Chinese Feminism Beyond Borders: Past, Present and Future

September 4, 2017


It’s difficult to know where to start without falling into the cliché of how much China has changed in recent decades. But clichés aside, feminist activism today in China is light years away from its precursors only a couple of decades ago. You could make the same kind of comment about feminist activism elsewhere, think Sisters Uncut in the UK context, for example. Yet Sisters Uncut emerged out of an explicitly feminist politics in a discursive and cultural environment in which there has long been critical attention to thinking through gender as an analytical category shoring up demands for social equality and justice. In contrast, the critical troubling of gender in feminist/LGBTQ activism in China’s cities today is much more recent. The broad notions of sexual and gender rights it focuses on may not be new; they inherit a long history of feminist demands in China. But they haven’t been raised in the same way before, or with reference to the same issues: domestic and sexual abuse (including child abuse), LGBTQ rights, cohering around new understandings of what it means to be a gendered self/individual, and politically performed in public spaces and film that questions the authority of the party-state.  


These activist emphases have not suddenly appeared; they draw on the global circulation of ideas and encounters that has been gathering steam since the 1980s when some women, particularly writers, started exposing the sexual violence of their experience of marriage in previous decades. Most prominent was Yu Luojin, whose A Chinese Winter’s Tale became a cause célèbre when it was first published in 1980.


Remember in this context that it was only really in the mid-1990s that the older generation of pioneering women’s studies scholars were inspired by the UN conference on women to start thinking about sexual difference in what then was a radically new way, challenging the idea that sex was a fixed biological given, and introducing the idea of gender as a social construct:  I remember women telling me around this time that ‘we discovered gender’. However, this was still a moment when women did not widely challenge the assumption that discussion about women’s rights was the business of the state mass organization, the All China Women’s Federation, and when many were anxious about identifying themselves as ‘feminist’ because of its associations with what many thought were the ‘liberal’ (i.e. individualistic) underpinnings of Western women’s movements. Another concern at this time was that the new Chinese women’s movement was being redefined through terms lifted from the West, leading many in China, most notably the pioneering feminist of this period, Li Xiaojiang, to call for the articulation of Chinese terms and approaches.


Through the late 1990s and into the new millennium, these new ideas, in part supported by international bodies like the Ford Foundation, spawned a series of women’s studies courses, research centres, and conferences on gender and sexuality. Many of the key figures involved in these developments had links, direct or indirect, with the Women’s Federation. But with a new generation of women and LGBTQ activists with access to travelling and studying abroad, a qualitatively different kind of activism has recently emerged, leaving the university departments and taking to the streets and social media in the form of performance art and public protest politics. Some of this activity is designed to shock the public into consciousness of the issues—such as the occupation of men’s public toilets by the Feminist Five to publicise the scarcity of public services for women. By definition, this form of activism is short-lived, either by design or because of censorship and police intervention.


One—maybe the major— challenge for this activism is how to move out from its small scale and short-term organisational targets, invariably framed by the urban context, to reach out to other groups of women. Of course, this is a challenge faced by feminist activists the world over now, not simply in China. Lu Pin’s women’s rights group in New York is very important in this context as the first step in an attempt to forge alliances across national boundaries.


Is current feminist activism in China a revival of earlier forms of feminism predating the Mao era? If so, a revival of what? Or is it a new form of feminism?


The ‘half the sky’ form of feminism upheld during the Mao years was inseparable from a brand of ‘state feminism’ represented by the Women’s Federation. This was a kind of Marxist feminism, according to which women’s emancipation lay fundamentally in participating in social labour. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that the policies associated with this notion of women’s equality empowered huge numbers of women who for the first time ever, were given a social and political legitimacy as public subjects in their own right. But what it didn’t do was tackle the issues of gender equality and sexual rights in the domestic sphere. Nor did it question the assumption that women should marry and have children and be respectful filial daughters and daughters-in-law.


The feminism of the 1980s and 1990s was closely associated with women whose understanding of women’s rights was formulated during the Mao years, and was shaped by this kind of ideology, long before the arrival of the high-tech global consumer society premised on a notion of individual self-fulfilment. It is important to remember that the idea of individual self-realisation was not part of the older generation’s political and cultural vocabulary.


