This piece is part of the East Asia Solidarity blog series, “Look East”, which highlights gender knowledge and studies of the East and Southeast Asia region. The initiative was conceptualised and led by MSc students of the LSE Gender Department in the summer of 2023, and explores themes around locating identity, heritage and (re/newed) knowledge of gender studies in the region. The series hopes to be a platform for those with links to the region to not only express themselves but contribute to the decolonisation of gender knowledge.
by Ji Zhengwei
Feminism is regarded by mainstream Western discourse as something lacking in China. For many, the Chinese state is a suppressor, with little tolerance towards (especially Western) criticism, only allowing discourses that conform to state interests to survive. For example, neoliberal feminism, which is currently holding a dominant position in western societies, is regarded as a primarily western construct and is therefore encountering persistent obstruction in China. However, mainstream understanding of why neoliberal feminism faces extra difficulties in China tends to fall into oversimplified dualistic division of societies, including democracy/authoritarianism, developed/developing, modern/traditional, civilized/barbarian, etc. The background assumption of such understanding is the normalization of feminism in Western societies, which stands for modernity and civilization. In contrast, Chinese society, which does not seem to accept Western feminism, is considered benighted. Consequently, a messianic desire, which is deeply embedded by the global normalization and expansion of neoliberal capitalism, has emerged to modernize – or, more precisely, westernize – Chinese society. However, from a decolonial feminist perspective, the idea of importing Western neoliberal feminism into China by Westernizing China is not even feminist itself, but rather an instrumentalization and weaponization of feminism, for the purpose of expanding global capitalism and sustaining Western hegemonic power discourse.
Through this essay, I intend to make visible certain Chinese scholarship, called by some “critical socialist feminism”, that posits itself neither in Western neoliberal feminist discourse, nor in Chinese state feminism discourse. I use the term “gender” as an example to show how the complexity of cultural and historical contexts of Chinese society has constituted an epistemology towards feminism different from the Western neoliberal school. This epistemology developed by critical socialist feminists rejects blindly embracing neoliberal conceptualization of “gender” as a term and an analytical lens in Chinese feminist studies. For them, questioning “gender” does not mean ignoring gender inequalities. On the contrary, they intend to reject the hegemonic Western power discourse embedded with “gender”, thereby developing real local feminism that is compatible with Chinese society. Furthermore, the efforts of critical socialist feminists to address the complexity of historical and cultural contexts also challenge the tendency to understand Chinese society in oversimplified dualistic categories.
The Western import of “gender” in China
Gender, as a concept that originated in Western feminism, had received in-depth academic sophistication in Western societies before it became a norm that spread around the world. Under the broad realm of Western feminism, many different and sometimes even competing theories have been developed. Among them, neoliberal feminism, which is marked by an alliance between neoliberal capitalism and feminism, has become the mainstream theory in recent decades. The dominant position of neoliberal feminism is obtained with the help of the discourse of modernization, which is also embedded by neoliberal capitalism. Consequently, together with the global expansion of neoliberal capitalism, the neoliberal feminist understanding of gender has become a norm which is introduced to the world, especially to the non-western world which is considered as those which need to modernize.
The first systematic introduction of gender in Chinese society was in the 1990s and marked by the fourth world conference on women in Beijing in 1995. Later, gender was disseminated by transnational feminist networks, including feminist scholars, activists, institutions, and NGOs – most of them were substantially funded by Western foundations. Gender in China, perhaps as well as in many other non-Western countries, has been embedded in Western neoliberal discourses since its introduction. Local scholars and activists were taught by their Western counterparts, who considered themselves epistemically superior at that time, about what gender is, and what approach should be taken to the study of gender.
