The Bottom of the Well

Gender Politics in Modern China: Writing and Feminism

edited by Tani E. Barlow
Duke University Press, 307 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Engendering China: Women, Culture, and the State

edited by Christine K. Gilmartin, edited by Gail Hershatter, edited by Lisa Rofel, edited by Tyrene White
Harvard University Press, 454 pp., $22.95 (paper)

Do Chinese women, as the Communist Party has held for decades, “hold up half the sky?” Or, like the frog at the bottom of a well in a famous Daoist legend, do they see only a little blue patch? Why is it that tens of millions of them are said to be “missing”? (Because from birth onward they die at a faster rate than men.) One of the contributors to the collections under review, Dai Qing, a writer much admired by Western women who study China, quotes a revolutionary song that would appeal to many foreign feminists: ” The dry black well is thousands of feet deep and women are at its bottom.”

But Dai Qing also says. “I’m not really interested in feminism…. I do feel that feminism is not the force to push China forward.”

Westerners who attend next year’s International Congress on Women in Peking may feel that their Chinese sisters are not only at the bottom of a well, they are living on a different planet. The questions that are posed about sexuality and gender in China by the Chinese contributors to these two symposia may come as a surprise to Western feminists. Are Chinese women really drawn to sex, some of them ask, or are they mainly child-bearers? If they have strong sexual feelings, as traditional pornography and the more daring women novelists writing since the Twenties have suggested that they do, should their sexuality somehow be curbed? Are their minds the same as men’s—some leading Chinese women writers think not—or is there a “feminine” aspect of their makeup which gives them a unique capacity for nurturing children but leaves them intellectually less high-powered? And what does “gender equality,” which the Party insists is absolute, mean if laws protecting women’s health make them less employable when jobs are scarce? After forty years of bearing the double burden of work and family, should women now “return home”?

One of the authorities on Chinese women, Professor Li Xiaojiang, of Zhengzhou University, where she is also head of women’s studies, says, “The life of a beast of burden is certainly not the liberation which Chinese women have so painstakingly sought.” The best she can suggest is that women should simply “subsist,” or “pursue self-development,” or seek humble tasks such as “pushing a small cart” which will not challenge men’s employment.

Perhaps liberated Chinese women intellectuals and Western feminists—like the contributors to Engendering China and Gender Politics in Modern China—do not have much to say to each other. China has been so deeply affected by nearly a half-century of Party control of social life that few Western feminists are able to imagine the atmosphere in which Chinese women live. Amid Chinese newspaper reports of the return of child prostitutes to the streets of Shanghai and rapidly growing numbers of people with AIDS, the Party is still pretending that its top leaders confine sex to the solidly faithful nuclear family. In fact many of the leaders have been…

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