Chinese Women: Becoming Half the Sky?
---An Analysis of Modern Feminism in China
On November 7th, 2013, in order to promote a feminist student group’s upcoming campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, U.S. playwright Eve Ensler’s controversial play (Jaffe 2013), 17 female students at the Beijing Foreign Studies University posted online photos of themselves holding up messages of “What My Vagina Says: …”. However, they probably didn’t expect to cause such a stir on Chinese social media. While a minority spoke up in support of the girls and their feminism ideas, the photos still offended a surprisingly large number of Chinese Internet users, who viewed the students’ open discussion of sex as a tattoo. The irony is that these blistering criticisms themselves prove exactly the necessity of more feminist calls in the contemporary Chinese society, despite the remarkable feminine achievements. This paper will analyze some academic research, Internet blogs and manifestos about the Chinese modern feminism movement. These feminists’ documents either celebrate the past achievements or summon the future campaigns, using different strategies that contribute to the documents’ agenda. The paper will also discuss the association between the Chinese modern feminism and U.S. feminism movement in the late 20th century. The first group of Chinese modern feminists are academic researchers in Women Studies. Statistical analysis and historical facts are their strategies to take stock of the transitions in sexual equality in China after 30 years of reforms. Being a Woman in China Today: A demography of gender, translated by Tania Angeloff, provides substantial statistics on the improvements of female enrollment in education, employment, and gender roles. For example, “Table 1” of the research shows that the spread of primary education has significantly reduced the women (18-64 years old) illiteracy rate in rural areas from more than 34.7 percent to only 6.6 percent (Angeloff 2012). Improvements can also been seen from the table in the women access to secondary and higher education. According to her statistics, in 20 years, the average length of women’s education almost doubled, from 4.7 years in 1990 to 8.8 in 2010, thereby gradually narrowing the gap with men (6.6 years in 1990 and 9.1 years in 2010) (Angeloff 2012). Similarly, another piece “Equality, Did You Say?” provides the table “Chinese laws promoting equality between the sexes since 1949” to objectively show the improvements in sexual equality. It is a detailed historical overview and summary, helping the audience better understand the efforts that the official Chinese government has made to improve the sexual equality, such as the enacted law about the “prohibition of sex-selective abortion” in 1994 (Angeloff 2012). Statistical analysis and historical facts are unbiased, credible and convincing strategies that contribute to the themes of the feminism documents. Other than the celebration of achievements, these strategies can also objectively show the challenges of sexual discrimination. For example, the “Table 2” in Being a Woman in China Today: A demography of gender reveals the ever-existing employment inequality. By showing the gap of the unemployment rates and average salaries between men and women, the author generalizes that despite the improvements, Chinese women still lag behind than men in the increasingly competitive job market. Therefore, the feminist researcher successfully uses the statistics to build the ideological and statistical grounds for the future actions against sexual discrimination. Besides the researchers, Chinese social activists also actively participated in the feminism discussion. Unlike the Women Studies researchers, these young feminists are normally more radical. Instead of the “calm” strategies – statistics and historical facts, the radical feminists tend to use more “direct” ones, including the criticism of the stereotypes of women and the use of visual manifesto. Furthermore, many of the modern Chinese feminists are deeply influenced by the U.S. feminism movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Therefore, to some extent the discussion about feminism in China nowadays is actually a mirror of what happened in the U.S. in the last century. A woman’s identity and worth have long been defined by her beauty, marriage and motherhood. In 1968, the pioneering American feminist Robin Morgan and her women’s liberation group New York Radical Women (NYRW) organized a demonstration against the 1968 Miss America Pageant. They threw away bras, high-heeled shoes and Playboy magazines that labeled how women should be. These brave feminists attacked the degrading yet prevailing “Mindless-Boob-Girlie” symbol that men inflicted on women, arguing that the women should not compete for male approval and urged that the social media remove all the stereotypical and male-centered “beauty” standards. Similarly, in the contemporary Chinese society women are also suffering stereotypes and unfair social expectations. In her recent essay Getting Past 'Female PhD' Label posted on All China Women’s Federation, the largest and the official Chinese women's rights organization, Chinese feminist Tiffany Tan criticizes the widespread stereotypes of women with doctor’s degrees. In China, "female PhD" is likely to be equivalent to “sexless, odd and unattractive” (Tan 2010). There is even a prevalent joke that there exist three types of human beings: men, women, and female PhDs. Discouraged by the old traditional values not to pursue high education and dream career, Chinese “epitome” women are normally “characterized” to be dominated by their husbands in the households; even their marriage age have to meet the social expectation, since a woman who is not married by 30 tends to be labeled “Shengnv”, a woman who has been “left over” (Tan 2010). By creating a target stereotype and then attack it, the essay draws the readers’ empathy for women. Hence, her writing strategy, as well as her theme of feminism, resembles what the famous American feminism pieces we learnt in the class, including the Statement of Purpose of NOW and No More Miss America! Other than the written manifestos that are antithetical to the stereotypes, some other young feminists recently used visual manifesto, photos. Back to the beginning of the paper, the album of the pictures posted by the 17 female university students is actually a short and simple but strong and provocative manifesto: “my vagina says: I can be sexy, but you can't harass me," "my vagina says, "someone can enter if I say so", “I want respect!”, “I want to be heard; to be seen; to be recognized!”, “Don’t treat me like a sensitive word!” (Jaffe 2013)… “We want to talk about our vagina, to rediscover the power within our bodies and spirit”, says Xiao Hang, the leader of their Gender Activism Club. By these straightforward words, these young ladies use “vagina” as a symbolism of women’s self identity, and clearly demonstrate that talking about sexuality and taking control of women’s sexual identity is nothing to be ashamed of. The 17 young feminists are certainly standing at the forefront of Chinese feminism movement, defending their sexual freedom. Indeed, back to 1968 in the U.S., Anne Koedt, an American feminist already proposed the idea of sexual freedom in her essay the Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. She argued that intercourse was not required for female sexual satisfaction. She criticized the “normal” concepts that women were defined sexually in terms of “what pleases men”, and instead asserted that women should defend their own “sexual enjoyment” (McMillian 2003, pg 428-431). Amazingly, the American feminism ideas from 30 years ago have been accepted by Chinese radicals and are shown in the Chinese feminism movements. In conclusion, even though the Chinese social and economic development over the last 30 years has been remarkable, the fact remains that all Chinese women do not, as famously formulated by Chairman Mao Tse-tung, hold up “half the sky.” Fortunately, thanks to the radical Chinese feminists’ efforts and the official government’s support, the female rights and sexual equality are nevertheless increasingly protected by law, and the fight for equality between the sexes regularly brings new victories, as shown in the sprouting feminism essays, research papers and manifestos.
Angeloff, Tania & Lieber Marylène. (2012) “Equality, Did You Say? “, China Perspectives, 2012/4 Retrieved from: chinaperspectives.revues.org/6014 Attané, Isabelle. (2012) “Being a Woman in China Today: A demography of gender”, China Perspectives, 2012/4 Retrieved from:chinaperspectives.revues.org/6013 Attané, Isabelle. (2012) “Editorial”, China Perspectives, 2012/4 Retrieved from: chinaperspectives.revues.org/6013
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Tan, Tiffany. (2010) “Getting Past 'Female PhD' Label”. Retrieved: womenofchina.cn/html/womenofchina/report/104015-1.htm
McMillian, John. (2003) The Radical Reader. The New Press, New York, 2003.