The Women's Studies Movement in China in the 1980s and 19905

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The Women's Studies Movement in China in the 1980s and 19905

Ping-Chun Hsiung

This essay analyzes the interplay of structures and actors centered around the women's studies movement that has recently developed in the context of China's sociopolitical changes in the 198os and 199os. The movement entails the establishment of women's studies program in universities, restructuring of the All China Women's Federation (ACWF) (Quanguo funu lianhe hui) and emergence of service-oriented women's organizations. My discussion derives from, and seeks to contribute to, recent scholarship concerning women's subjectivity in the Third World, the relationship between local activism and global feminism, and the emergence of civil society in China. The first set of empirical questions my analysis intends to answer are: How did a group of female professionals and intellectuals who claimed not to have experienced discrimination come to recognize, and then fight against, gender inequalities in contemporary China? What can the movement tell us about Chinese women intellectuals and activists and their relationship with the state? What can the recently evolved exchange and dialogue between local and interna­tional feminist activism tell us about the relationship between local and global feminism?

Throughout my analysis I weave together personal efforts and structural conditions to capture both the personal and institutional aspects of the women's studies movement. To present and analyze women's actions and activities, I draw on their reflections and narratives. These narratives bring to light individual and collective dimensions of the engendered self as it has been created in and revealed by the subject's relationship to the broader historical, sociopolitical context of the postrevolutionary era. They are a rich source for

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exploring and recovering the contextual meanings of the women's studies movement as it is experienced by the women involved. I have emphasized the women's personal discourse in order to bring out certain features that have long been overlooked in the portrayal of Chinese women: their agency and practical shrewdness. The effort echoes recent scholarship that is critical of the representation of Third World women by First World feminists.'

The development of the women's studies movement in China sheds light on issues surrounding the recent debate about the emergence of civil society in China. In the context of the relationship between the state and society, this debate has focused on the organizational foundation of opposition and non-conformity and the possible transformation of the state's hegemonic control. Some analysts maintain, however, that the Chinese socialist state is not as omnipresent and suffocating as many have claimed. Although the communist state possesses oppressive, iron-fisted power to strike down any overt chal­lenges, its giant bureaucratic system is fragmented and ineffective in most of its routine operations. Such a system therefore leaves enough room for indi­vidual, clandestine negotiation and manipulation.2 While corruption and em­bezzlement are scandalous aspects of such manipulation, studies of recent changes in the economic, intellectual, and social spheres attest to the exis­tence, and even expansion, of autonomous spaces within an otherwise authori­tarian apparatus.

The development of a women's studies movement in China presents a unique case. On the one hand, the movement's objective—gender equality and women's liberation—has always been part of the CCP's rhetorical agenda. The movement, therefore, does not necessarily threaten the official status quo. Yet women intellectuals and professionals involved in the movement have called the state's position into question, sought alternative routes to address women's issues, and explored theoretical inquiry into women's emancipation beyond the orthodox Marxist theory of women. Their action and activism entail creating new spaces both inside and outside the official dominant sphere. In order to capture these particular nuances, my analysis does not conceptualize the nation-state and women's studies movement as two separate and opposing forces. Instead, I propose to examine the emergence of the women's studies movement as a series of sociopolitical events embedded in the structural frame-work of the nation-state. Accordingly, the second set of research questions I propose to address includes: What political, social, and financial resources have women in the women's studies movement mobilized to realize their aims? In what ways has the nation-state been supportive of and/or an impediment to women's initiatives? Under what conditions, and through what mechanisms, has the nation-state exerted its disciplinary power?

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In the following sections I first examine the political meaning of being a woman in postrevolutionary China. The analysis sketches personal journeys of those women intellectuals and professionals who were later to take part in the women's studies movement. This is followed by an analysis of changes within the All China Women's Federation and the emergence of service-oriented women's organizations. My analysis of women's studies programs in Chinese universities and of the recent exchanges and dialogue between women activists in China and those in other countries highlights certain unique features of the women's studies movement in China. In the conclusion I reflect upon a series of events surrounding the movement.

The Personal Journey

Women born after 1949 grew up in a period when eliminating gender inequali­ties was officially advocated and upheld. Gender equality during that period, however, had particular attributes. On the one hand, the Chinese Commu­nist Party (CCP) proclaimed that the proletarian revolution had created objective conditions for women's emancipation. It was therefore the responsi­bility of each woman to be self-liberated. The official script demanded that women leave the confines of domesticity to enter the public sphere and join their male counterparts in revolutionary causes. Within this cultural and political climate many women strove to become men's equals by becoming identical to men. As women intellectuals recall their adolescence/girlhood, quite a few of them use the term jia xiaozi (phony/disguised boy) to character­ize themselves. Young girls either consciously or unconsciously emulated the behavioral traits of their male peers. A woman physics professor once re­vealed, for example:

When I grew up, I never wanted to be with the girls. They were too emotional. I felt there was nothing I wanted to learn from them. I always hung around with the guys. I liked to argue with them. I learned to think logically and rationally this way. Being like a girl was just not my taste. They are too soft?

