Introduction to the China Site
of the Global Feminisms Project

Wang Zheng

Interviews at the China Site have taken place in two phases. In the first, the interviews illustrate the multi-dimensional development of feminist practices in China’s transformation from a socialist state economy to a capitalist market economy from the mid-1980s, when spontaneous women’s activism emerged. Situating such development in the context of both global capitalism and global feminisms, especially in the context of the Fourth UN Conference on Women when Chinese feminists came into direct contact with global feminisms, the interviews, conducted in the early 2000s, explore the cultural, social, and political meanings of Chinese feminist practices. They illustrate how official, non-official, domestic, and overseas Chinese women activists were expressing diverse visions of gender equality, even engaging in struggles over the very word “gender.” These interviews reflect the scope and complexity of the contemporary Chinese women’s movement. Feminist activists include women leaders from diverse groups, such as Ge Youli, who was involved as a young leader in various urban based organizational activities funded by international donors to disseminate feminist ideas; Zhang Lixi, Vice President of the Chinese Women’s College that affiliates with the All-China Women’s Federation, who has promoted women’s studies in her college; and Gao Xiaoxian, who holds an official position in the Shaanxi Women’s Federation while creating several women’s organizations outside the official system to engage in legal services for women, anti-domestic violence movements, and issues of gender and development. In the second phase, five interviews of a younger cohort of Chinese feminists record the rapidly contracted public space for NGO activism in China since the second decade following the FWCW and severe surveillance by the state over feminist activities initiated by autonomous feminist groups and individuals. They also provide powerful testimonies to tremendous creativity, perseverance and courage demonstrated by young feminists who in many cases are making a precarious living in the private sector without much resource for their feminist activism.


This timeline has been prepared by Wanying (Joy) Qian for the Global Feminisms Project during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Overview of The China Site and Interviews

Feminism was one of the many ideologies that educated Chinese at the turn of the 20th century embraced in their pursuit of modernity. Part of that pursuit included rejection of an ancient dynastic system underpinned by a hierarchical sex-gender system that held chastity as the supreme value of women in the interest of patrilineal kinship. Anarchist, socialist, liberal, evolutionary, eugenic, and nationalist positions shaped various feminist articulations. In their proposals for changing the gender hierarchy that was rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy and gender norms based on Confucian ideals of gender differentiation and segregation, feminists expressed different imaginings of a better future: a more humane society that centered on social justice and equality; a modern society that allowed individuals to break away from the constraints of Confucian social norms embedded in kinship relations as well as the control of an imperial polity; and a stronger nation that turned China from being the prey of imperialist powers into a sovereign state. Regardless of their diverse political positions, reformers, revolutionaries, professionals, and educated women and men from elite social backgrounds who embraced various versions of feminism agreed on the necessity of changing gender practices in transforming their ancient civilization, which had fallen into deep crisis in a time of imperialist and colonialist expansion. The confluence of diverse and often contradictory ideas and practices rapidly made a neologism a key phrase in twentieth- century China: “equality between men and women” (nannü pingdeng, a Chinese rendition of the English phrase “sexual equality” that had been circulating globally since the late nineteenth century). Signifying a conscious rejection of the foundation of Confucian social order prescribing differentiation between men and women, “equality between men and women” became a badge of modernity that social groups and political parties adopted to assert a progressive identity.

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After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, educated women from elite families who had joined the revolution against the Qing government launched a women’s suffrage movement to demand equal political rights in the new Republic polity. Suppressed by a dictatorial president in 1913, the suffragists turned to women’s education and careers to lay a social foundation for women’s political rights. Radical male intellectuals launched a New Culture movement in 1915 to challenge the dominant Confucianism, which provided renewed critical feminist thrust. Gender hierarchy, gender differentiation, gender segregation, double sexual standards that demanded chastity of women while legitimizing polygamy, and cultural practices ritualized in the service of maintaining a deeply entrenched hierarchical society that was fundamentally based on the dominance of men over women, were highlighted as quintessential symbols of the backwardness of Confucian culture, defined as “feudalist.” “Feminism” was enthusiastically embraced as a powerful weapon to combat the “feudalism” that had dominated China for millennia.

