[REVIEW] “What Does It Mean to Be a Feminist in China? Reviewing 𝐹𝑒𝑚𝑖𝑛𝑖𝑠𝑚𝑠 𝑤𝑖𝑡ℎ 𝐶ℎ𝑖𝑛𝑒𝑠𝑒 𝐶ℎ𝑎𝑟𝑎𝑐𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑖𝑠𝑡𝑖𝑐𝑠” by X. H. Collins

{Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Ping Zhu and Hui Faye Xiao (editors), Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics, Syracuse University Press, 2021. 408 pgs.

In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, on the shore where the Fu and Nan rivers meet to become Funan, or Jin, River, there is a famous pavilion, the Hejiang Ting (Pavilion Where the Rivers Meet), first built in the Tang Dynasty, about 1200 years ago. Near the pavilion is a public art piece, installed much more recently, a heart-shaped blue sculpture with the words “Pa Er Duo” 耙耳朵 etched on it. “Pa Er Duo” in Sichuanese means “soft ears,” referring to a husband who constantly obeys his wife. But he is more than just a henpecked man. He’s a happy henpecked man, and he indulges his wife proudly and willingly. Chengdu men, and Sichuanese men in general, are famous for having soft ears.

Pa Er Duo

I have no comments about the men in my family. What I can confirm is that they are all fantastic cooks and they take pride in serving food. We women don’t cook and don’t serve the men. Nowadays when I video-chat with my parents in Chengdu and catch them around lunch hours, my dad will be in the kitchen realising the menu my mom has planned. I was shocked when I came to the United States and found out that none of the men of my parents’ generation—baby boomers—knew how to cook. When their wives are not around, they can’t even make sandwiches for themselves.

My parents encouraged all three of their children to excel academically. I never once thought that being a girl meant that my bar was low. On the other hand, they also taught my sister and me “manners” that girls were supposed to follow. My father was “tougher” on my brother, the only boy, about anything physical. He would be waiting for me and my sister with umbrellas if it rained after school, but my brother had to fend off the rain himself. “You’re a boy,” my father would say. “You won’t melt.” My mother always emphasised the importance of “having your own money” for us girls.  

When I was much older, I realised that the way I was raised was a bit unusual for a Chinese girl. My parents did not enforce a specific gender role on me, even though they did differentiate their treatment of girls and boys, and believed that girls should have a certain “demure” manner. They did so not in a way to imply that girls were inferior to boys, but to elevate the self-confidence of me and my sister within the assumed society norm, perhaps with the hope that once we went out into the real world, the confidence would serve us well, and the “manners” would make us acceptable to a society that still prescribed ways for what women and girls “should” be. The environment I was in, Sichuan, where men take pride in being Pa Er Dou, was also a bit unusual.

Now, reading Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics, edited by Ping Zhu and Hui Faye Xiao, I find a label for what I observed in my father: he holds a “Chinese man’s local feminist viewpoint”, part of the “minjian” discourse, a theory suggested by scholar Xu Ping. According to the book (Chapter 1, Spakowski), Xu distinguishes between “mainstream”, “academic”, and “minjian” feminism discourses. Mainstream is the official stance on women’s liberation based on Mao Zedong Thought. The academic discourse is feminism imported from the west, while minjian refers to the “unofficial, local sense of being born and developed in China”, based on the lived experience of Chinese people. In her article “A Chinese Man’s Local Feminist Viewpoint”, from which I spun off my aforementioned label for my father, Xu portrays a man named Deng Dingjie, a “male scholar-cum-administrator” in none other than Sichuan province. Mr Deng worked to help women migrating from the poor Sichuan hinterland to the southern coastal province of Guangdong to work in the factories owned by international companies. To the ears of a Western feminist, this may sound like exploitation of Third World women, but Mr Deng considers his job a way of helping to liberate women by providing them with opportunities to “acquire skills and earn money”, which enhances their status in their local villages. I can picture any number of good-natured Sichuanese men I know as Mr Deng.

