As part of the Observer’s celebration of political classics that have shaped the modern era, The Guardian recently published a list of the top ten best feminist texts. From Simone Beauvoir’s quintessential The Second Sex to Roxanne Gay’s fourth-wave Bad Feminist, it struck me that none of these exceptional works of literature articulated Asia’s progress in this front.
Western models of feminism have dominated the conversation for decades, with only cursory attention given to the Asian narrative. This has been fuelled in part by tepid success in importing the same progressive ideals into a region so typified by myriad cultures and religions.
These distinctions have deterred many Western feminists from speaking publicly on gender issues in Asia. American political activist Naomi Wolf, known for her controversial Beauty Myth, stated her desire “not to impose Western feminism” on other cultures in a 2014 interview. But such complexities should not encourage silence — instead, they should serve to inspire more dynamic discussion.
Interestingly, feminism in China began as early as the Qing dynasty, which saw the country’s first women’s magazine, Nubao, or ‘Women’s Newspaper’, being set up in 1899. It espoused five goals: abolish the cruel practice of foot-binding, educate girls, establish the freedom to marry, grant access to employment, and attain gender equality.
The Chinese Communist Party, notorious for its intolerance of civil liberties, has long had a tenuous relationship with feminism. Once a locomotive in the post-dynastic era, the Party is now mired in controversy due to its discriminatory policies and austere handle on activism. Yet, with rising education levels and emerging openness, contemporary values surrounding gender parity have gained traction among China’s young.
Half the sky, but half the promise Mao’s famous proclamation that “women hold up half the sky” manifested as the underpinning of modern Chinese feminism. At the outset of the Communist Revolution of 1949, female emancipation was driven largely by party ideology. Women, the Party posited, needed to have equal participation in the economy and society to advance the nation. Female rights consequently rode on the node of communist values and the capital market system.
The heritage of Marxist feminism was exacted as a counter to Confucian tradition, which has been an impediment to similar movements in other Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea. The Party’s introduction of the Marriage Reform Law in 1950, which abolished forced marriage, bride price, concubinage and child betrothal, was symbolic of its prioritisation of women’s rights.
Yet, it seems that gender parity and equal participation have only been promoted insofar as they benefit the Party and its nationalistic agenda. Just three years after its implementation, the Chinese government abandoned the Marriage Reform Law in the wake of backlash from conservatives, comprising mostly men. The inconvenient elements of feminism took a back seat to the Party’s need for collective adherence.
Deng Xiaoping’s introduction of market-oriented economic reforms brought about a new set of challenges. Once enrolled in the state-controlled economy, women endured severe discrimination in the marketplace and society. They were paid less than their male counterparts, more likely to be laid off, and subjected to occupational segregation. At home, domestic violence was rife.
As contemporaries traced the regression in women’s position in both public and private domains, discontent deepened. Marxist state feminism, now merely another apparatus of social control, had grown obsolete for the modern Chinese woman.
A great leap forward? Fast-forward half a century and the social landscape is vastly different, particularly in urban cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Despite the lingering influence of Confucian-informed customs, pop culture and social media have seen the feminist agenda take strides of its own.
Ode to Joy, a wildly popular pink drama, has broached a range of controversial topics, including sex, sexism and social status. Likened to a less risqué take on Sex and The City, the show centres around five young women from different backgrounds, who are neighbours on the same floor of a high-rise apartment situated in Shanghai.
It made headlines in May with a scene in which one of the characters, Qiu Yingying, faces an emotional quandary after her boyfriend, Ying Qin, discovers that she is not a virgin. Ying Qin pronounces her lack of chastity as “disgraceful”, and ends the relationship. The scene, which reflected the tension between traditional Chinese values and modern living, set off polarising debates on online forums.
Japanese skincare brand SK-II has also addressed parochial elements in its #ChangeDestiny campaign. In April last year, its Marriage Market Takeover film chronicled the age-old pressures on Chinese women to get married by a certain age.
