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Women's Studies in China Today

Gender equality in China, if we remember the slogans of the Cultural Revolution, meant that women were to be seen to be able to perform all the tasks that men could. The anarchy of the Cultural Revolution put paid to all the symbols of that period. The general discrediting of communist and socialist discourse in China has also undermined its position on gender equality. The setting up of women's studies programmes and the pushing of a gender perspective within policy planning and within other disciplines is, therefore, a welcome and necessary step forward in that country. What China needs now is greater interaction within the international movement of women and greater academic exchanges with other countries.

Women’s Studies in China Today

Gender equality in China, if we remember the slogans of the Cultural Revolution, meant that women were to be seen to be able to perform all the tasks that men could. The anarchy of the Cultural Revolution put paid to all the symbols of that period. The general discrediting of communist and socialist discourse in China has also undermined its position on gender equality. The setting up of women’s studies programmes and the pushing of a gender perspective within policy planning and within other disciplines is, therefore, a welcome and necessary step forward in that country. What China needs now is greater interaction within the international movement of women and greater academic exchanges with other countries.


he field of academics in China today is radically different from previous years in both content and discipline. The change is especially noticeable in the field of sociology/ anthropology and economics. Sociology was banned in the 1950s and anthropology reduced to the study of China’s minorities. Similarly economics was reduced to a study of Marxian models dominated by the state. Sociology was reintroduced as a university course in 1981 and Fei Xiaotong, one of Chinese prominent social anthropologists was made the chairman of the Sociology Society in 1981.1 These changes are especially apparent since the 1990s. Law and Business Management are other examples of new and popular subjects. China has essentially cut down its list of “ideologically correct” disciplines.

Women’s studies is another subject that has been recently introduced at the university level. Since the 1990s, most good universities offer the subject at the postgraduate level. Along with this, has been the enormous academic exchanges taking place between China and the world. China has not just integrated its economy with the world, it has also sent its students to study abroad, and unlike during the Mao period, actively encouraged academic exchange with the west. This has led to a sea change in the critical perspective within China. Marxism, while still the ultimate safeguard for correct politics, is now challenged by the availability of other theoretical methodologies and critical paradigms.2

Women’s studies were introduced in China partly as a result of the country’s growing engagement with different United Nations forums and the availability of funding from these organisations for women’s studies. The Beijing conference held a decade ago on gender issues, is a definite landmark in terms of the legitimacy given to the women’s issues within mainstream political and academic thinking. This was the first time that international specialists of women’s studies pointed out the radical critical perspectives a gender framework brought to all research. This is not unique to China. Women’s studies in the third world all received a boost with the International Decade of Women and as a result of the second wave of feminism as it is popularly known.3

Feminism, if we define it as one of the new critical paradigms that has emerged in the post-1960s, and influenced to a very large extent by the women’s movement and complemented by the new work that emerged in the west, led by Foucault and Derrida and later complemented by the work done by more mainstream scholars like Bourdieu, is certainly a new paradigm in Chinese academia. It has unfortunately not led to a “women’s movement” that was closely linked to feminism in democratic countries like the west and India, and in fact is the critical difference, but it has allowed the mainstreaming of the idea within the social sciences and within policy planning.

This paper looks at the emergence of women’s studies as a subject and critically examines a women’s study reader brought out by the Yunan Minority University Women’s Studies programme. This is further complimented by informal conversations with Chinese academics and members of the women’s studies programme. The paper attempts to contextualise the significance of the emergence of women’s studies in China by first examining how this issue was earlier framed, how it is being framed within China and then taking a critical look at its impact both in other disciplines and on the general discursive shift on gender discourse in China.

