Feminism in China
This article needs to be updated. In particular: "Extreme Feminism" claimed by China authority.June 2019)(
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Feminism in China began in the 20th century in tandem with the Chinese Revolution. Feminism in modern China is closely linked with socialism and class issues. Some commentators[who?] believe that this close association is damaging to Chinese feminism and argue that the interests of the party are placed before those of women.
- 1 History
- 2 Foot-binding
- 3 Thoughts on gender in the New Culture Movement
- 4 Differences from Western feminism
- 5 Prominent Chinese feminists
- 6 Feminist movements and organizations in China
- 7 Issues
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Prior to the 20th century, women in China were considered essentially different from men. Despite the association of women with yin and men with yang, two qualities considered equally important by Daoism, women were believed to occupy a lower position than men in the hierarchical order of the universe. The I Ching stated that "'Great Righteousness is shown in that man and woman occupy their correct places; the relative positions of Heaven and Earth.'" Women were to be submissive and obedient to men, and normally not allowed to participate in government, military or community institutions. While there were lauded exceptions in Chinese history and literature, such as the Song dynasty general Liang Hongyu and legendary woman warrior Hua Mulan, these were considered to be signs of the dire situation of China at the time. Before the 20th century, such exceptional women were believed to have fought to defend China's traditional patriarchal order and society, not to change it.
A number of women, and some men, started to speak out against these conditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but to little avail. The situation only began to change as result of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911. In course of this widespread uprising against the ruling Qing dynasty, several women rebel units were raised such as Wu Shuqing's Women's Revolutionary Army, Yin Weijun and Lin Zongxue's Zhejiang Women's Army, Tang Qunying's Women's Northern Expedition Brigade, and many others. All these units were disbanded by the Provisional Government of the Republic of China on 26 February 1912, mostly for chauvinistic reasons. Nevertheless, the fact that they had fought alongside men encouraged many of the women who had taken part in the women militias to become politically active, striving for change.
The revolt of women has shaken China to its very depths.... In the women of China, the Communists possessed, almost ready-made, one of the greatest masses of disinherited human beings the world has ever seen. And because they found the keys to the heart of these women, they also found one of the keys to victory...
|J. Belden, 1946|
As a result of government approval following the Communist Revolution, women's rights groups became increasingly active in China: "One of the most striking manifestations of social change and awakening which has accompanied the Revolution in China has been the emergence of a vigorous and active Woman's Movement."
Beginning in the 70s and continuing in the 80s, however, many Chinese feminists began arguing that the Communist government had been "consistently willing to treat women's liberation as something to be achieved later, after class inequalities had been taken care of." Some feminists claim that part of the problem is a tendency on the government's part to interpret "equality" as sameness, and then to treat women according to an unexamined standard of male normalcy.
In 2001, China amended its marriage law, so that abuse was considered grounds for divorce.
In 2005, China added new provisions to the Law on Women's Right Protection to include sexual harassment. In 2006 "The Shanghai Supplement" was drafted to help further define sexual harassment in China.
In 2013, the first woman to bring a gender discrimination lawsuit in China, a 23-year-old who went by the pseudonym of Cao Ju, won a small settlement of 30,000 yuan and an official apology from the Juren Academy.
In 2015, China enacted its first nationwide law prohibiting domestic violence, although it excluded same-sex couples and did not address sexual violence. The law also defined domestic violence for the first time. Domestic violence had become a subject of much public debate in China in 2011, when Kim Lee posted pictures of her bruised face on Chinese social media and accused her husband Li Yang of domestic violence. She later stated in the New York Times that police had told her no crime had happened; Li admitted beating her but criticized her for discussing private things in public.
In 2017, the Sina Weibo account of Feminist Voices (Nuquan Zhisheng, 女权之声), an important feminist organization in China, was suspended for thirty days after they posted an article about the planned women's strike in the United States on March 8 (International Women's Day). In March 2018 the account was deleted.
In 2019, a government directive was released banning employers in China from posting "men preferred" or "men only" job advertising, and banning companies from asking women seeking jobs about their childbearing and marriage plans or requiring applicants to take pregnancy tests.
