Translating Chinese Feminism
I am fourteen years old, and I am visiting China for the first time in twelve years. A murky yellow light floods the train car, and I step gingerly down the narrow walkway, contorting my body to avoid the occasional jutted elbow. The train speeds through the countryside, and each time it dips into a tunnel we are wrapped in a velvety darkness. Passing lights illuminate the passengers mid-motion, and for half a minute we become a living phenakistoscope. As I dig my way past patterned chenille seats in search of the tiny uncomfortable bathroom, I feel something tug at the flounced edge of my dress. Then, I hear snickers and cat-calls, in an unfamiliar Chinese dialect.
I don’t even stop to look at their faces––I continue on my way, clumsily barrelling through with cheeks flushed and heart pounding. I don’t even stop to look because I don’t need to; their faces do not matter to me, because they are part of something larger. Something ominous and odious.
And this is just one relatively benign incident among a spectrum of issues that call for Chinese feminism. But to be a feminist in China is to put yourself at risk, and to engage in patriarchal resistance is to enter a place of personal and political vulnerability.
Two years ago, on the eve of International Women’s day, the Feminist Five planned a protest to raise awareness of and bring an end to sexual harassment on public transportation. Li Tingting (李婷婷), Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘), Zheng Churan (郑楚然), Wei Tingting (韦婷婷), and Wang Man (王曼): these are their names. But the Chinese government detained the Feminist Five for over a month, first under the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and then for “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places.” The world was outraged at this arbitrary display of patriarchal power against a peaceful demonstration (i.e. handing out stickers, holding signs, wearing resistive clothing). In response, the #FreeTheFive Twitter campaign went viral, which brought them international visibility and eventually led to their release.
Although two years have passed, the struggle to find recognition for feminist issues persists. After Trump’s election, Zheng Churan posted a photo on social media to show international solidarity against the U.S. President’s sexist and chauvinistic attitude, stating, “Watch out, the feminists of the world are speaking, and we’re watching you.” Zheng Churan also publically supported this year’s International Women’s Strike on her account, Gender in China. As a result, the account was blocked for thirty days.
Feminist Voices is a high profile Sina Weibo account (a Chinese social media platform comparable to Twitter), which was also suspended for 30 days––Weibo (ambiguously) claims that the account violated Chinese laws, but the women suspect that the act of censorship is an authoritarian response to posts that featured controversial anti-Trump sentiments. Zheng explains that Trump supporters are surprisingly numerous in China because they share an aversion toward PC culture. She observes, “It feels like Trump fans believe if they copy his words, they’ll be as rich and powerful as him.”
These are the stories you will find when you Google “Chinese Feminism”––the narrative of these five powerful women and their public clashes with governmental authority is featured across the internet. But what does it look like for the people who are not making headlines? What does it even mean to be a feminist in China?
A soft three o’clock light spreads across my friend’s dorm room, and the two of us sunbathe as we sit comfortably on her bed––a warm reprieve from the blistering cold wind we had just left behind. Mimi grew up in Shanghai, China and went to a public boarding school there through middle school before moving to California for high school and college.
In high school, Mimi was president of the Gender Inequality club, spearheading publicity campaigns that aimed to give feminism visibility. Even in a notably progressive area, many of her peers’ responses were negative. When asked to characterize a feminist, they would respond: “man-hater”, “woman who supports other woman”, “woman who thinks she’s better than a man”. She pulls her face into a grimace as she mentions these phrases, because none of them sincerely define feminism––which is, in the simplest terms, a belief in fundamental human rights.
Mimi tells me that the concept of feminism was introduced to her in America, that it wasn’t even a subject of discussion while she lived in China. As a result, she has experienced two versions of feminism, two dialects of feminism. As we continue our conversation, we come to realization that language is pivotal to understanding the nuanced politics that surround the concept of feminism in China. Mimi tells me how she wasn’t initially aware of the symbols hidden within commonly used phrases that now function mostly through a collective meaning. But once she broke these terms down, studying the linguistic building blocks, she noticed the many layers of meaning that often slip unnoticed into the subconscious.
女权主义 (Nǚquán zhǔyì): feminism
M: “Here’s the problem with Chinese feminism: they don’t think gender equality is a problem. The word feminist carries a lot of negative connotation as well––even in America.”
C: “Right, yeah, can you tell me more about that?”
M: “When you say you’re a feminist in Chinese, it sounds like you’re being aggressive and greedy about how much power and rights you want. Nǚquán zhǔyì literally translates to ‘female powerism’. In English, power is an ambiguous term. But in Chinese, when you say quán, it is understood more as the power a politician might have instead of personal empowerment. But it can also mean civil rights. I understand where the public misconception comes from–-language-wise, feminism in China is not welcome.”