Earlier Analysis of Women’s Subordination in China

Ameliorating the position of Chinese women in traditional society governed by a patriarchal discourse that took its legitimacy from Confucianism with its emphatic privileging of the male or the discourse of ‘Zhongnan qingnu’ (give importance to men and look down upon women) was one of the major demands of the early reformers in China. Although the issue of reforming women’s position in society had begun to be debated as early as the 1850s, it was only under the reform currently reflected by Palace Mandarins like Kang Youwei by the 1880s that,4 customs such as foot-binding and the demand for female education reached a peak. This period coincided with the demise of the China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing. The imperial house was blamed for China’s incapacity to face the west and was seen as an anachronism by the educated elite, especially of the coastal regions. By the period of the May Fourth Movement, female participation in education, employment and civil society organisations were on the rise in all the major urban centres. Female education, in turn, received a fillip being linked to enhancing women’s skills for the growing domestic labour market. This period saw the rapid growth of women in the numerous textile mills and factories that dominated Shanghai and other urban cities.5

This period can be highlighted as the first attempt to analyse and understand the causes of female subordination in China. The women’s question (‘funu wenti’) as it came to be popularly known

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006 became part of the wider discourse that represented the forces of democratisation and modernity sweeping China in this period. As Chow tells us, the rallying cry of the early 20th century was democracy, science and equal rights for all. Access to the ideas of enlightenment represented by the work of Darwin, Huxley, Mill and others had percolated amongst the educated classes through translations into Chinese. China’s rigid social structure and its Confucian ideology was seen as partly responsible for China’s defeat at the hands of western powers. Journals such as New Youth, edited by Chen Tuxiu were representative of this radical and new current of thought amongst Chinese intellectuals and youth.6

Apart from the liberal ideas of enlightenment, the Marxist perspective and analysis of women’s subordination was closely tied to the establishment of the communist party in 1921 under the leadership of Chen Tuxiu. Textually, the communist party and other left wing intellectuals turned to the work of Marx, Engles, and the early Russian women ideologues such as Clara Zetkin and to a lesser extent Alexendra Kollantai influenced the analysis of the women’s question in China.7 Along with the methodology of historical materialism that analysed China as a semi-feudal society, the analysis of female subordination was also couched within the broader parameters of a base/superstructure debate that underpinned early Marxist theory. This was, of course, accompanied by seeing all representations, including religion and that of the sign, gender, as mere ideology, and false ideology at that, the real being represented by class.8

Put simply, patriarchy was tied to private property and it was argued that only the abolition of this base would destroy the superstructure of both patriarchy and class exploitation. In both cases, the struggle for women’s equality was inextricably linked to the struggle of the working classes. This subordination of the gender issue to the wider goals of the revolution is reflective in the kind of organisation that the party creates to represent women. Here Lenin is worth quoting in detail:

…Real freedom for women is possible only through communism. This inseparable connection between the social and human position of the woman, and private property in the means of production must be strongly brought out. We must win over to our side the millions of toiling women…there can be no real mass movement without women…Our ideological conceptions give rise to principles of organisation. No special organisations for women: a woman communist is a member of the party just as a man communist with equal rights and duties. Nevertheless we must not close our eyes to the fact that the party must have bodies whose particular duty it is to arouse the masses of women workers, to bring them into contact with the party and to keep them under its influence…9 In a conversation with Clara Zetkin 1921.

This set the ideological relationship of the women’s organisations with the party. We must remember that all communist parties, be they Chinese or Indian, draw their own organisational structure, along with its commitment to “democratic centralism”, from Lenin. He created the party organisation as a cadre based party, each member controlled by party discipline and a core leadership group at each level in turn answerable to the politburo. Each of the party’s various organisations, its trade unions, its women’s associations, etc, were in turn answerable to the party line and discipline. Essentially, in practice, this democratic centralism has meant singularity of decision-making, the role played by “leaders”, Mao or Stalin, as the final arbitrators of programmers, structures and in China’s case, class struggle.

