The establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 was met with fanfare throughout the world, signaling China’s ‘rebirth’ after a century of semi-colonialism. Amongst Asian leftist circles in particular, the emergence of a socialist power in Asia was noted as a turning point in the region’s struggle against colonialism and foreign encroachment.
It should not come as much of a surprise that socialists throughout the region were enamored by the PRC. But the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was also celebrated by a variety of figures that we would not necessarily associate with leftist politics. Much of this enthusiasm stemmed from a belief that despite its embrace of socialist politics, the PRC remained an ‘Asian’ country that had suffered under colonialism.
The fear of imperialism and the embrace of an ‘Asian’ identity led to expressions of solidarity with China across various levels of society, even between organizations or individuals that did not seem politically compatible. The relationship between the All-China Women’s Federation (the Fulian, as it was known) and the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC) was one such example. The Fulian’s mission was to ensure that “Chinese women will make significant contributions in all periods of China’s great revolutionary activity”. The AIWC, on the other hand, maintained that it was ultimately “non-political”, but was otherwise aligned with the interests of India’s Congress Party and fiercely anti-communist in its domestic politics.
These two organizations were unlikely allies. However, thanks to the efforts of both on-the-ground activists and the organizations’ respective leaderships, the organizations interacted frequently, from sending telegrams to celebrate International Women’s Day, to organizing delegations and conferences, to participating in events such as exhibitions and peace marches. As far as the Fulian was concerned, despite the existence of leftist women’s organizations in India, the AIWC (as the largest such women’s organization in the country) was to be one of its main contacts in the country, with its leadership expressing their desire to unite with them to “fight for the peace of Asia and the peace of the world.” Likewise, the AIWC, despite its skepticism of socialist politics, praised the Fulian’s work as “indispensable to world peace” in 1951.
These quotes’ emphasis on ‘peace’ belies the larger reason for this solidarity. The region at large was in turmoil with the conflict in Korea, with fears that the United States’ intervention there heralded an era of renewed imperialism. Likewise, both organizations understood that their countries’ shared experiences under colonialism and the hardship of war and poverty united them despite their different politics — a message that would be spread far and wide with the Bandung Conference. As a result of these shared characteristics, both organizations imagined ‘Asian women’ as a community that was defined by similarly ‘Asian’ values. These included the primacy of the anti-imperialist (and nationalist) struggle to defend their families and nations, and the desire for peace and development to ensure that women never again suffered under colonialism.
This rhetoric comes clearly to the fore through the example of Hannah Sen. Sen was a women’s education activist, a teacher, and served as head of the AIWC between 1951 and 1953. Outside of her activities with the AIWC, she also represented India at international conferences, UNESCO, and the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She was thus clearly dedicated to improving the condition of Indian women. Despite this, she was also convinced that “only in marriage does a woman reach complete fruition” and like other prominent members of the AIWC, stressed the importance of household work. Combined with her steadfast support for Nehru’s Congress, Sen does not necessarily seem like someone who would praise the work of the Fulian, which saw itself as fundamentally opposed to bourgeois politics.
Despite this, Sen was the sole female member of India’s first delegation to the PRC in 1951, representing the AIWC. In her accounts of the trip, she focused most of her attention on Chinese women; specifically, the boons that they were receiving from the Fulian’s hard work. Writing directly to the Fulian’s audience via their official journal, she argued that the “history of the women’s movement in China” was “of special significance to Indian women because of its many similarities with the situation in India.” Notably, she tied this to a belief in an ‘Eastern’ womanhood:
“in narrating the achievements of women, we should also always commemorate the merits of those heroic, strong-willed patriots who fought for our final victory and struggled until the end…Eastern women’s movements do not have a narrow feminism or a British-style participation in politics. China and India both recognize that the future of women is not one of narrow competition with men, but of harmony with them.”
Sen’s rhetoric here was mimicked in part by her counterpart at the Fulian, Cai Chang, who in her message to Sen and the AIWC several months later, wrote:
“Our two great nations…have long-lasting and splendid national cultures and have recently experienced the long-term cruel exploitation and slavery brought on by imperialism and feudal forces. Thus, our two peoples are passionate about peace and oppose invasion…While reviewing the strength of both our women on International Women’s Day, we excitedly saw that under the common objects of protecting the peace and protecting the rights of women and children and regardless of nationality, skin color, political or religious beliefs, peace-loving women and mothers have already united…”
This espousal of a shared Asian identity was by no means divorced from these organizations’ politics. The Fulian could use the image of Asian women suffering under imperialism to boast of the PRC’s prestigious place in the regional order, and the correspondingly high position of Chinese women vis-à-vis their neighbors. The AIWC, on the other hand, could use similarities with Chinese women to push for their own agenda at home. Sen later used the PRC’s newly inaugurated Marriage Law to comment on India’s own debates about marriage equality at the time, writing in the AIWC’s official publication that “In India, when so much is being urged in favour of replacing the Hindu Code Bill by an All-India Civil Code, it would be well to remember that new China’s policy has been not one of forcing the will of majority upon the minorities, but rather the respect for communal variations.” For Sen, comparisons to Chinese women opened up a different avenue to argue in favor of policies: their Chinese sisters were also ‘Asian’ women, and it was their example, and not the West’s, that needed to be emulated.
Even after her tenure as the AIWC’s president ended in 1952, Sen remained invested in building connections with other Asian countries and women to, in her words, “transform the world and ensure peace and friendliness”. Alongside other famed women’s activists such as Rameshwari Nehru, she was involved in arranging receptions for visitors from China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia, and even served as a principal member of the India-China Friendship Association, set up in 1953 to foster good relations between the two peoples. Actions of women like Sen were crucial to building a critical mass of solidarity between peoples in the region. This was all in the effort to forge a better world; a world where a newly awakened Asia would unite the oppressed and prevent imperialism’s resurgence.