The small circle of cultural radicals, which included the future founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), rapidly expanded its social and intellectual influence after May 4th, 1919, when college and secondary school students spearheaded a nationwide patriotic movement. Incensed by the treaty signed by world powers at the Versailles Conference, which transferred all of Germany’s rights in Shandong Province to Japan after World War I, the May Fourth Movement, with its vehemently anti- imperialist female and male students as major constituents, became a powerful vehicle that carried the New Culture’s advocacy of anti- feudalism, including the promotion of feminism, into mainstream urban society. Equal educational and employment opportunities for women, and their freedom to socialize with men, ending centuries of gender segregation, were seen as the foundation for women’s liberation. Pursuing equality in all spheres of life and achieving an independent personhood became the hallmarks of the May Fourth women’s feminist subjectivities. Many May Fourth feminists—by definition educated women and men—later played important roles in China’s political, social, and cultural transformations. From two cohorts, older New Culturalists and younger student participants in the May Fourth Movement, emerged a small group of men and women, disillusioned with the Western liberal but imperialist powers, who in 1921 formed the CCP—modeled after the newly founded Soviet Union— and openly endorsed “equality between men and women” in its platform.

The victory of the CCP in 1949 enabled feminists in the party to wield socialist state power to materialize their feminist dreams. Only 530,000 of the CCP’s 1949 membership of 4.49 million were women, but many of these CCP women rose to official positions in administrations ranging from the central government to urban street offices and rural townships, depending on their party seniority and level of education. In their official capacities, many CCP feminists (or socialist state feminists), vigorously initiated and promoted transformative programs to cash the party’s promissory note of women’s thorough liberation in a socialist country. The All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) was established by this first cohort of state feminists to institutionalize a women’s movement. As an umbrella organization, ACWF horizontally united all pro-CCP women’s organizations, and as an official institution it vertically reached down to the rural villages and urban neighborhoods nationwide. This vast organizational reach enabled socialist state feminists effectively to carry out many transformative actions nationwide, as well as to promote pro-women state policies, though they faced considerable structural barriers in a male-dominated state system.

The ACWF experienced many changes since the late 1970s when the retirement of the first generation of socialist state feminists coincided with the CCP’s dismantling of socialist egalitarian institutional mechanisms to shift towards state capitalism. The China site of the GFP includes four state feminists who were affiliated with the Women’s Federation system at different administration levels and regions (Gao Xiaoxian, Wang Cuiyui, Zhang Lixi, and Liu Bohong). Their narratives demonstrate their tremendous efforts to address lower class women’s predicament in the period of profound social, economic and ideological ruptures resulted from massive marketization and privatization that drastically increased gender gaps and class polarization. They also reveal their discursive maneuvers to promote a feminist concept of gender equality in a time when the official gender ideology of equality between men and women in the socialist period was attacked by the rising masculinist neoliberal elite class.

The interviews with the state feminists also display a unique phenomenon: as WF officials, their feminist activism nevertheless took place mostly in non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In fact, some of them were founders of NGOs. For instance, Gao Xiaoxian founded the Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family, and Wang Cuiyu founded the Association of Female Talentology and a correspondence school for women. Zhang Lixi and Liu Bohong frequently participated in various NGO programs addressing a range of issues from domestic violence to gender and development. Their various involvements in NGO activities reveals a consistent discontent with the constraints of an increasingly bureaucratizing WF system, either institutionally or conceptually, or both. NGOs became an outlet for these passionate state feminists to express their desires to intervene in that historical juncture.

The interviews with the state feminists also display a unique phenomenon: as WF officials, their feminist activism nevertheless took place mostly in non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In fact, some of them were founders of NGOs. For instance, Gao Xiaoxian founded the Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family, and Wang Cuiyu founded the Association of Female Talentology and a correspondence school for women. Zhang Lixi and Liu Bohong frequently participated in various NGO programs addressing a range of issues from domestic violence to gender and development. Their various involvements in NGO activities reveals a consistent discontent with the constraints of an increasingly bureaucratizing WF system, either institutionally or conceptually, or both. NGOs became an outlet for these passionate state feminists to express their desires to intervene in that historical juncture.

The flexibility in these WF officials’ ability to engage in NGO activities was possible because of a specific context. In the aftermath of the state suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the Chinese government decided to host the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) as a key part of return to the world community. The NGO Forum that was held in tandem with the FWCW granted a historical opportunity for Chinese feminists to push the political boundaries that curtailed spontaneously organized activities after 1989. In preparation for the state’s endorsed FWCW, not only did WF officials have the legitimacy to reach out and organize women’s NGOS, feminists situated in the academy and other government branches also obtained resources from international donors for their NGO activities. It was in this context that the monopoly of the ACWF in leading a Chinese women’s liberation movement was deconstructed by the rise of feminist NGOs, though the two kinds of organizations worked more in collaboration than in competition in the decade following the FWCW.