Mao’s famous Hunan Report lists four oppressions, the fourth being patriarchy. As he said:

A man in China is usually subject to three systems of authority (political authority, clan authority and religious authority). As for women, in addition to being dominated by these three authorities, they are also dominated by men (the authority of the husband). These four authorities – political, clan, religious and masculine

  • are the embodiment of the whole feudal-patriarchal system and ideology, and are the four thick ropes binding the Chinese people
  • particularly the peasants (Mao Zedong 1956, vol 1, 44).10
  • As far back as 1923, the party formed a unit dedicated to “women’s work”, ‘funu gongzuo’. This task was handed over to Xiang Jingyu, the first politburo member of the Chinese communist party. She was executed in 1927 after being arrested during the anti-communist white terror of this period. During the 1930s, after the communist movement shifted to the countryside, the work of the women’s wing was essentially to motivate women to contribute to the war effort. Kay Ann Johnson points out that the work among women was felt to be necessary because in many cases women exercised an influence to join the Red Army.11 During the period of struggle, women’s work essentially focused on motivating women to join the class struggle being waged in rural China. Although major laws such as the marriage law and the right of women to property were promulgated, in practice their implementation remained uneven. Women were seen as essential for the growth of the productive forces and asked to participate in the anti-war effort. No effort however was made to change the patriarchal discourse and counter the ‘zhong nan qingnu’ ideology. At Yenan too, the party policy remained the same. Women were organised into production teams and other committees. Stranahan quotes unverified sources to point out that a total of 1,30,000 women were members of one association or another (Stranahan 1976:35).12

    The party’s relationship with the issue of gender equality, can be best summed up by Ding Ling, the well known writer who also worked as editor of the party’s propaganda magazine in Yenan. Ding Ling summed up the double standards of the party in an article she wrote for the Jiefang Ribao on March 8, 1942. According to Ding Ling, women were expected to take on new roles as workers and party activists and yet expected to fulfil their responsibilities as wives and mothers. The result was that women were faced with insurmountable problems and derided whatever they did. As she says: “They were damned for what they did and damned for what they didn’t”.

    If women did not marry they were ridiculed and if they did, they were said to be paying too much attention to their families and self. She went on to say that male leaders should talk less of theory and more of practice. She ended by saying that “if the opinion she was putting forward was that of a male leader they would have been read with great seriousness but unfortunately, being a women, her opinion would probably be dismissed”.13 Mao criticised her personally and she suffered after the Hundred Flowers Movement of 1956, spending over 20 years in exile, banned from writing, except on stray scraps.

    Ideological Limitations

    After 1949, once the communist party came to power, the party’s women’s organisation was turned into what was defined as a mass organisation. The All China Women’s Federation (ACWF) was formed. The early decades of communist rule saw

    Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

    several landmark legislative rules passed in favour of equality for women in marriage and in terms of access to education, employment and private property. As Delia Davin points out, the Marriage Law of 1950 was one of the most revolutionary laws in China and for the first time created an environment that allowed women the right to leave forced unions of all kinds. Prostitution and, especially child prostitution was wiped out through re-education campaigns and through the rigid enforcement of health and education norms.14

    The first decade in the communist party’s history truly attempted and to a large measure succeeded in undoing centuries of gender subordination. Although the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution failed as movements, the ideas of gender equality they ushered in were truly revolutionary. The Great Leap Forward with its attempts to communalise housework also attempted to change the impression that women were responsible for housework and all the traditional attitudes that drew legitimacy from this basic premise. In many ways they did attempt an enforced uniformity where notions of love and sexuality were concerned. I remember the first time I went to China in 1982 the street was a sea of blue and dull army green – the Chinese green, crew cut hair and no gender! However, studies done by both Chinese scholars and international scholars have shown that despite the rhetoric of propaganda and party/state controlled media, gender equality remained just as differentiated and unachievable as it was in countries that practised more democratic structures of social reform and even countries where, like in India, lip service to gender equality was almost obligatory to win elections. Today, gender difference is visible openly again and is heavily influenced by consumerism, advertising and a return to more traditional feminine role models.15

    A careful perusal of Chinese communist history on gender reform also supports this argument. If actual differentials in social participation and salary structures are analysed, one notes that gender discrimination continued at all the same levels that it does in a liberal democracy – i e, in terms of salary structures, women in leadership positions and even in terms of countering the patriarchal structures inherent within marriage and the idea of the man as breadwinner and woman as housekeeper. One sees clearly that the role of women’s organisations within the party was clearly that of a bridge between women’s revolutionary potential as communists, their own gendered exploitation coming second. The chief contradiction was between classes not genders. This, we know today, is not an adequate analysis of patriarchy and the culturally justified subordination of women. Men in the communist party were not non-sexist or non-patriarchal, forcing a keen debate amongst socialist feminist Marxists internationally. The 1960s and 1970s were also characterised by several autonomous women’s groups which while accepting the importance of women’s lack of land and economic rights as fundamental to their rooted subordination, also used the opportunity to point out how patterns of gender subordination at the discursive level and as determinants of social discourse persist despite systemic and economic changes.

