Arts, culture & society | East Asia

21 March 2022

Although public feminist movements have been suppressed in China, a growing sense of the importance of equality has been marinating in the country for decades, Fan Yang writes.

The toxic sexist culture of Australian politics, characterised by the under-representation of female voices, the nomalisation of sexual harassment, and gender-based workplace bullying, has been propelled to the front and centre in Australia in the past year.

On 8 February 2022 in the House of Representatives, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised for the sexist parliamentary culture in the presence of six brave women who spoke out about their experiences – Brittany Higgins, Rachelle Miller, Chelsey Potter, Josie Coles, and Chantal Contos – who sat in the public gallery.

While Australia is well-acquainted with visible feminist movements, and these movements capture the attention of mainstream media, this is not the case everywhere.

In China, these kinds of movements aren’t allowed to reach national prominence and are even actively suppressed (see the case of Peng Shuai). As such, feminist activities usually occur at the everyday level.

As it has in Australia, feminism in China has continued to evolve.

From ‘women hold up half the sky’ during the Mao-era, to messages of ‘having a boy or a girl is the same’ in light of the One-Child Policy, to more entitled female dating attitudes epitomised by the quip, ‘I would rather cry in a BMW’, to the uproar caused by a Chinese feminist comedian describing men as ‘average yet confident’, a brief history of how China’s society is changing in its approach to these issues can demonstrate the need for a diverse approach to feminism.

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These diverse but overlapping generational feminist discourses represent the ways that various generations – the ‘baby boomers’, ‘generation X’, ‘millennials’, and ‘generation Z’ – have, broadly speaking, communicated feminist ideas in contemporary Chinese history.

To go back to the very beginning, thousands of years of feudalism under the influence of Confucianism solidified women’s inferiority to and dependency on men in Chinese society.

By interacting with the West during the late Qing dynasty and the Republican period, Chinese scholars and revolutionaries, who were predominantly well-educated men with prominent social prestige, advocated for improving women’s wellbeing as they tussled over the future of Chinese society.

At first, this involved abolishing cultural practices like foot-binding, and providing women with basic access to education. At that time, women were considered subordinate and dependent, and as essentially different from men.

After the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong declared his own commitment to women’s issues, famously saying that ‘women hold up half the sky’. This went on to significantly influence later national feminist movements in China.

In the context of an emerging communist state facing labour shortages, government advocacy for women’s rights became an instrument designed to paint women as a resource – equally capable of taking up employment as their male counterparts. Propaganda declared that ‘pretty girls drive tractors’, explicitly connecting female beauty with being willing to take on ‘masculine’ work.

To fast-forward a few decades, in the late 1970s, the ‘One-Child Policy’ was introduced, and later written into the national constitution – though the policy ended in 2015, first to be replaced by the Two-Child Policy and now the Third-Child Policy.

A strong preference under the One-Child Policy to parent boys created a problematically high ratio of males to females with terrible unintended consequences, including human trafficking.

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To eliminate this, along with sex-selective abortions, the key message of the era was that ‘having a boy or a girl is the same’. The slogan was promoted more actively in villages, towns, and residential communities in non-metropolitan areas where gender-based discrimination was more intense.

However, the advocacy of gender equity at the political level did not necessarily translate into real gender justice at the societal level.

In the 2010s, a surge in dating shows on television brought the next development, characterised by the quote ‘I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle’, said by a woman on prominent dating show, If You Are The One.

On the surface, this may seem like a shallow attitude, but it reveals a deeper evolution. Young women, especially professionals, small business owners, or entrepreneurs, expected a male partner to obtain comparable social and financial status. A comparison with ‘pretty girls drive tractors’ shows how the status and expectations of women had changed in China by this time.

Finally, we come to today. Recently, a comedian’s punchline poking fun that how ‘confident’ Chinese men are despite the fact so many are so ‘average’ caused some consternation in the country.

Of course, some men reacted defensively, claiming they found the joke ‘sexist’, ‘man hating’, and reflecting ‘bourgeois gender politics’ designed to destabilise China’s national unity. Despite their complaints, the quote rang true for many Chinese women.

In fact, a small number of Chinese women reported using the joke as a litmus test, even leaving their boyfriends if they were offended by the joke. This example, and the backlash it created, shows that the status of women still needs advancing, and the depth of the gender antagonism that still exists in Chinese society.

What this development shows is that though grassroots feminist movements have long been repressed online and offline by the Chinese government, the ideas of feminism, through everyday activities, passing comments, and changing attitudes, has never ceased to influence Chinese women, both inside and outside the country.

Being able to identify oneself as a feminist is a privilege, and feminist leaders should recognise that there are women in different cultural, religious, socio-economic contexts, practicing feminism day by day through their hard work, independence, care, and everyday advocacy.

They might not have perfect political literacy and may even be prohibited from talking about feminism in explicit terms, but they are a crucial part of the global feminist movement. Moving forward, if feminism has a code, it must be equity and inclusion.

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