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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 married so often by conventional Chinese standards—Deng Xiaoping’s wife is his third—that Chou Enlai was much admired by women for being loyal to his wife, at least until recent scandalous rumors to the contrary.

The Party’s hypocrisy has international effects. A recent BBC film which devoted barely two and a half minutes to Mao’s doctor describing the Chairman’s taste for very young women caused such rage in Peking—where Mao’s proclivities were no secret—that the BBC is now very near the top of China’s enemy’s list. Indeed, when Rupert Murdoch, who owns Star TV, was trying to get his network into China he was advised by Chinese officials to eliminate BBC broadcasts from his commercial television channel in Hong Kong. He did so, but he is still unable to market his network in Peking.

The embarrassing difficulty for the Chinese is that what the BBC reported about Mao is true not only for him but for many other top leaders as well. Dai Qing, who is the adopted daughter of the late Marshal Ye Jianying, and who therefore should know, says in an interview with Wang Zhen in the interesting collection Gender Politics in Modern China, “The situation is that at the bottom of society there is sexual repression and at the top sexual indulgence. That’s unfair. It’s an important part of injustice and inequality in China right now.” From this Dai draws a large conclusion, which significantly brings together Mao and sex:

I think that over the next five or ten years there will be two major issues preoccupying Chinese social life. The first will be de-Maoification…. The other will be the issue of sex. I anticipate a great conflict and tremendous discussion and a transformation of people’s behaviours and attitudes.

This would be a big transformation. The Party has long been publicly puritanical about sexual behavior; already in 1942 Mao had ordered that China’s best-known woman author, Ding Ling, undergo weeks of thought reform for suggesting, in her essay “Thoughts on Women’s Day,” that women at Yanan, Mao’s guerrilla headquarters, experienced “bitterness” and “dilemmas.” While “supposedly emancipated,” they were “actually subjected to inequality and corruption.” The Communist Party’s leaders, Ms. Ding said, “should talk less of meaningless theories and more of actual problems.”1

When Dai Qing writes about sex she means sexual intercourse, not “gender,” which the Western and Western-trained contributors to the two books take to mean that “the categories female and male—the meanings assigned to them, the behavior expected of them, the sense of self associated with them, and the relations among and between those female and male selves—are cultural constructions.” The Western scholars in the two volumes have strangely little to say about what Dai Qing calls the “issue of sex,” although as Jonathan Spence has shown in these pages, some works of traditional erotic literature turn “on its head the conventional stereotype of women in China as being meek and maltreated.”2 The subject of erotic attraction is explored in only one chapter, and in admirably straightforward language, by Charlotte Furth, professor of history at the University of Southern California, in her fascinating essay on R.H. Van Gulik, the Dutch scholar who did much to introduce Chinese erotica to Western readers. In Engendering China she describes the view of a legendary master of the “bedchamber arts”:

The ideal woman as object of desire, then, is compliant and easily aroused, ignorant and young…. “responsive, easily excited to feelings of desire, perspires freely, and follows [her partner] in action and repose.”… marks of female maturity—large, developed breasts, thick pubic hair—are undesirable.

Such girls, according to what Mao’s old comrades told Harrison Salisbury, were also to the Chairman’s taste, and this preference remains a strong one among many Chinese men, as is shown by the frequent reports in Hong Kong newspapers of the rounding up of schoolgirls of twelve to sixteen who have been inveigled into the colony’s karaoke bars, many of which are semi-brothels.

The discussion of gender, as distinguished from sex, sometimes seems more concerned to make statements about American ideological issues than Chinese ones. The Americans who contribute to the two absorbing books under review, especially the younger ones, signal constantly to their readers and to one another that they are on the right side, rather like the politically correct Chinese throughout the Mao period who used terms like “Under the leadership of Chairman Mao and the Party,” and “Workers, peasants and soldiers,” to introduce paragraphs. But the current jargon is more obscure. Women do not act, they have “agency”; qualities do not overlap one another, they are “imbricated.” In her essay in Engendering China, Lisa Rofel, who has worked among Chinese women in a silk factory and has much of interest to say about them, uses language that will be virtually hermetic for many readers, even though what she means to say is important. For example:

This romanticization of Chinese women may have orientalized them through abstractions about the essence of patriarchy in Chinese tradition against which they were said to be fighting.

Tani Barlow, another contributor to Engendering China, writes, “The term subject position calls attention to the power of discourse to situate the meanings of woman multiply and always in relation to one another.” Surely the condition of women in China is too important to deserve such language.

As the editors of Engendering China (“engendering conveys the sense that new knowledge is being created”) say, “Our voices share an oppositional tone….” In fact, the older American women in these books, and most of the Chinese, write in clear academic prose, and their essays are no less valuable for being readily understandable.

Roughly half the almost 1.2 billion Chinese are women, although in some regions the gender ratios are now sometimes ten to one in favor of males because of the one-child policy, promulgated in 1980 and intended to reduce China’s population by several hundred million within fifty years. The policy impels many Chinese, who prefer boys, to dispose of infant girls or, if they have access to scanners, of female fetuses. Amartya Sen of Harvard estimates that fifty million women are “missing” in China owing to “a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women.”3 Professor Sen does not mean that fifty million women have been literally killed—although he mentions female infanticide—but he provides several reasons for such a high rate of female deaths in China, among them inferior medical care, poor education, and an “unequal share of social progress.”

Rural Chinese still believe that only males can worship ancestors. In the Chinese countryside only boys can inherit property and since girls “marry out,” that is, they disappear into their husbands’ families, only boys can support their retired parents. Many Chinese peasants will say that their boys are their “children” and then add that they “also” have girls. Some girls still have only numbers as first names. But these practices and attitudes are all the more covered up now because the status of women has become a concern of official public relations, in view of the impending United Nations World Conference on Women.

In proto-capitalist China there will be money to be made from this event. Zhuhai, a Special Economic Zone on the southeast coast, is establishing a Women’s Tourist Island where, according to Jiangxi province’s Economic Evening News of May 24, in addition to a holiday village and duty-free shops, there will be “a paradise especially for women…featuring women’s records, women’s entertainment, women’s mysteries, and fairies coming to earth…” The paradise is to be ready in time for the UN conference.

But it may be harder to convince the thousands of women coming to Peking in 1995 that the official slogan, “Women hold up half the sky,” expresses the kind of egalitarianismthat once attracted Western feminists to China. Because of research such as that in Engendering China and Gender Politics in Modern China they will not so easily believe the words of the foreword to “The Situation of Women,” the State Council’s recent White Paper, that

  1. 1

    Merle Goldman, Literary Dissent in Communist China (Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 23.

  2. 2

    The New York Review, June 23, 1994.

  3. 3

    The New York Review, December 20, 1990.

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