To earn respect women often imposed stern measures on themselves to transcend gender differences. During the Cultural Revolution many young women either volunteered or at least demonstrated their willingness to go to the most poverty-stricken rural areas to be reeducated. Once they got there,

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they took pride in bearing the same level of physical hardship as their male counterparts. The following self-portraits are typical of the time:

As a young woman born into an intellectual bourgeois family, I felt I needed to relate to workers and peasants; as a woman who was growing up during the era of equality of men and women, I needed to fit into the standards created for men. When I took part in voluntary labor, in spite of my menses, I stood with boy students in the water above my knees, scooping up sludge from the river or transplanting rice seedlings in water. . . . [In Tibet] I lived in a tent with holes on all sides, used my hand to eat the half-cooked mutton with the herdsman, and rode horses to keep sheep and cattle within bounds. I fell off my horse once and suffered a moderate cerebral concussion, but I did not stop my work. At the time I did everything with great enthusiasm and did not feel tired. Illness did not deter me. I only thought that the dream that women would live like men had come to pass at last in my generation.4

When I was sent to the countryside, I vowed to be as strong as a man. Even though I had never done any physical work before (before then, I had even never done any housework chores), I made myself carry out the most strenuous work that men did in the field. In the winter, I carried buckets of water weighing a hundred and fifty kilograms on my shoulder. Countless times, I fell. Countless times, I rolled down the hills with the buckets. My clothes were all wet and my shoulders were bleeding. But I never shed even a drop of tears.5

Abiding by Marxist doctrine, the iron woman was an icon of the post-revolutionary era. The term daomeile (being out of luck or having an unlucky break) was used among girls to refer to menstruation,' and other feminine attributes were rejected and looked down upon. Women intellectuals and professionals who have become leading figures in the contemporary women's studies movement claim that they never experienced discrimination:

I was born in 1951 and I am now the editor-in-chief of Farming Women Know It All. I was a soldier for fourteen years. I was once a leader in the military's propaganda section. I simply went from the world of men to the world of women. I felt no sense of inequality or being discriminated against in that men's world because I was the leader of male soldiers.7

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Their successful careers give them an unusual sense of self-confidence. They are convinced that women bear no traits innately inferior to those of their male counterparts. Some even attribute their success to their defeminized style and traits:

I was in the army for 24 years. I didn't work for Fulian [All China Women's Federation]. Therefore, I once joked that I went from a place where there was no women's restroom to one where there are no men's. When I was a soldier, I looked down on women. I felt that they have the collective shortcomings of all human beings. I was once proud of the ways in which I was different from other women. Others attributed my success to the fact that men did not treat me like a woman, they treated me either as a colleague or a competitor. I was a bit proud of this viewpoint because [I thought] at least I did not have all the negative attributes of being a woman. At that time, I took pride in not identifying myself with my gender group.8

For many women, coming to see that being men's equal at work does not necessarily lead to women's liberation has been painful. Li Xiaojiang, one of the leading figures in the women's studies movement, reveals that she had excelled over many of her male colleagues at work before she found herself trapped in the domestic sphere:

Getting married and then giving birth to a child almost completely changed my life and psychological world. They challenged the kind of independence I had valued the most.... Overwhelmed by baby's crying and endless housework, I painfully realized that I was ready to surrender my aspiration for a rewarding career to everyday survival. I fell into a trap, a trap that has buried many women before me.... I was sur­rounded by obstacles: husband and child, housework and relatives. [End-less demands] took up all my time and energy. They prevented me from doing what I had really wanted to do and from going to wherever I had wanted to go.... [Finally] I had to admit to myself that after years of study, I had known nothing about women.9

Liang Jun, a lecturer-turned-feminist, talks about being trapped by domestic responsibilities and professional demands:

I was no longer the person I had been earlier. From the modern heroine, I had turned into a professional person and a housewife, whose life was confined to working at the office and doing housework at home. All day

The Women's Studies Movement in China in the 1980S and 19906 435

long I was in a desperate hurry and felt exhausted. Gradually, the brave pledge to compete with men was abandoned as an illusion. I came to believe that a marital relationship could not remain balanced. ". . . so long as you are successful in your achievements, I am willing to do everything for you," I said to my husband. If I delayed doing housework because of official business, I would feel ashamed and guilty. But in my innermost self, I wished to develop myself. I shouldered the heavy load of work and life, unable to bear it, and yet unwilling to abandon it. Day and night I was worried, depressed, and resentful.'°

These narratives bring out the contradiction at the heart of the CCP's program of women's liberation. On the one hand, it brought up a generation of successful professional and intellectual women whose achievement shatters the conventional, stereotypical notion of women's inborn inferiority. Yet their public involvement does not relieve those women of their domestic duties and the associated sense of entrapment. There exists a conflict between professional success and personal dissent that inspires them to ask why women's lives are so trying and demeaning and why, in a supposedly gender-equal society, women are still so overburdened and suppressed. As they look around, they come to realize that the effort to achieve gender equality through being men's equal has made women of their generation deny and suppress their own femaleness. The following excerpt describes a woman intellectual's journey to be reconnected with her gender group. It explains clearly the political context within which a misogynous identity was constructed.

