The opened-up polystyrene apple, symbolizing vagina, was still wet from paint when I arrived at the spacious gallery in Fangcun, in the eastern outskirts of Guangzhou, earlier this month. Da Tu, a 24-year-old feminist activist, was going to finish her work entitled ‘teeth in the vagina’ with the punch line – teeth, to be presented at the ‘Feminism and Art’ exhibition scheduled to open just on the International Women’s Day. A few hours earlier, however, a call from the authorities advised them to stop: at this sensitive time – National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, was to open shortly – it was not appropriate to hold such a sensitive exhibition.
When Ke Qianting, a 41-year-old feminist academic and one of the organizers, had invited me to come along, I accepted eagerly: women’s issues have always interested me as they reveal a lot about a society. As Ms Ke gathered various props, she said in her soft voice: “No point in pressing ahead which will only make our future activities more difficult. We’ll hold the exhibition soon enough.”
When it does happen, it’ll be combined efforts from artists, academic and activists, a format that is most effective in getting the message cross as Ms Ke has discovered. Da Tu explained to me the idea behind her work. “I was inspired by a horror film I heard where a woman had teeth in her vagina which could cut off a penis that penetrated her. The message is that we women can fight back when we are violated or not treated fairly.”
Fighting back, she and other activists have done just that. In the past two years, I have witnessed, with delight, how feminist activism, often provocative or conspicuous in style, has been growing in China. To protest against domestic violence, several women went out on Beijing street last Valentine’s Day, dressed in fake blood splattered wedding gowns; last May, volunteers from several cities such as Xi’an, Nanjing and Hangzhou, staged a co-ordinated performing art, dressed up as Mulan, the ancient female warrior, to protest against gender discrimination in employment and to voice their opposition against an intrusive gynaecological examination imposed on women trying to join in the civil service, eight university students, giant paper pants wrapped around their waists, protested in front of Wuhan city government, chanting slogans.
Finally, the flower of feminist movement is blossoming in China’s harsh soil.
The seedling of the movement was planted back in 1995 when the Fourth International Women’s Conference was held in Beijing. Before that, there was no activism or NGO in China. Slowly and gingerly, NGOs fighting for women’s interests started to emerge: providing service ranging from legal aids to gender training. The deepening exchange with the outside world has also brought along feminism theories and ideas.
Da Tu recalled her journey to become a feminist. At Zhongshan University, while working for her degree in sociology, she took course in gender study, taught by Ms Ke, the director of Sex/Gender Education Forum at Sun Yat-sen University. With a few like-minded friends, Da Tu decided to take action.
Her first action was to take part in ‘occupying men’s toilets’ in protests against a lack of public female toilets in Guangzhou last February. “It was fun, exciting and it gave me a lot of satisfaction as our action made a difference.” After the protest, the municipal government promised to raise the ratio of female to male toilet to 1.5 to 1.(According to the activists’ research, the current ration was less than 1:1.) Now Da Tu runs a small volunteer group called Sinner- B Feminists, devoted to push gender equality.
These activists are most young, very brave, usually well-educated, well-aware of the gender issues and ready to express themselves. And they are all internet savvy.
Last August, four women in Guangzhou shaved off their heads in protests against some universities for setting the bar higher for accepting female students. The video of their action on Sino Weibo sparked twenty bold women in eight cities to go bald.
Although today’s society gives some breathing space for the flower of feminist movement to blossom, especially in cities such as Guangzhou, the activists have to be careful: public protests are still strictly controlled. “When taking action, we limit the number under 20 and we don’t stress too much the rights issue,” said Ms. Ke.
I understand her caution. Feminism in Chinese is nu quan, women’s rights. Anything to do with rights can qualify as ‘sensitive’ in China. Some of the activists, including 24-year-old Li Maizi, one of the ‘bloody brides’, have been invited to ‘have tea’ with the police – to be interrogated, something can easily scare off those chicken-hearts.
Carrying bags of the props, Ms Ke and I returned to the city center together by the ferry. My heart was filled with hope rather than disappointment. The journey of Chinese feminists will be a rocky one, I know. Male chauvinism is still deeply rooted. The economic reforms have brought opportunities to women but also plenty of setbacks because the government has retreated some of its responsibilities to the market.
Thinking about it, the history of feminism is the history of struggle. China will be no exception if not more. But I am confident that the fighting spirit of the Chinese women will prevail.