Foot binding in Chinese history was initially a mark of hierarchy and privilege in society. However, it soon became a symbol of sexism in many people's minds and lasted for over more than one hundred years. Having a bound foot meant looking prettier as men thought smaller feet were more beautiful and dainty for a woman. Chinese women in the nineteenth century were expected to keep up their appearance, as they did not have many other rights. They could not own as much property, they did not get good education, and they showed a lot of signs of "weakness" because they were treated so poorly. However, scholars of Chinese religion and society note that women generally never felt like they were being victimized by being forced to have bound feet, but that they quietly rebelled against this societal norm by way of acting. Early Chinese feminists in the nineteenth century would get around the rules that restricted to them, but not in an obvious way that would get them in trouble.
It was seen as a privilege to have bound feet because many women in rural households who were lower class did not marry hypergamously before 1949, and therefore, usually found no benefit in participating in foot-binding. Footbinding pointed up the physical differences between men and women, and therefore, encouraged the patriarchal society. In Chinese society during this time, parents would scare their daughters at a very young age by telling them that they had to get married and have bound feet to be happy in life. During the May Fourth Era, Chinese feminists began to reject foot-binding as a Feudal ideal, as they saw it as a great inequality for women in the new modern social system of the 1900s. Irene Dean, a scholar in Chinese feminism, has noted that the New Culture Movement in 1915 truly shifted women's attitudes to more liberal tones. Female chastity was enforced through the concept of footbinding and the woman's way of paying respect to her husband and the men in power above her. Having bound feet meant being physically held back and controlled by a male dominated society, and women during this time wanted to feel more free and independent.
Thoughts on gender in the New Culture Movement
During the early years of the New Culture Movement, intellectuals and scholars such as Chen Duxiu, Cai Yuanpei, Li Dazhao, Lu Xun, Zhou Zuoren, He Dong, and Hu Shih called for the creation of a new Chinese culture based on global and western standards, especially democracy and science. Gender was also a central issue during the movement. In addition to the call for an institutional change of the patriarchal family in favor of individual freedom and women's liberation, many scholars also discussed various gender issues in their writings.
Lu Xun, a leading figure and influential writer of modern Chinese literature, published an article in the New Youth in 1918 titled "My Views on Chastity." As a response to the cult of female chastity in Neo-Confucianism which believed "starving to death is a small matter, but losing chastity is a great matter," Lu Xun directly argues against the idea that losing female chastity is the cause of corruption of social morality, questioning the functioning of patriarchal ideology in blaming women for the decline of a nation. "Why should women shoulder the whole responsibility for saving the world?" writes Lu Xun, "According to the old school, women belong to the yin, or negative element. Their place is in the home, as chattels of men. Surely, then, the onus for governing the state and saving the country should rest with the men, who belong to the men. However, a country's downfall is always blamed on women. Willy-nilly they have shouldered the sins of mankind for more than three thousand years. Since men are not brought to book and have no sense of shame, they go on seducing women as just as they please, while writers treat such incidents as romantic."
In 1924, after reading Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House, Lu Xun wrote a continuation of the story titled "What Happens after Nora Leaves Home?" In his own story, Lu Xun explores what might happen if China's own version of Nora left home and he has a very pessimistic view of Nora and her liberation. Lu Xun proposes the idea that unless a structural and systemic reforming has been accomplished, any individual liberation will eventually end up in misery. In the same year, Lu Xun published a novel titled The New Year Sacrifice. One of the major themes of the novel is women's rights and marriage practices (including arranged marriages), as he writes, "This poor woman, abandoned by people in the dust as a tiresome and worn-out toy, once left her own imprint in the dust, and those who enjoy life must have wondered at her for wishing to prolong her existence; but now at least she has been swept clear by eternity. Whether spirits exist or not I do not know; but in the present world when a meaningless existence ends, so that someone whom others are tired of seeing is no longer seen, it is just as well, both for the individual concerned and for others."
Differences from Western feminism
Chinese feminism differs from Western feminism in that Chinese feminism has no history of assuming that "man" and "woman" are natural categories. Rather, Chinese culture has always assumed that "man" and "woman" are socially constructed categories. Chinese sociologist and sexologist Pan Suiming once used the constructionist framework to argue that “sexuality” was never seen as a “biological instinct” in ancient China. Sexuality in its natural form never exists, and it is only represented in a framework of social construction and cultural interpretation. As he contends, the west constructed the scientific discourse of biological sex based on preexisted notions of different genders, while in China, since the scientific truth of gender was never a big concern of traditional Chinese culture, gender is only seen as various gender roles played by men and women throughout the history of China. Moreover, most of the leaders in Chinese feminism movements are men not women, while in western countries, women are the main sponsors of movements for Woman's Rights. Unlike Western feminism movements initiated by grassroots activists, modern Chinese feminism began as a matter of state policy. That is, the Communist Party's ideology during the Revolution of 1949 held that equal labor and social participation was necessary to advance the nation's prosperity. However, there are also radical scholars who have pointed out that gender equality was never a central concern of early state policies, and the proposed idea of “equal labor” still signifies a hierarchal nature of gendered division of labor. For example, the Iron Girl campaign was one of the famous campaigns during the Communist revolution which promoted equal labor and social participation of women. Initially, women were organized and mobilized to enter traditional male occupations to serve as a reserve labor force and to compensate for the labor shortage caused by the outflow of men's labor, not for the purpose of creating gender equality. Often the purpose of making “women do men's work” was a pragmatic choice that local administrators made when men alone could not handle the work.
