Holding Up Half the Sky: Women Speak Out on the Status of Feminism in China
Signs of progress abound, but many traditions and cultural mores are yet to be overcome.
Jul 29, 2016
Shanghai-based Rebecca Kanthor’s work has appeared on PRI’s The World, CBC Radio, CNN, and BBC, and elsewhere.
When China passed its first national legislation criminalizing domestic violence in March, it was a hard-won victory for Chinese women. The landmark law had been in the works for more than a decade and addressed an important issue: A reported 25 percent of Chinese women have experienced domestic violence, but only 40,000 to 50,000 complaints are registered each year.
The past year has seen other signs of progress. After more than 30 years of coerced abortions and hefty fines, the government finally relaxed its one-child policy to allow all families to have two children.
Last fall President Xi Jinping gave a speech at the United Nations promising to “reaffirm [China’s] commitment to gender equality and women’s development.” Though the aphorism “Women hold up half the sky” has been part of social rhetoric since Mao Zedong made the proclamation in 1968, the struggle for women’s rights is far from over.
In March 2015, five young feminist activists were arrested and then released on bail after a month for planning an anti–sexual harassment protest ahead of International Women’s Day. More than a year later, the criminal case against the “Feminist Five” has not been dropped. As 2016 began, the government shut down without explanation an important women’s rights advocacy group, the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center.
Women like me aren’t worth a penny. So I hope if I am virtuous in this life, I can be reincarnated as the ocean.
Zanta, 40s, a craftsperson from Tibet now living in Beijing
This is a time of uncertainty and change for everyone in the country. Amid signs of legal progress for women, pervasive discrimination and violence continue to go unchallenged and unaddressed by the government. Most women cannot afford to have a second child and are unlikely to take advantage of the change to the one-child policy.
We talked to seven women from a range of generations, social backgrounds, and regions about the ambiguous and constantly shifting role of women in Chinese society. They were interviewed by telephone, in person, and over WeChat in May and June. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
(Photo: Courtesy Zhang Lijia)
Zhang Lijia, 52, left school at age 16 to work in a missile factory. She taught herself English, later studied in the U.K. and returned to China to become a journalist and a writer. She is the author of a history book, China Remembers; a memoir, Socialism Is Great; and her soon-to-be-published first novel, Lotus.
I felt unequal [growing up]. My grandma brought us up, and I loved her to bits, but she was of the older generation of women who very much favored boys. We had very little meat to eat, and she would give my younger brother more meat. So since I was little, [my sister and I] knew we had to excel to go far in life.
The factory was very much a boys’ club. If you were a woman, they often gave you simple jobs, and the higher you go, there are fewer women. I did quite well on my exam, so I got a good job. I could have gotten an even better job, but there was such a strong perception that women are not very good with technical stuff that they didn’t give us a chance to try.
There was a lot of pressure [to get married]. If male colleagues visited, [my grandma] would get very curious and suss them out as husband potential. She had pressured my mother to get married, and my mother regretted it; my parents’ marriage was not particularly happy.
I got divorced 10 years ago, and my mother still hasn’t told her neighbors. For her, [divorce] is a big disgrace to the family. A few years ago I went to Brazil on a book tour and had a very successful trip. I told my mother, and she said, “If only you had a husband.” There is very little I can’t cope with without a husband. I think it makes me strong in many ways. I very much injected the idea of gender equality into my children’s upbringing. Both are strong, independent women, and both are feminists.
The younger generation of Chinese women have a much stronger sense of themselves. You can say they are more self-centered, or you could say they are more self-aware—but they know better what they want compared to us. On the other hand, they face bigger obstacles. Before, the jobs were assigned by the government no matter whether you are male or female, but now private companies often avoid hiring women of childbearing age. Of course they may not say so. For example, female graduates are facing a tougher time finding employment these days. The market does not always treat women kindly. This probably leads to some young women looking for a rich husband.
(Photo: Jocelyn Ford)
Widowed at 28, Zanta left her farming community in a region of Tibet and moved to Beijing, where she earned money selling jewelry on the streets while raising her young son on her own. (Like many Tibetans, Zanta uses only one name.) Now in her early 40s, she is the subject of a documentary by journalist Jocelyn Ford, Nowhere to Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing, about the status of Tibetan women.
