Feminism in China has been intricately intertwined with both philosophy and political ideology. As early as the Zhou dynasty, men and women were associated respectively with notions of yang and yin in a philosophy that organized the world into polarized yet related entities. Confucianism promoted and legitimized patriarchal thought, which has remained dominant to the present day. Apart from isolated cases of great achievement, such as those by the heroine Fa Mu Lan (or Hua Mu Lan) depicted in a poem during the Northern dynasties (AD 420–589) and a spate of women poets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Chinese women have been constrained to the domestic sphere by rigid notions of virtue such as good wife and mother (xianqi liangmu). In Modern China—the period since 1842—political change and new ideologies precipitated early forms of feminism. The Taiping Rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century and the collapse of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century, for example, both motivated discourses on gender equality, especially as a critique of the ‘old (feudal) society’.
During the Maoist period (1949–76), the state went to great lengths to counter Confucian-based social and gender ideologies. It considered both proletarians and women as the oppressed under capitalism and thus championed them and their contributions to production. Mao’s famous statement that ‘women carry half of the heavens on their shoulders’ summarizes a Marxist version of feminism and the socialist state’s approach towards gender equality. The CCP sought in particular equality in labour force participation and encouraged women to work just like men. The term ‘iron girls’ was coined to describe strong, robust women capable of performing jobs commonly done by men, such as tractor drivers. The sameness, rather than difference, between men and women was emphasized. In fact, ‘feminism’—a label connoting Western influence—was declared bourgeois; and feminist perspectives that address gender differences and identities were shunned. The All-China Women’s Federation, for example, was the only national forum for women but it lacked autonomy and was largely an instrument for CCP’s supervision of local women’s associations. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), class struggle was re-emphasized as the key to resolving all social problems and in that context gender as a significant social category was rejected. Magazines such as Women of China were attacked and the Women’s Federation was disbanded. It was not until the late 1970s that the Women’s Federation was reconstituted at the national level. Thus, many Western feminist writers argue that class, rather than gender, was the Maoist state’s main concern.
The Maoist version of gender equality did not change the fundamental ideology of patriarchy. Opportunities for the labour market, higher education, Party membership and administrative jobs continued to be biased towards men. While the state denied gender division of labour on the ideological level, women’s responsibility for the home continued unquestioned and such work was uncompensated and devalued. Motherhood and childcare were largely ignored in political and public discourses.
Two parallel but seemingly opposing trends characterize the post-Mao period. First, increased numbers of Chinese women have begun to create their own ideas about feminine identity and a collective awareness of feminist perspectives has gradually come into being. Concerns over mistreatment of women and other gender issues have gained visibility in public discourse. Increasingly, Chinese intellectuals have accessed Western works and some have been influenced by Western feminist perspectives. Scholars at the Institute of Sociology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, for example, have published many papers and books on gender roles and relations. The term ‘gender’ does not have a direct equivalent in the Chinese language, and among Chinese scholars it is commonly translated as ‘social sex’ (shehui xingbei), which emphasizes the social contexts in which gender identity is constructed. In terms of legislation, the enacting of the Marriage Law in 1981 and its recent revisions in 2001 expanded further the rights of women in relation to marriage, divorce and property (see Marriage Law of the PRC (1 January 1981) and revisions (2001)). In 1995, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, highlighting China’s potential in improving women’s status.
Despite the above changes, patriarchal ideology continues to be prevalent. The gender gaps in educational and occupational attainment remain large. The state has retreated from an explicit gender agenda and taken on a developmentalist role (see two studies, two competitions; women’s quality; women’s work). By doing so, it emphasizes policies for productivist goals, including those endorsing gendered practices that disadvantage women, rather than policies focusing on women’s interests. The economic reforms that promote market forces have legitimized discriminatory practices in the labour market, such as sexist hiring policies, higher rates of layoffs for women workers, and earlier retirement age for women. The one-child policy legitimizes the state’s surveillance of women’s bodies, invades their privacy and penalizes fertility. The social vulnerability of mothers and daughters, the deterioration in the treatment of women, and the traditional preference for sons are further reinforced as most parents, especially those in urban areas, have only one chance to produce a son. Distorted sex ratios and systematic evidence of excessive deaths of girls depict escalation of female infanticide, especially in rural areas. In addition, the Household Responsibility System signifies changes in power dynamics in rural households. Rather than being part of a commune, women are now likely subordinate to men in the household as the husbands take on the role of the household head when negotiating with village authorities. Relaxation of migration restrictions (see migration and settlement patterns) has made it possible for peasants to work in cities, but married rural women are largely bound to the village, thus reinforcing the feminization of agriculture. The age-old inside-outside dichotomy and the notion that women belong to the domestic sphere have once again gained popularity. The ‘iron girls’, for example, have become a subject of merciless mockery; while nüqiangren—literally strong women and referring specifically to capable and/or professional women (see nüqiangren, chiruanfan)—are socially discouraged.
Barlow, Tani (ed.) (1993). Gender Politics in Modern China: Writing and Feminism. Durham: Duke University Press.
——(1997). ‘Women at the Close of the Maoist Era in the Polemics of Li Xianjing and Her Associates’. In Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd (eds), The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital. Durham: Duke University Press.
Gilmartin, Christina, Hershatter, Gail, Rofel, Lisa and White, Tyrene (eds) (1994). Engendering China: Women, Culture, and the State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [Part IV ‘Becoming a Woman in the Post-Mao Era’: Li, Ziyun, ‘Women’s Consciousness and Women’s Writing’; Tani Barlow, ‘Politics and Protocols of Funü: (Un) Making National Woman’; and Li, Xiaojiang, ‘Economic Reform and the Awakening of Chinese Women’s Collective Consciousness’.]
Liu, Lydia (1993). ‘Invention and Intervention: The Making of a Female Tradition in Modern Chinese Literature’. In Ellen Widmer and David Der-Wei Wang (eds), From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth Century China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 194–220.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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