What a month this Women’s History Month has been! Living in China, it’s often easy to feel some level of disconnect from the fourth wave feminism of London or New York, but this month in Beijing has reminded me that women all over the world are fighting for the same thing: equality.
Feminism is viewed as a western concept all too often: a luxury for socially empowered, financially independent women with free time on their hands. A quaint pastime for the descendants of those women who believed that getting the vote would be the end of women’s rights issues and gender inequality, and were sadly disappointed. Of course, that’s not the reality for the majority of feminists.
Many of the issues individuals fight against are trivialised (from without and within), because of the shadow cast by the privilege of western women in comparison to women in other parts of the world. Some find it hard to fight their own corner because it appears eclipsed by the overwhelming adversity faced by women worldwide. Disconnects between western feminist strongholds and developing world feminism can often be misconstrued, to global feminism’s disadvantage.
Happily, there is a lot to be said for global sisterhood. Women of the west must support women of the east; women living in developed countries can support women of developing countries; because women living worlds apart are combatting similar issues and coming up against similar hurdles.
But western feminism doesn’t write the rules for global feminist movements.
Just because they don’t get to vote for their government, or don’t have the economic stability you do, or don’t have access to the resources you take for granted, doesn’t mean those women don’t fight for their rights just like you. In fact, you might be surprised at how far they have gone to get rights women around the world deserve.
Here are five Chinese women who have inspired me this month, and the overriding messages they’re sending, as they each make their contributions towards changing China for future women.
Defiance: Xiao Tie
Thirty-year-old bisexual LGBT activist Xiao Tie is the director of Beijing’s LGBT Center and one of Beijing’s most prominent young figureheads. Her campaigns for LGBT rights have gained international attention, most notably those protesting ‘gay conversion’ treatment, that is still a widespread problem in China.
Xiao Tie’s demeanour is bright and her humour infectious, but it’s clear she’s struggled with gaining authority and respect in her work. Even in her industry, Xiao Tie feels the pressure of gender bias on her appearance. She has recently changed her hairstyle to look more ‘feminine’ and ‘serious’, so she will actually be treated as the director of the centre she founded. Xiao Tie humorously admits that she’s been told she suffers resting bitch face, but that it is somehow appropriate: two other organisations she works with are Beijing Bitch and Slut International.
Xiao Tie was due to speak at a Women’s Day panel event on Saturday 12th March, as part of Beijing’s annual Literary Festival, discussing women’s rights around the world. That morning, she got a call from the police telling her not to go. She went. Xiao Tie was intercepted outside the venue, and told she would be detained if she tried to join the activities indoors.
Two weeks later, she and her two best friends, Wei Tingting and Fan Popo, dominated the same space for a LGBT panel discussion of the tumultuous year that was 2015. They had no qualms about expressing their defiance of the authorities, despite having first hand knowledge of the consequences: Wei was one of the ‘Feminist Five’ detained for 37 days in March 2015. These three know precisely where their activism could lead, but they keep coming back for more.
Determination: Lijia Zhang
Lijia Zhang, 51, burst onto the global literary scene in 2008 with her first book, Socialism is Great! A Workers Memoir of the New China, the story of her rebellious journey from life as a disillusioned factory worker to becoming a writer and journalist in English.
Lijia Zhang is a role model for women across China and worldwide. At 16, Zhang’s mother dragged her out of school, sold her textbooks and forced her to take a job at a local factory producing intercontinental ballistic missiles so she could contribute to the family income. Watching her dream of studying at university dissolve as she spent her days checking pressure gauges among a roomful of condescending older men, she may have resented her position but Zhang knuckled down to work nonetheless. Frustrated by her limited opportunities as a young woman in a male-dominated industry, she taught herself English and got a degree through the factory programme. That was just the start; her determination and courage never failed.
Zhang says there has always been a rebellious streak in her: as a young woman she read Jane Eyre hidden within the folds of The People’s Daily; spearheaded a factory walk-out in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989; and is now a public speaker and an advocate for women’s rights in China.
Research for Zhang’s first novel, Lotus, took her to brothels in southern China and into volunteering for a non-governmental organisation in a northern Chinese city, distributing condoms to sex workers, where she became familiar with the joys and challenges of their daily lives.
Zhang discussed these issues, her experiences, and her role in Chinese feminism at her annual engagement at the Beijing Literary Festival, where she recently spoke on a panel on women’s rights in contemporary China.
Courage: Wei Tingting
Wei Tingting is a feminist, gay rights and women’s rights activist in Beijing. As project manager at the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, Wei helped establish an AIDS Walk along the Great Wall, held annually. She’s represented Chinese women at conferences in India and South Korea, and helped collect material for a documentary film about bisexuality in China. She also staged a production of The Vagina Monologues during college in Wuhan.
