In recent years, gender issues have become a popular issue for discussion on Chinese social media discourses. For the last installment of our Panel Introduction series we turn to Feminism: how should we understand contemporary Chinese feminism? OCF’s Yizhuo Emma Wang and Qifeng He are sharing their insights on feminism today.
Panel Directors’ Interview
Q1: What was your first exposure to feminism?
Qifeng: I actually began questioning the idea of fixed gender roles since childhood; as a kid, I thought that the idea that boys should be masculine and girls feminine was quite odd and couldn’t figure out why things were like that. Later on I went to school abroad and gained some systematic understanding of gender issues in secondary school. I went to a boys’ high school and remember that our politics course had a unit on feminism. This was both to knock some excessive machismo out of us 18-year-old teenage boys, and also to show us that if we fail to consider the perspective of women, we cannot truly understand complexities in global issues. Without thinking about gender, our perception of the world will always be partial. This is something that really resonated with me. The knowledge base from school helped me discover how feminism concretely relates to everyone’s lives, so that I started proactively learning and caring about feminism in the real world.
Emma: I don’t remember exactly when I was first exposed to this topic, but I distinctly remember gaining some deep insight into feminism issues through a class conference in Grade 11. My classmates and I planned a conference around International Women’s Day and read some commentary articles around the topic, like the origins of IWD, etc. I found out that though we’ve known about IWD and celebrated it ever since we were kids, very few people really understand its history; especially in recent years, with commercialization and being co-opted by anti-feminist rhetoric, IWD has largely lost its original meaning. These discoveries made me more interested in feminist issues.
Q2: Why are you interested in feminism?
Qifeng: Many people think that feminism is for women only. They think that men gaining interest in feminism is a kind of ‘male feminization’; to put it in crass terms, male feminists are considered ‘sissy’. This is very much a stereotype.
(cont.) I care about feminism, because too many women face challenges and inequality purely due to irrational sexism. In order to reduce inequality, I believe I too have a duty to help improve our status quo.
(cont.) This next point may sound a little selfish, but I believe that feminist issues are also closely related to men’s benefits and rights. Gender stereotypes also restrict men’s lives. Without the ability to consider issues from the perspective of women, you can’t truly understand and support your partners; this means that your knowledge of many issues in the world is incomplete as well. If you indoctrinate your children with gender stereotypes, this can limit children’s personal development and contribute to sexism.
(cont.) As a result, I think that even us men have plenty of reason to care about feminism.
Emma: I was lucky to have been raised in a family and school environment that promoted gender equality, so I rarely faced gender discrimination while growing up. However, after I started caring about social issues, I found out about countless cases of women facing inequality in the workplace, their families, or larger society; sexual crimes, domestic violence, and employment discrimination are all too common. On a macroscopic level Chinese women still face great challenges, whether in the lack of women in politics or in rural women’s unequal access to education. As a result, I believe that our society should care more about these issues; regardless of gender, we should all amplify feminism and work against gender inequality.
Q3: The online feminist movement is often rather divorced from real life; highly divisive gender issues or events that ignite huge controversy on the internet can often receive little to no attention in real life. How does this divide affect the development of Chinese feminism?
Qifeng: I’m not sure if this quote is particularly apt here, but someone once said that ‘we should ask yes-or-no first, and why later.’ While it’s true that the internet is separate from real life, I don’t think gender issues are as unheard-of in real life as we might think. Feminism contains a huge range of diverse topics, which internet arguments often fail to capture in my opinion.
(cont.) From the most obvious issues like gendered relationships to education, families, careers, and identity, gender inequality affects all these aspects of society; as a result, gender connects all these seemingly disparate topics, which everyone experiences in real life.
(cont.) At the same time, we have to acknowledge that while online debates can get extreme, they don’t come from nowhere. The anonymity of the internet, and the sense of distance between individuals it creates, has made online arguments more extreme than necessary. However, the fact that debate exists shows that some people do feel that their real-life privileges are being threatened.
(cont.) To an extent, the internet’s growing attention towards feminism does point to the fact that as a society, we are gaining more understanding of gender issues. I worry that because issues spread so quickly online, after some time people’s perception of feminism (especially its internal diversity) will become warped and inaccurate. They might subconsciously associate feminists with stereotypes like extremism and ‘feminazis’, which would harm the movement.
Emma: I strongly agree. I feel that in the last year, even with restrictions on speech, the Chinese internet has paid unprecedented attention to feminist issues, and it has truly crossed into different social classes and spaces to elevate a variety of voices.
(cont.) As an online community, we grieved the tragedies experienced by impoverished women like Fang Yangyang and Lhamo. We saw diverse perspectives being offered on issues like the right to pass down surnames, period poverty, and the social value of stay-at-home mothers. In 2020’s most high-profile sexual assault case, Xianzi‘s commitment to defending rights in her lawsuit and the enthusiasm amplified by ‘Friends of Xianzi’ have revitalized #MeToo three years after it entered China. I think the internet provided crucial space for these developments: although anonymity can make it hostile at times, we can’t deny that online activities can influence real life. I believe that for many people, their real-life experiences in gender issues led them to fervently discuss feminism on the internet.
(cont.) I think what we need to do is to find reasonable viewpoints among different voices, as well as maintaining our own critical thinking. We should not egg on online tirades without understanding the actual issues at hand.