When I began to identify myself with women (females), something in-credible was found: women refused to be identified as females. This is the first womanly problem that emerged in my confrontation with Chinese women. Putting myself in their shoes, I was like that for a very long time. In the past, I was willing to be anything but female. "It is said that a real materialist fears nothing." However, what Chinese women fear most is being identified as females. "Female" is like a historical trap, and resem­bles the old era. In a society where "men and women are identical," no one would be so foolish and debased to turn back to look for females. To identify with "female" is especially hard for women intellectuals who have all had the jia xiaozi [phony/disguised guy] experience like me. It is more painful than experiencing a rebirth."

An engendered female identity calls for a recognition of the "differences" between men and women. It entails a female-centered subjectivity that sets

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women free from the male-centered imposition implied in the CCP's ap­proach to women's liberation:

I am the first beneficiary of being identified with the female: I felt an unprecedented spiritual liberation and relaxation. The society has given us women the gift of "being men's equal," in exchange, we women have lost our identity as females. We therefore never found ourselves truly relaxed. In addition to the strain of double roles, the psychological burden has been exhausting. Whether in family or society, we have to keep in mind "his" criteria all the time. We cannot find anywhere or anytime to show our true self as females. The worst part was that we could turn to nobody for support because every woman is trying to prove the legend of "men and women are identical/equal." No one is willing to interrupt "women's liberation" with "female's personal issues."12

To break the code of silence, public lectures and writings have called for women's collective consciousness as well as for individual woman's "self-discovery, self-recognition and self-development." Ideologically speaking, the development of a subjective consciousness of femaleness among Chinese women challenges the Marxist insistence that women's liberalization is to be realized through class struggle. At the same time, a quest to satisfy women's independent needs and solve women's problems simultaneously undermines the CCP's official, hegemonic domination over women's issues.' The establish­ment of women's studies programs at the university level is an effort to trans-form individual dissent into collective endeavor. Before discussing the founda­tion and functioning of women's studies programs in Chinese universities, however, I shall deal with another major development in the institutional growth of the Chinese women's studies movement: the transformation of the All China Women's Federation in the face of myriad difficulties women have experienced in the era of reform.

Institutional Aspects of the Women's Studies Movement

Challenges That Confront the All China Women's Federation

The ACWF is a national mass organization with a dual mandate: (1) to follow the directives of the Chinese Communist Party; and (2) to represent the inter­ests of Chinese women. The ACWF was originally founded in 1949 as a "united

The Women's Studies Movement in China in the 1980s and 1990s 437

front organization of democratic women of all social strata and professions" to coordinate and give direction to women's work throughout China.14 It was banned during the Cultural Revolution, and reinstated in 1978. Immediately after its reestablishment, there was an attempt to articulate a separate identity for the ACWF. High-level officials of the federation called for an examination of the paradox that the ACWF functioned both as a representative of women's interests and as a bureaucracy closely linked with the CCP leadership. Luo Qiong, then the vice chair of the ACWF's executive committee, proclaimed specifically that the Party should redefine its relationship with the mass organi­zation. According to her, "the appropriate and effective way of the Party's leadership is to cultivate a lively, co-operative spirit with the mass organization. Most important, it ought to ensure a complete realization of the organization's own initiative and creativity."15 Thus, the ACWF should function as an active, autonomous, and self-motivating agent. To do so, Luo urged the federation to adopt a bottom-up approach in order to incorporate the concerns of ordinary women into the core of its agenda. Local offices are encouraged not only to explore independent, financial resources but also to set their own priorities on women's work in accordance with the local situation.16

The call for internal, organizational restructuring runs parallel to exter­nal, societal challenges on the reform era. The ACWF not only is expected to handle practical matters such as female prostitution and the trafficking of women. The fact that a disproportionate number of women are being laid off from state enterprises and that discrimination against female graduates in job placement continues have also compelled the ACWF to raise a more funda­mental question: Has the proletarian revolution really eliminated gender in-equalities? As a mass organization representing women's interests, the ACWF is further troubled by controversial issues such as the one-child policy and spousal abuse. To meet these and other challenges, the ACWF has begun to establish its own research offices to conduct research, identify problems, formulate solutions, and recommend policies. Researchers and administrative staffs of the ACWF now debate issues that were once in forbidden territory. Thus, ACWF discussions are not limited to the resurgence of prostitution, arranged marriage, or discriminatory hiring and lay-off practices. Instead, some have openly questioned the applicability and usefulness of Marxism in analyzing and understanding women's situation. Others have come to de­nounce the claim of gender equality in socialist China.17

Although ACWF is an official organization, there is no consensus on various women's issues. Some ACWF officials attribute current problems that women encounter to their backwardness. Others talk about a resurgence of

438 Education, Culture, and Identity in Twentieth-Century China

feudal practices and ideology. Still others believe that current problems have to do with state policies, which allow the market economy to become the sole driving force of the social order. These diverse explanations of women's prob­lems lead to different proposals for solutions. For example, Guan Tao, the deputy director of the ACWF, argues that the working environment will be-come less discriminatory against women as modernization in technology and production abolishes jobs that require physical strength, and she maintains that developments in the service industry will eventually make housework less demanding for women. Gao Xiaoxian, the director of ACWF's research insti­tute in Shaanxi province, believes that ACWF, as a well-established institution, should take on the responsibility of addressing some of the structural con­straints women face—patriarchal norms and practices, high illiteracy espe­cially among rural women, and capitalist exploitation of factory girls in coastal cities. In contrast, Li Xiaojiang, a leading figure in women's studies, argues for the dismissal of ACWF. According to Li, it is time for Chinese women to stop being passive victims by developing an autonomous, collective consciousness. Women should no longer expect the government/system or men to define and solve problems for them.