During Wei Tingting’s public appearance at the Beijing Literary Festival last weekend, she seemed utterly blasé in discussing her 37 days in a Haidian detention centre this time last year.
Having studied Anthropology, at first she thought of her detention as fieldwork: ‘oh, I’ve never been into a women’s detention centre before,’ she remembered aloud. She joked about how difficult it was to clean the toilet after having her spectacles confiscated for the duration of her imprisonment. Surprisingly, she met her girlfriend during this time behind bars. They had to keep their relationship secret, talking in hushed tones and snapping apart after every kiss. They knew they were being watched.
She laughs off the details – sharing one small room with 28 other women for over six weeks, not being able to tell the guards apart because she couldn’t see – because she knows what five young women’s 37 day imprisonment has done for the feminist scene in China. The detention of Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Li Tingting (known as Li Maizi) repeatedly made international news, put pressure on the Chinese government, and kick-started an unprecedented era of widespread feminist activism across China.
“I thought this incident would be the end for us young, female activists. But the reaction has started an era of magnificent, new activists. They cannot catch all of us and block us all.”
– Wei Tingting
Xue Xinran, 58, gained China-wide popularity in the nineties with her radio show ‘Words on the Night Breeze’ (1989-1997), which focused on women’s issues and voices. She became known for travelling widely across China to meet her interviewees, and later began to write the stories of the women she’d met along the way. Xinran moved to London in 1997 where she worked at SOAS, became a regular contributor to the BBC and Guardian, and fought a mugger who tried to steal her laptop containing the only copy of her first manuscript. Xinran is a public speaker, advocate for women’s issues, and the founder of The Mothers’ Bridge of Love, a charity aiming to change adoptive and birth culture in China.
While Xinran’s life experience is fascinating in itself, the stories she retells about the women of China are unparalleled. Her first book, The Good Women of China (2002) became an international bestseller and has been translated into thirty languages. Subsequent books have told the real-life stories of one Chinese woman who went alone to Tibet in search of her missing husband and came back a devoted Buddhist, the uneasy relationship between China’s migrant workers and the cities they flock to, and the heartbreaking narratives of mothers who have lost or had to abandon their children. Her latest book focuses on the only children brought up under China’s one-child policy.
Not only has Xinran’s belligerent curiosity brought these stories to the fore, but she has given a voice to hundreds of women whose voices had previously gone unheard – given them a voice loud enough to be heard worldwide.
Sisterhood: Xiao Meili
Twenty-something Xiao Meili is a Chinese women’s rights activist whose campaigns in recent years have gained international media attention, challenged the Chinese authorities and landed some fellow campaigners in jail.
Xiao Meili’s best known campaigns include her 2,000km walk from Beijing to Guangzhou to raise awareness of sexual abuse in 2014, and her protest against domestic violence in 2012 that saw Xiao and two friends wearing bloody wedding dresses in public on Valentine’s Day. She is the mastermind behind the Chinese “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts, which you can buy on her Taobao site (Chinese e-bay), and the 2015 contest in which women posted pictures of their hairy armpits on Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter).
Last year, Xiao Meili was campaign leader for the incident that led to 37 days of imprisonment for those 5 young Chinese feminists, including Wei Tingting. It was just days before International Women’s Day. They simply wanted to distribute fliers about sexual harassment on public transport in Beijing and Guangzhou. On March 7th, seven campaigners were arrested, five of whom going on to be detained for 37 days. Although she organised the campaign, Xiao Meili was not detained.
Xiao Meili could have kept her head down after the arrest, but instead spoke out, posting a picture every day for the duration of her friends’ detention, drawing attention to their plight. Not for a moment did she consider abandoning her friends, no matter what the consequences. She stood by her fellow women, stood up for what she believed and showed everyone the real meaning of sisterhood.
While all of these women, young and old, have drawn inspiration from the west or cite the western feminist movement as a source of powerful ideas, each is advocating issues specific to her position in contemporary Chinese society.
Each of these women believes in the power of the individual voice: the problems faced by every woman are specific to her community, there is no-one with a deeper understanding of her life, and if anyone is qualified to speak about combatting those issues, it is she.
By giving those individual voices a platform, whether in international media, documentary films, nation-wide campaigns, international conferences, novels, or safe communities, these five women bring Chinese women’s voices to the world.
So, if ever you’re in doubt of where the feminist movement is taking the world, look to China for a reminder of the myriad ways women worldwide are fighting for equality.
A version of this article appeared as What these 4 Chinese women have taught me this Women’s History Month on Aliljoy.com