Chinese Feminism Beyond Borders: Some Personal Reflections

September 27, 2017


Why did you come to the US? Why did you choose such a major? These are the two questions I’ve been asked most often during my first year as a Chinese student pursuing a PhD in the US. The simplest answer would be that I came to the US because during my years of activist work on queer women’s rights in China, I’ve developed a vague feeling about the importance of the somewhat US-originated gender/sexuality discourses. I hope that learning more about these discourses will help me to better understand and conduct such work on women’s rights. I don’t know if I can realise my hope yet. Here I will just try to explain my motivations and commitments from my personal experience.


When I was a little child, I knew deeply how my mother was suffering from the difficulties as a single-mother struggling over her miserable marriages and her career. I learned about the translated “foreign” word “feminism” from her. My mom became a “feminist” by participating in reading groups with other female scholars and students that exchanged their personal stories and knowledge about Western feminism in the 1990s. Opportunities for feminist scholarship appeared with the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing. Many efforts in developing Women’s Studies in Mainland China have come from overseas since then, including the Ford Foundation from the US. It was one of our major funding resources when I was working for a Chinese lesbian NGO. Decades ago, Ford also sponsored one of my mother’s feminist projects, which was developing a syllabus and related texts for “Women's Literature” coursework in colleges in China.


Back then, many reflections were happening on the state-control of everyday life, including “equal” gender expression. Some female/feminist scholars in China tried to critique this state discourse of “sameness of male/female” and pursue “female” representation in society by building the category of “women” as the “subject.” I remembered many book titles on my mother’s bookshelf started out with “Women’s,” “Female,” or even called “The Differences of Two Sexes on XXX.” As a witness to the suffering caused by the patriarchy in my mother’s marriage and life, I naturally supported my mother’s career before I could really meditate on what feminism was. I published two children’s books before turning 14, both of which were also under the title of “The Girl’s XXX” and were intended to increase the visibility of young female writers.


On the other hand, I was a child who never fit the expectations of being a “girl” in school – and even in my mother’s eyes. I liked to challenge the “dangerous behaviours only boys do,” refused all “girlish” clothes and haircuts, and I never really felt comfortable to be recognised as a girl – or as a boy. I also learned the concept of “gender” (v.s. “sex”) from my mom. I understood that many negative feelings related to being “girlish” are socially constructed by the patriarchal society, and that being “girlish” is not negative at all. But the problem for me was – I am just not “girlish,” no matter if it is good or not. This feeling of in-betweenness of gender bothered me for a long time, until I learned the word “T” (踢) when I was in high school. Derived from English word “tomboy”, it often refers to a more “masculine” role in lesbian relationships in China. For me, this term gave me a feeling of belonging. It was just like, “Oh, yes, I am a T – neither a boy, nor a girl.”


If I don’t want to be a “girl,” is it a betrayal of feminism – my mother’s suffering and career? I was really troubled by this question during my adolescence. Even now that I’ve learned how to be “beyond categories,” I can still recall that moment when I found the new category “T” and felt that a lonely, invisible part of me was recognised. This experience helps me better understand the political importance of other “categories” too, such as “women” or “feminist.” What is more important is that the term “T” is not only a mixture of dimensions in both gender and sexuality, but also a mixture of “western influence” (the English word “tomboy”) and local innovations (the connotation of the word is different from English and enriched by experiences in Chinese Lala communities). I learned about other similar cases of how people use “western terms” in very creative ways after I became more and more engaged in Chinese queer communities. Activists bring this creativity from communities into local strategies of activism; and scholars take these terms to build local discourses on gender/sexuality issues. The term “同志Tongzhi,” “拉拉Lala,” and the translation of “Queer” (酷儿Ku’Er) are all interesting examples. This traveling and interactions of terms/theories are also what I want to explore during my PhD.


After I came to the US and read Judith Butler’s famous work Gender Trouble for the first time, I felt that I totally understood what she was talking about. In the second preface of the book, she says when she was originally writing this book in 1989, she tried to criticise “a pervasive heterosexual assumption” that “restricted the meaning of gender to received notions of masculinity and femininity.” I was born in the same year, and when this second preface was published in 1999, I made some of my own “gender trouble” in elementary school: I swapped all the signs of the male and female restrooms one day after school. The chaos it caused the next day was so hilarious to me! Psychiatrists may claim that this little bit of mischief reflected my anxiety around my own gender identity, although I did not seriously think of this until I found the word “T” years later.


Butler doubts the political assumption of the “universal” female identity in “Western” feminism. She might also be cautious if I were to just “universally” apply her critiques on the binary gender system of “western feminism” in 1980s to my experience in China in 1990s (and later). However, it just hit me and recalled memories of when I read “what it is to live in the social world as what is ‘impossible’” in her description. There is “something” that can be shared. I do not know if Butler still identifies herself as feminist now, but a sure thing is that she understood this book “to be part of feminism itself…in the tradition of immanent critique” when she wrote it. I’ve always identified myself as feminist. Although it might be slightly different from my mother’s idea of it, I know there’s something shared between us after all.


Not only from books, I also feel this “something” from the moments when I am touched by another feminist and feel the connection between us no matter how different we are. I remember the story that my mother’s friend told me about how they young feminists supported each other decades ago. I remember the laughter and tears we shared during several group discussions with people trying to work for women’s rights in China. I remember taking photos of our “irregular Asian boobs” to challenge the female body aesthetic standards with other participants of Asian Lala Camp in Taipei. I remember that New Year’s Eve when we cried out our worries about our futures as young feminist activists under government constraints, and then encouraged each other. I remember sharing the feelings about single-mother and daughter relationships with an Indian feminist activist when we met in Istanbul. I remember the reluctance in my heart when saying farewell to a young Japanese feminist whom I just met but felt like a long-time friend… These precious moments make me believe that, beyond the many differences, there is still “something” that can be shared in our lived experiences, and thus enables the international – inter-anything – feminism, for communication, co-operation, and political action.


The problem might be: what this “our/we” consists of? Needless to say, people in different time/place/movements/life phrases etc. might have different answers. For me, feminism is always my starting point of action, while also containing obstacles to overcome – or overturn to become bridges to broader views. I understand that my situation will always be limited by “us” – a certain group of changeable comrades; but, I hope I never forget to look around to see more possibilities for alliance with other groups all over the world.

Dian Dian is a 2nd year PhD student in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Dian previously ran Queer Lala Times, an online media of Chinese Lala Alliance. Image credit: Diandian




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