This seemingly paradoxical idea of “local feminist viewpoint” is an illustrating example of “Feminisms” with “Chinese Characteristics”, the two key elements of this volume, as Zhu and Xiao point out in their introduction. They started the book by deciphering these two key elements:

Chinese feminisms must remain plural because those concepts represent the changing practical consciousness in response to historical and social developments. Plurality is an effective strategy for subverting the systematic oppressions that often exercise their power by creating, maintaining, and consolidating binary structure.

On the other hand, “Chinese Characteristics”, since its inception by Westerners, most notably the American missionary Arthur Henderson, in the late nineteenth century, “presupposed a binary structure, be it East and West, traditional and modern, or socialist and capitalist”.

Thus, believing that “the strength of Chinese feminisms lies precisely in their plurality and in the plural Chinese characteristics that they simultaneously challenge and redefine”, the editors propose,

by juxtaposing the plural “feminisms” to “Chinese characteristics,” we intend to deconstruct the binary structures and patriarchal hierarchies embedded in history, language, race, culture, and politics….a broader use of “feminisms”…to contest and open up “Chinese characteristics” as a notion constrained by racisms, traditionalism, nationalism, or hierarchical spatialisation and biopoliticisation in different historical periods…

To accomplish this worthy and ambitious goal, the editors included twelve chapters in the volume that were grouped into three sections. Section one, Chinese Feminisms in the Age of Globalization, “delineate(s) the unique Chinese characteristics of contemporary Chinese feminisms at the interface of the local and the globe”. Section two, Chinese Feminisms on the Ground, centres on feminist struggles in practice. Section three, Chinese Feminisms in Women’s Literature, Art, and Film, covers “the literary, artistic, and creations and representations of contemporary Chinese feminisms”. The contributors are distinguished scholars, activists, writers, and journalists, who presented “scholarly articles, interviews, and talks”, and therefore “multiple voices, analyses, and interpretations of contemporary Chinese feminisms”, rather than “an authorial voice of any singular form of Chinese Feminism”.    

One example of this pluralistic thinking is to broadly define “feminism” as “the special search for different worlds and alternative possibilities other than global capitalism”, a definition proposed by the famed Chinese cultural critic Dai Jinhua. The book includes a 2015 interview with Dai (Chapter 4, Wu), on the topic of polygamy in contemporary China. That’s right, contemporary. Dai was neither shocked by the emerging idea that “only Confucianism can provide a home for modern women…and polygamy is reasonable in some ways”, because “these things have always appeared under different name”, nor was she indignant, “because indignancy is one of the most powerless emotions”. In her view, today’s New Confucianists “have resurrected so-called traditional views against the background of the rise of China and Chinese cultural consciousness”, without realising, or admitting, the “repeated destructions” of traditional culture. As for how the Chinese feminism movement is compared to feminism movements in the West, she considered China’s present reality a “condensed version of several hundred years of European history”, but she emphasises that the “fight of non-Western, non-white women…went beyond the boundaries of liberalism”. Unlike some new feminists today who dismiss the socialist women’s liberation movement as the mere conscription of women’s labour by the state apparatus, Dai acknowledges the “violent actions of the state” in abolishing arranged marriage and polygamy, and establishing gender equality, but pointed out its historical context, which was that women’s liberation must be subordinate to the liberation of the female workforce in the less-developed socialist countries.

If Dai’s view gives the reader a glimpse of a problem contemporary Chinese feminists face in trying to keep up with tradition and keep up with the Joneses (or maybe the Wangs), the other three chapters in section one enlighten readers about the history of Chinese feminisms and gender equality, and the influence of Western feminism, neoliberalism, nationalism, and masculinist populism on the ideas of feminisms in contemporary China, especially after the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing. I’m dazzled by the many terms (forms) of feminisms with Chinese characteristics, and I do not need further persuasion to appreciate the pluralistic nature of Chinese women’s issues. There is the “progressive modern Chinese feminism” at the turn of the twentieth century, initiated by educated liberal men, with eugenics as its core and national rejuvenation as its goal. There is the “state feminism” and “socialist feminism”, the formally institutionalised, top-down campaign to liberate women and improve women’s social status, literary rate, educational level, and workforce participation. There is the “post-socialist feminism” that stays away from the socialist and Marxist idea of gender equity in its pursuing and restoring “women’s real, natural, feminine, singularity”, whatever that may be, but for certain it will be “materialised” and “commodified” through “market-oriented consumer practices” in post-Mao China. There is the “local, regional feminism” that my father obviously subscribes to without ever knowing that he does. There is even the “smiling Chinese feminism”, concerning itself with “the harmonious development of the two sexes.”