    This engineered and ideological attempt, backed by state power and its failure to change the fundamentals of gender relations forces us to re-theorise the problem and thereby its analysis. It is here that “Women’s Studies” in China is once again bringing out the “complicated”, not easily reducible to paradigms of analysis. Woman as the symbol, the sign, that interlinked discursive grid Foucault talks about, the habitus that Bourdieu does.

    Gender relations are the primary component of social organisation. This is where women’s studies as a discipline comes in as a critical theory, a new paradigm to analyse the different facets of continuing female subordination.

    The following section is a critical reading of the subject in China through analysing the contents and aims of the Women’s Studies programme in Yunnan University.

    Women’s Studies in China Today

    Curriculum and Course Content

    The United Nations led Decade for women followed by the women’s conference in Beijing was an important impetus for the Chinese government to allow for wider critical exchanges about the “Woman Question”. Ten years down the line, the syllabus, reach and impact of these women’s studies programmes can be assessed. The series of readers brought out be the women’s studies programme in the Minority University (‘Minzu Daxue’) in Yunnan, is representative of the way the academic discipline is being constructed and the issues that are considered important within China.

    The title of the book is Discipline Building of Women’s Studies and Minority Women Research (DBWSMWR). Published in 2004, the book is a general reader addressed to those pursuing the subject and to the general reader. In this section, I propose to critically read some chosen articles, keeping in mind the comparative context and content of women’s studies methodologies and concepts internationally.

    The introductory article lays out the history and development of women’s studies in China today. Wang Jinling, the author, points out how women’s studies in China develops during the 1980s as part of the universal decade for women, launched by the UN (DBWSMWR:10). The article is a general historical review and traces the genesis of the women’s question to the May Fourth movement. It becomes more interesting when it delves into the politics behind the establishment of the women studies programmes. The article points out three main parameters behind the establishment of this discipline at the MA level in China: (1) To put in place a discipline that examines gender discrimination in a long-term perspective. (2) Encourage the inclusion of gender sensitive paradigms within the other social science subjects. (3) If included, especially emphasise the methodologies and data collection on all social issues to include the gender perspective. This will enrich the social sciences as a whole (DBWSMWR: 11).16

    This is a commendable approach, and in one sense typically mainstream women’s studies. Wang Zheng expands the scope of women’s studies to include “ A study of different periods of history and examine the way gender relations have transformed and how gender is linked to class….the meaning of women’s studies is to promote a new critical theoretical perspective (DBWSMWR: 3).

    At the theoretical level, the main distinction remains that between “Feminism and Women’s Studies”. Here the semantics of the translation of concepts such as “gender studies” (‘xingbie yanjiu’) literally the study of sexual difference, feminist studies (‘nuquan zhuyi xue’) literally woman power studies, and then women’s studies translated as Nuxing xue that is female/women’s studies (DBWSMWR: 5).

    This semantic difference is an important clue to the ideological distinction being made between feminist studies, seen as

    Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006 essentially US inspired and the more mainstream attempts to bring a gender perspective to social science research as a whole. As Wang Zheng says, arguing her case for gender studies as the more important definition for this academic discipline:

    Gender Studies (‘Shehui xingbie xue’) main thrust is to analyse the social system of gender, the social relations of gender and the relationship between the two genders.17

    Speaking about the application of the gender perspective in courses, Zhao and Wang point out that after the 1995 conference, interest in women’s studies escalated. This was also the period when writings on feminism started being translated into Chinese. The authors list Wollestoncroft and Beauvoir amongst the classics that were introduced to Chinese readers a this point.18 The translation of books into Chinese has always been an important indicator of the importance of a subject and even a current as was demonstrated in the period prior to the May Fourth Movement of 1919 when the translation of Darwin, Huxley, Marx and others fuelled a social revolution.19 Not that women’s studies is likely to. It has been revolutionary to the extent that it has widened the terms of the discourse “woman” and even helped theorise the problems of women within a wider and interlinked discursive network that devolves into the different spaces where the sign “woman” appears.

