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

Chinese women enjoy equal rights with men in all aspects of political, economic, cultural, social, and family life and that they have become, like all Chinese, masters of the state and society…. In China, the expression “women hold up half the sky” has become the most vivid expression the entire society uses to praise the role played by women.

About such cant Dai Qing is customarily blunt: “You don’t need flowery words. If you want to know how well this country is run all you have to do is look at the women at the bottom of society.” Although from its guerrilla period in the countryside during the Thirties and Forties the Party always insisted that men and women are equal, and although the situation of women in China since the Communist victory in 1949 has improved greatly—they live several decades longer than they used to, for example—in many ways, men and women are far from equal.

Perhaps a few thousand eminent women such as Dai Qing are recognized as important intellectual, political, or cultural figures, and are paid as well as their male counterparts and have control over their lives. This is not true for most Chinese women. China remains a male-dominated society whose preference for males is so intense that when the one child-family policy was promulgated in 1980, female infanticide immediately became so widely practiced that senior leaders were forced to criticize what was beginning to look like a mass slaughter of baby girls.

In the middle Fifties, when the communes were established, there was, it is true, a brief trend toward equality even in the countryside. According to Gao Xiaoxian, writing in Engendering China, who works for the Women’s Federation, the communes weakened the power of the men over women because the women moved out of the house into jobs, were paid wages, and, at least for a year or two, no longer had to cook because the communes supplied communal food. “This was the first time in history that rural women were participating in all aspects of social production.”

But then came the Great Leap of the late Fifties, which soon led to the great famine of 1959-1961. Somewhere between thirty and fifty million Chinese died. The period before the famine Ms. Gao calls “only a utopia,” and before long, she says, “rural women returned to their previous position, once again assuming the burden of household labor.” Their lives had become even harsher, says Ms. Gao, because they were now doing two jobs, in the field and at home.

Ms. Gao writes that during the last decade or so women’s consciousness and values have begun to change. They are expressing views on family, marriage, and career which she believes will be “driving forces in the changes in women’s status.” But surveys of rural women show how far women still have to go. Ms. Gao notes that they have inferior jobs, lower pay, and when jobs are scarce are often urged to “return home,” which “is clearly not advantageous to women’s development.” In the rural regions, where parents increasingly remove their children from school so they can work, and so the parents can save the tuition fees that all Chinese must now pay for schooling, 70 percent of school-leavers and most of the illiterates are women. This means that as jobs require increasing skills, women are less and less qualified.

Much the same thing has happened in cities, especially after the beginning of Deng’s reforms of the Eighties, which allowed profit to become the determining factor in hiring. These reforms, according to Emily Honig and Gail Hershatter, “strengthened and in some cases reconstructed the sexual division of labor, keeping urban women in a transient, lower-paid, and subordinate position in the work force.” The state authorities did nothing to intervene on behalf of women. “To do so would have violated the spirit of the economic reforms, designed to grant local work units more independence in managing their own operations.”4

According to Ms. Honig and Ms. Hershatter, the Communist authorities attribute women’s difficulties to three problems: the traditional past, or “feudalism,” the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and Western influences, which have provoked disharmony in society by encouraging divorce and infidelity. What the officials claim has been lost, write Ms. Honig and Ms. Hershatter, sounds “suspiciously like the traditional Chinese values for women—chastity, loyalty, unselfishness, and vigilance.”

The return to more traditional attitudes is clearly shown by Lisa Rofel, who in the late Eighties made a study of women weavers in Hangzhou. The older workers told her with great pride that getting out of the house and into the factory was truly liberating. Previously “such workers were rhetorically praised as the most progressive urban class.” Here again the Deng reforms have been a setback for such women, who are now regarded as lacking “productivity, efficiency, incentive, knowledge, and all the makings of a ‘modern’ worker.” One of Ms. Rofel’s veteran workers, who insisted to her that men and women are equal, also explained that men hold managerial jobs because “they have qualities more suited to managerial work.” Her survey forces Ms. Rofel to a conclusion many Western feminists will find hard to accept: she wants “the recognition of the existence of and possibilities for various feminisms, both Chinese and US,” particularly a feminism in which women will escape from jobs, not seek them. The younger women told Ms. Rofel they hated factory work. As one of them, on extended maternity leave, said, her goal was to “stay home as long as possible.”

