Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics

Edited by Ping Zhu and Hui Faye Xiao

Reviewed by Lina Qu

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2022)

Ping Zhu and Hui Faye Xiao, eds. Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2021. xii + 380 pp.
ISBN: 9780815637257 (Paper); 9780815637394 (Hardcover); 9780815655268 (eBook).

Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics, an edited volume by Ping Zhu and Hui Faye Xiao, was published in 2021 by Syracuse University Press in the book series “Gender and Globalization.” In addition to its theoretical interventions, the volume’s originality stems from the way its editing philosophy and content reflect the same feminist politics. The volume is comprised of ten research essays and two interviews; among these, five are translations from Chinese and seven were written in English; half were published previously (between 2001 and 2017) and the other half are newly written. These twelve entries are interconnected through common themes such as the intersection of class and gender, socialist women’s liberation, Chinese feminists’ internal negotiation with the state, and the pivotal role of NGOs on China’s feminist landscape. As a result of Zhu and Xiao’s admirable efforts in selecting, translating, and editing, this polyglossic volume assembles diversified voices (in terms of time, space, language, and identity) of scholars and cultural icons from within and outside China, forming a dialogue that bridges Chinese and English academia.

Another salient feature of this volume is found in its abundant cross-referencing and intertextuality. A prominent example of cross-referencing is the engagement with Li Xiaojiang’s 李小江 work in multiple essays and interviews, weaving a comprehensive view on the contribution, impact, and controversy of this leading Chinese feminist scholar. An intriguing example of intertextuality can be found in the cover image—a magnified detail from Jiang Jie’s 姜杰 sculpture installation Over 1.5 Tons (2014). The reader’s encounter with the cover’s indeterminate image is not clarified until Shuqin Cui’s chapter, some 270 pages into the book. With the addition of four additional black and white pictures of the installation, the color cover image is contextualized in Cui’s meticulous interpretation, revealing that Over 1.5 Tons purposively juxtaposes feminine and masculine elements, such as lace and a veiny penis.

The “Introduction”—co-authored by the editors—cogently and eloquently outlines the volume’s conceptual framework. The editors offer the volume’s key term “‘feminisms’ . . . (女性主义)” as a broad and pluralistic “umbrella term” under which to “examine and theorize the multifarious feminisms in contemporary China” (1). Zhu and Xiao methodically lay out the genealogy of Chinese feminists—eugenic feminists, nationalist feminists, literary feminists, socialist state feminists, postsocialist market feminists, and NGO feminists—and call for a contemporary feminist politics imbued with elements from all of these local (and socialist) legacies. The editors explain that at the same time the volume appropriates the “racialized” term “‘Chinese characteristics,’ . . . a neologism invented by Westerners” during the “colonial encounter” (2). By juxtaposing the plural “feminisms” to “Chinese characteristics,” the volume aims to  “open up” the latter term, releasing it from the racialized, traditional, nationalistic, and other constraints of “binary structures and patriarchal hierarchies embedded in history, language, race, culture, and politics” (3-4). This pluralistic and “hybrid model” guides their selection of “multiple voices, analyses, and interpretations” from the panoply of contemporary Chinese feminisms, which they present unfiltered as it were, allowing the individual contributors and their perspectives to “substantiate, underlie, supplement, contradict, offset, and dialogue with one another,” opening up new “possibilities of both action and imagination in history” (5).

“Part One: Chinese Feminism in the Age of Globalization,” consists of a previously-published essay by Nicola Spakowski (2011), English translations of a previously-published essay by Li Xiaojiang (2008) and an interview with Dai Jinhua 戴锦华 (2015), and a new English essay by Xueping Zhong. The four chapters comprising Part One approach from distinct angles the question of how to characterize Chinese feminisms within and against the Western-dominated globalization of feminist theories. Spakowski’s chapter begins with the trouble in translating the western concept “gender” into Chinese. Chinese feminist scholars are divided on whether to coin a Chinese neologism “shehui xingbie” (社会性别) to foreground the social construction of “gender” or to use the indigenous Chinese term “xingbie” (性别) to challenge the western dualism between sex and gender, and this translingual trouble epitomizes the tension between universalism and particularism in localizing feminist theories. Spakowski stresses three local perspectives of Chinese feminists—Marxist women’s theories and socialist traditions of women’s liberation, non-antagonistic views on gender harmony, and the special attention paid to working women—and concludes that Chinese feminism is characterized by pluralism and complexity.

