Feminism in China: Risky, But Rising

??This summer I taught a course on American education policy at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China, with 55 undergraduates, mostly women, who were smart, inquisitive and surprisingly bold.  Despite the lack of support for women’s rights in the country, several of them identified as feminists, and many chanced government backlash by writing about wanting more rights in education, marriage and employment in the course’s online discussion board and on social media sites such as Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter.

During my three weeks there, I found that under China’s economic, political and social modernization, the most profound change may be the burgeoning number of feminists. While feminism as a widespread and cohesive political movement has yet to arrive in China, young college women are getting out their messages of gender equality on the Web. For example, last year at the prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University, 17 female students  promoted an upcoming performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues by holding up signs that read “My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom” and posted photographs of themselves with the signs on Chinese social media.

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In 2013, after the Women’s Legal Research and Service Center revealed widespread gender discrimination in college entrances that left women who scored much higher than men on the gaokao (the all-important national college admissions test) out of the top institutions,  some young women shaved their heads in protest and posted their photographs on social media platforms.

Twenty-something college students are also getting offline and staging protests in public areas. This past spring, just before I arrived in China, six topless women stood on a roadside in Guangzhou displaying signs that called for female equality. Similarly, activists occupied men’s toilets in a Guangzhou park to demand more public toilet stalls for women.

It’s not just college women who are risking taking action. Urban pockets of Chinese women are following Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra of “leaning in” or, in the Chinese translation, “taking one step forward.” Following the release of the Chinese version of Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, “lean-in circles” have sprung up in Beijing and other large cities with well-educated, ambitious, striving women. One young woman in my summer course explained how there were a handful of these circles in Xi’an, mostly comprised of students and young professional women. She didn’t think that they were doing anything that would be censored by the government, but one can never be sure, she warned.

All of this is remarkable because gender discrimination seems to be increasing in China since economic reforms began in the late 1970s. Alicia Leung, a researcher on the women’s movement in China, argues that gains made by women in China are limited by the patriarchy. As shown in the 2009 work of Lily Harper Hinton [pdf], then a postgraduate researcher at Victoria University of Wellington, women’s wages in China have lost ground to men’s. Their rights to marital property were reduced in 2011, leaving most of China’s assets in the hands of men. Only two women serve on the Politburo, and the party’s central committee of 200 officials now has less than 5 percent women, a figure lower than during Mao’s reign.

The feminism of Chinese women is also remarkable because being a feminist in China is risky. Women’s rights activists are pressured, harassed and punished by the government, especially if their activism involves collective action, public protests or is seen by the ruling Communist Party as threatening social stability. The Party often shuts down group demonstrations and places strict enforcements on the Internet.

Clearly, isolated protests by college and urban women and growing global recognition of Chinese women’s activists do not necessarily equate to the rise of women’s status in China.  Significant improvements in that status will require changes in attitudes that are deeply embedded in the country’s culture and history. But the young women I taught are ready for that challenge. They reason that time and the Internet are in their favor. Because things are changing so quickly in China, and globalization has already placed China in the world’s view, they believe that a large-scale wave of feminism is inevitable in their lifetimes.  Of course, they hope it is sooner rather than later.

As the international community remains highly attuned to the economic and political rise of China, we should also watch and cheer for feminists who are pushing against the country’s entrenched gender inequalities and misogynist leanings. And let’s help them by publicly opposing the Chinese government’s restriction of online communications, because that is their lifeline for activism. The students in my upcoming fall courses in Arizona will freely debate issues about social inequities, including gender discrimination, online. Shouldn’t Chinese students have the same right?

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Top: Chinese versions of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues have been performed in the country for more than 10 years.

Jill Koyama


Jill Koyama, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. She is coeditor of U.S. Education in a World of Migration: Implications for Policy and Practice.



  1. Last April, artist volunteers from the non-profit Women’s Caucus for Art created an exhibition and cultural exchange at LuXun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang China. Titled Half the Sky: Intersections in Social Practice Art, this project brought together women artists from the US and China as well as faculty, staff and students from the academy to share perspectives about art, the goals artists and the lives of women.

    The US art and interactive examples of social practice art had themes of domestic violence, rape, feminism, community building and creating common ground and environment. The academy organized a roundtable, with a translator, where the artists had an opportunity to dialogue.

    Our Chinese collaborators tended first to question the necessity for activist art in the US. This slowly evolved to an acknowledgement that China also had issues that would be worth addressing through art: the lack of or difficult access to social or environmental support services, that women in China are not equal to men even though government ideology might state otherwise, and that individual opinion is discouraged and even punished.

    Though we had the support of the academy’s president and its gallery director – both males and both of whom knew of our organization’s activist history and had approved the art and activities we brought to China – we were asked to respect the current dangers around activism for the Chinese by limiting our activities to inside campus buildings and avoiding sensitive topics such as Tibet and the one-child policy. These men spoke repeatedly about the role of art to question and expand awareness, how this project was unique and important and that they did not want to jeopardize this opportunity for any of the participants.

    During the initial days of the exchange, the US delegates felt our impact was minimal. Our knowledge about their culture related to women and art had expanded, but the Chinese reactions seemed muted. The last day of interviews and succeeding communication revealed, though, that seemingly small but definite transformations were taking place. Women there told us that, through our time together, their confidence for expressing opinions had grown. Students said they could see that art could be more than a demonstration of skill; it could push boundaries and encourage action. Our evaluation of this project is ongoing, but both sides of this cultural exchange came away with greater understandings about art, about culture and about the compromises needed to keep the doors of diplomacy open.

    On a related note, the US delegates and the staff at the academy used the social media site WeChat to assist communication during the planning process, since email was difficult. During and immediately after our time at the academy, many students and artists began joining us on WeChat, saying that such social media sites are the most reliable avenue for connecting and sharing news. Not long afterwards, the government shut down WeChat for many of its users in China, purportedly to eradicate its prostitution services.

    Sherri Cornett
    Director, Half the Sky: Intersections in Social Practice Art
    Chair, International Caucus of the
    Women’s Caucus for Art

    September 16, 2014

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