There were mixed reactions towards the Western import of gender in China/ by Chinese feminists. Some warmly welcomed this import and Western neoliberal feminists subsequently regarded them as more enlightened and part of the international feminist network. Two major points of progress could be identified with the embrace of “gender” in Chinese society. Firstly, Chinese women and other gender minorities have become part of the universal. They shared common struggles against gender inequality with their counterparts in the world (or in the West?). The gender liberation of Chinese people, guided by neoliberal feminism, has been included in the agenda of the international feminist movement. Secondly, Chinese social scientists welcomed gender as a new analytical lens; the import of gender changed the situation in which class had been the only analytical lens for decades, which was considered progress of Chinese academia to be more scientific.
However, another voice was marginalized and suppressed by Western neoliberal feminism because it took a more sceptical attitude towards the Western import of gender. Those who supported this voice argued that gender was a concept centred on white middle-class women who were already more privileged. Therefore, using gender as a lens to understand inequality may ignore those who are further marginalized. For example, several decades ago, millions of Chinese people still lived in extreme poverty and hunger. It would require a more systematic approach to achieve their liberation, in which gender may only constitute one of many important aspects, which may include class, ethnicity, age, race, etc. In this regard, more critical feminist positions such as intersectional feminism, socialist, and Marxist feminisms may find themselves more compatible with Chinese society. However, within the global discourse of modernization, these theories are less dominant and visible than neoliberal feminism; further, these feminist theories still developed in Western academic and political environments, and so are not sensitive to the specific history and culture of Chinese society. Furthermore, some Chinese social scientists worried that embracing gender meant embracing Western colonial power in theory building. Their worry was not baseless. Since the Western import of gender, a persisting tendency in Chinese academia has emerged that scholars just borrow Western gender theories and do not bother constructing theories that are grounded in Chinese contexts anymore.
Contestations against “gender” by critical socialist feminists
In the context of mixed reactions towards gender as a Western concept, there is one academic community, sometimes referred as “critical socialist feminists”, which deserves more attention for their efforts to decolonize Western feminism. Their voices are constantly misrepresented as exonerating Chinese patriarchy because of their “anti-gender” attitude. However, for critical socialist feminists, “anti-gender” is not the same as “anti-feminism”; on the contrary, I argue that “anti-gender” is the approach they take to develop local feminism in Chinese society. Critical socialist feminists consider neoliberal conceptualization of “gender” as a term that represents the history and culture of Western people, and blindly treating gender as a universal norm eradicates the specific history and culture of Chinese people.
To start with, there is no single term in the Chinese language that captures the meaning of gender. For scholars who embrace Western feminism, “Gender” in the Chinese language is translated as shehui (social) xingbie (gender/sex), which stresses the social construction of gender roles. However, critical socialist feminists challenge the translatability and transferability of gender as a Western concept in China. They suggest that xingbie is a contextual term that has already covered both biological and social aspects of the human body. In other words, xingbie is a concept that is social in its first place, and therefore it would be redundant to add another shehui. Furthermore, critical socialist feminists also point out the close relationship between neoliberal feminism and neoliberal capitalism. Consequently, gender is considered a term that reflects capitalist history and culture, which ignores the knowledge and experience from non-capitalist societies. This has led Chinese feminist Dong Limin to argue that gender “degenerated into a cultural hegemony endowed with discursive tyranny” and therefore alienated Chinese people from the history and culture of socialist liberation and turned Chinese people into “others” in the international feminist movement (Dong, 2012:32).