Men and women are not at all equal [in Tibetan society]. If a man goes to another household to help out, the family will give him a special welcome and a wonderful meal. But if a woman goes, no one asks her to stay for a meal. They don’t even say, “Thank you.” If women do as they please, no one will want to marry them. Women who don’t get married are regarded as losers.
I want to be a good daughter-in-law, but I will never be appreciated. When I am in the village I can work all day, but I still get yelled at. Not every family is like this. Daughters-in-law who have a lot of brothers are treated much better. They can talk back to their in-laws. I don’t have any brothers, and I eloped with my husband, so I couldn’t even complain to my parents.
After a husband dies, everyone accuses the widow of "eating people." They think the widow caused her husband’s demise. I didn’t remarry because I feared a second husband might abuse my son.
People who left the village have changed. Many now get divorced and remarry. Wives have more freedom once they are away from the village, but women still aren’t treated equally. Men are still the decision makers. When couples return to the village, women are in a stronger position than before because their in-laws are afraid they will divorce once they have experience living in the city.
I have much less pressure in Chinese society. I’m freer. I changed [since moving to Beijing]. I’m more daring. I’m not afraid to walk alone. I can speak up for myself. Before, [as a migrant woman] I didn’t dare enter clean, modern buildings because I didn’t feel I belonged there. After I started supporting myself selling [jewelry] at bazaars, I gradually gained courage. Guards would turn me away. But I kept on persevering. Now the guards recognize me, and I am brave enough to enter these places and talk with people. Also, a lot of people helped me, so now I can go help others.
In Beijing I’ve met three women who are very strong and capable. I really respect them. But in my village strong women are despised. I still don’t want to be a woman. Women like me aren’t worth a penny. So I hope if I am virtuous in this life, I can be reincarnated as the ocean. If I can’t, I’d like to be a good, quiet man. If I have to be a woman in my next life, then I won’t marry. I will help others.
(Photo: Courtesy Mao Yi)
Mao Yi is a 22-year-old college graduate living in Beijing who volunteers at Q-Space, a grassroots community maker space for women and the LGBTQ+ community with a focus on promoting diversity.
From middle school, people always thought that boys are cleverer than girls, and later they think girls are more focused on their looks. I first noticed that in my first year of high school. I wanted to be the class leader, so I recommended myself to the teacher, but she refused me. Her reason was that girls should spend more time on study because they aren’t as clever as boys. I was so sad and angry. At the end of the term I got the highest score in the whole class, but I still did not get the leadership position. After that I realized that society has certain stereotypes.
Sometimes people look at me weirdly when they hear I’m a feminist because they think this is a bad word.
Mao Yi, 22, college graduate
I started thinking about feminism in high school and university. My last relationship was with a girl who studied feminism, so she got me interested in this. When I was younger I wasn’t a feminist because I didn’t quite understand what it meant. She taught me what feminism is for and why we need it in society. In Chinese, “feminism” is translated to “women’s power” or “women’s rights.” It’s a real strong word, so sometimes people look at me weirdly when they hear I’m a feminist because they think this is a bad word.
I’m out to all my friends. I will openly tell them I’m queer, but I can’t come out to my parents at this moment. They are really traditional. I want to come out to them because I don’t want to hide any secrets. I’m tired of telling lies to them, like I will find a boyfriend, and I will get married and have a family. But for now I’m not 100 percent independent from my parents, so I can’t really tell them.
Most of my queer friends haven’t come out to their families, but they are out to society. I came out to my office last year when I had my internship. They are all straight people, and they all thought that’s fine. Now I feel like society is really open to accept queer things.
The first time I heard about [the arrest of the Feminist
Five] I was very angry. I had met two of the five girls. I really wanted to do something. I felt helpless at that time because the only thing I could do is to share articles and write something like “We stand with them.” Their arrest wasn’t just because of their feminism and LGBT stuff. Many people will stand for their rights for many reasons, and it’s not only just because of feminism. I didn’t feel afraid. I just felt angry for living in this kind of society.
People are realizing that these things are still happening in China. This kind of thing makes me feel like I should be more active in feminism in some way but also be more careful.