By traditional standards, unmarried women over the age of 25 are labelled as sheng nu, which literally translates to ‘leftover women’. The film alludes to the Shanghai Marriage Market, a weekend market established in 2004, in which parents trade information on their children in hopes of finding a suitable partner for their child.
“As opposed to [the negativity surrounding] the term ‘leftover women’, I have a great career,” a young lady says firmly in the film after declaring her desire for independence to her parents. “There’s now another expression, called ‘power women’.”
Marriage Market Takeover went viral on social media: just days after its release, it generated more than 20,000 views on its official Sina Weibo account and more than 100,000 views on WeChat. The official YouTube video has racked up more than 2.5 million views. The campaign’s following instalment, The Expiry Date — making reference to the proverbial expiry date on young Pan-Asian women — extended the conversation to Japanese and South Korean conservatism, with similar approval levels.
With great power comes great paranoia At a macro level, the outlook for gender equality is still far from rosy. As of last year, China ranks 99 out of 144 countries in a global index measuring gender equality, a slip from its previous posting at 91. While Chinese women are, on average, more educated, financially independent and politically active, gains in these aspects do not mean better relative standing.
A simple Google search on feminism in China also produces a host of depressing headlines, detailing activists being threatened, detained or jailed for kindling social movements.
Despite positioning the nation as a champion of gender equality, President Xi Jinping has demonstrated little tolerance for civic action. Anything with an organisational backbone has also come under disproportionate scrutiny or oppression.
In 2015, the Communist Party detained five activists — now dubbed the Feminist Five — for over a month without charge. The Five had plans to commemorate International Women’s Day by handing out stickers to educate people about sexual harassment on public transportation. The move caught international attention and was condemned by former U.S. Secretary of States John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. Early this year, the Weibo account, Feminist Voice, was allegedly banned for a month for reporting on the Women’s March in the U.S.
From proverb to practice The Party’s dogmatic stance has signaled strongly of its ambivalence towards humanistic appeal. Yet, on the basis of sheer pragmatism, it is important for China to devote sufficient attention to the feminist agenda.
At a time when China is scrambling to find new domestic drivers of economic growth, advancing equal rights could pay off considerably. A 2016 report by the World Economic Forum projected that closing up the gender gap in education and opportunity could mean a US$2.5 trillion increase in the nation’s gross domestic product by 2020.
Valuing women would also tackle severely imbalanced birth rates, a byproduct of the government’s retired One-Child Policy, which amplified cultural preference for sons over daughters. The nation continues to record the most skewed gender ratio at birth globally, at 113.5 boys to 100 girls, with an estimated 20 to 34 million more boys born in the past three decades. Lurking in this trajectory is a major predicament for population development and social stability in coming years.
Another barrier to instilling a positive perception of women is to be found in disparate access to education. Chinese universities still cling to the practice of gender-based quotas and enrolment policies; women must score significantly better than men in competitive university entrance exams, also known as gaokao, to be admitted into certain courses, which include languages and the sciences. These rules, said by the Ministry of Education to be aligned with “national interest”, speak volumes about the systematic prejudice in policy-making.
In a country bound by stringent authority, policies that would hasten the closing of the gender gap and endorse a much needed cultural shift are in the gift of government. Elevating women to positions of power is a good starting point. While more female leaders may not necessarily mean gender parity, such concerns are unlikely to chart highly on the priorities of a male-dominated governing body.
Two days ago, the Communist Party announced its updated Central Committee, of which women make up only 10 of its 204 seats. That’s a meagre 4.9 per cent, quick math. Political empowerment persists in eluding a government that reaffirmed its “commitment to gender equality and women’s development” at a UN Women conference back in 2015. China needs to reconcile this gap to capitalise on the power of parity as fuel for its economic machine – and the rewards promise to be handsome.
Besides, by the looks of it, the other half of its population is ready to hold up its share of the sky.