Western feminism differs from Chinese feminism in the way that it focuses a lot on "gender", which is not the way that feminism is analyzed historically in China. Some Chinese feminists agree with the sense of translatability and transferability in Chinese feminism, while others do not. "Translatability" and "transferability" refer to mixing Chinese feminism with Western feminism. Support for this concept is mostly a Western ideal, but feminists such as Wang Zheng also support spreading the two-word phrase that Chinese culture uses for "gender." In Chinese culture, the phrase, "Shehui xingbie"implies something different than the English word, "gender." "Shehui" means "social," and "xingbie" means "gender/sex." The phrase points up the constructed gender roles in China, which many Chinese feminists have analyzed. Some Chinese feminists toy with this phrase as a way of breaking away from the roles in which they are expected to live up to in their culture. Chinese feminists who disagree with this type of feminism say that it has to do with assimilation to western countries.
Others, such as Li Xiaojiang, do not; they believe that translatability and transferability are becoming the issue for Chinese feminism and its location in international feminism. Additionally, filmmaker Li Yu notes that Chinese feminism in a classic sense requires a softer and quieter voice than the face of Western feminism. However, now that there are more facets inspiring anger among Chinese women, there seems to be a clash between different types of feminism. A lot of Western feminists see these quiet and more subdued Chinese feminists as "anti-feminist" due to, one could say, a lack of understanding of Chinese culture and history. These ideals come from three decades of post-Maoist China. Additionally, others see the concept of "difference" as an important facet to their idea of feminism, meaning being a third world woman should be considered, in their opinion, to be separate from the notion of Western feminism.
Prominent Chinese feminists
The development of Chinese feminist theory is connected to the history of the Chinese Communist Party. Throughout the twentieth century, the problems that feminists discussed were issues that addressed the relationship between the Communist government and women. Women were often excluded from policy debate, and could not argue against government policies or programs. Xinyan Jiang has stated that although feminists have fought for social equality, they still face discrimination because of economic and social challenges in China.
Li Xiaojiang is a writer and scholar that was active during the 1980's in China, and is considered to be one of the most prominent women scholars of the decade by scholars such as Wang Zheng. Her influence led to the start of the first women's studies classes and the first women's studies department in China and Li also created the Women's Studies Department at Zhengzhou University. Her 1983 essay "Progress of Mankind and Women's Liberation" (Renlei jinbu yu funü jiefang) was the first women's studies publication in China; the Association of Women's Studies was founded two years later. Her theory was rooted in highlighting the gender and sexual differences prevalent in China at the time. She explained historical discrepancies through arguing that traditional cultural norms existed in socialist China. She also expressed the difficulty for women to identify in China, as they were torn between their established role at home and their new liberation put upon them by socialism. Nicola Spakowski has stated that Li is somewhat critical of the influence of Western feminism on Chinese feminism. Li argues that because there are cultural and language differences between the East and West, the influence of Western ideology becomes a threat to establishing an independent Chinese feminist theory.
Another early 20th century prominent feminist was the anarchist He-Yin Zhen who founded the Journal "Natural Justice" while in exile in Japan. He-Yin focused on issues within Chinese feminist theory rather than issues with comparing it to Western feminism. However, her theories are not specific to Chinese culture, so she is considered a global feminist by historians such as Mary John. Her essay, "On Women's Liberation" addressed women's issues within China, particularly how women's liberation is decided by others within the hierarchical system of society at the time. Her essay, "On the Question of Women's Labor" discusses how "modern form of labor" has impacted women, and how their bodies are historically tied to their labor.