As a whole, these diverse voices represent the effort of intellectuals to challenge official propositions on women's liberation. The state and the ACWF are no longer the sole hegemonic entity in presenting and representing the Chinese woman. A pluralistic landscape has given rise to multiple, and some-times conflicting, positions. Moreover, internal forces and external pressure have worked to push the ACWF to function less as an organization taking orders from the state and more in the domain of representing women's inter­ests. Various projects and local initiatives have convened under the umbrella of the ACWF. As I will show later, a rigid notion of the ACWF as nothing but a political apparatus of the CCP state fails to capture adequately the dynamism within the federation, nor does it acknowledge intraorganizational ties and linkage that the federation has formed with other women's groups in recent years. Besides, many innovative professionals in the ACWF grew up in the Cultural Revolution era. They belong to the same cohort as those active intellec­tuals in academia. Personal ties and shared visions have brought them together to work on various new initiatives and projects.18 Thus, women's activism in contemporary China is built as much upon personal ties as on an institutional base. The institutional boundary and oppositional position between the state and NGOs projected in the NGO model of Western feminist activism does not fit. The relationship between the ACWF and women's studies programs in universities presents a good example.

The Women's Studies Movement in China in the 1980s and 1990$ 439

Establishment of Women's Studies Programs in Universities

Although the ACWF is often portrayed as a dogmatic state apparatus, schol­ars in the women's studies movement initially drew heavily upon its extensive structure and nationwide networks. In 1985, for example, a course entitled "women and household management" was introduced to a class of profes­sional and government employees at the Henan Women's Cadres School, a school under the ACWF administration. The course covered topics such as what a woman is expected to do in the domestic sphere, how and why the demands of the home have exhausted many women physically and entrapped them psychologically, and how to combat gender-specific norms and prac­tices.19 Liang Jun, one of the students in that class, picked up the thread and went on to spread the message. Again, relying upon the ACWF arrangements and networks, Liang traveled across the country to reach women at local women cadre schools and in the trade unions, student groups, and in profes­sional associations such as the Women Technical Workers' Association, the Women Cadres' Association, the Women's Teachers' Association, and the Women Medical Workers' Association. In the name of "women's education" her lectures covered topics like "women's self-realization, the dual roles of professional women, [and] the consciousness of female students."20

Along with allowing speakers who dealt with controversial topics to use its structures, the ACWF has permitted its official journals to serve as forums for scholars from the women's studies movement to articulate their analysis, put forth their vision, and advocate their cause.21 Many scholars acknowledge the indispensable, ongoing support for their research and activism that they receive from ACWF staff.22

Most important, when scholars in the university attempt to institu­tionalize their endeavor on campus, they often call upon the ACWF to give their effort legitimacy and political clout. The director and research staff of ACWF's local branches are often invited to sit on the advisory committee of the program. As a deputy director of one women's studies program revealed:

We made it impossible for our President to turn down our proposal [to set up the program] because Madame xxx [director of the provincial ACWF] had been invited to be the head of our advisory committee. Besides, the President was further persuaded that it is true that in the long run, the program is going to make it easier for us to make noises on campus. However, if he did not approve the program at the outset, he would have been in hot water right away.23

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When scholars of the women's studies program at Peking University described how they got their program set up, they mentioned the ample support and enthusiasm they had received from the national headquarters of the ACWF. The vice chancellor of the university even called the ACWF the program's "natal family," an organization that the program can always turn to.24 The ACWF's critical role in the inauguration of women's studies pro-grams in the universities can be summed up by the following opening remark made at an international conference organized by the women's studies pro-gram at Zhengzhou University. The conference put the program and its affiliated scholars under painstaking scrutiny because it was held several months after the 1989 Tiananmen event:

I want to express my appreciation to directors and colleagues at the Women's Federation in Henan province, women's cadres school, and Women's Lives magazine (a magazine put out by the Women's Federa­tion). Over the last years, we have supported each other in our effort to advance research on women's issues both at the provincial and national level. My special gratitude goes to comrade Yang Biru, the director of the Women's Federation in Henan, for her help and trust. Without such trust, support, and her unselfish, invaluable political backing, we would not have been able to convene this conference.25

Such evidence attests to the critical role played by the ACWF in giving birth to the women's studies movement. As a mass organization for women, the ACWF supplied invaluable political capital that the movement badly needed. I there-fore disagree with the position held by many scholars that portrays the ACWF as nothing but an ideological state apparatus.26 This view not only mistakenly treats the ACWF, an organization with thousands of branches and nearly a hundred thousand full-time working staff, as a homogeneous group and thus discourages a closer examination of the ever-changing micro-politics within the federation. It also fails to recognize the ongoing, intraorganizational rela­tionship between the ACWF and many nongovernmental organizations that have emerged recently.

