Women’s Roles Feminism and the Culture of Resistance in China
Introduction – What is Feminism?
Feminist activism has been challenging to incorporate in Chinese society because women have been depicted inconsistently by the Chinese government for many years. The government aims to “be progressive in many respects, whilst simultaneously seeking to repress and control efforts to further gender equality.” According to author Lydia H. Liu, “China has enslaved women and forced them into submission for many thousands of years.” Majority of Chinese women have been and still are being restricted and pressured by the government, set back economically, and negatively influenced by societal norms and beauty standards.
The restrictive government in combination with the outdated belief system engrained in Chinese culture has caused many setbacks for women to gain power. “After the Opium War, Western Culture, including feminism, began flowing into China through the influence of Western missionaries.” Feminism is the ideological movement that aims at establishing political, economic, and social rights of women or more simply, the belief that men and women are equal. Confucianism caused the gender binary to become more drastically opposing and made expectations for women more extreme. Women are still facing the harsh realities of the socially ingrained Confucian values today.
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The Basis – Confucianism and its Effect on Women
Confucianism has caused trouble for women in China because its values were applied literally rather than metaphorically. Chinese people used duality and Confucian teachings to explain the entirety of human society. The currently popular symbol of yin yang caused major inequality. The concept of yin and yang explained the duality of light and day, sun and moon, woman and man. Unfortunately, since yin represented femininity, women were associated to weakness, passivity, and darkness.
As Fan Hong puts it, “dualism might be an insightful concept” but in this situation it “left women with negative and inferior characteristics.” After Confucianism became the dominating doctrine of Chinese society, appreciation of the human body became non-existent. For men, it was forbidden to expose large portions of their body, and even traditional Chinese sports were adjusted to be more aesthetically appropriate. However, “even stricter rules applied to women.” The lower status of women was socially accepted and unchallenged by a large amount of the population.
One clear reason as to why this would be is because men benefited from the socio economic system in place. Moreover, men were taught that their children as well as grandchildren were their property. Due to this, “multiplying his progeny” was considered a strategy for wealth and abundance. From a man’s perspective, women were only there to nurture his seeds and give him sexual gratification. In fact, many Chinese men referred to their wives as neiren, “person of inner chamber.” To keep women under the authority of Confucian thought, foot binding became a standard of femininity. Foot-binding goes back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-24AD) and became fashionable between the Fire Dynasty and start of the Song Dynasty.
To achieve the “golden lily” foot, girls ages 4 to 5 would put their feet into hot water and clip their toenails very short. Their feet would then be massaged and oiled. After this most of her toes would be broken and wrapped into a triangle shape with a silk strip that was around ten feet long and two inches wide. A small foot represented the height of female purification. The most desirable foot for a bride was a three-inch foot, known as a “golden lotus.” A four-inch foot was called a “silver lotus” but women with feet five inches were dismissed and not desired as marriage prospects. Foot binding was a very prominent and long-lived practice despite all of the pain that it caused. Foot size was a means of achieving upward mobility.
Although this concept was problematic, it was believed that the richer one was, the less they had to do on their feet. A good wife was not supposed to desire anything other than serving her husband and her only ambition was to produce a son. Women were not even allowed to remarry if widowed, meaning that her only purpose and sense of worth was tied to one man. She depended on him for simple tasks. Foot binding, although advertised and praised as a beauty standard, was secretly a system enforced to prevent women uprising her weak role and low position in society.
Expectations Of Women Throughout Dynasties
Various texts and documents were being written on women during the Han Dynasty. The archetype of Chinese women in these texts stripped women of human tendencies, dignity and personality therefore dehumanizing them. Chinese society created moral as well as political institutions that separated man from woman (nannü). The commonly agreed upon concept was that men and women were as different as heaven and earth.
Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan from the Han Dynasty tended to emphasize the separation between men and women by stated that “wom[en] should not concern [themselves] with the outside world.” Zheng has also been quoted saying that since men are the equivalent of yang, they will benefit the country while contrastingly “the woman is the yin, and when she schemes she disrupts the country.” Women were and still are often blamed for disruption and chaos because Chinese society does not regard them as capable to help the state.
Another text, named the Book of Songs, stated that “It will be theirs neither to do wrong nor to do good, / Only about the spirits and the food they have to think.” In other words, a woman is not meant to control nor take charge. At no age can she depend on herself. Ban Zhao, the first female Chinese historian reiterates themes from a women’s virtue book, The Mother of Mencius. Ban Zhao shares three customs of an unchanging path for women.