One example that highlights socialist history of women’s empowerment and liberation is women’s high level of participation in public work in a specific historical period of the Cold War. Western feminists usually subscribe to the view that treats it as the result of the Chinese state’s top-down mobilization, with women passively enduring this unidirectional force. Critical socialist feminists argue that this is an oversimplified understanding that ignores the Cold War background, the restructuring of industrial and agricultural production, the revolutionary consciousness of the working class, the remodelling of women themselves, and changes in the concept of the family, which all had a huge impact on women’s participation in public work. Moreover, for critical socialist feminists, this view also neglects the agency of Chinese women. They suggest that the mobilization of emotions, social identity, ethics, the creation of subjectivity, and even the imagination of the future world empowered individual women to take active actions in participating in public work. Critical socialist feminists do not deny the role of gender in women’s empowerment. However, they argue against the dominant, unified understanding of gender promoted by neoliberal feminists, which only stresses empowerment in capitalist social contexts and sees gender as the only important factor in women’s political and social participation. Critical socialist feminists would rather use xingbie, instead of gender, to explore a different path to empowerment in Chinese social contexts. They further suggest that empowerment is a “product of a historical and cultural systemic restructuring formed by the intersection, intertwining, and compromise of various particular historical factors” (Dong, 2012: 34). Taking a historical perspective does not mean idealizing the past. On the contrary, critical socialist feminists critically scrutinize the past and reject old political formulas as a solution to contemporary problems. By taking a historical perspective, they promote a more holistic and local understanding of gender inequality in Chinese society. They call for real local research rather than localizing Western theories in Chinese society.
It is difficult to find a powerful discourse with which critical socialist feminists can ally themselves. They are anti-gender and sometimes even against Western feminism entirely. At the same time, they have significant differences from Chinese state feminism, which promotes state ideology and emphasizes women’s function in a state-administered society and their contribution to state-defined overall tasks. Moreover, critical socialist feminists’ hostile attitude towards Western neoliberal feminism does not mean they are isolationists; their scholarship is informed by various foreign scholars such as Nancy Fraser, the author of “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History.” Lastly, critical socialist feminists are even cautious about identifying themselves as parts of international socialist or decolonial feminism, since they are still largely formed in an international neoliberal capitalist environment.
However, critical socialist feminism is not driven to join a dominant discourse. Through their refused identification and decentralized practices, they aim at approaching feminism in a social-systems-based way, which incorporates a holistic understanding of the socialist (and other) history and culture that shape the way Chinese society becomes today. By doing so, critical socialist feminists may find a solution different from the one provided by neoliberal feminism to address gender inequality in China. Their efforts also have the potential to provide more possibilities and add diversity to international feminist movement.
Ji Zhengwei (He/him) has recently completed his MSc in Gender, Policy, and Inequalities at the London School of Economics and Social Sciences, and he holds a BSc in International Relations and Global Governance from Beijing Foreign Studies University. His academic interests are decolonial feminism and feminist IR. Since 2022, he has been running his own official account on Chinese social media and publishing reviews of feminist books and articles.
Spakowski is a leading scholar in Western academia who studies feminism in China:
- Spakowski, N. (2011). “Gender” Trouble: Feminism in China under the Impact of Western Theory and the Spatialization of Identity. Positions, 19(1): 31-54. Doi 10.1215/10679847-2010-023
- Spakowski, N. (2018). Socialist Feminism in Postsocialist China. Positions, 26(4): 561-592. Doi 10.1215/10679847-7050478.
And for those who understand Chinese and have access to Chinese academic resources, Dong Limin is a prominent figure in critical socialist feminist study in China:
- Dong, L. (2011). “Wenxue yanjiu de xingbie shiye yu meijie weidu: Dong Limin fangtan lu” (“The Gender Perspective and Media Dimension in Literary Studies: An Interview with Dong Limin”). Yishu guangjiao (Art Panorama), no. 3: 24–28.
- Dong, L. (2012). “‘Lishihua’ xingbie: ‘Guanlian’ ruhe keneng” (“‘Historicizing’ Gender: How Can a ‘Connection’ Become Possible?”). Wenyi zhengming (Debates on Literature and Art), no. 4: 31–35.
- Dong, L. (2013). “‘Xingbie’ de shengchan ji qi zhengzhixing weiji: Dui xin shiqi Zhongguo funü yanjiu de yi zhong fansi” (“The Production of ‘Gender’ and Its Political Crisis: A Reflection on Chinese Women Studies in the Reform Era”). Kaifang shidai (Open Times), no. 2: 93–105.