(Photo: Courtesy Feng Yuan)
Feng Yuan began her professional career as a journalist and became a women’s rights advocate. She cofounded Media Monitor for Women Network, which works to increase and advance the participation of women in journalism, and other women’s advocacy NGOs. She also founded the Anti–Domestic Violence Network, which in 2003 proposed a law against domestic violence. By 2011, twenty-nine Chinese provinces had passed similar legislation, and a national law went into effect in March 2016.
The 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, was a really eye-opening experience for me and my colleagues. From that time, we recognized that domestic violence is a hidden problem, and we have a duty to lift back the curtain on this issue and promote policy changes. In 1996, the newspaper I worked for published a news story about a man who threw his wife out from their apartment window. That was one of the first cases on this issue that raised audiences’ awareness [and] became one of the benchmarks of reporting domestic violence.
Most of us who attended the conference together lacked an understanding of domestic violence. We started to form the Anti–Domestic Violence Network in 1998, and I learned to adapt training for social workers, researchers, journalists, lawyers, police, and judges. Many people had no idea of domestic violence. For example, one time we asked the participants, “Do you know anyone who experienced domestic violence?” and they all said, “No.” Then we asked, “Do you know someone who beats their wife or children?” and they said, “Yeah.”
After so much public education and advocacy I think most people, including children and older people, have some idea now, but there is still some lack of understanding on mental abuse, emotional violence, sexual violence, and financial control.
Sixteen years ago, when women experienced domestic violence, at most they could only go to the All-China Women’s Federation, a government-sponsored organization for the betterment of women. Especially after the law went into effect this year, we saw more [women] demanding better implementation of the law. Now more women call the police. The police response has improved since 2008. Before, they would say this was a family matter. The new problem is that the police have a lack of understanding of the features of domestic violence and skills to deal with it. So after the police leave the scene, the perpetrators feel relief because they realize police won’t do so much, and they just have to be more careful. At different stages we face different problems.
If the organizations can join hands, it can significantly reduce suffering for the women. [I think of] Kim Lee, an American woman [in
China] who overcame domestic violence to gain custody of her children [in
2013]. My NGO actually accompanied her to go through the process. Her case shows how the survivor’s strength can make a difference.
(Photo: Rebecca Kanthor)
Christina Wang, 38, is a Chinese-language teacher from western Sichuan province who lives in Shanghai and is the mother of a five-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl.
I wanted a second child because the Chinese character for the word “good” is made up of the symbols for “boy” and “girl,” so two children, especially a boy and a girl, would be the perfect family. When I found out I was pregnant I had to consider: If I have this child, I will also lose something. As a teacher working at a public university, I didn’t meet the requirements to have a second child. If I had been found out, I would have been fired, and it would have brought a lot of problems to my colleagues, so instead I chose to give up my job. I had to consider whether I could afford another child and whether I had enough energy. I went to the hospital four times trying to decide whether I should keep this child. Maybe the government policy would change, but then I’d be too old and might not have a healthy birth. I thought, I can definitely find another job, but getting pregnant again would be difficult. I didn’t tell my parents at first because they are very traditional. I knew they’d tell me to choose my job and current family and take care of my first child. My mother-in-law told them, and they were so upset. They objected because I’d have no income and because it is really hard to take care of a child.
If the government wants people to have two kids, then they need to have more nursery schools with longer hours and better childcare.
Christina Wang, 38, teacher and mother of two
They couldn’t understand at all why I wanted to give up my job to have a second child. They were really angry. My father was still yelling at me even when I was six months pregnant. But when I make a decision I don’t change it. Of course, now my parents love my second child. My father has forgotten what he said before, and he is so happy to see his granddaughter.
The lowest fine for having a second child illegally at that time was 240,000 renminbi [$36,400]. That’s two to three times my salary. I would have to pay the fine to get [my daughter] an identity document. She couldn’t get into a nursery school and didn’t have health insurance. She couldn’t go on an airplane; it was really difficult. Finally, this year I was prepared to pay the fine. I went to apply for the identity document, and actually the police didn’t charge me the fine because of the policy change, even though what I had done was illegal at the time.
The neighbors thought it was strange that I had two kids. [They thought] only people in the countryside would do something like that. “You don’t have a lot of money; you’re still renting an apartment; why are you having two kids?” Now when I meet up with my friends with one kid, they say, “I’m so jealous of you; you have two kids.” I say, “You can have two kids too now.” “Oh no, no, no, no,” they say. “One is enough.”