This account suggests how deeply the hopes for women’s emancipation have been disappointed. It also helps to explain the shortage of wives and the traffic in abducted and sold women from poor regions to richer ones, where men can afford to pay for wives. But sometimes an optimistic interpretation is put on these matters, especially for city women, who in many ways are certainly far better off than rural ones. According to the sociologists Martin King Whyte and William Parish, Chinese women are much less well paid than men, not because they are discriminated against in the same work but because they do less skilled work. On the whole they are no worse off than their counterparts in similar countries, say White and Parish, while “Chinese urban women seem to be doing relatively well, perhaps better than one should expect given China’s low level of economic development (and patriarchal heritage).”5 Most women who study Chinese women, however, would tend to agree with Dai Qing and the anthropologist Rubie Watson, who writes that in the Maoist period—and it seems afterward as well—“when issues of production, Socialist morality, government policy, or family concerns conflicted with women’s rights it was nearly always women who lost out…”6

According to the well-known novelist Wang Anyi, another of Wang Zheng’s interviewees, it is the prospect of losing out that explains why so many Chinese women have become prostitutes. “They simply do not want to fall into the fate of common female factory workers, crushed each day on the bus, with a tiny little pay packet each month, and then to make everything worse, getting saddled with a baby. They don’t want their lives to fall that low and that I think is very normal. Many of them are the most ambitious among us.”

Ms. Wang, who is notorious in China for her sexually explicit stories, says, “I think China is tragic. In China women are only now beginning to have the right, the luxury, to talk about differences between men and women,” but in almost the same breath she adds, “I absolutely deny that I am a feminist.” When she met American feminists in 1983 she “found it scary. They always emphasized women’s rights and women’s liberation.”

If Ms. Wang is present in Peking next year such views may well disappoint her foreign colleagues. Like some of the other Chinese women in these volumes who are troubled by their meetings with Western feminists, Ms. Wang says that they ask the wrong questions and seem ignorant of Chinese women’s circumstances. Women in China are often exhausted, Ms. Wang says. “To feel that women are the appendages of men you must have leisure time. We don’t have that leisure and we are very, very tired… Foreign feminists never experience such fatigue.”

Wang Anyi says that “Chinese men are worse than men in other countries,” but she ranks male writers generally higher than female writers “in all of world literature.” She hopes that some day she can write like a man, because “for female writers it is too easy to get buried in personal experience; it’s too tempting to huddle up in one’s own shell and not stop and think about how pitiful she really is.” Although Ms. Wang names no male writers, she claims that universally, when it comes to “really grand literature,… women’s literature is less powerful, less expansive in conception.”

But the real shock for some of the Western visitors to the UN conference in Peking in 1995 will be the attitudes toward women and toward work of some leading Chinese women intellectuals, who argue that there isn’t enough work to go around, and that many women should bow out. One of the reasons Dai Qing says Western feminists leave her “very cold” is because “China faces the question of whether women should return to the home rather than the question of how to leave the home.”

Although Ms. Dai has a college degree in rocket science, she believes that “almost all the highest representatives of human civilization—philosophers, mathematicians—are men” and thus “there are simply more highly intelligent men than women.” She thinks, too, that China is so poor that it cannot afford to fully employ women. She points out that in some villages women have returned to their homes. Instead of demanding individual employment, Chinese women “should consider how they can make their contribution to modernization and the development of productivity,” which, she says, has been dragged back by the government’s insistence on equality between men and women.

In Ms. Dai’s view, the “cruel reality” is that “Chinese productive relations cannot afford to pay for women’s maternity leave,” which now amounts to fifty-six days. When [Chinese] society is more advanced, women should have welfare.” Ms. Dai “seeks harmony,” and insists that in China there are far greater problems than gender conflict. She thinks “that if a woman wants to do anything she must forget about her own gender” and suggests that what is needed is to rationalize the “irrational patterns of life,” particularly housekeeping. Just how this should be done she doesn’t say.