One thing that strikes me is the linguistic limitations one must face up to in discussing “Chinese feminisms”. Scholars cannot reach a consensus on how to translate keys words such as “feminism” and “gender” into Chinese. Feminism has been translated as nüquan zhuyi 女权主义 (women’s-rights-ism) or nüxing zhuyi 女性主义 (womanism), and the two are not interchangeable. “Gender”, which entered the mainland Chinese lexicon in the 1990s, is an even bigger headache. Two competing translations exist: shehui xingbie, 社会性别, “supported by a universalist rhetoric”, and xingbie, 性别, “a truly indigenous concept”, the supporters of which believe that concepts and theories are “determined by their linguistic and cultural contexts and cannot be transferred to other context without distortion or even harm”. (Chapter 1, Spakowski). Could the linguistic limitations be part of the reason why countries with fundamentally different languages and cultures seem to be locked in perpetual contention? How much of Feminism, an idea initiated by middle-class white women, applies to a Chinese woman in a poverty-stricken rural area, or a Chinese woman who has migrated to the city to work? Even their situations can be quite different, despite one’s belief in commonalities of all women. Li Xiaojiang, who was among the first to bring Women’s Studies to Chinese universities, gave a hilarious account of how she deflated a Spanish TV host’s persistent question to her about one singular, the biggest, problem that Chinese women face in the face of globalisation. There is no singular problem (Chapter 2, Li). Li also said that “when Western feminists were still flying the banner of equality to seek equal rights in the society, Chinese women had already started to question the meaning of equality”, because, “if there are no free choices, equality is meaningless”, and there is no free choice if society still holds a very traditional view of how family relationships, family ideology, and gender roles within the family should be, especially for those who live in the subaltern strata of China, a class society (Zhong, Chapter 3).

The four essays from the first section of this book introduce us to the intellectual debate and discourse about Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics and lay the theoretical framework for sections two and three, which let the readers see how feminist theory is translated into feminist practice and represented in the arts. Section two includes the following discussions: the history of feminists movements in China and feminist struggles at each stage (Chapter 5, Wang); why mainland liberals don’t support feminism (Chapter 6, Li); and how Chinese feminists created their own linguistic tactics and discourse in adapting The Vagina Monologues for Chinese audiences (Chapter 7, Ke). Section three includes an interview with the famed writer Wang Anyi (Chapter 8, Liu) and a detailed study of the gender and labour themes in Wang’s novel Fu Ping (Chapter 9, Zhu); an account of Fan Yusu, an iconic figure in the Baomu, or domestic worker, literary genre and the grassroots feminism the genre represents (Chapter 10, Xiao. Fan was also mentioned in chapter 3 as an example of feminism in the light of class struggle); an analysis of Over 1.5 Tons, a feminist sculpture (some of its details consist the cover image of the book) that caused “subversive destruction and countermonumentality to the phallic archetype”; and feminist expression and representation in Hong Kong films. This wide range of depiction paints a comprehensive picture of feminisms as what matter to everyday women in China: the migrant workers, the college students and young professionals, the young girls holding signs to protest against sexual harassment in subway stations, the #MeToo generation, and the writers and artists who strive to have a voice.