Recent generations of young urban women have had the opportunity to travel and study abroad and engage with notions of gender and sexual rights circulating across national boundaries. They are growing up in a largely urban cultural and social environment in which ‘obedience’ to parental wishes and to dominant social norms of gender behaviour can no longer be taken for granted, and in which emphasis on the ‘self’ and individual self-fulfilment, is arguably more important than ideas about collective responsibility. But for many young women, there is a continuing, and sometimes agonising tension between wanting to pursue an individual path and wanting to respect parental opinion.


Feeding the new feminism in China is another factor — namely, the younger generation’s growing awareness that despite official rhetoric of gender equality upheld by the government and the Women’s Federation, the rhetoric falls far short of reality: the Women’s Federation’s targeting of so-called ‘left-over’ women—highly educated women in their late twenties, whose educational status makes it difficult for them to find a husband by the age of thirty, i.e. the age normatively expected of women to marry and have children — for their failure to respect social expectations that they marry is but the most recent prominent illustration of this.


Chinese feminists face an uphill struggle for many reasons. Among these is the task of thinking about how to move beyond the urban and largely Han-centred parameters of current activism to link up with the disadvantaged, socially disadvantaged women of the migrant, rural and ethnic minority populations. Feminist activism in China largely remains defined by a young urban demographic and has not really tackled the issue of socio-economic and ethnic inequalities and employment discrimination. It is this prospect of cross-class organisation through online and public presence that may explain the government’s fears that led to the arrest of the Feminist Five in March 2015.


Feminist activists in China now enjoy access to rich organisational possibilities facilitated by new media. The kinds of public performance activities most recently associated with the Feminist Five have been growing in number in recent years. But in the current environment of increasing constraint in China, they are necessarily limited, and the arrest in March 2015 is indicative of the willingness of the government to use coercive means to prevent further organisation. So, what is possible? Of course, online organisation will continue in its cat and mouse struggle with the government, as will transnational alliances.


Transnational alliances are crucial to enable Chinese feminism to flourish. The form transnational alliances now take between feminist activists in China and elsewhere, is of course, unprecedented, since it draws on the possibilities of connectedness made available by online networking and social media. The many solidarity selfies for the Stanford Survivor, Zheng Churan's public letter on 'straight man cancer' to Trump, Chinese feminists’ participation in the Women's March in Washington to protest Trump, Chinese feminists’ support for demands for abortion rights in Ireland, and the enormous international support to free Li Maizi and her fellow feminists in 2015, are but the most prominent recent examples.


The empowering potential of these alliances marks a new phase in the history of Chinese feminism. But international alliances have always characterised Chinese feminism, right from the beginning. The Birth of Chinese Feminism brought to light how the anarcho-feminist He-Yin Zhen’s remarkable critical writings more than a century ago emerged out of global intellectual and political developments. It is worth noting in this context that the journal Natural Justice, that He-Yin Zhen and Liu Shi-Pei set up in Tokyo in 1907-1908, published the first Chinese translation of the Communist Manifesto.


China’s feminist voices were effectively absorbed by the language of the Women’s Federation after 1949, but the importance of alliances with women of fraternal countries and of the non-aligned countries of Asia and Africa continued to feature in official political programmes. While Chinese feminism’s engagements with the West have taken off since the 1990s, it is important to remember that the West is not synonymous with ‘international’. The Chinese women’s movement has always and continues to build on transnational alliances. Now, as Trump attempts to limit access to abortion, the need for transnational feminist alliances becomes a pressing political imperative for everyone. As Angela Davis powerfully argued in her Freedom is a Constant Struggle, the possibilities of effective protest lie in making connections between struggles and different places.

Harriet Evans is Professor Emeritus of Chinese Cultural Studies, and former Founding/Director of the Contemporary China Centre in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Westminster. Her publications include Women and Sexuality in China: Discourses of Female Sexuality and Gender since 1949 (Polity Press, 1997), and Picturing Power in the People's Republic of China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution (co-edited with Stephanie Donald, Rowman and Littlefield, 1999); The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007). Beijing from Below—an oral history of everyday life in a disadvantaged Beijing neighbourhood—is nearing completion. Image credit: China Digital Times.







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