Voices from China’s Past: Li Xiaojiang on women in Chinese society

Professor Li Xiaojiang, of Zhejiang University, is a pioneer of women’s and gender studies in the PRC. She published Renlei jinbu yu funu jiefang (“Human progress and women’s liberation”) in 1983, one of the first scholarly articles in her field ever published in the PRC. In 1988, Professor Li wrote an essay analyzing the situation of women in the 1980s, arguing that easing the burdens placed on women was key to continued social progress in China.*

“The travesty is that these pressures women endured [before] and continue to endure are never seen as social problems; they are construed as merely individual problems. Criticizing society as unfair is to no avail. The balance of justice has never been the moving force in the progress of history. If one is willing to face reality, then one must see that the emergence of women’s problems is actually a means for society to resolve many other social problems that emerged with reform (such as excess labor, labor productivity, and so on). Women have thus been the cornerstone in the development of society’s productive capacity. Historically it has been so; in reality is is so. No wonder authoritative sociological publications are unwilling to print much on women’s issues, for to speak excessively of women’s liberation at this point would be to say that women’s problems are obstructing society’s reform and economic development. This means that Chinese women, who have worked hard all along to recognize their unity with society, cannot but acknowledge that women’s issues in the midst of economic reform have been abandoned by society. There are truly women’s problems, in that they have become sociologically insignificant.”

That was written twenty years ago, and while progress has been made, issues relating specifically to women are still too often seen in the narrow context of the family. Today middle-class women in China face pressures not unfamiliar to their sisters in the United States over the past several decades: How to reconcile a prescribed role as wife/mother with the opportunities made available in an era of economic growth, opportunity, and openness?

Women in today’s PRC enjoy unprecedented equality of opportunity as well as lessening social disapprobation of female expressions of individuality, sexuality, or resistance to “normative” forms of female behavior. However, the difficulty in organizing activist or interest groups independent of the state is a barrier preventing those working on “women’s issues” from easily linking those issues to larger problems in Chinese society.

Class inequalities also present a challenge to the articulation of women’s rights: How much in common does a middle-class woman in Shanghai really have with her ayi from Subei? This was an issue in the first half of the 20th century when young female urban intellectuals arrived in villages and found to their disappointment that many (but not all) women in rural areas misunderstood, rebuffed or resisted ideas about sexual equality, romantic freedom, and family planning. One could argue that due to improvements in the reach of education, access to media, and greater freedom to travel within the country, such gaps have narrowed, but they have by no means disappeared completely.

Obviously, one cannot discuss gender issues in China without considering the implications of the One Child Policy, in particular, the skewed sex ratios in many parts of rural China. The problem with projecting the costs and effects of the One Child Policy is that no country has attempted this form of social engineering on such a grand scale before, as a result, we have few models to work with in predicting what the long-term effects might be.

It seems likely, however, that given the dearth of women in some areas, a tendency toward hypergamous marriage in China, and a continuing trend of rural to urban migration, rural areas of China could face a situation whereby some men will not be able to participate in normative family life. As to what this means, again, it’s really too early to tell, but at the very least we should look for a rise in the ‘value’ of women, which in Chinese history resulted in increased cases of human trafficking, prostitution, and forced marriage, not to mention social instability as men and families competed for a limited pool of marriageable women. I’m not making any predictions, but it is a situation that bears watching.

Finally, and this is a reason to end on a hopeful note and be optimistic about continued progress, I do sense a generational gap in attitudes towards women’s rights, sexual liberation, and expectations of equal opportunity. It seems to me, based on anecdotal evidence, conversations, and observation, that women born after 1980 (the one-child generation) have significantly different attitudes than their older cousins born between 1975 and 1980, a distance that increases almost exponentially when compared to their aunties born a few years earlier in the GPCR era (The “Hong” generation.)

One example is the post-Cultural Revolution kids who are themselves now having babies. While sex-selection does persist in parts of China, most of my friends from this age cohort, outwardly at least, seem to care little about the sex of the child, with many couples espousing a refreshing “10 fingers/10 toes and we’ll go from there” philosophy. (Admittedly, these couples are not only younger but fall into a specific social band: educated, urban, elite, white-collar workers but I think this–to some extent–still confounds a persistent stereotype in the US of a universal Chinese “male child at all costs” mindset.) I suppose all of this really is a matter more for sociologists and cultural anthropologists, but I thought it worth throwing out there.
*Translation from Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume II. Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, eds. (Columbia Univ. Press, 2000), p. 519.

Shuo Wang, “The ‘New Social History’ in China: The Development of Women’s History,” The History Teacher, Volume 39, Issue 3, (May 2006).

Image: “Firmly protect the legal rights and interests of women and children” (1983) Both images from Stefan Landsberger’s Chinese Propaganda Posters Page.