If men expressed such views, the “feminists abroad,” with whom Ms. Dai says she feels little empathy, would denounce them as chauvinistic. But Professor Margaret Woo of Northeastern University observes that in the difficult circumstances of a backward economy—with tens of millions of unemployed—Chinese state regulations which claim women are equal but also provide for maternity care, “run the risk of reinforcing the stereotype that the primary role of a women is reproduction.” Contrary to the impression of many Westerners, most Chinese have to pay for health care; and like Ms. Dai, Professor Woo believes that because the country is backward, neither the state nor employers who work outside the Special Economic Zones can afford to pay for it.

The idea that women should have lower and different expectations than those of men is of course traditional but, Professor Woo argues, it is now also pragmatic because there is a surplus of labor. By contrast during the Cultural Revolution it was ideologically required for women to appear the same as men and to do the same work—a standard Professor Woo describes as “unisex.” (In 1972 this “sameness” meant that women tried to look as masculine as possible. Western feminists at the time admired this.)

This trend toward, and then away from, a unisex conception of gender is well shown in the contribution to Gender Politics by Meng Yue, a Chinese woman graduate student at the University of California where, despite her obvious taste for wit and irony, she learned the prevailing jargon: (“He may also fail to narrativize ‘who am I’ in terms of preexisting entities”). But Ms. Meng writes plainly enough about “The White-Haired Girl,” a story with a long revolutionary pedigree, which has been made into operas and films between the 1940s and the 1960s. In early versions of the adventures of Xier, a beautiful girl from the countryside, we are told about her sexual desires and her experience of rape and pregnancy. All these gradually disappeared, conforming to the political tendencies of the moment. The “late model” versions of the heroine, Ms. Meng writes, “do not get raped at all; they become mothers but somehow remain virgins. Finally, when Xier’s body and sexuality have completely faded from the story, the empty conceptual space is marked by the term ‘class’….”

But that was during the Maoist period. Nowadays, especially after the Dengist reforms, many employers refuse to hire women, even well-qualified graduates, unless they are “feminine”—young and pretty—and therefore suitable for work as xiao mi, little secretaries, especially where this involves foreigners. According to Professor Woo, in one city in 1988, 70 percent of the fired workers were women, a proportion that managers attribute to the excessive cost of legally required benefits such as maternity leave and nurseries. In the recent comprehensive survey Women and Politics Worldwide, the two women who write about China say that “this crisis derives from the cost of female workers and enterprises.” The costs include wages and special payments for women during pregnancy, child care, and breast-feeding. They cite a 1988 report showing that women work an average of 320 hours per month and men 442 for the same pay. But, they add, the women “have received no reasonable recompense…for undertaking the task of reproducing the human race.”7

The great exception to the growing aversion to women workers, which is described by many of the women contributors to these books and is regularly discussed in the Chinese press, is to be found in the Special Economic Zones along the southeast coast. Factories there need thousands of meticulous low-paid workers, and Professor Woo says that often 90 percent of these are women. These factories are notoriously unsafe. Here in Hong Kong we read weekly of the collapse or destruction by fire of such places, where doors and windows are sealed to lock workers in, and where most of the dead lying in the rubble or ashes are women. It is not surprising to learn from Professor Woo that in the Special Economic Zones, “where the need for protection is the greatest, the conditions are the worst.”

This analysis makes a mockery of the assertion in the State Council’s White Paper that women “like all Chinese citizens [are] masters of the state and society.” The only sphere in which Chinese women can claim equality of gender is in international sports; according to the White Paper, of the 775 world championships won by Chinese between 1949 and 1993, 59 percent were won by women. Here at last is an activity into which men cannot encroach.

Why don’t Chinese women fight harder for rights? Professor Woo contends that they do not because they do not see themselves as “individuals ‘endowed with inalienable rights’ against the competing aims of state and society….[but as] members of a family and a community.” To challenge this view would be to call into question the power of the Communist state, which resists any such dissent, whether from women, trades unions, or film makers. “Taking the definition of gender equality away from the state,” Professor Woo says, “would require the development of an independent women’s movement, separate from state and party control, which encourages the multiplicity of changing women’s voices.” There is as yet no sign of such a movement.