Chinese women were told to put up with humility, “put others first and oneself last, never mentioning one’s own good deeds or denying one’s own faults, endur[e] insults and… mistreatment.” Women also were required to work late and get up early, accomplish everything well and give no excuses. The final custom that women needed to abide by was to satisfy her “husband-master” by upholding the “appropriate demeanor, keep [her]self clean and pure, never jok[e] or laug[h].” The rules given to women set them up for failure. They were solely allowed to put themselves through stress and were given the impossible task of making everyone other than themselves happy.
Sadly, women were forced to follow these essential guidelines to avoid ruining their reputations or be shamed by their peers and family. Throughout the Tang Dynasty, more books about women and their mannerisms in society were influencing the Chinese population. In Analects for Women, Song Ruozhao explains, “when walking, don’t turn your head; when talking, don’t open your mouth wide; when sitting, don’t move your knees … Do not be on familiar terms with men outside the family … Establish your proper self so as to become a true human being.” This citation gives a clear example of how specific the expectations were for women. Women were told to behave for the comfort of others in exchange to be seen as “a true human being.”
It is therefore implied that women were inhumane unless groomed, constantly filtered, and seeing themselves through other people’s eyes. Women were urged to keep themselves presentable which made aging or “backwardness” a very hard fact to accept. Their beauty as in their smooth skin, silky hair, and health, fade with age. This unfair idea of “backwardness” stems “from the pressure and desire to marry, have children, and cling to old Confucian ways of treating one’s husband… something deeply rooted within the mentalities of the Chinese people.”
Ding Ling explains that when women with the ability to work sacrificed their careers for motherhood, they were always praised. No matter how hard they try to reject these expectations, many women still find themselves conflicted between motherhood and working. Women and The Communist Party It is argued by Freiner that Chinese Communism was not open or beneficial to women because the “party’s policies towards women were based on expediency” or convenience. This claim is incorrect. It is more accurate to argue that Confucianism and communism both perpetuated a system of patriarchy and male importance.
The CCP’s rules regarding women were not exclusive, they just did not support the women’s liberation movement because they needed to be consistent. In order to gain popularity there needed to be a neutral ground regarding political stances; in this way Communism did definitely perpetuate patriarchy. However, there are other things the CCP did that allowed women to change their position in society. Early during the Communist era, many changes regarding the circumstances for women were occuring.
Although, “women still had… the double burden of working in the workforce [while also] taking care of children and cooking in the home, the fact is that the Communist Party mobilized women and assigned them jobs, either in the cities or … in the fields, [thus bringing] women out of the confinements of the household.” This meant that female labor force participation was the highest in the world during the early communist era in China.”
As for more recently, “unlike the Western feminism initiated by grassroots activists, modern Chinese feminism began as a state policy. Since Communist Revolution of 1949, women’s rights have been driven by the party ideology that women’s equal participation” is needed to advance China. Women’s Health One major issue women in China are facing and have been affected by for years is the mistreatment and the government’s dictation of their health. The Chinese government made hundreds of women suffer through forced sterilization.
Many rural women had an intrauterine device forcibly put in their bodies. And most of them were unaware that they were supposed to have the IUD taken out of their bodies because it causes a lot of inflammation and doesn’t offer any help. After 10 or 20 years, when those women reached their 50s or 60s the IUD starts to negatively affect their bodies and it would be too late for them to take it out, the IUD will have already grown into their body. Despite the fact that the one-child policy has been removed, women’s health and choices they make with their bodies are still being regulated.
An example of this is the one child policy. Xiaowen Liang explained if a couple were aware that they weren’t having a boy, “they would try anything to abort the girl and if they cannot have an abortion they will just throw away the baby like it is an object, like it is disposable.” For the past 35 years the Chinese Government has told their people how families should look, and providing one socially acceptable mold for couples to follow. “Thirty-five years of state-sponsored violence against women, including coerced abortions and involuntary sterilizations, in the name of population control.”
Years and years of crimes “enabled by pro-abortion, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations Population Fund, or the UNFPA.” Women’s houses were taken down if they wanted to give birth to a second child and women would be fired from work especially if they worked for a state-run enterprise. Around 40 million women and girls are missing from the population due to this horrid policy. “A policy that can only be accurately described as gendercide; the extermination of the girl child in society—simply because she happens to be a girl.”
