The Evolution of Feminism in China

Media & Chinese Feminists




Feminism is defined simply as the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes and organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.” (Merriam-Webster). A feminist is defined as someone who supports feminism. Despite this fairly simple definition, people’s connection and identification with feminism is complex and varying. Some people make the argument that feminism is a Western invention, and is not applicable to other countries and situations. Others argue that feminism is for everyone.

For Chinese people, until the 2000’s, the word feminist hasn’t been used as an identity, or for political purposes. For this essay however, I argue that, if we use the most simple definition of feminism, meaning social equality of the sexes and activism on behalf of women’s rights, many women in China are feminists. Throughout the essay, I will be using the word ‘feminist’ in quotations to describe women who did not call themselves feminists, or identify as feminists, but is used by Wang Zheng in Creating a Socialist Feminist Cultural Front, to differentiate them from people not doing activist work. I will use the word feminist without quotations to describe women who use the word feminist to describe themselves or their activist work.

I will be examining the history of ‘feminist’ and feminist women from 1949-2017, and how they’ve used forms of media, like writing, social media, and newspapers/magazines, to challenge the Chinese government and society at large on women’s issues. I will also examine how feminism has changed through time, including the representation and diversity of women presented in ‘feminist’ media. Ultimately, I will examine how Chinese ‘feminist’/feminist actions through mass media have challenged government and official Party views on the roles of women in society, and women’s rights.

‘Feminists’ of New Socialist China (1949-1965)

In this period, many changes occurred in regards to women’s rights. In 1950, the Marriage Law legalized marriage, denounced patriarchal authority in the household, and granted equal rights to file for divorce. It was also at this time the All-China Women’s Federation was established by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to “mobilize women for economic development and social reform.” (Tsai 1996;500)

Zheng states, “the term ‘socialist state feminists’ refers to women Communist Party members in powerful positions who consciously promoted women’s empowerment and equality between men and women. Although many of these women may never have defined themselves as ‘feminist’, I use the term to distinguish them from Communists who had little commitment to gender equality…” (Zheng 2010; 827) The ‘feminists’ from the 1949-1966 period worked alongside the government to strive for gender equality. Their mission was to challenge male authority and power, through the Communist mission statements. It was because of their use of Party messaging that their feminist work and mission for gender equality was not overly challenged in return. As Zheng states, it was “...because of their faithful adherence to the Party’s mass line (qunxhong luxian), state feminists effectively created a public space that enabled diverse voices of women and men from different social and geographic locations to be heard.” (Zheng 2010; 828) These women were activists in a period of immense political changes in regards to women’s rights in the CCP.

Women of New China was a ‘feminist’ magazine that began in 1949, run originally by Zhou Enlai, Dong Bian and Hu Yuzhi (all of whom were members of the Chinese Communist Party.) The goal of the magazine was aimed to “help its readers correctly and comprehensively understand the way to achieve women’s liberation in new China….with the double theme of ‘participation’ and ‘liberation’, adopting the Party’s mass line as the guiding method, the magazine soon evolved into a public forum for state feminists to express their visions of a new socialist China as well as a major site for their discursive practice in the pursuit of women’s liberation.” (Zheng 2010; 833) Editors and content creators at Women of New China called on women to not only educate themselves on the issues that women face, but become active participants in their liberation. They utilized the Party’s mass line as the method in which to express their visions of a new socialist China, “as well as a major site for their discursive practice in the pursuit of women’s liberation” (Zheng 2010; 833)

Their content originally focused on urban women but, by May 1950, the urban-focused editorial pieces in Women of New China were challenged by the All-China Women’s Federation. The Federation held a special meeting to collect feedback from women, and at the top of the list was the allocation of more space in the magazine focusing on rural people. Thus, an important feature of Chinese women’s ‘feminism’ during this period actually ended up being attempts to provide more representation of both rural and urban women and men. Through attempts at improving literacy of rural women, changing the prices of the magazines (or allowing for exchanges; like one egg for a magazine), Women of New China slowly began to shift from only featuring urban women, to representing rural women as well.

