Professor Li Xiaojiang (李小江)(b 1951) is often described as a pioneer, or even the founder of women’s studies as an academic discipline in China. Her first major essay The Progress of Humanity and Women’s Liberation (1983) set out a Marxist feminist framework for analyzing the global history of women. Other examples of Li’s writing, especially from the 1980s, including Eve’s Exploration (1988) and The Sex Gap (1989) are extensively cited. She has held leadership positions in the gender studies departments of Shaanxi Normal University and Dalian University and secured two Ford Foundation grants for research projects: China Women's Oral History, 2000-2003, and Women/Gender Studies and the Higher Education, 2001-2003. Li has spoken about feminism and China world-wide, including engagements at McGill University, Québec, Canada; Harvard University, Massachusetts, USA and Ochanomizu University, Tokyo, Japan.
Around 1993 Li established the Women’s Culture Museum at Henan University, Kaifeng, PRC where she was working and had previously studied. By 1998 the museum had closed, but its collection of around 1,200 mostly anthropological items were later rehoused at Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, where Li held the title of Honorable Curator. The museum is (at the time of writing) shut for a refurbishment and due to reopen under the auspices of Professor Cong Ma. Lisa Rofel writing at the end of the 1990s in her book chapter ‘Museum as Women’s Space Displays of Gender in Post-Mao China’, described the museum at Henan as creating a productive tension between assumptions that gender is natural and that it is socially and culturally constructed. The exhibits included Ku Shulan’s papercuts, which for the first time were contextualised not only by the artist’s impoverished background but also with the detail that she suffered domestic violence within her marriage; and examples of nüshu, the written language taught to women and girls in Hunan province so that they could continue to communicate with their social support networks after marriage. Rofel did note that minority women and their practices were positioned in the museum as ‘other’ to the Han woman’s centrality. Li is entirely autonomous from the All Women’s China Federation (AWCF) who officially represent women’s issues on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); however, although she is critical of their central tenants she has reportedly shared resources and worked with local chapters, and in fact the premises of the first Women’s Culture Museum was shared with the AWCF.
Image: Goddess of Paper cut by Ku Shulan, date unknown. Courtesy of CAFA, Beijing and Amelie Art Gallery, Beijing
Li Xiaojiang’s research in gender studies offers a critique of Marxist analyses of gender, and the masculinisation or ‘ungendering’ of women that she perceives to have occurred during the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (GPCR); she also interrogates the new position for women in the PRC in the emerging capitalist economy of the 1980s and beyond. Li’s prompt to move from researching and writing about Western literature to focus on gender and women’s studies was her own experience of what she called the ‘double burden,’ a dissonance caused by the pressure for women to participate in public life as equal to their male counterparts whilst bearing a greater share of domestic and childcare work. (Art historian Liao Wen talks about something similar in relation to how we might interpret art produced by women during and after the GPCR). Li felt that the double burden and the reality of women’s lives was omitted from the public discourse of gender during the GPCR where the rhetoric was concerned with gender equality. For Li, gender is to an extent a social construction and this is inherent in the linguistic discourse, and yet she believes in naturally occurring differences between the male and female sex, which she argues should be valued equally and not used to exploit women. Li promotes the category of women, specifically the Chinese term nüxing, and female subjectivity in her 1988 book Eve’s Exploration. For these reasons, she is sometimes described as ‘essentialising’ women and has been criticised for proposing a framework that is inherently heteronormative.
Li is included in the genealogy of Chinese feminists in the book The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism by Tani Barlow. Barlow and Li differ in their characterisation of Li’s 1980s work as ‘market feminism;’ and this gap between Barlow’s reading and Li’s own assessment of her early work is explored here. In brief, Barlow describes how Li proposes a feminist ethics that encourages women to use the emerging market economy of the 1980s to construct their own – feminine – identities and secure opportunities in public life. For Li; however, this assessment does not take into account the very early stage of capitalism in the PRC at that time and the way in which it was combined with Communist ideology. In her retort to Barlow almost 10 years after The Question of Women was published, Li also makes more of the influence of Western feminism on her theories, although at the same time she argues strongly that China needs its own feminism, or women’s studies, entirely separate from the feminism of the West including outputs authored by scholars of the Chinese diaspora. In asserting women as a category, Li provides a critical counterpoint to Western feminism that follows Judith Butler; however, she does align with feminist scholars such as Luce Irigaray. Whilst Li is generally described in English as a ‘feminist’ this folds together multiple terms used within China, as Min Dongchao describes. Li Xiaojiang is probably best described as practicing nüxing zhuyi, which translates as: ‘femininism,’ as well as making a vitally important contribution to debates both within China and internationally.
Linda Pittwood is a PhD candidate at the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies at University of Nottingham. She tweets @lindapitwood and blogs at www.lindapittwood.org. Image credit: China.org.cn.