Representative of local feminist perspectives, Li Xiaojiang’s essay historicizes and contextualizes the problem of gender equality (男女平等) in China. Li argues that, although the idea of gender equality has accrued both universal value and socialist ideological legitimacy, its actualization in contemporary Chinese society is besieged by various social equity issues. Among these issues Li singles out class disparity, which is subsequently explored by Xueping Zhong. In her chapter, Zhong compares two 1964 movies, from China and India respectively, both of which feature strong female characters, to accentuate the role of class consciousness and class struggle in socialist women’s liberation. Invoking the legacy of Chinese women’s liberation, she asserts that the (contemporary) return of capitalist exploitation and the subalternization of the new working class call for intersectional analyses of class and gender issues. Zhong’s comparative methodology and self-reflexive narrative stand out in the book.

The return of capital is also complicit in the resurrection of feudal patriarchal ideology in the postsocialist era. Dai Jinhua in her interview deplores the romanticization of polygamy in contemporary Chinese popular culture and cautions people against the normalization of class and gender oppression under the name of the revival of tradition and the rise of Chinese cultural consciousness by New Confucianists. The specter of polygamy haunts China’s cultural imagination as global capitalism increasingly dehumanizes women—and men. Concurring with all other authors in Part One, Dai believes that the twofold thrust of the Chinese socialist revolution—abolition of feudalism and women’s liberation—has paved the way for the precarious institutionalization of gender equality in China and should be safeguarded against the encroachment of capital and cultural revivalism.

“Part Two: Chinese Feminisms on the Ground” includes a previously-published essay by Wang Zheng (2017), together with translations of a previously-published essay by Li Jun (2013) and a new essay by Ke Qianting. The three chapters all comment on the plural goals, obstacles, and strategies for Chinese feminisms on the ground. Wang’s lead-off chapter delineates a genealogy of feminist struggles against the backdrop of China’s shifting national position and frequent strife throughout the twentieth century. Wang laments the postsocialist liquidation of China’s unique legacies of feminist-informed enlightenment and communist revolution, and poignantly argues that the institution of state feminism has deteriorated significantly under tightening state control over dissenting voices. But Wang also recognizes that various NGO-sponsored and Internet-empowered grassroots feminists have arisen to combat China’s myriad social issues—including labor exploitation, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination.

In addition to the surveillance state mentioned by Wang Zheng, Li Jun points to another obstacle facing Chinese feminists—namely, enmity toward feminism by Chinese liberals. With the revival of patriarchal capitalism in the postsocialist era, Chinese liberals regard social equity and welfare as socialist debris to be swept away, gender equality included. Li observes how the lack of allies leaves Chinese feminists with no options but to seek cooperation with the government in organizing women’s movements and advocating women’s rights. This trade-off strategy or “embedded activism” distinguishes feminism with Chinese characteristics in the PRC. The plurality and plasticity of Chinese feminisms under constraints are also seen in Ke Qianting’s study of assorted adaptations of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues (TVM) in Chinese languages. Ke highlights the diversified participants, decentered scriptwriting, polyphonic performance, and innovative linguistic tactics in the Chinese localization of TVM. The creative and playful use of language and the incorporation of folk arts help scriptwriters and performers broach sensitive topics about gender and sexuality—such as rape, birth control, and misogyny—among Chinese audiences without agitating censors and conservatives.