One major shift was featuring rural working women on the cover and in other images throughout the magazine. Zheng states, “the constant appearance of such images on the cover conveyed a powerful message that women of the labouring class, or to use the widely circulated term at the time, laodong renmin (labouring people), were now the dignified masters of new China. Proudly adorned in peasant outfits when mixing with state officials or urban labour models, rural women exuded confidence and self-assurance.” (Zheng 2010; 837)

Showing rural women in a positive light shifted the ‘feminist’ movement to be more inclusive, and challenged the perception of rural women as being ‘backward’. This shift not only increased the diversity of women being portrayed, but helped urban women understand the different struggles of rural women. Overall, the magazine evolved to highlight both urban and rural women, aiming to reach all audiences to encourage women to become more educated, no matter their class or wealth status in society. They also could be highlighted as part of the contributing factor of why literacy rates rose from 10% in 1949 to 62% in 1996 (Tsai 1996;515) Ultimately, Women of New China represented a shift of increasing representation of the labouring class. It was through publications of the magazine where state ‘feminists’ utilized anti-feudalism, an item high on the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party at the time, to legitimize their activism. For example, “the rapid adoption of "feudalism" (fengjian zhuyi), "feudal thinking" (fengjian sixiang) or the abbreviation "feudal" (fengjian) with a gender inflection in everyday speech even by illiterate rural women attested to the considerable success of state feminists' strategy in the socialist state propaganda.” (Zheng 2010; 843) Their use of media combined with Party messaging resulted in a massive spread of woman-focused content, challenging opinions, and eliciting debates and conversations on women’s issues.

‘Feminists’/Feminists of the Cultural Revolution: (1966-1999)

In this period, due to increasing globalization, many women scholars and activists looked towards global feminism, the concept of women empowering women, and Non-Governmental Organizations, as a way to challenge Chinese government and authority, as well as patriarchal structures. Unlike the ‘socialist state feminists’, the ‘feminists’ of this era shifted away from following Party messages.

At this time, if women’s issues “became connected with the political interest of the government, then research on women could be defined as political. In the People’s Republic of China, ‘political’ means something relating to the interest, position, and power of the government. Anything viewed as political automatically invites regulation or surveillance buy the government. Politicizing research on women, therefore, could lead to the end of women’s activism, which had been left alone in previous years.” (Zheng 1996; 194) This was a concern for scholars and activists, who didn’t want their work to become criminalized and/or didn’t want to have the government interfering with their studies and work on women’s issues. Despite this, the ‘feminists’/feminists of the Cultural Revolution period coined a new phrase, which became their slogan.“‘Connect The Rails’ (jiegui, which means merge) with international women’s movements. The word feminism not only began to appear frequently in official women’s journals and newspapers, but also became a positive word. (Zheng 1996; 195) It was in this period that more women identified as feminists, and began to discuss what Chinese feminism was in contrast, or alongside, Western uses of the word feminism.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the scholars studying global feminism also attempted to address the taboo of feminist topics. Li Xiaojiang “sought to forestall the easy dismissal of women’s studies in China as Western or ‘bourgeois’, which would close off Chinese women from engagement with on-going transnational feminist discussions.” (Yang 1999; 59) Concurrently, with academia attempting to discuss feminism, feminist authors and scholars faced the challenges of publishing feminist-focused media. It was difficult to compete with mainstream publishing companies. In order to survive, feminist and women’s media ended up being housed “ state institutions such as universities, research institutes, and Women’s Federations…” (Yang 1999; 60) Despite this, Yang concludes that women’s media in print “is but a trickle compared to the tidal wave of masculine heterosexual desire.” (Yang 1999; 63) In this period, feminism thus remained a challenged or taboo topic and, despite an increase in feminist media, still faced difficulties in mainstream pop-culture and society.

The difficulties ‘feminist’/feminist scholars and activists faced were also met with dissent. In the 1980s, content in media called for the “return of women to household labor, especially by male economists.” (Yang 1999; 53) There was a negative response in regards to women being active in the economy and workforce, and many people felt like the women were abandoning their duties as wives and as mothers. However, “state organizations such as the powerful Propaganda Ministry of the Politburo and the Labor Ministry have maintained the principle of women in public labor, and the Women’s Federation lobbied vigorously in public editorials…” (Yang 1999; 53) against the traditional views of women being resigned to the private sphere and out of the workplace. Additionally, “the wealth of new journals, magazines, and radio and television talk shows in post-Mao China no longer just report the latest party meeting and industrial and agricultural production figures. Instead, these commercialized media have developed a keen interest in matters of everyday life, the domestic sphere, and questions of love, marriage, and sexuality, offering many opportunities for the discussion of women’s issues.” (Yang 1999; 55) The combination of globalization and an increase in women’s academia resulted in the media and scholars challenging the taboos of feminism. Though feminism and women’s studies were often met with negative responses from the public, this period resulted in Chinese academics and activists joining in the global discussions surrounding feminism and women’s rights.  