More generally, I believe that, in order to understand the institutional basis of the women's studies movement, we should ask what strategies have been adopted to take advantage of the progressively relaxing political climate in the reform era and also how and what resources in the preexisting system have been converted for the new initiatives.

Scholars involved in the establishment of China's first women's studies programs repeatedly emphasize that their programs were allowed to begin on

The Women's Studies Movement in China in the 1980s and 1990s 441

condition that they ask for "no office, no budget, and no administrative staff."27 In order to undertake new initiatives, all the program required was a legitimate status, symbolized by an official seal. Getting an official seal was rather easy in the reform era. For example, Funu Xuehui (Women's Society), the forerunner of the women's studies program at Zhengzhou University, acquired its official seal, and hence legitimate status, by affiliating itself with an already registered, official research institute. Once it had obtained its legal status, the association coordinated a new course to be taught at the Henan's Women's Cadre School. It also organized a national conference on women's issues and helped to publish a series of books on women. These activities laid a solid foundation for the women's studies program to be established at Zhengzhou University.

Not asking for additional financial and administrative support was a strategic move on the part of women scholars. It did not imply that resources were not needed to work on new initiatives. Li Xiaojiang, the director of the women's studies program at Zhengzhou University, explains how a "public sphere" was created within the old socialist system:

In the old [existing socialist] system, everyone occupies a position to get paid. But the system itself allows no room for new initiatives. Even though we had virtually nothing to begin with, [the reason] our organi­zation [program] could survive and develop was mainly because we were parasitical to the old system. I always tell people that we take a two-route approach (liangtiaotui zoulu). As individuals, we all belong to the old socialist system. We have our secured "iron rice bowl." As an organization, however, we are outside of the system, and hence don't bear all the encumbrances of the old system. Because we are part of the system, we are able to turn our supposedly supernumerary positions to work on new initiatives. Best of all, we never have to worry about not having a "rice bowl."28

This testimony demonstrates that at the institutional level there has been a parasitical relationship between the women's studies movement and the exist­ing system. Although many of the programs came to exist with no additional administrative cost, human and financial resources in the existing system were appropriated and diverted to the new initiatives. The strategic move implied in the maneuver speaks loudly of women's agency and dexterity.

At the institutional level the establishment of women's studies centers at the universities means that the ACWF no longer has a monopoly as a repre­sentative of women's interests and voices. As a result, ideas and activities that

442 Education, Culture, and Identity in Twentieth-Century China

do not completely conform with the official, orthodox approach can now germinate. Some scholars are beginning to search for answers about women's subordination outside the Marxist framework. Their research and publica­tions intend to trace the historical roots of women's subordination. At the same time, they want to create a knowledge that is not male centered. Further-more, the formal status of various centers gives scholars and activists legiti­macy to offer new courses, conduct research, and organize conferences on women's issues. The centers also function as magnets in helping researchers and activists to make contacts and conduct collaborative work nationally and internationally.29

Emergence of Women's Organizations Outside the Universities

If the establishment of women's studies program resulted from scholars' calls for change within the academic sphere, the women's organizations outside of the universities have been set up in response to mounting social problems in society at large. Scholars who are dissatisfied with abstract, theoretical, aca­demic exercises address these problems by taking an action-oriented ap­proach. The Jinglun Family Center set up by sociologist Chen Yiyun, for example, provides a wide range of counseling services to individuals with family and marital problems. It also offers training programs to social work­ers. Chen's crusade began in the 1980s, when her inquiry into marriage and family issues brought her into personal contact with victims of divorce, domes-tic violence, and sexual harassment. She also learned that rapid social changes have created many problems in people's family and married lives. The narra­tives of her clients made her realize that sociological knowledge built upon conventional survey questionnaires fails to capture accurately the complicated problems her interviewees encountered in their real lives. Moreover, aca­demic research becomes relevant to the struggling individual only if it is applied to action-oriented programs. Chen Yiyun and her colleagues at the center have given numerous lectures and counseling sessions on marriage and family nationwide. The Women's Hotline is another service-oriented organiza­tion in Beijing. As the first of its kind in China, it provides call-in counseling to distressed individuals. Set up by Wang Xingjuan, a retiree from the ACWF in 1992, the service has received an estimated thirty-thousand phone calls since that time.

Several aspects of these new organizations deserve further discussion. First, rapid social changes followed by economic reform have affected, and sometimes challenged, norms and values that used to regulate family lives and marital relationships. Individual men and women troubled by these new

The Women's Studies Movement in China in the 1980s and 1990s 443

changes are in desperate search for answers. Knowledge and services dis­pensed by existing academic establishments, including the educational system and mass organizations such as the ACWF, have failed to meet the new demand. Organizations such as the Jinglung and Maple Leaves Centers arise to fill the vacuum by providing public lectures, personal counseling, and television and radio programs that cover personal matters ranging from marital relationships and sexual orientation to extramarital affairs. Although the issues covered are of interest to men and women, the centers' services particularly benefit women, who have suffered most from the negative conse­quences of recent reforms.