Since the abolishment of the one child policy, the two child has been enforced. Women in China are actually being urged to have more children and raise the population, as if that is their only purpose. Chinese women are facing many issues regarding their personal choices and the government’s restrictions. Single women without a valid “reproduction permit” from the government are routinely denied birth certificates for their children. In continuation, if women cannot produce a marriage certificate upon giving birth, they are frequently charged with a “social maintenance fee” for violating Chinese family planning policies.
Women who had a child out of wedlock would be fined around RMB 80,000 which is about 4 times the average annual income in Wuhan (around $13,000 at the time). On another note, under current regulations, freezing eggs and using assisted reproductive technology is illegal in China. And so, some some single women who want children in the future have needed to travel abroad in order to freeze their eggs.
Current Issues Women in China Are Facing
According to expert Xiaowen Liang, there are three major issues that urban women in China, from all backgrounds are focused on or experiencing. The first issue is the increasing population of women. Since of the birthrate in China has been decreasing, the party and the government encourage women to give birth to more babies, and now the government as well as society is emphasizing women’s role within the family. Many single women, specifically between the ages of 20s and 40s, are being urged to get married by not only their family but also their employers or their colleges. If they do not get married soon enough they will be called “leftover women.”
The concept of leftover women has been also been discussed in Leta Hong Fincher’s book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. According to Fincher, the derogatory term “leftover” women or shengnü is a source of stress and pressure for urban women to settle down and leave stop working as much in their professional field. The Chinese word sheng, generally is used to describe rotten food that needs to be thrown away. Leta mentions that the irony of the leftover campaign is that men have taken part in “rioting, stealing and gang fighting” because they cannot find wives, however the reason for the unbalanced ratio of men to women is due to the one child policy (which favored baby boys).
The second major issue regards gender discrimination within the workforce. Many employers tend not to hire women due to the two child policy enforced on women. From an employers perspective women employees cost more because they would take a lot of maternity leave which unlike the U.S., is paid for as long as three months. The third issue that Chinese feminists have been focused on is the #MeToo Movement in China.
Many young women are sexually harassed by their teachers, professors, and their super advisors at work, but there is no effective and efficient anti-harassment movement. TIME Magazine explores the Me Too Movement in Asia and reports that “while China’s movement has borrowed the hashtag, others have used their movements to address deeply-entrenched inequalities, including access to abortion, domestic abuse and murder.
In Asia, #MeToo isn’t just synonymous with sexual harassment and assault.” A group of female activists called the Feminist Five were detained for “provoking trouble” after planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transportation. Leta H. Fincher claims that “these political activists spent years making the ground fertile for the blossoming of the #MeToo movement in China today.” Xi Jinping – Women’s Lives Under His Presidency China’s current president, Xi Jinping, also referred to by his “Xi Dada” views patriarchal authoritarianism as critical for the survival of the Communist Party.
As Leta Hong Fincher has said, “Taiwan has a female president. Even Hong Kong has a female chief executive. But … the Communist party would have to collapse before… a woman [was] leading China as a country,” said Leta Hong Fincher. Chinese propaganda under Xi’s leadership has reawakened the sexist elements of Confucianism. Specifically the notion that a traditional family, a marriage between a man and a virtuous, obedient woman, is the foundation of a stable government.
Feminism in America vs Feminism in China
One major difference between feminism in China and feminism in America is the freedom of speech and press. Many activists in China are having a difficult time advocating for themselves through online outlets, social media, and public protests because of censorship issues. The question is why would the government censor this form of activism. There are a few major reasons why the government would be afraid of this movement. A primary one being that China’s feminists are astute activists and have an organizational backbone.
The Chinese government tolerates occasionally tolerates nationalist protests and labor strikes but feminism is much larger. In addition, China’s feminists expose facts and unfair, questionable aspects of Chinese systems. For example, in certain Chinese institutions, “women scored 65 points higher on an entrance exam than men admitted to the same program.” When even a half-point difference could lead to entrance denial, this type of exposure could be a possible breaking point for social chaos. Lastly, the government is afraid that feminists will communicate with labor activists because if this happens then the feminist platform grows dramatically.” Feminists could tap into a much larger network of more than 280 million migrant workers, 34 percent of which are women.”