Q4: Going back to the point about negative stereotypes associated with feminism, sometimes netizens mock 女权 (nüquan, feminism) as 女拳 (nüquan, ‘woman fist’ — the Chinese equivalent for ‘feminazi’). Others say that feminists’ actions are excessive and ‘overcorrect’ the issue of sexism. However, it’s possible that such reactions are due to people’s sensitivity, especially since feminism has been neglected for so long in China. Is there a clear difference between the tianyuan (grassroots, militant) feminism often disparaged online, and feminism in general?
Qifeng: This is certainly a controversial issue. First of all, I think that so-called tianyuan, or militant/radical feminism should be included in discussions around Chinese feminism, because fundamentally it is still concerned with feminist issues. Secondly, I think the existence of militant feminists is reasonable: just as you said, the emotionally charged nature of militancy has much to do with long-term neglect of feminist issues.
(cont.) However, I think Chinese militant feminism is also quite unique. This might partially be due to my lack of knowledge about feminism advocacy offline, but I feel that so-called tianyuan feminism is largely a product of the contemporary internet. The internet is good at highlighting individualism, whereas in real life we have to relate to others on a social level.
(cont.) As a result, it’s easy for us to become divorced from reality while online and start discussing issues we’re too scared to talk about in real life, especially by communicating in highly emotional or individualistic ways. This is how the concept of tianyuan feminism came to be. Participation in tianyuan feminist discourse thus gave many people a space to vent and express personal opinions, away from social limitations.
(cont.) On the other hand, this separation from social realities also makes tianyuan-feminist topics very divorced from real-life gender issues. I think that the most important thing is to not equate this one sect of Chinese feminism with the entirety of the movement, lest we fail to understand the topic in a holistic way.
Q5: Relatively speaking, Western countries have made greater strides in accepting and promoting feminism. From a historical viewpoint, how did these countries come to where they are today? What lessons might Chinese feminists take from their Western counterparts?
Emma: This is a very academic problem and I’m not very familiar with the history side, so I can only share my own somewhat superficial understanding.
(cont.) In high school I studied American history, which covered a few key episodes in the development of Western feminism. The first wave of American feminism at the beginning of the 20th century was concerned with women’s right to vote. In the 1970s, second-wave feminism came alongside the Civil Rights Movement: women demanded liberation from the ‘domestic sphere’ and equal rights in politics and economics. Authors like Betty Friedan, who wrote The Feminine Mystique, were significant in this movement. The recent miniseries Mrs. America told this history from the perspective of Phyllis Schlafly, a prominent opponent of feminism, which was really fascinating. Third-wave feminism started in the 1990s and focussed more on feminism’s intersectional concerns with race, class, and culture; it emphasizes inclusivity and women’s independence. The rise of #MeToo in Hollywood and beyond has been interpreted by some as a fourth wave of feminism.
(cont.) Taking cultural and political differences into consideration, we can’t directly copy the history of Western feminism in the Chinese movement. I want to highlight that in the history of modern China there were many remarkable feminists as well, who contributed great efforts to gender equality in different periods. As a young person today, we don’t get many opportunities to learn about their stories in school or through popular media. I think that if more youths in China can learn about the history of Chinese feminism, we’ll be able to find more answers to contemporary problems while in conversation with the past.
Q6: How did you go about designing this Panel, and what do you hope to achieve?
Qifeng: Personally, I have two aims for this Panel.
(cont.) The first is rooted in the fact that online controversies around feminism often paint a very incomplete image of feminists. Internet discussions do not fully reflect the diversity and meaning of the feminist movement, and this incomplete image is a significant impediment to society’s understanding of feminism. We hope to use this platform to reorient the concept and help more people comprehensively approach feminism.
(cont.) The second is that we hope to show more people the importance of paying attention to feminist topics. Feminism is inseparable from our lives. To a certain extent, only when we see that feminism is relevant to every aspect of our lives can we truly normalize attention to feminism, thereby making gender equality a norm in society.
Emma: Our theme this year is ‘Today’s Youth, Tomorrow’s World’. I think that as a young person today, we should examine issues in China with reason and tolerance. The issue of gender inequality has been lurking around every corner of society for too long. We wanted to invite academics who study feminism and activists in the movement to talk to young people about how to correctly approach feminism, as well as how to practically amplify its message in our daily life, so that more people join in efforts to dismantle sexism.
We often see feminists denigrated as ‘woman fist’ or ‘feminazis’, reflecting an increasingly extremist slant in society’s attention to feminism. Feminist topics are often emotionally charged and rife with bias: some can’t discuss feminism without bringing up ‘militancy’ or ‘gender conflict’. Such controversies seemingly dominate Chinese society’s contemporary feminist discourse, and it may seem that reasonable voices are being pushed to the margins. At the same time, oversized attention to controversies distracts us from paying attention to concrete issues like #MeToo, access to sanitary products, sex education, surrogacy, and sexual assault in workplace and educational settings.
In a time when everyone seems to be discussing, supporting, or repudiating feminism, the concept itself is losing clarity. An incomplete understanding of feminism harms the movement. We hope to use OCF2021’s Feminism Panel to reorient feminism as a concept and introduce more people to the Chinese feminist project, so as to help feminism in China grow healthily. In lieu of a singular traditional narrative of feminism, we will approach it as social phenomenon, history, academic study, and activism, and consider what we can do as young people.