Second, the applied nature of the various programs goes beyond rigidly defined academic/scholarly boundaries. As a result, the intellectuals and pro­fessionals devoted to the work have taken up their mission as a personal crusade. They rarely receive recognition, support, or funding from the institu­tions to which they are formally affiliated, despite the fact that hundreds and thousands of Chinese have benefited from such programs 3° Besides, they often have to draw upon their personal resources to make the shift. Family living rooms are used for counseling purposes. Other family members are called upon to handle hundreds of letters pouring in weekly. The devotion and commitment resemble the fulfillment of an intellectual's social responsi­bilities that is advocated in Confucius' teaching. The effort to bridge the gap between abstract, theoretical knowledge construction and applied community service has added an important dimension to the women's studies movement in China.

Third, the notion of nongovernmental organization (NGO) is still new in contemporary China. The CCP-led state continues to be suspicious of the NGOs' objectives, activities, and influence. Restrictive government rules and regulations have not been conducive to their grassroots initiatives. The state's inclination to be obstructive is most evident in its handling of events surround­ing the 1995 United Nation's World Conference on Women and its accompa­nying Non-Governmental Organization Forum.

International Exchanges

In the early 1980s Chinese scholars and activists came into contact with international feminism mainly through translation of such classic works as Simone de Beavoir's The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique (Germaine Greer), and Carolyn Heilbrun's In a Different Voice. During this period only a few Chinese scholars visited the West. Portrayal of Chinese women was pre-dominantly done by Western sinologists with minimum consultation and col­laboration with the Chinese counterparts. An international conference held at

444 Education, Culture, and Identity in Twentieth-Century China

Harvard University in 1992 marked the beginning of a new era. At that confer­ence Chinese women scholars engaged in public debates on the nature, histori­cal path, and future prospects of women's liberation in China.31 From then on, indigenous perspectives gained a more prominent place in the international arena. International exchange reached its height in preparations for the United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women in the summer of 1995.

An estimated thirty-five to forty thousand women from around the world, including five thousand Chinese women, attended the conference and its Non-Governmental Organization Forum. Preparation was under way years before 1995: an unprecedented number of Chinese women had participated in regional conferences abroad, organized international or national conferences at home, and engaged in dialogue with international women's groups. Al-though Chinese women's voices were excluded from debates concerning women's issues in China, the conference and the NGO forum did give Chi­nese women a chance to tell the world what they had being doing at home. Most important, the occasion brought them in direct contact with interna­tional feminism and feminist activism. These exposures and exchanges have been a mixed blessing for the women's studies movement in China 32

At the institutional level many women faculty who wanted to set up women's studies programs at their universities used the upcoming women's conference as justification for their cause. Quite a few of them managed to get their programs registered and approved before the conference. There was also an increase in intra-institutional collaboration. Initiatives involving scholars and activists at universities, the ACWF, official trade unions, and other women's organizations were funded in celebration of China's hosting of the conference.

Many academic journals had special issues on women, and an unprece­dented number of books on women were published. These included case studies, collections of articles on specific subjects, translations of English publications, and introductions to the international women's movement. An encyclopedia, statistical data, and historical documents on Chinese women were also compiled. Two projects are particularly useful in facilitating interna­tional exchanges. An English-Chinese Lexicon of Women and Law explains terms such as feminism, gender, and NGO by referring to their historical, political, and/or cultural context in the West. The Chinese-English entries include current expressions that reflect Chinese women's economic, political, and social position and status. As a whole, the Lexicon serves as a constant reminder and useful tool for those involved in international, cross-cultural dialogue.33 In a book entitled A Review of Western Feminist Research scholars affiliated to the Chinese Society for Women's Studies in the United States

The Women's Studies Movement in China in the 1980s and 1990s 445

provide a critical analysis of feminist scholarship in various academic disci­plines and fields in the United States. The society's members are Chinese students and scholars from overseas who seek to encourage the study of Chinese women; the book is the product of their long-term commitment to their sisters in the homeland.34

The unprecedented enthusiasm and activism among women and women's groups were marred by a perceived sense of threat on the part of the CCP's top leaders in early 1995. The fear that international women's groups might stage protests and demonstrations during the conference displaced their original intention to raise China's international profile by hosting the event. The site of the NGO forum was moved away from Beijing and was accompanied by tighter control over women's research and activism. Activities associated with the conference and the Chinese delegates themselves were closely scrutinized. The desire of CCP officials to publicize the regime's accomplishments with regard to women's liberation made them condemn any discussion or research that focused on the problems of Chinese women as counter to the national interest. The greatest irony came when the women's studies program at Zhengzhou University, the first women's studies program in China, was shut down prior to the conference on the pretext of its "involvement in the bourgeois feminist movement" and its director prevented from attending the forum 35 To weather the freezing political climate, women scholars and activists put their heads down and kept their voices low. "Just keep a low profile and wait for the paranoia to pass," many said.36

The most positive aspect of the international exchange has been the cross-fertilization between global and local feminist activism. On the one hand, the global/local contact helps to nourish more relaxed attitudes toward Western terms such as feminism and feminist movement that used to have a negative connotation in China. Foreign visits and international exchange have also made Chinese activists aware of issues they had once overlooked. Discus­sion and research on domestic violence and sexual harassment have flour­ished. Furthermore, Chinese activists find that many problems they have encountered are identical to those being acted on by international women's groups abroad. This new understanding encourages Chinese activists and scholars to press for further changes and improvements at home. This com­monality and a sense of sisterhood have also made it easier for Chinese activists and scholars to raise and discuss their problems at the international platform: doing so is no longer perceived as an act of washing one's dirty linen in public.