The ten interviews of the Chinese feminists of the GFP China site are all leading figures who rose to new challenges in China’s embrace of global capitalism and grabbed the opportunity of the FWCW to create new social spaces for feminist activism. The specific context situated this cohort of feminists in dense interactions with transnational feminists. From their interviews we may see their enthusiastic adoptions of feminist concepts and issues circulating globally and innovatively applied to local practices. Domestic violence is one such feminist issue. Ge Youli, Chen Mingxia, and Wang Xingjuan devoted significant efforts to addressing domestic violence, from organizing women’s NGOS, providing gender trainings to officials, police, and lawyers to raise gender consciousness, to lobbying legislatures to make regulations and the law of anti- domestic violence.

Ai Xiaoming’s creation of a Chinese version of The Vagina Monologues is another example of how globally circulating cultural practices could be translated into the Chinese setting. The play became a rallying point for college students’ feminist campaigns nationwide in the following decades, nurturing a young cohort of feminist activists. Li Huiying and Zhang Lixi promoted women’s and gender studies courses in the Central Party School and Chinese Women’s College (WF affiliated) respectively. Their feminist efforts in the official system were facilitated by the UN’s slogan of “mainstreaming gender.” He Zhonghua’s work among ethnic minority women also benefited greatly from material resources from international donors.

In short, these interviews are precious historical records of a unique period that witnessed the vibrant development of Chinese feminist NGOs around the FWCW. In the second decade following the FWCW the Chinese state began to curtail NGO development and drastically close up social spaces for feminist activism. Still the groundbreaking work done by this cohort of feminists has enabled the rise of a young generation of feminist activists, some of whose narratives will be introduced soon.

In the second decade following the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW), the dynamics in the field of Chinese feminist struggles changed again due to drastic shifts in China’s social and economic transformations as well as its political environment. The feminist pioneers who formed NGOs with the opportunity of the FWCW inspired other groups to follow suit in establishing issue-oriented NGOs nationwide. The rapid growth of various NGOs with massive financial support from diverse international donors alarmed the CCP, which was insecure about its rule and was confronting increasing class and ethnic conflicts domestically and the impact of “color revolution” globally. A decade after the NGO Forums hosted in China, the CCP started to tighten up its monitoring and regulation of Chinese NGOs and to restrict their international funding sources as well as to subvert and coopt Chinese NGOs.

At the same time, a younger generation of feminists emerged on the stage of social activism, disregarding the tightening political control. Many of the students of the first cohort of feminist NGO leaders, now situated in various urban professions including universities, the media, and Women’s Federation (WF), carried on feminist struggles in new forms and styles. This cohort of feminists in their late thirties to early forties was joined by an even younger group of feminists who were recent college graduates in their twenties. One commonality across these age groups is that they have grown up in post-socialist China, when socialist institutional mechanisms such as equal employment and equal pay guaranteed along with a position in public enterprises were largely dismantled in the process of privatization and marketization. In tandem with institutional changes, the socialist gender discourse of equality between men and women by the 1990s was already overshadowed by a discourse of gender differentiation that celebrated a “natural femininity” attained by “modern” consumption of feminine products and by resuming the traditional role of a virtuous mother and good wife, and a hegemonic masculinity embodied in the “successful” men who possess power, wealth, and women. The strong attraction of these young, educated women to feminism is not accidental in a particularly limiting and blatantly sexist political culture.