“Part Three: Chinese Feminisms in Women’s Literature, Art, and Film” comprises the translation of a 2001 interview with Wang Anyi 王安忆  and four new English essays analyzing feminist voices and practices in Chinese women’s cultural production and social participation. Wang, an illustrious novelist, is best known for her women-centered fictive world. Her rejection of the western terminology of feminism in the interview echoes the collective efforts of Chinese feminist scholars in decolonizing and localizing global feminist theories—positions well represented in the volume’s previous two parts, whereas her concerns with the uniquely Chinese characteristics of China’s labor and gender realities, reflected in her writing about Chinese women, looms large in the subsequent essays making up Part Three. Engaging in a direct dialogue with the interview, Ping Zhu’s chapter on Wang Anyi’s acclaimed novel Fu Ping 富萍 (2000) explores the book’s nostalgic utopia of laboring and striving women of early 1960s Shanghai. Zhu argues that Wang’s positive aesthetic representation of socialist underclass women’s domestic and affective labor valorizes an alternative world order to global or state capitalism. Regardless of Wang’s stance on feminist identity, Zhu believes that her novels embrace a “methodological feminism” with Chinese characteristics that challenges patriarchal structures.

With a similar focus on domestic women workers, Hui Faye Xiao’s chapter zooms in on the grassroots creativity and community building of rural migrant workers in Beijing in the 2010s. Opposing a Beijing nanny’s autobiographical essay “I Am Fan Yusu” (2017) to an established tradition of stereotyping and sexualizing of domestic women workers in mainstream literature and media, Xiao argues that Fan’s self-writing restores creative autonomy to the silenced subaltern. Xiao also demonstrates how Fan’s cultural awakening emerges from her participation in a migrant workers’ literature group in the urban village Picun. In Fan’s literary pursuits Xiao discerns a feminist resistance to the postsocialist patriarchy by evoking the socialist legacies of political sisterhood and workers’ literature.

In stark contrast to the socialist utopian moments underlying both Zhu’s and Xiao’s pieces, the volume’s last two essays, by Shuqin Cui and Gina Marchetti, respectively, dive into more critical and even confrontational moments in contemporary China. Cui reads Jiang Jie’s 2014 sculpture installation Over 1.5 Tons as a counter-monument to the preponderance of phallic architecture and symbols in China’s urban landscape and collective memory. Cui’s visual and material analyses illuminate how Jiang’s work derives its critical counter-monumentality from the tension between and blending of horizontal and vertical phallic symbols, confining soft fabrics and penetrating iron hooks, alluring and repulsive effects. Cui also uses the artist’s work to explicate feminism with Chinese characteristics in the contemporary art world: reminiscent of “embedded feminism,” it resists within the establishment and struggles without the claim of feminism.

Finally, Gina Marchetti investigates Hong Kong women’s documentary filming and video journalism in a tumultuous time of social upheaval—from the 2014 Umbrella Movement to the 2019 Anti–Extradition Law Amendment Bill movement. Her idea of “screen feminist activism” with Hong Kong characteristics problematizes and enriches the more China-centered approaches in the rest of the book, further evincing the volume’s pluralist and complex articulations of Chinese feminisms. Marchetti contends that women’s rights are interwoven with democratic rights in the Hong Kong context and that women constitute a significant force in Hong Kong’s democratic movements, both on the streets and on screen.

Gesturing toward decolonial knowledge production, Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics contributes to transnational feminist theories about and with Chinese characteristics. The book calls to mind two previous edited volumes that have profoundly influenced Chinese feminist theories: the 2002 volume Women, Nation, and Feminism, which translated and introduced Third World and postcolonial feminisms to Chinese readers, and the 2013 volume The Birth of Chinese Feminism, which translated and introduced He-Yin Zhen’s 何殷震 (1886-1920) anarchist feminism to English readers. All three books aspire to decolonize transnational theories and undertake translingual practices to integrate Chinese feminist theories with transnational feminisms. Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics also provides a timely response to the formation of cultural hegemony under “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and the rise of patriarchal capitalism in contemporary China. Scholars and students who are interested in feminist approaches to China’s intellectual history, social activism, contemporary arts, literature, and film will find the book tremendously informative.

Lina Qu
Michigan State University