China Group

The China Group organized the first trip to China by a women's liberation organization. They observed the changes in women's status that had resulted from the Chinese Revolution and then shared their insights with other Americans upon their return.
by Joan Berman (We have photos of the China trip in our Gallery Section)

The inspiration for the China Group was Ann Tompkins' visit to Chicago in 1971 during which she showed slides from the time she lived in the Peoples' Republic of China, (1966-1970?), during the Cultural Revolution. I had already been to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade in 1970 and was eager to travel to other countries to see socialism/communism in action. I had thought to travel to Chile after the election of Salvador Allende as President, but friends said it was still too early to see the accomplishments; wait a while. So after seeing Ann's slides, I got excited about a trip to China.

Although it was still before the U.S. had diplomatic relations with the Peoples' Republic of China, I knew a a couple companeros from the Venceremos Brigade, who arranged their own trip through the Chinese Consulate in Ottawa. So I started talking up the idea of a women's trip to China to my friends and put a notice of a planning meeting in the CWLU newsletter, and, as they say, the rest is history. Some of the women who eventually joined our group had not previously been members of CWLU but were interested in the project. We started to meet to write a proposal for our group trip.

The members of the group had varying levels of knowledge, we also made a plan to study together, a reading list on China's history, political theory and social change and focusing on the role of women. We also worked on improving communication and relationship process within our group. Ann Tompkins, who had been a social worker in California before going to China, had written a small book on criticism and self-criticism, a process used by the Chinese to solve problems. We invited her to come to Chicago and work with us on this technique in a weekend retreat (one of many among the CWLU group).

After we submitted out proposal to the Chinese Consulate in Ottawa, we waited and continued our study group. It was during this time that President Richard Nixon made his first trip to China, paving the way for diplomatic relations. The group gathered around the television set at my house, sprawled in the bed, watching every move of his arrival and ceremonial visit. We waited so long for word on our proposal that some women in the group became discouraged and dropped out. When we finally got an approval from the Chinese, it was for a different time than requested, and with some changes in our itinerary, but we immediately accepted their term and made preparations for travel. We designated some members of the group as official photographers and others as official note takers, so we would have documentation of our visit.

We were the first Women's Liberation group to visit PRC, and, to our surprise, they were interested in learning from us. We made several presentations on our organization and its projects to delegates from the All China Women's Federation. On long train rides from city to city we had lengthy face to face and heart to heart chats with the two women, Lin and Tsing, who served as our guides and translators throughout the 3-week trip. The topics we discussed included the meaning and practice of lesbianism. We visited factories of various kinds, several small scale neighborhood manufacturing enterprises started by women in the community, hospitals and clinics, schools and day care centers. Everywhere we met with the Revolutionary Committee to hear statistics about workers and productions, and we asked about conditions of women's work and life.

We visited peoples' homes, in cities and in the countryside. We went to museums of history and art and culture, and historical sites and theater and acrobatic performances. After 3 weeks, we returned home and began sorting through hundreds of slides and hundreds of words, organizing them into a meaningful form. We showed slides to various groups and organizations, reliving our experience and interpreting it to others. We thought about writing a book, but didn't get any positive response from publishers. We developed a course curriculum which we first taught in the Liberation School, and later in a progressive program at De Paul University. Some of us also became active participants in the USCPFA. With these activities, we increased the knowledge and awareness of people about what was going on in the PRC and some of the amazing strides toward equality of women that had taken place in a country bound be traditions thousands of years old.

Where are we now? Many members of our group have moved away from Chicago. One of them continued her work and learning about China by working for China Books, first in Chicago and then moving to China Books's headquarters in San Francisco and has made several more trips to China. Although we had one MD in the group when we went, two others have since acquired an MD degree, including our youngest member, who was 11 years old at the time. The others went on from there to become a D.O.M. and uses acupuncture and other Chinese traditional treatments.

I've been to China with other women's groups two other times subsequently. During my 1985 trip I encountered our former translator Lin in her position as director for North America for the All China Women's Federation. Most recently, in 1995 I attended the NGO Forum in connection with the UN 4th World Conference on Women, this time with a group representing the Association for Women in Psychology.

Joan Berman is active in the CWLU Herstory Website Committee. She is a former China Group member now working as a psychotherapist and professional photographer.