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Women's Day's Revolutionary Roots

The Explainer is where we explain an aspect of Chinese life. Simple. So now you know.

This year, as every year, China will mark International Women’s Day on March 8. Looking around at the floral displays for discounted lingerie in shop windows, or the pretty-in-pink banner ads splashed across e-commerce sites’ home screens, you’d be forgiven for wondering if this was yet another invented shopping holiday like Singles' Day or Double 12. But the eighth of March, or sanba as it is often known in China, is a holiday with a long and proud socialist history, which for over a century has been put aside to recognize the daily social contributions of the people that Mao Zedong so famously said, “hold up half the sky.” 

The first International Women’s Day was organized by socialist trade unionists in New York and Chicago in 1909 to commemorate a strike by immigrant female garment workers in those cities the previous year. 

It was soon taken up by leftists and radicals across the world as a day to agitate around principles of gender equality, feminism and the recognition of women’s unpaid and undervalued labor in the home and workplace alike. The day has been observed by communists in China since at least the founding of CCP in the 1921. With the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the day became an official national holiday.

For much of the 20th century, March 8 was largely observed as the ‘International Day of the Working Woman’ in socialist countries throughout Asia and Eastern Europe, but slowly this started to change. In 1975, the holiday was adopted by the UN, which proclaimed the day to be “a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

Since that time, the holiday has strayed far from its proletarian roots, with everyone from advertisers to CEOs finding ways to commercialize or otherwise co-opt the festivities. Here in China, the e-commerce pantheon hasn’t wasted time getting in on the action, with Tmall setting record numbers last year for single-day sales. Meanwhile, discounts for ladies abound in bars, restaurants, cafes, nail salons and cosmetics studios in major cities (which, of course, should absolutely be taken full advantage of).

Some customs persist, however. For folks born before the Taobao generation, Women’s Day is traditionally marked with the giving of flowers (either white lilies or red carnations – though in other countries yellow mimosas are more common). More importantly perhaps, women in China to this day are entitled by law to a half-day off from their jobs in celebration, though this phenomenon is increasingly rare outside of government workplaces.

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