In sharp contrast to this sense of global sisterhood is Chinese women activist and scholar's parallel effort at asserting their autonomy vis-a-vis the

446 Education, Culture, and Identity in Twentieth-Century China

international women's groups, on the one hand, and the CCP-led state, on the other. Stepping into the international arena, Chinese women come to witness and experience the dominating power of First World women. After long being spoken for and/or about by their domineering sisters of the First World, Chinese women are gradually learning how to make their voices heard in the international arena. At least to some Chinese activists and scholars Western feminism offers no solutions for Chinese women's libera­tion. Concerted efforts must be made to formulate a feminism and a femi­nist activism that incorporate China's cultural, historical, and sociopolitical characteristics.

When abroad, Chinese activists and scholars witness daring actions and diverse initiatives organized by various women's groups. They also come to appreciate a women's movement that has its roots in popular, local activism, rather than in a state-orchestrated course of action dominated by the CCP. Many scholars and activists begin to get involved in projects and initiatives that go beyond the official territory. Most significantly, earlier calls to revise and renegotiate women's relationship with the CCP-led state now find a broader sociopolitical constituency. A multitude of lively, diverse voices are gradually weakening the CCP's monolithic, hegemonic position. The chilly climate and tightening control inflicted by the CCP signals the powerful impact that Chinese, and international, women's movements are perceived to possess. Although the silencing measures willed by the CCP-led state continue to be a potential threat, the conference has been referred to as "a historic turning point" for the women's movement in China because activities leading up to it have made the pluralist approach toward women's issues an irrevers­ible trend.37

Conclusion and Discussion

China's women's studies movement has emerged as a result of the efforts by intellectual and professional women to address unresolved issues embedded in the CCP's approach to gender equality. It is also a response to the negative consequences for women of the state's economic reform. In recent years exchanges and dialogue with international women's groups have enriched the movement and introduced Chinese women scholars and activists to new challenges.

Institutionalization of the women's studies movement has meant a con-version of human and financial resources within the higher educational sys­tem that has led to changes in the curriculum and, more generally, to a

The Women's Studies Movement in China in the 1980s and 1990s 447

transformation of the landscape of knowledge. As a whole, the alternately volatile and relaxed political atmosphere of the reform era has been critical for the development of the Chinese women's studies movement. The ACWF has, in turn, supported and oppressed women's initiatives. The paradoxical nature of the CCP-led state presents a great challenge to scholars in the China field in which the oppressive nature of the CCP state is predominantly fea­tured. Women activists in China, on the other hand, continue to keep their wits about the local and national politics and take new ground whenever and wherever possible.

The conviction and activism of intellectual and professional women constitute the main driving forces of the women's studies movement in China. Within an ever-changing political climate, they seize the opportunities for innovation. Strategically, they take advantage of cracks in the existing system and make their way into new territory. The women's studies movement in China testifies to Chinese women's vision, agency, and determination, which have seldom been sufficiently recognized and acknowledged.


  1. Chandra T. Mohanty, "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses," in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Chandra T. Mohanty et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 51–80; Aihwa Ong, "Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re-Presentations of Women in Non-Western Societies," Inscriptions 3, no. 4 (1988): 79–93; Gayatri C. Spivak, The Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Methuen, 1987).

  2. Vivienne Shue, The Search of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic (Stan-ford: Stanford University Press, 1988); Y-L. Liu, "Reform from Below: The Private Economy and Local Politics in the Rural Industrialization of Wenzhou," China Quar­terly 130 (1992): 293322.

  3. Author's personal communication.

  4. Jun Liang, "A Serious Mission," in Changing Lives: Life Stories of Asian Pioneers in Women's Studies, ed. Committee on Women's Studies in Asia (New York: The Femi­nist Press, 1995), 125–26.

  5. Li Xiaojiang, "Preface," Zouxiang nuren (Towards the femininity of women) (Hong Kong: Association for the Advancement of Feminism, 1993), 3.

  6. To this day many women in China still refer to menstruation as being daomeile. For example, one would tell a friend that she has a headache because "wo kuaiyao daomeile" (I'm having my menstruation soon).

  7. Xie Lihua, in "Xiantan shuo shao zhiyi: Zhongwai funu gongzuo luetan" (Dia­logue One: chatting on women's work) in Nuxing de fanxiang: Yiqun ceng canyu '95 funu dahui guoji choubei huiyi de Zhongguo nuxing de xinsheng jieji (Reflection and resonance: stories of Chinese women involved in international preparatory activities

448 Education, Culture, and Identity in Twentieth-Century China

for the 1995 NGO Forum on Women), ed. Wong Yuen Ling (Beijing: Ford Foundation, 1995), 214.

  1. Liu Bohong, in ibid., 224.

  2. Li Xiaojiang, Zouxiang nuren, 45.

  3. 10. Jun Liang, "A Serious Mission," 126-27.