I don’t think many people will have a second child. There are no policies to support parents with two kids. If the government wants people to have two kids, then they need to have more nursery schools with longer hours and better childcare. That’ll be better than making everyone have a nanny and waiting till three years old for childcare. Private schools are so expensive, and nannies are expensive too. And the older generation want to have their own life and can’t give so much energy to taking care of their grandchildren.
The government should have changed the policy earlier. I think they didn’t think about the negative effects of the one-child policy. It lowered the population, but I think for most areas the enforcement method was too rigid. And the result was that families now are not willing to have a second child because of economic pressures, so the country doesn’t have a growing young workforce. That’s why the government got worried and loosened the policy.
(Photo: Rebecca Kanthor)
Wang Yili is a 78-year-old former community medical practitioner. Her peaceful daily life with her husband belies the turmoil the two have lived through, from the Cultural Revolution to the period of reform and opening that began with Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s until today.
I was the oldest in my family. I was raised to listen to my parents and, after I left home to get married, to listen to my husband. We didn’t think of ourselves. That was traditional values.
Before, women could only be at home. We had to be very restrained in our movements. My mother didn’t leave the home; she was a housewife. So I was influenced by her generation. She didn’t go to school. But I got the opportunity to go to school until high school, when I had to leave school because of political problems.
To reduce the pressure on my father, who had to support more than 10 people in the family, I married early and left the house. After we married and had a child, we had four people [including my mother-in-law] to take care of, so I had to find work.
After I entered society and began working, I began to feel a sense of rising up. My eyes were opened to the world, and I began to have my own thoughts and values. I could understand the old traditions and also the new ways.
Back then we didn’t even have this idea of men and women should have equal status. Even now, I still have the traditional way of thinking. I need to take care of my husband. For me, he’s higher than the sky. Society is changing though. In my son’s generation I feel like women became more powerful and were equal to men. These days women are really strong. I can’t do that.
I think women need to work. If you depend on men completely, your status will be lower. There needs to be some balance. If a man earns too much money, he might be led astray. There are many unmarried men and women in China today. The men can’t afford an apartment, so the women won’t marry them. If a woman’s economic situation is better, then her status is higher. If a woman earns too little, she might be led astray. I told my granddaughter, no matter how much your husband earns, how much he gives you, you need to have your own work.
Michelle Che, in her 40s, is a teacher, an actor, and a screenwriter living in Shanghai. After getting her Ph.D. in theater studies in the U.S., she returned to China to live and work.
China is changing very fast. Many women are becoming the highest in the company. There are so many independent, unmarried women, and more and more are getting higher degrees. In Shanghai, the men will also cook and take care of the family. The women control the family finances and enjoy a higher status.
I went to the U.S. to study because American education is higher quality. When I was searching for jobs in Shanghai after I came back from America in the 1990s, it was a failure. When I was interviewed for an editor job in China, I didn’t know they only wanted men. But they already had this intention, though they didn’t write it in the posting. In China, it’s common. I realized many companies advertise that they only want men. Of course you feel it is not fair, but we don’t have any way to address it. Men are more convenient [to hire]. Men don’t give birth to children, and after marriage a man is free from family chores. That’s the way the world is.
People don’t expect women to have a very successful career. They expect women to have a family. So whether they are successful or not depends on what kind of husband they have [and] their husband’s social status and financial situation. In China, marrying a man who is rich or in a higher position is considered prestige that you must win. That determines your position and how people look at you.
The work I want to create is to present the woman’s dilemma. I realized that being a woman is actually crucial in determining my acting and my way of thinking and my concerns about this world. I see so many women who struggle with this, who want to be a good mother but sacrifice themselves. When they don’t earn money their husbands look down upon them. I have a friend who gave up her job after giving birth to a son, and her husband always says, “You’re just dependent; you just do nothing. You earn nothing; you’re good for nothing.” China’s job market is so competitive; I think it will be hard for her to go back to work. I see it in other women, so I feel that I should talk about this issue in my work.
I’d describe myself as a very independent career woman. I think I’m lucky that I’m not married and I don’t have children. I have my own life goal, I have my own job, I can support myself, and I learned to be emotionally independent. I can take care of myself very well. I haven’t found a person who appreciates me, and that’s OK. If I married and had children, at least half my career would be sacrificed.