A demographic factor in combination with China’s drastic economic development has prepared the rise of these young feminists. The one-child policy since 1979 resulted in an unprecedented number of single daughters (the lucky ones who were not aborted) who enjoyed all the resources their families on both parents’ sides to support their education and personal development. The coming of age of these “little princesses” coincided with China’s huge expansion of college education, which tapped the educational market based on an expanding middle class.¹ As a result, the number of female college students rapidly rose from about 37 percent before 1999 to 51.03 percent in 2012, and female Master’s degree holders also rose to 51.46 percent in 2012 (Zhang and Cai 2012).² This college sex ratio, which indicates an opposite trend to the skewed sex ratio in the population, demonstrates female students’ superb academic performance, since each applicant has to pass national college entrance examinations to be accepted by various universities according to their test scores. The gender of applicants whose test scores rank among the top regardless of disciplines and locations has also shown a continuous change, with the male top testers declining from 66.2 percent in 1999 to 39.7 percent in 2008.³ The consistent high performance of female students has led to an outcry in male- dominated media about yinsheng yangshuai 阴盛阳衰—a so-called gender imbalance with a flourishing female (yin 阴) and declining male (yang 阳). Many universities have adopted discriminatory admission policies that set a higher score for female students to be considered, on the grounds that many more enterprises would like to accept male graduates rather than female graduates. Indeed, blatant gender discrimination in employment has been a well-known reality since the economic reform, and even many government branches have jumped on the bandwagon of posting only male wanted job advertisements.

A large cohort of well-educated young women from diverse social and economic backgrounds with high aspirations for themselves as well as high expectations from their families, contradictorily, has encountered excessive gender discrimination and pervasive masculinist sexual norms that openly treat women as sex objects and secondary citizens. Inspired by feminism, young women nevertheless have few social resources to make their voices heard, let alone to participate in the policy-making process as the feminists of older cohorts have been able to. As a feminist organizer of this young cohort commented on the feminist strategy of the FWCW cohort working quietly with/in the official system to generate policy changes, “Their experience is very difficult to replicate. At the time of the FWCW they usually already had some managerial positions in the official system, and they had a circle of friends who were in the decision-making or advisory positions. These factors have served as the lubricant between their NGO programs and the government.”⁴ It is a sober assessment of the relative deprivation of young urban educated women’s social, economic, and political power vis-à-vis that of the cohort growing up in the socialist period.

In the second decade following the FWCW, the young feminists identified a powerful medium for feminist engagement: the Internet. Because they are not embedded in the official system and have no circumventing considerations associated with those who have some social status, they are far less restricted in conceptualizing the possibilities of their actions. As a result, we have witnessed many innovative actions initiated by young feminists independent from the official ACWF. A prominent strategy adopted by them is visuality. Contrarily to the previous generations of feminist who preferred to maneuver behind the scenes to affect policy making processes in the official system, the young feminists prefer performative actions in public spaces. For instance, Wei Tingting, one of the interviewees in this group, joined a “Wounded Brides” performative action to have pictures taken in the public space as a way to generate public awareness of domestic violence and then uploaded the dramatic photos onto the Internet. Another interviewee, Duan Jiling, posed as Little Red Riding Hood in front of the gate of Xiamen University to protest against sexual harassment on campus. Circulating these eye- catching images online, they successfully amplified their voices over gender discriminations and sexist practices ignored by both the general public and the government.

The young feminists’ most influential performative action took place on March 7, 2015, with the “assistance” of the police who detained five young activists preparing to post anti-sexual harassment stickers on public transportation in multiple cities as part of their activities to commemorate International Women’s Day. The detention of the Chinese Feminist Five at the moment when global feminists launched Beijing + 20 to evaluate feminist progress since 1995 galvanized a global mobilization. Feminists in many countries staged protests and over 2 million people from all over the world signed the online petitions demanding their release. The five young feminists were released after 37 days of detention. One of the Five, Wei Tingting, describes her life in the detention center in her interview.

Domestically, the detention of the Feminist Five epitomizes the tightening political control of social movements by the state, marking a new era in which NGO feminist activism no longer enjoys a special “safe zone” in comparison to other social movements that have long been under the state surveillance and suppression. The logic of the state control is manifested clearly in the bizarre detention of young feminists: any coordinated and organized activities simultaneously happening in multiple locations indicate the existence of or potential for a regional organization, which has to be crushed regardless of their legitimate agenda of protecting women’s rights. In the following years autonomously organized activism is seriously curtailed and their strategy of pursuing visibility with performative actions is unlikely to continue as police effectively closes any public spaces for such actions, especially by the activists already tightly monitored. At the same time, many more young women demonstrate their increasing interest in feminism by spontaneously joining online discussions of gender issues to promulgate and expand a feminist discourse via the Internet. The term nüquan zhuyi (women’s right/power- ism), unambiguously embraced by this cohort of feminists, is gaining tremendous purchase among the young generation while the security system and cyber police are rapidly extending the scope of their surveillance.