妇女能顶半边天 (fù nǚ néng dǐng bàn biān tiān): Woman can hold up half the sky
M: “Communism is actually the reason why the notion that ‘Women Hold Up Half the Sky’ was introduced to China––they basically realized that they need women in order to support society. Actually, Western feminism looked up to Chinese feminism because we were actually more progressive at that time. But right now, feminism in China has regressed. The biggest platform for feminism on Chinese social media is Feminist Voices, and it’s been shut down for I think a month and a half now. It’s a very small community.”
C: “Do you feel that, as China is becoming more capitalistic, feminism is getting weaker?”
M: “I definitely think so.”
Recent social media posts illustrate how, in China, International Women’s Day has “strayed from its origins” (chinadigitaltimes.net) ––rather than a day dedicated to pushing for human rights and equality, International Women’s day has been commercialized. Official social media accounts put an emphasis on physical appearances and material goods––women are encouraged to shop and take vacations.
国际三八妇女节 (Guójì sānbā fùnǚ jié): International Women’s Day
M: “Many people in China don’t like the official name for International Women’s day. In English, there’s woman, lady, girl, and female. And in Chinese, there are different terms too. Fùnǚ has the connotation of an older, married woman. The definition for this term though is a woman with constitutional rights.”
女生节 (Nǚshēng jié): Girl’s Day / 女神节 (Nǚshén jié): Goddess Day
M: “So people have started calling it Girl’s Day, or Goddess Day. If you trace back the reason for that, it’s because they think that being young is one of the requirements for being attractive, and you need to be attractive in order to be valued. And people say these terms without realizing this reason.”
C: “What do they think this day is for then?”
M: “People completely don’t know why there’s an International Women’s Day––they just think that this is a day where men spoil women. A lot of women at my age, who have received the same education I have––they want power, they want independence––but they don’t want to be called a feminist. I never even heard about the word feminism until I went to high school in America, it’s just not something we talked about.”
Mimi talks about her experience in Chinese public boarding school and how the gender binary is strictly enforced, with little discourse about the spectrum of gender and sexuality between teachers to students, or even between peers to peers. The institution, as she experienced it, was overwhelmingly hetero and cis-normative.
C: “Were people allowed to date?”
M: “No, your teacher would get so mad at you if they found that you were seeing anyone. It’s based again in communism––you aren’t supposed to date your comrade.”
C: “How are adolescents supposed to fully explore their identities then?”
M: “Teachers will tell you how to behave properly as a girl or a guy, and it’s very publically taught. It’s really difficult for anyone who is not cis or hetero, because of the whole Chinese cultural prioritization of lineage. America cherishes individualism, but in China you’re expected to stay with your family and produce grandchildren. Otherwise, you face pressure from your family.”
One common policy in Chinese schools is that students are not allowed to wear makeup––at the same time, Asian beauty standards have become exceedingly problematic and unrealistic. A patriarchal power dynamic is evident in China’s societal depictions of beauty in media: women who look pale, skinny, innocent, and doll-like are glorified because men feel like they can exercise a protective/possessive power over them.
剩女 (shèngnǚ): Leftover women / leftover ladies
M: “The Chinese beauty standard is so fucked up. You’re not allowed to do anything in school, but then in college all of a sudden everyone is doing it. You need to be super pale, super skinny–like unhealthily skinny. For some people it’s just their natural body type and that’s fine, but for most people it’s not––and people go after that shit. And it’s also popular to use phone filters make you look much younger than you are.”
C: “That makes me think of the Leftover Women issue. Schools police young girls about their appearance for years, and then the second they get to college, it’s a different kind of societal and self-policing. Like, there’s almost like a race to sell yourself before that late-20’s expiration date. Sad.”
女汉子 (Nǚ hànzi): Tough Girl
M: “There was a really popular phrase, Nǚ hànzi. Based on the meaning of the characters, it basically means ‘female dude’. For example, on a Facebook photo a family friend will comment nǚshén “goddess”, and I would reply “No, I’m just a nǚ hànzi” (“I’m just a female dude”). Or, if I open my own water bottle or something, someone would say “Go, nǚ hànzi!” It was just a humorous way to make fun of yourself, but again, it’s the idea that power belongs to masculinity, and there is something embarrassing about being associated with masculinity.”
C: “How do people in your old social circles see you now?”
M: “I’m considered a very aggressive and bossy girl, but I’m not apologetic. I’m really proud of how I present myself––but, again, that’s perceived as a negative image. Even though I do think Chinese women are becoming more aware and more powerful, I think they are only allowed to have power to a certain extent, to have self-awareness to a certain extent. They call powerful independent women nǚ hànzi and it’s like, I can be powerful and just be a fucking female. Why do I have to be a ‘female dude’? What does that even mean?”
直男癌 (zhí nán ái): Straight Man Cancer
As feminism gains more visibility on the international scale, it becomes more and more important to define this term, to recognize the subtleties that follow it through different nationalities. But there is something universal about feminism as well, and there is opportunity for solidarity across countries against the common foe of those like Trump, who––according to Chinese terms––spread “straight man cancer”, a condition that can unfortunately be understood and translated into multiple conditions and cultures.