    Speaking specifically of the location of women’s studies in the education field, the article is again insightful and informative. Wang Zheng points out that the subject is largely a research subject and teaching staff in these programmes comes from different disciplinary backgrounds. Staff also interact with government departments dealing with women’s affairs and provides policy inputs. Thus it also works at the level of a policy think tank. They provide background research and data collection for projects run by the women’s departments within different social welfare ministries and also help with the work of the Women’s Federation (‘Fu Lianhe’).

    In general, there was criticism about the work of the Women’s Federation amongst the students and staff of the women’s studies center.20 It is felt that the Federation concentrates only on state sponsored campaign and its outreach to women in general is linked more with government family planning and health programmes rather than in any way questioning or tackling issues of social discrimination.

    This emergence of academic think tanks providing the government with policy inputs is in itself a new phenomenon in China. This has also helped decision-making in China transcend the ideological imperatives of the Maoist period to focus on practical strategies of governance and administration. Today, policy think tanks in foreign and social policy have played a large role in redirecting Chinese policy towards pragmatism. China’s current emphasis on social development in the countryside is also partly a result of the extensive social science research that has been carried out on the emerging social stratification in China carried out by the social science academy.21

    Impact on Other Disciplines

    The impact of a gender perspective within other mainstream disciplines such as sociology as against political science or history, is visible, especially in terms of policy formulation and recommendations.22 Here a lot of specific projects dealing with women centred research have emerged. The impact of a gender specific perspective is especially apparent in collecting data and statistics on unemployment where we know that more than 60 per cent of laid off workers in the past 15 years have been women above the age of 35. Statistics on education too are gender differentiated like they have always been. This again is interesting. However, a look at the sample surveys carried out to study emerging social stratification did not have gender as a special attribute.23 Here occupation is often used as the criteria rather than incorporating gender as a subgroup within each survey. This data has to be sifted out of larger surveys on education and employment per se. This is also true of figures on poverty and migration. In both areas, region specific figures are not usually gender specific.24

    Literature is another area that has seen a huge impact of feminist and gender perspectives. This has in turn fuelled an interesting debate between essentialism and socialisation into gender roles. While critics argue that women’s writings has certain special characteristics because they are naturally so inclined, more feminist critics have pointed out how patriarchal such discourse is. Again, literary criticism that moves beyond the boundaries of Marxist socialist realism as the yardstick is new. Here again women centric criticism has pointed out how a gender bias that slots women as writers into stereotypes, i e, women deal mainly with family subjects, women are prone to emotionalism and that is visible in their writings, etc, abound.25

    The other subject that has incorporated a gender perspective is again, a new subject, in China: Law. Chao Yunxin in her article uses a classic Marxist framework when she links women’s subordination to the different modes of production and highlights how feudalism by denying women the right to property and independence in law ensured their structural subordination. She points out how important it is for women’s position to be strengthened through the enactment of legally enforceable rights. The article is also interesting in how it sees the evolution of laws related to women historically and points out the different categories of criminal law that pertained especially to women.26

    Where a subject like politics is concerned, one sees the continued difficulty of explaining political participation as mere numbers of women with in the party and in various leadership positions. While alluding to the practice of gender inequality at large, it merely mouths party rhetoric when it uses phrases such as “the necessity of correctly understanding the limitations of the historical stage of development”. Women’s equality of participation in politics would naturally follow with the overall development of society. This of course is the classic Marxist paradigm that has always linked female subordination to the different stages of society and incapable of truly changing if this base remains unchanged.