It is not easy to be a feminist in China. In chapter 6, Li Jun points out that “enmity towards feminism…is a shared characteristics of the ideological trends” by the strange bedfellows of “China’s New Left, liberalism, and conservatism”. Why? Because mainland Chinses liberals are elitists who “continue to hold to their patriarchal, heterosexual, and pro-capitalist class position”. This is perhaps part of the reason Chinese writers like Wang Anyi, filmmakers like Ann Hui On-wah, and other female writers and artists refuse to call themselves “feminists” despite having consistently produced work with feminism themes, so they can avoid being the target of this collective enmity. Another reason may be the linguistic limitation mentioned above, which, when rendering the sound of “feminist”, how do I say this, just not “right”—it boxes you in. China is still a man’s world that considers a woman’s place to be the home. In 2013, President Xi Jinping said at a meeting, “special attention should be paid to women’s unique role in propagating Chinese family virtues and setting up a good family tradition. This relates to harmony in family and in society and to the healthy development of children. Women should consciously shoulder the responsibilities of taking care of the old and the young, as well as educating children”. (Chapter 5, Wang) Is it a coincidence, then, that at the recently concluded 20th People’s Congress, there were only eleven women out of the 205 committee seats, and not a single woman in the powerful Politburo?

Still, I see hope. I see hope in Chinese feminists’ ingenious approach to adapting and staging The Vagina Monologues across campuses in China. I see hope in the powerful slogans women fashioned against sexual harassment and the possibility of changing the blaming-the-victim culture: “It’s a Dress, Not a Yes,” and “Want to Flaunt, Not a Taunt,” direct rebukes of statements such as “Don’t dress skimpily if you want to avoid sexual assault”. (Chapter 7, Ke). I see hope in literature, from established writers like Wang Anyi and Zhang Jie (billed by Wang as the only self-proclaimed feminist writer in China), but also from Fan Yusu, a baomu, and her cohort of the Pichun Literature Group consisting of migrant workers at the outskirts of Beijing, whose work is made visible to the public because of the internet (Chapter 10, Xiao). I see hope in Jiang Jie’s Over 1.5 Tons, “a fallen giant on life support, a graphic reflection of the grave consequences of China’s socioeconomic madness”, in which the artist turned herself “into a phallic woman” and rendered “the phallic object into lack or loss” (Chapter 11, Cui). And I see hope in the feminist activism that used films as a powerful tool in Hong Kong, a unique place that’s not entirely Chinese, nor entirely Western, because of its history (Chapter 12, Marchetti).

In this book, Dai Jinhua was quoted as saying, “Today people like to cite Virginia Woolf’s statement that a woman must have ‘a room of her own’, but often overlook that in the next sentence Woolf also writes that a woman must have money”. My mom was right all along when she told my sister and me that we must have our own money. But what is my own money? Certainly I’m considered as having no money of my own now (sorry, mom), after an early retirement due to the pandemic and child-caring duties. If money is not only the value of productive labour applied at a workplace, but also the value of domestic services—doing laundry, running school car pools, taking kids to soccer practice and dental appointments, etc, etc—shouldn’t a stay-at-home mom like me be paid money? Who should pay me? Western feminists have pointed out that “productive labour” is a capitalist construct. Chinese women are in for some tough time on this notion. Not only do they have the newly rich capitalists, they also have the neo-Confucianists, the liberal intellectuals, and the Party leaders. All of these men want them to claim their “rightful place” at home as good mothers and wives, but no one is mentioning the monetary value of their “unproductive” domestic work. There needs to be, as Li Xiaoping points out in chapter 2, “a feminist revolution in the domains of family and everyday life”. There needs to be another generation of women like my mother, who know the importance of one’s own money and demand to be paid, or at least acknowledged and valued, for domestic services provided. There needs to be another generation of men like my father, allies who understand what equality means in China and who instigate the idea in their daughters. The young generation born in and after the 1980s, who have always known China as a free, open society despite its many problems, need to work hard to keep it free and open, so women can choose how they want to live, marrying or remaining single, loving men or women or both or neither, having children or not, working outside or inside of their homes, without being judged, harassed, shamed, or in any ways put down. To me, this is Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics at its core.


X. H. Collins was born in Hechuan, Sichuan Province, China, and grew up in Kangding on the East Tibet Plateau. She has a PhD in nutrition and is a retired biology professor. She is the author of the novel Flowing Water, Falling Flowers (MWC Press, 2020), and has published short stories and essays. She now lives in Iowa with her family. For more information, visit her website and follow her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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