalism?

In the last issue we looked at the regime’s record in dealing with health and hunger, which determine whether life can be lived at all (NYR, April 5). We found that such typically enthusiastic surveys of China as those by Al Imfeld and John Gurley did not recognize many of the regime’s failures, especially in food production. The work of the late Alexander Eckstein was more accurate and realistic. In this issue we consider a few of the things that make for a decent social life: literacy and respect for women. By examining how well the Maoist regime has provided such benefits to its people, we will be in a better position to arrive, in a final article, at conclusions about existing inequality in China and to compare China’s successes and failures to those of other nations.



Before 1949, something like five-sixths of China’s adults were illiterate.1 How well can the Chinese read today? Father Imfeld in his recent book claims that “in barely a generation, a nation of 700,000,000 [sic] people became literate.” He tries to back assertion with fact. Here is the “fact”: “Today almost everybody in China belongs to an organized study group.” True, but this is irrelevant: the groups to which he refers are for political study (self-criticism, memories of bitterness, and the like); they are not calligraphy classes. Professors Gurley and Eckstein talk about “rising” literacy, but since more than 80 percent of the Chinese couldn’t read or write before the Liberation, there was considerable ground for improvement. How much of this gap did the Maoist experiment actually close?

The fact of the matter is, no one knows, not even the Chinese. There are no figures on literacy, and statistics on education are scanty and unusually contradictory. Even if our information on China were perfect, however, we would be hard pressed to come up with a single statistic that would represent basic educational attainment unambiguously, for “literacy” is an especially slippery concept. “Functional literacy” is different today in India and England, just as it has differed from generation to generation within England as well. Remember: two centuries ago any European who could sign his own name in the parish marriage register was considered literate.2 How would we define literacy today? By the ability to write an order for a bag of fertilizer? To read a telephone book? To fill out one’s own income tax form? Probably the definition would vary not only from country to country, but also from region to region, from city to countryside, and even from profession to profession.

Since information is scarce and the definition of literacy is confused, it should not be surprising that estimates of China’s literacy rate differ. Still the differences are astonishing.…

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