    One of the more interesting articles in the reader looks at the participation of women in politics, especially the reasons behind their lower numbers within the party. It focuses on notions of self-esteem and how women lack self-esteem and therefore do not have the courage to participate in politics. Guo Xueqian and Li Hiqing point out how increasing the participation of women in politics would require national commitment and strategic thinking. They go on to stress that political participation by women should be a major responsibility of a socialist state. Currently only about 20 per cent of party membership is made of woman.27

    Thus, overall, within a variety of subjects we see the emergence of a gender paradigm being incorporated with research methodologies and within the framing of research questions. The subject itself has generated a lot of debate on gender relations and also

    Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

    created enormous research data in different areas dealing specifically with the position of women.

    A continued critical perspective regarding the position of women is apparent in China and statistics prove the importance of gender sensitive policy planning. As Zheng Guichen points out, “in my country true gender equality still has a long way to go”. The economic, political and social position of women generally lower than men.28 Statistics dealing with the position of women in different fields consistently show them lagging behind men. The return of more traditional ideologies of gender organisation and globalisation have also led to the commoditisation of women through stereotype advertising and other media. This unfortunately is not accompanied by a woman’s movement that accompanied the setting up of women’s studies programmes in other countries. Discourse on gender, thus remains, limited to women’s studies programmes and other intellectual urban settings. During interviews carried out with women students in Chengdu, they all stressed that despite greater equality, women were seen as the homemakers and the men as the bread winners. Several went on to tell me that this idea ensured that women were discriminated against in the job market.29

    Thus the complicated reality of contemporary China, its huge regional differences, make it necessary that more region specific anthropological and other studies be carried out. The women’s studies programmes in existence are therefore a welcome step in the right direction.

    Comparisons with Western Women’s Studies Programmes

    Another area of interest where women’s studies in China is concerned is the comparison often made, in almost every article, about western and China specific women’s studies. The article by Chen Jiyan on “Theories of Women’s Liberation” does point out what the right line for discussion on the issue is.30 It is revealing how China’s idea of westernism, democracy and, in turn, feminism is defined by the need to differentiate itself from America. While the attempt to create a China specific socialism was tied to Mao’s attempts to differ from Soviet style socialism, and the third world theory as part of his attempt to take over the leadership of the post-colonial world vis-a-vis Nehru, his attempt to take over world power shifted from competing with Britian in 1950 to competing with America by the late 1960s. The article in the reader dealing with international women’s studies points out that feminism is essentially a term prevalent in America and loaded with problems because of its politics of seeing the conflict between men and women as the basic conflict and ignoring other issues.31 Here one can see that a socialist feminist programme is more attuned to China’s ideological and recent history. One also notices how there is no talk about lesbianism, even though the author found newspaper coverage on the subject and it is talked about on the internet as well. This again is linked with westernisation and American style feminism.

    The other important element of women’s studies in China has been its attempts to draw upon an pan Asian identity and use that to differentiate itself from western programmes. Du Fangjin presents the theoretical case for this. She writes in detail about the need to build a theoretical framework for women’s studies with a specific Asian content and perspective. Theoretically, of course, this concept is old and part of our history of anti-colonial struggles. Even during the freedom movement there was contact with an idea and need to define pan-Asianism as against western hegemonism. Japan’s breaking ranks during the second world war and it own history of violen colonial conquest in Asia, alas, dealt a hammer blow to this concept. Like all other pan-continent, pan-religion based solidarities, this too lends itself to problems of content, similarity and difference, the micro often vastly different from the idealism inherent in any concept that attempts to create a universalising identity. From the Chinese perspective, this is also related to their overall attempt to create China as the mother culture for a pan-east Asian concept. The presence of large pockets of overseas Chinese and their influence in the economic sphere of countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia and the economic inter-linkages between these areas also helps in China building closer ideological and issue-based civil society ties with this region.32


