The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir
Women hold up half the sky

by Susan Edwards

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 29-31

As a lesbian activist I am concerned with new and positive images of strong women. I wrote the following article on THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY: A CHINA MEMOIR for Lavender Woman in order to share my enthusiasm about the strength of the Chinese women.

In the article I did not consider the curious downplaying in the film of the role of Claudia Weill and her film crew. This is an irony in a film ostensibly about the increased input and growing expertise of women. The film tends to become “MacLaine’s film” rather than a collective effort between MacLaine and the film crew. The struggle of women to work together usefully and lovingly is often easier to portray than to accomplish: this, then, is a fault of an otherwise fine film. We, as American women, need to see something of the filmmaking process—rocky or smooth—that took place between Shirley, Claudia and the film crew.

Copyright 1975, Lavender Woman, PO Box 60206, Chicago IL 60640.

From the Great Wall to the fine porcelain, from the crowded port of Hong Kong to the Book of Changes, China has held my imagination. When the communists took over China, the world expected the worst. When Mao killed thousands of non-violent Tibetan monks, those fears seemed realized. But China is emerging as a nation that is committed to the people lowest on the economic scale. Mao, mistakes and all, as the people’s hero. Not another Stalin—blood thirsty and crazed with power—but a re-educator.

It took time to understand our country’s fear of communism. Our leadership who felt it was vital to make every American believe our life was best, our revolution the most glorious. Almost 200 years later we see that revolution was and still is for white mankind. In a country promising to keep the world free, women are not equal before the law.

So what has Mao done for women? We know China doesn't like lesbians, doesn't want a delegation of us over there. The greatest revolutionary in the world believes lesbianism is the result of decadent capitalism, cannot see the woman love under the political label. What would Shirley MacLaine see? She went to China to experience and film what Mao’s China meant to women, to the American people.

Seven “average” American women accompanied her: a Boston conservative, a Navajo, a psychologist, a Puerto Rican sociologist, a Dallas union worker, a teenager, a black woman from Mississippi who was active in civil rights. Claudia Weill, a feminist filmmaker, two camera women, a sound technician made up the film crew.

The film’s objective was to document the changes that Mao has made in the status of women. What you see is not only the Chinese woman but the intense reactions of the American women to a totally different culture. Totally different because the feminist dream of a roleless culture has become a reality in China. Women are community leaders, have childcare, drive heavy equipment, share housework (although Chinese women feel men are too incompetent to do women’s work), are doctors, are political leaders. Women work together rather than competing. Their children learn to love work at an early age. Work is a gift in China. Something that makes you complete. There is no unemployment in China.

Needless to say, the American women were suffering from culture shock. They could not believe what they saw. Throughout the film you see the American women in various stages of confusion, awe, respect, enthusiasm, sadness, anger, joy. Even the feminists found it difficult to keep their composure in a society that has no sexual roles. They didn't know how to act without those sexist cues.

The Chinese women do not wear makeup, are assertive and self-assured about their work. All the women we saw knew how to laugh freely and with deep enjoyment. What struck me and many other women about the Chinese women was that they acted like lesbians. Because they no longer base their behavior on catering to men’s sexual fantasies, they seemed free, open, strong, direct and independent. They never took the back seat to men but openly and good naturedly discussed the men’s “progress.”

The men in China genuinely want women to be equal. They share freely their skills and energy. This came through in the film and perhaps explains why so many American men have attacked this film, attacked Shirley, accused her of propaganda. American men at most admit women want to be equal.

Many of the Chinese women in the film were not married and not too concerned about it. They were seriously developing their own potential, their own work. Marriage is late and although women are expected to have one or two children, work does not stop because there is childcare from infancy. Non-marriage was not an option. The Chinese seemed shocked at the mention of it.

But more than happy children, the non-competitiveness, the absence of male-female roles, you were left with the feeling that there was hope in China. That this monster we call human nature can be modified. Can be radically altered.

The response of the American women during and after the film was profound. The most powerful response was that of the black woman. She deeply felt the struggle of the Chinese and she said it validated her struggle more than anything else had. She felt the Chinese were showing the world that struggle is glorious, can succeed and result in meeting the needs of the people struggling.

The Navajo woman understood the Chinese struggle to such an extent that she felt she didn't really need to see China for she saw it all in her own people’s faith.

The Puerto Rican woman felt that the Chinese had validated her own observations of struggle in her people.

The Boston conservative had become a supporter of women’s rights and China.

The only woman who didn't acknowledge her experience was the Dallas union worker. During the film she was enthusiastic and impressed by what she saw but, once home in Dallas, the social pressure must have been too great for her. During the discussion after the film, she mouthed slogans about America and appeared to be totally hard and closed.

We don't want to believe that the human condition can be changed ... especially by the “yellow menace.” We have been taught that every revolution is a failure except for ours. We do not want to believe that 800 million Chinese people have jobs. That prostitution has been stopped. That booze is not a national health problem. We resist this with all our energy.

Shirley MacLaine said during the discussion of the movie that she feels our country has a vested interest in cynicism. It is to the advantage of the large corporations, the military to keep us in a state of hopelessness, of despair. Many Americans believe there is nothing to be done. We wouldn't know what to do if our leaders were not corrupt, not allies to big business. We believe we must have war in order to have full employment. That money spent on guns is better than money spent on mass transit. We are indeed cynical. We re-elect someone like Mayor Daley because we are afraid of who might take his place—we prefer the known evil.

Shirley MacLaine’s film challenges our cynicism. Forces us to realize the depth of our despair and hopelessness. There in China, where individual freedom is not permitted at this point in the process, the people seem happy, healthy, strong, hopeful and full of energy. Here, in America, where individual freedom has become alienation, license to hurt others and has damaged our need for community, we are not happy, hardly healthy, weakened by loss of faith, without much hope and riddled with tensions. The film makes us ask “Do we have to accept this mess?”

Mao changed China through re-education. We call it propaganda, but the film showed us children learning not to compete but to work together; not to hoard possessions but to share them; not to resent another’s achievement but to applaud it. In America we are only beginning to admit to the extent illiteracy has spread while the Chinese are reducing the number of characters in their language so that more and more people will learn to read.

This film made me angry... It forced me to see to what extent our country is being corrupted by money, evil use of power and absolute resistance to growth. The Chinese hold out hope to the entire world while our President asks us to accept the liquor dealers, the favorite prostitutes, the wealthy businessmen of Saigon as “refugees.” Yet, the Chinese people make a distinction between our leaders and we, the American citizens. This is something that is difficult for Americans because we need and want to have faith in our leaders. We often allow their corruption to become our corruption because we need this faith so much. “Look out for numero uno” is our battle cry. We forget our part in the international struggle against the abuse of power.

Finally, a word about MacLaine. How she traveled across the world with women she hardly knew, how she made a powerful film in spite of the culture shock, how she wrote a book about her experience is a miracle of energy and commitment to me. She and the women who worked with her brought home an important message to Americans, especially women. While they dared not to discuss lesbianism, we saw the free women, the independence, the possibility of a society where women are not the property of men and male fantasy. For this I thank her and the women who braved a new world.