Some of the more hidden and private voices of Chinese women are described by Cathy Silber, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, whose rhetoric obscures some of her fascinating research. I have always wanted to know about nüshu, the women’s phonetic writing system found only in a section of Hunan province and now almost extinct; in 1989, when Ms. Silber studied it, there were only two women alive who knew this script. She introduces us to the world of Shangjiangxu township in Jiangyong county where the nüshu script, once commonly used among young women, could not be read by men, although they could understand it if they heard it read.

In many parts of China, Ms. Silber writes, women often return home for long periods after marriage, and continue long-standing friendships with “sworn sisters.” In Hunan until forty years ago, they established these relationships and passionately continued them by exchanging nüshu letters and inscribed fans. They visited each other, wore each other’s clothes, and referred to each other, in set linguistic forms, as intimate pairs. The language they used is often self-deprecating but effusive: “My heart’s red hot to swear this bond together,” and “If we had been sons, We could be together, not torn apart.” The friendships had erotic overtones but apparently did not involve physical sexual relations; the exchanges of letters give the impression that the young women were not keen to be married and understood that their passionate friendships would disappear when they were. Or as Ms. Silber somewhat obscurely puts it, “I situate a girlhood discourse of antipathy toward marriage in the context of discourses about marriage and relationships other than kin and affinal.”

Ms. Silber’s subject is fascinating and she convincingly makes a central point: “As the material I have presented here makes clear, the social institutions oppressive to women, though dominant and pervasive and seemingly permanent, were not so monolithic as to render women utterly passive victims with no room to maneuver.” Ms. Silber writes that with the 1949 Liberation, nüshu disappeared. The reasons for this would tell us something significant, perhaps, about the Party’s attitude toward women just after it took power, but here Ms. Silber says only that she “cannot speak” to “such questions.” Nor does she discuss to what extent, or how, relationships with “sworn sisters” continue.

Li Xiaojiang suggests a strategy for Chinese women that may disturb Western feminists. She describes how difficult it is for women to combine demanding work with having families, and writes that “the extraordinary stress of a double role is a heavy burden, and one that neither women in history nor contemporary men have experienced!”

But women, she warns, cannot now be advised merely to stop working and forget what they learned about themselves and the world when they were declared to be “equal”—that is, encouraged to work outside the home. “Perhaps deep sleep can still be had after awakening, but the new heavy sleep brings with it dream-visions of past awakenings.” Nonetheless, Professor Li says, China’s low level of production means that women cannot expect to do the same work as men or expect to receive the special health benefits to which they are legally entitled but many employers cannot afford. Furthermore, she argues, men insist on their dominance and will not stand for opposition.

Professor Li’s solution for women is limited, modest, and almost despairing. For her, women’s liberation means “giving a good name to the incurably ‘petty’ qualities of femininity (such as being peaceful, close to nature, emotional) and through women’s struggle to promote those valuable human characteristics.” Professor Li puts “petty” in quotes because she thinks these qualities are far from petty. Her vision of the ultimate role for women is both grand and almost ant-like: “In the process of humankind’s own self-liberation, the burden of the cross is borne mostly by women.” This can be a very humble struggle indeed: women can “make their way into the crevices of society, and there find positions for themselves and space to move….one can just barely survive, and will have difficulty pursuing self-development.”

The authors of the China section of Women and Politics Worldwide, Yue Daiyun and Li Jin, who discuss the crisis of women’s extra demands on employers, and note that 70 percent of China’s unemployed are women, would find Professor Li’s recommendations discouraging. They argue that “relinquishing economic independence and self-sufficiency means traveling back on the old road of dependency and more fundamentally abandoning the road of political equality.” Their ideas are close to those of Amartya Sen, who urges that third world women deserve health care and better education (which he suggests are not particularly expensive in poor countries), which in turn will increase their productivity and extend their lives. They argue that “the task now [in China] is to strengthen women’s ability to compete and spur society to improve…opportunities for women to be employed.” Powerful proponents of such a program, however, have yet to emerge from the “crevices” ofChinese society, in which we can only hope that such people exist.

This Issue

October 6, 1994