    China is today a society undergoing rapid social and cultural changes. It has seen the quick expansion and growth or a consumer culture in urban areas, large-scale migration from rural areas and also huge regional disparities. Along with this, the state has largely marketised its social services such as education and health, causing increasing hardship to people. All this has also led to the re-emergence of a more traditional, Confucian, Chinese discourse on gender relations. Gender equality, if we remember the slogans of the Cultural Revolution like “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” and images of the women from the Dazhai oil fields, women were meant to be seen as able to perform all the tasks that men could. The excesses of the Cultural Revolution and its anarchy has put paid to all the symbols of that period. Nothing symbolises this more than China’s attempts to now create educational and other institutes in other countries that are called Confucian institutes.33 This clear attempt to distance itself as the purveyor of communist ideology is a concerted attempt on China’s part to say it is no longer communist but a market economy that may be single party-based like Singapore and Taiwan once were.

    The general discrediting of communist and socialist discourse in China has also undermined its position on gender equality. In China, with the disbanding of the state sector, 60 per cent of the laid off workers have been women. This has been coupled with the discourse of women should go back home and look after the family and let men be the bread winners. Another significant aspect of socialist rhetoric on gender relations is the protectionist discourse within which state support for female equality is couched. Women are constantly identified as those who need to be “protected”. This is especially the case in China till the 1990s. This essentially means women’s rights are enshrined in the constitution as a gift from the party not as something that women should have per se. This discourse of protectionism has been visible ever since the women’s question appeared in the charters of social reform. The process is similar in India and China. All the stalwarts of the early reform period were men. During the socialist phase of the revolution all the women who emerged as leaders and intellectuals were consigned to head “female tasks”.

    In the final analysis, we know that gender relations is a complicated arena of social relations and gender equality cannot be reduced to reductive analysis such as the base-superstructure, false ideology that socialist discourse speaks of. In erstwhile socialist countries, women may have started participating in the labour market to a large degrees, but that did not change the

    Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006 structural or doxic nature of patriarchal discourse. Woman as the ultimate gift, the commodity par excellence as Marcel Mauss so brilliantly named it. We fight against that and yet we remain that. That is why women’s studies programmes are so important. The setting up of women’s studies programmes and the pushing of a gender perspective within policy planning and within other disciplines is therefore a welcome and necessary step forward in China. What China needs now is greater interaction within the international movement of women and greater academic exchanges with other countries. We need to continue our fight for equality and we need to ensure that it is not limited to small intellectual forums but reaches out to represent the discursive power of the woman question.




    1 Fei Xiaotonbg has done extensive work on China and especially peasant China. His book From the Soil: Foundation of Chinese Society (translation of Xiangtu by Gary Hamilton, Zheng Wang, Berkeley, 1990, Berkeley University Press), is considered a classic and points out how the socialorganisation of Chinese society is based on its peasant society that draws both legitimacy and links from an attachment to land.

    2 China under the Maoist regime laboured under a strictly controlled ideological regime where Mao Zedong thought was used as the only methodology to study all subjects. The Cultural Revolution which designated intellectuals as the “Ninth Stinking” category was the highpoint of Mao’s disdain and dislike for all things intellectual. Today the situation has changed considerably. For more on the intellectual climate today, see, Gloria Davies (ed), Voicing Concerns: Contemporary ChineseCritical Inquiry, 2001, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Australia.

    3 Other Asian countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia, India amongst others also saw an upsurge of NGOs and women’s groups dealing with andpromoting gender and feminist issues. In China, this was the first time that the government put its weight behind promoting and encouraging women’s studies in China. However, China still does not allow any NGO to exist independently. All NGOs in China have to be affiliated to some government organisation or another. However, the government is encouraging the growth of this sector, especially where social developmentissues are concerned.

    4 Chow Tse-tung’s seminal work on the May Fourth Movement, Intellectual Revolution in Modern China, Harvard University Press, 1966, provides an excellent background to the general climate of social reform in early 20th century China. Also see Elizabeth Croll, Feminism and Socialism in China, Routledge Kegan and Paul, London, 1978.

    5 The entrance of women into factory labour in the early 20th century was a major social issue and provided both opportunity for the peasant and lower income groups to improve their social status. It also provided the Communist Party its political base amongst women. See, Emily Honing,Sisters and Strangers: Women in the Shanghai Cotton Mills, 1919-1949, Stanford University Press, 1986.