Entering the third decade of the twenty-first century, Chinese feminist activists are confronting grave challenges, as the male-dominated totalitarian state is turning openly conservative in its gender policy and further tightening its political control of any social activism. With the ominous state narrative claiming that feminist activism is instigated by “hostile foreign forces,” autonomous feminist NGOs are not only demonized but also delegitimized, a huge regression from the FWCW when Chinese feminists gained political legitimacy for organizing. Curtailing domestic NGOs has taken place simultaneously with the drastic measures of restricting international donors’ support of Chinese NGOs. Thus, the resource-poor young feminists confront not only political perils but also financial predicament for organized activities. Most seriously, the police have also accelerated its control of cyberspace with rapidly advanced high-tech. State censorship is a daily experience for Chinese netizens, when the cyber police constantly delete texts circulating online or via WeChat, or shut down websites. The very space and means of young feminist activism are under the omnipresent surveillance of the police.

Paradoxically, the phrase “equality between men and women,” a legacy of the socialist state feminism, remains in the ACWF agenda as well as in the state discourse. The discursive fissures and contradictions can continue to be strategically utilized by feminists in and outside the official system, that is to say, spaces for feminist actions are not entirely sealed, only that the format and content of feminist actions are closely monitored. The effects of operating in a virtual panopticon are serious perils for the development of Chinese feminism.

The five interviews of Chinese feminists presented here record the rapidly contracted public space for NGO activism in China since the second decade following the FWCW and severe surveillance by the state over feminist activities initiated by autonomous feminist groups and individuals. They also provide powerful testimonies to tremendous creativity, perseverance and courage demonstrated by young feminists who in many cases are making a precarious living in the private sector without much resource for their feminist activism. Huang Xueqin, who used to be a journalist in a prestigious official newspaper and is now an independent writer, helped shape a new wave of anti-sexual harassment in China since the beginning of 2018 (a Chinese MeToo movement), being closely monitored by the police since then. Her reports on protests in Hong Kong in 2019 resulted in several months’ detention after this interview had been conducted. Joy Lin quit her job to create a feminist organization, hence falling under the surveillance of the police. The organization started by Wei Tingting was forced to close under the pressure from the police, and she is turning to feminist activities in discreet manners rather than seeking visibility. Ke Qianting, who joined the creation of the Chinese version of The Vagina Monologues as a graduate student of Prof. Ai Xiaoming, now a professor at Sun Yat-sen University, has persevered in her feminist activism against all odds over the past decade. Duan Jiling, a Ph.D. candidate in Gender Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, continues her feminist activism concerning women in China while producing engaged feminist scholarship as a young scholar.

The interviews were conducted in the second half of 2019 in Ann Arbor and different locations in China. The interviewer Liang Xiaowen is a feminist activist, now a lawyer in New York. The interviewers of Huang Xueqin, Ke Qianting and Joy Lin prefer anonymity for the sake of their own safety under the current political circumstances.

¹The college enrollment in China jumped from 2.28 million in 1978 to 29.07 million in 2008. Xin Zhongguo liushinian jiaoyu chengjiu zhan 新中国六十年教育成就展 (A display of the accomplishments of education in the sixty-years of the new China), P. 15.
²Zhang Lin and Cai Yunqi, “Guanzhu daxuesheng xingbiebi: dushu nüsheng youxiu gongzuo nan lingdao duo,” Yangzi wanbao, September 12, 2012.
³Liu Bohong and Li Yani, “Zhongguo gaodeng jiaoyu zhong de shehuixingbie xianshi,” The Journal of Yunnan Nationalities University 1, no. 28 (January 2011): pp. 55-64.
⁴Li, Sipan, “Zhongguo ban nüquanzhuyi: qimeng dao zijue,” Boke Tianxia electronic journal, no. 4, 2015,

Procedures for Producing Final Interview Videos and Transcripts

The ten Chinese feminists were interviewed between 2002 and 2005, either at their homes or in their offices. The duration of each interview varies from 50 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes. What is presented in both videos and transcripts is unedited. Of the five interviewers, Zhang Jian and Shi Tong are faculty members at the Chinese Women’s College; Wang Jinling and Gao Xueyu are researchers of the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences; and Wang Zheng is a faculty member in Women’s Studies and History at the University of Michigan.