  1. Li Xiaojiang, "Creating A Public Sphere: A Self-Portrait in Women's Studies Movement in China," Asian Journal of Women's Studies 2 (1996): 83.

  2. Ibid., 84.

  3. Li, Zouxiang nuren, 19-20.

  4. Zhongguo funu yundong wenxian ziliao huibian (A collection of documents on the Chinese women's movement) (Beijing: Zhongguo funu chubanshe, 1988).

  5. Luo Qiang, "Fulian shi guangda fund de zhongyao daibiaozhe" (The ACWF is the representative of the mass women) (speech presented to the Women's Federation in Xingjiang Autonomous Region, September 19, 1979), in Zhongguo funu yundong wenxian ziliao huibian, 497.

  6. Kang Keqing, "Fenfa ziqiang kaichuang funu yundong xingjumian" (Striving ahead for a new era in the women's movement) (report presented to the Fifth National Women's Congress, September 2, 1983), in Zhungguo funu yundong wenxian ziliao huibian, 84558.

  7. Tan Sheng, "Shehui zhuanxing yu Zhongguo fund jiuye" (Social change and Chinese women's employment), in Zhongguo funu yu fazhan (Chinese women and development), ed. Du Fangqin et al. (Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe, 1993), 380-82.

  8. Zheng Wang, "Maoism, Feminism, and the UN Conference on Women: Women's Studies Research in Contemporary China," Journal of Women's History 8, no. 4 (1997): 126-51.

  9. Li Xiaojiang, "Creating a Public Sphere," 8485.

  10. Jun Liang, "A Serious Mission," 132.

  11. Li Xiaojiang, Gonggong kongjian de chuangzao funu yanjiu yundong: Yili gean de ziwo fenxi (Creating a public sphere women's studies movement: a case in self-analysis) (unpublished monograph, 1995), 12.

  12. Many international scholars also record that they have had to rely on the ACWF staff and networks for their field research in China. See Hill Gates, "Cultural Support for Birth Limitation among Urban Capital-Owning Women," in Deborah Davis and Stevan Harrel, eds., Chinese Families in the Post-Mao Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 251–76; Ellen Judd, Gender and Power in Rural North China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994); and Margery Wolf, Revolution Postponed: Women in Contemporary China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985).

  13. Author's personal communication.

  14. Funu yanjiu dongtai (Events of women's studies), Research Center on Women's Issues in China and Foreign Countries, Beijing University, no. 1 (1993): 6.

  15. Li Xiaojiang, Zouxiang nuren, 69. In Li Xiaojiang, Nujie da huishi (A remarkable women's rendezvous), Li provides a rather metaphorical description of the tremen­dous pressure intended to prevent the conference from being convened. Her remarks on the political maneuver are most telling. She emphasized that, "under such a

The Women's Studies Movement in China in the 1980s and 1990s 449

political climate, one has to be courageous to call for a conference. However, it takes artful dexterity to actually make the conference a reality. We have plenty of courage. We are in no shortage of dexterous sense either."

  1. Kay A. Johnson, Women, the Family, and Peasant Revolution in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Judith Stacey, Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Wolf, Revolution Postponed.

  2. Tao Jie, "Women's Studies in China," Women's Studies Quarterly, nos. 1–2 (1996): 358; Fangqin Du, Faxian funu de lishi (The discovery of women's history) (Tianjin: Shehui chubanshe, 1996); Li, "Creating a Public Sphere," 73.

  3. Li, Gonggong kongjian de chuangzao, 13.

  4. Tao, "Women's Studies in China," 358.

  5. For example, for many years, Chen Yiyun could not get a promotion from her research institute, nor was she given research funding. According to Chen: "In the somber hall of academia, even printed words are ranked hierarchically. My books and articles are written for the general public. They are seen [by my colleagues] as trivial and non-scholarly. Besides, because there are very few women in research institutions, it is very difficult to receive funding for research projects on and conducted by women." Zhongguo funu bao (1994).

  6. Christina Gilmartin et al., Engendering China: Women, Culture, and the State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).

  7. In an unpublished 1996 essay entitled "The Making of Chinese Women's Gender and National Identities: An Analysis of the Political Discourse Surrounding the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing" Ping-chun Hsiung and Renita Yuk-lin Wong examine the discursive politics that surrounded the conference and NGO forum and its implications.

  8. Sharon K. Horn and Chunying Xin, English-Chinese Lexicon of Women and Law (Beijing: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and China Translation and Publishing Corporation, 1995).

  9. Zhou Jiangqiang, ed., Xifang nuxing zhuyi yanjiu pingjie (A review of Western feminist research) (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 1995.)

  10. Li Xiaojiang, Wo wei shenmo bu canjia 95 shifuhui (Why I refused to attend the '95 Women's Conference) (unpublished open letter, 1996).

  11. Wang, "Maoism, Feminism, and the UN Conference on Women," 197. The political tide turned once again after the conference was concluded without major incidents and embarrassment. Celebrations were held by various offices of the ACWF, and individual delegates were congratulated for their contributions. The women's studies program headed by Li Xiaojiang was relocated to Henan University in 1996.

  12. Ibid.; Li, Wo shenmo bu canjia 95 shifuhui.

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