Though not self-identified as a feminist, Ding Ling's writings and thoughts on gender issues resonate a lot with feminist ideas and ideals. In March 1932, Ding Ling joined the Chinese Communist Party, and she was recognized as an active writer in the League of Left-Wing Writers. During her time in the CCP, Ding Ling published several well-known essays and novels concerning gender issues and living situation of women. In 1942 she wrote an article in a party newspaper, titled "Thoughts on March 8", questioning the party's commitment to change popular attitudes towards women. Because of her explicit descriptions of sentimentality and sexuality, as well as her public critique of the Party's leadership, Ding Ling was denounced as a "rightist" and purged from the party in 1957. Her fiction and essays were then also banned. After many years of imprisonment, she reemerged in 1979, and became the vice president of the Chinese Writers' Association.
Feminist movements and organizations in China
It was not until the 20th century when reforms for women's rights began as issues concerning women came under the spotlight. Unexpectedly, most of the early reforms for Chinese Women were conducted by men. For example, the May Fourth Movement of 1919 was the first impactful cultural movement of modern China, which heavily enlightened China on the importance of a woman’s role in society. This movement promoted women’s suffrage, denounced foot binding and shone light on the inhumanity of arranged marriages and the poor quality of women’s education.
By the late 20th century, women began to gain greater autonomy through the formation of women-only organizations. Chinese women’s organizations began to emerge during the Zhang Mao era (1948-1976) such as the All-China Women’s Federation. These organizations allowed issues concerning women’s interests, welfare, and equal rights to be addressed.
All-China Women's Federation
This organization was established in 1949 to protect women's rights and represent their interests. Scholar Qi Wang explains this all female non-governmental organization in a feminist context where women were finally challenging the government's tighter control on social organizations. These were feminist modes of protests, in private and public spaces, that contributed to the introduction of new generational changes to resist inequalities. Other organizations in China, such as the Human Rights Watch, addresses that the ACWF "is promoting a damaging narrative about women's subservience in an attempt to fix social issues". Since the head positions of the ACWF are appointed by the Communist Party of China, women who hold positions of leadership do not necessarily represent the interests of Chinese women, because they are not elected by the people, but appointed by the party/state.
The Feminist Five is a group of five young Chinese feminists who planned a demonstration against sexual harassment on public transportation. They became known after the Chinese government arrested them for this demonstration.
In early March 2015, young feminists around China were preparing to distribute stickers with information about gender equality and sexual harassment, such as men groping women on crowded trains and buses, to commemorate the International Women´s Day. But on March 6, 2015 the police arrested dozens of people in Beijing, the southern city of Guangzhou, and the eastern city of Hangzhou. Most of the arrested were released within a few days of the incident. However, Li Maizi (birth name Li Tingting) (李婷婷) (30) , Wei Tingting (韦婷婷) (26), Zheng Churan nicknamed “Giant Rabbit” (郑楚然) (25), Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘) (30), and Wang Man (王曼) (33), were detained on suspicion of "Picking quarrels and provoking trouble". They were held inside the Beijing Haidian Detention Center, where they were interrogated daily. A hashtag campaign #FreetheFive spread news about their arrest quickly and gained support of people from all around the world. By the end of their detention, over two million people had signed petitions that demanded their release.
The timing of the arrest and detention of the feminist five increased the amount of international attention at this event. Several governments and NGOs on women´s rights saw their arrest as a provocative and disrespectful action from the Chinese government towards the international feminist community. The feminists were arrested right before the International Women’s Day and during Chinese president Xi Jinping´s preparations to co-host UN summit on women’s rights as a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Fourth UN Conference on Women in Beijing. In reaction Hillary Clinton tweeted, “Xi hosting a meeting on women’s rights at the UN while persecuting feminists? Shameless.” Such global diplomatic and media pressure lead to the eventual release of the Feminist Five.
After thirty seven days of detention, on April 13, 2015 the Feminist Five were released on bail. They were the first group of social activists in China who were released from detention all together. Not in prison anymore, the women are still considered criminal suspects by the Chinese government. This restricts their job opportunities, physical mobility and takes their freedom and citizen rights. Their fight for total freedom is not over yet.
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- Zarro, Peter. "He Zhen and Anarcho-Feminism in China." Journal of Asian Studies 47:4 (November 1988), 796-813.
- All China Women's Federation (中国妇女网) Official website (in Chinese) (in English)
- "Above Ground: China's Young Feminist Activists and Forty Moments of Transformation," Digital exhibit of photographs of protest actions carried out by Chinese Feminists