    6 Delia Davin has provided a very positive account of the measures carried out by the communists to improve the position of women in the areas under their control and also the legislation such as the Marriage Law of 1950. Delia Davin,Women Work, Women and the Party in RevolutionaryChina, Oxford University Press, 1978.

    7 Alexendar Kollantai, an upper class woman, was one of the first to takeon the issue of women’s equal rights in the Soviet Union. She was also a writer and scholar of other social issues. See Croll op cit.

    8 Michelle Barrett, ‘Feminism and the Definition of Cultural Politics’ in R Brunt and C Rowan (eds), Feminism, Culture and Politics, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1982.

    9 Nivedita Menon (ed), Gender and Politics in India, Oxford UniversityPress, Delhi, 1999, p 374. 10 The Collected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol I, p 44, The People’s Publishing House, Beijing. 11 Kay Ann Johnson, Women: The Family and Peasant Revolution in China, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1983, p 52.

    12 P Stranahan, Yenan Women under the Communist Party, China Researh Monograph no 27, University of California, Centre for Chinese Studies, 1976, pp 45-46.

    13 Ding Ling is one of the most renowned women writers of the May Fourth Movement and later. She was also an avant-garde feminist who shot to fame in Shanghai for writing controversial stories depicting the sexuality of women. She later came to Yennan and helped edit the party paper.See her, The Diary of Miss Sophie in Collected Works of Ding Ling, People’s Publishing House, Beijing, 1982 and The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River, People’s Publishing House, Beijing, 1955. The latter won the Stalin Prize for the best novel.

    14 Delia Davin, op cit.

    15 On the existential and symbolic experience of modernity in urbancities such as Shanghai, see Wen-hsin Yeh, Becoming Chinese:Passages to Modernity and Beyond, University of California Press, 2000.

    16 Wang Zheng, ‘Contents and Objectives of Women’s Studies’ in Yang Guocai and Ma Shiwen (eds), Discipline Building of Women’s Studiesand Minority Women Research, pp 1-9 (hereafter DBWSMWR), YunnanMinorities Publishing House, 2004.

    17 Ibid.

    18 Zhao Lizhen and Wang Shanshan, ‘The Application of Gender Perspective in Courses’ in DBWSMWR, op cit, pp 67-72.

    19 Chow Tse-Tung, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution inModern China, Harvard University Press, 1966.

    20 The Academy of Social Sciences published several studies on regional and other emerging inequalities in China and the Chinese government has since then focused attention to rural social development once again. See especially, special issue of Social Sciences in China Today, Academy of Social Sciences, October, 2000.

    21 Ibid.

    22 The impact of migration in urban China and the changes in rural demography are important.

    23 See special issue, Academy of Social Sciences, op cit.

    24 Ibid.

    25 R Thakur, Re-Writing Gender: Reading Women in China, Zed Books, London, 1996.

    26 Zhao Yuanxin, ‘Law Viewpoint of Chinese Women’ in DBWSMWR, op cit, pp 176-81.

    27 Guo Xueqian and Li Hiqing, ‘On Women’s Participation in Politics’ in DBWSMWR, op cit, pp 268-77.

    28 Zheng Guichen, ‘Intellectual Women and Development’ in DBWSMWR, op cit, pp 278-84.

    29 R Thakur (unpublished), ‘Aspiring to the Middle Class’, paper presented at International Conference on The Middle Class in India and China: Comparative Perspectives, November 7-9, 2005.

    30 Chen Jiyan, ‘Reflections on the Theories of Women’s Emancipation’ in DBWSMWR, op cit, pp 285-91.

    31 Ibid.

    32 Du Fangqin, ‘Developing Asian Women’s Studies by Recognising Difference and Similarity’, DBWSMWR, op cit, pp 23-31.

    33 At the social level, China is today promoting traditional ideologies that stress the need for social harmony such as Confucianism and Buddhism, not the ideologies of revolution such as Marxism and Maoism. This in itself is a great change.

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