Feminists of Contemporary China (2000-2017)

Discordant to ‘feminists’ from 1949 until the late 1970’s, feminists of modern-day China specifically use the word feminist to describe themselves. From the increase in globalization, increasing connectivity through the Internet and social media, and more women with a university education, more Chinese women are identifying as feminists. The feminists from 2000 to present have continued to challenge the Party and fight for gender equality and feminist issues. Greenhalgh is critical of earlier ‘feminist’ movements, stating, “one of the first projects of China’s newly self-conscious feminists has been to articulate a critique of the gender discourses of the state feminism of the Maoist era. In the Maoist years (1949-76), the state drowned out women’s independent voices in a hegemonic state feminist discourse. The central narrative of that discourse was the women's liberation narrative, which credited socialism with emancipating Chinese women, in turn, liberating the nation from its humiliating weakness in the world.” (Greenhalgh 2001; 849) The feminists of the new socialist China are thus criticized for not effectively challenging the Party and instead having their message drowned out by government politics.

One of the most famous groups of feminists in 2017 in China are the Feminist Five, comprised of five women, who are heavily involved in activist demonstrations across China. They gained further notoriety in 2015, when “Li along with Wang Man, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong and Zheng Churan were detained for 37 days in 2015, after planning to distribute anti-sexual harassment stickers on the public transport systems in Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou on International Women's Day. (The event coincided with two major government conferences, which often involve stricter restrictions on public dissent.)” (Micner 2017). As Dissent Magazine reports, “news of the arrest of the Feminist Five spread swiftly around the world through the hashtag campaign #FreeTheFive, which went viral on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The arrests coincided with preparations for Chinese president Xi Jinping to co-host a UN summit on women’s rights in New York to mark the twentieth anniversary of Beijing’s World Conference on Women.” (Fincher 2016)

Additionally, unlike the state-sanctioned All-China Women’s Federation, which encouraged women to work with the government, “China’s younger generation of feminist activists is outside the control of the Communist Party. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has intensified efforts to wipe out many kinds of dissent—including carrying out an unprecedented crackdown on hundreds of human rights lawyers. But the feminist movement’s message of resistance to the traditional, feminine roles of wife and mother poses a unique threat to the Communist Party’s vision of a patriarchal family at the core of a strong, paternalistic state.” (Fincher 2016) This is a shift from earlier ‘feminists’ who challenged the government, but only through the Party’s vision.

The feminists of contemporary China utilize social media to connect with other feminists around the world, and to create viral activist campaigns aimed at challenging the Chinese government and society at large. As John & Xiaojiang state, “It would be fair to add that intellectuals have more space for expression today than was the case a generation ago. New media like the internet are also becoming critical sites for debating sensitive issues, over which the government has less control than, say, newspapers. (John & Xiaojiang 2005; 1594)

Though contemporary feminists tactics and activism look much different from the content published in Women in China, the women creating the content are still very similar. In both time periods, the women are advocating for women’s rights through media platforms that encourage discussion and education.


In conclusion, Chinese people, particularly women, have always been participants in challenging the Chinese government and society in regards to women’s issues and women’s rights. Though throughout history the methods and terminologies used by people advocating for women’s rights have changed, Chinese people continue to advocate and educate society on women’s issues. Media has played a huge part in shaping ‘feminist’/feminist movements in China. From early newspapers and magazines, like Women of New China to contemporary social media’s Feminist Five, the media has allowed for feminist news, diverse representations of women, and scholarly discussion and debates of important issues. From the 1940’s to the 1960’s, women’s issues were being brought to the forefront, with new laws being passed for gender equality. Concurrently, magazines like Women of New China were presenting ‘feminist’ issues, and allowing a place for dialogue and discussion to occur. In the 1970’s to the 1990’s, we see a shift in embracing the word ‘feminism’, and the new challenges that academics and activists face while confronting society and the government on more traditional views of what a Chinese woman should be doing. The 2000’s onwards led to more and more women identifying as feminists, and due to social media as an outlet, more activists are speaking out about women’s rights. No matter the time period, there has always been a consistent group of people utilizing the media to confront women’s issues, or engage in feminist discourse. Despite the word ‘feminist’ not always used as a descriptor or a part of Chinese people’s identities, I argue, alongside Zheng, that many people were involved in feminism and feminist activism in China. Ultimately, the media has been important in challenging the Chinese government and Chinese society.



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