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Women’s liberation in China: interview with prof. Wu Lijuan

Interview of Ewelina Horoszkiewicz with prof. Wu Lijuan - Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology at Peking University. Her research concentrates on the gender issues and social changes brought about by globalization. She wrote a book “Job Placements and Job Shifts in China: The Effects of Education, Family Background and Gender”.

Instytut Boyma 16.03.2021

Ewelina Horoszkiewicz – Graduate of Management and Sinology at the University of Warsaw. Master student of the Contemporary China Studies Program at Renmin University in Beijing, where she studies the political, economic and social transformations of contemporary China.

Wu Lijuan 吴利娟 – Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology at Peking University. Her research concentrates on the gender issues and social changes brought about by globalization. She wrote a book “Job Placements and Job Shifts in China: The Effects of Education, Family Background and Gender”.


Ewelina Horoszkiewicz: The issue of women’s rights has recently sparked a heated debate in Poland. That is why our think tank, the Boym Institute, has decided to devote this quarterly journal to the issue of rights, social position and the role of women in Asian cultures. Our goal is to present various perspectives that will be the basis for reflection on the situation in our country.

Wu Lijuan: Thank you for the invitation. To be honest, I feel overwhelmed by this responsibility. First of all, I would like to emphasize that in my answers I will take into account not only academic literature on gender studies, but also make a selection of various perspectives that correspond well with my individual feelings and attitude towards these issues.

EH: I would like to start by asking about the influence of Confucianism on the role of women in China. This philosophy lays at the foundation of the traditional Chinese culture, is it still a significant factor shaping women’s rights in this country today?

WL: Of course, philosophy played a significant role, both in the sphere of official ideology and in the everyday life of ordinary people, including gender issues. The traditionally imposed duty on women to take care of the “inner space” (inside the house) was a sign of limiting their freedom.

When western scientists searched for manifestations of care for equality between women and men in traditional Chinese philosophy, this proved in some sense futile. We cannot translate the today’s concepts of woman and man into those times. This dualism was only developed in China under the influence of Western binary notions of gender based on scientific biological evidence. Only then did Yin and Yang, which according to Taoism complement and permeate each other, make sense in the context of the opposite of sexes.

Since, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Confucianism was seen as a backward and unfriendly ideology that should be eradicated, the two phenomena combined thus founding the criticism of traditional culture from the women’s rights perspective. This view prevailed for a long time, also after 1949, because the Chinese Communist Party relied on the legacy of the May Fourth revolutionary Movement boycotting traditional values. The current leadership emphasizes the importance of traditional Chinese culture. I wonder what this means strategically for the future of women in China. Instead of treating traditional Chinese philosophies as a whole that is for or against gender equity, I personally think it would be inspiring to examine those elements that are in accordance with gender egalitarianism.

EH: Thank you for that comprehensive answer Does the so-called “glass ceiling” for women exist in China today? Do they have to “fight” for their position and career?

WL: In fact, male rulers showed much greater aggression on a large scale in order to gain supreme power. This violence affected not only their relatives, as in the case of the aforementioned empresses, but the entire society.

For women in powerful positions, it is common that they are easily accused for not being a “good wife and wise mother” (贤妻良母 xián qī liáng mǔ). I think it is similar for historical figures and contemporary women. In the 1980s and 1990s so-called “strong women” (女强人 nü qiang ren) phenomenon arose, although they didn’t like the nickname themselves. Even though they devoted themselves to hard work, they found time for family and children, which they talked about a lot to emphasize their identity of a good woman.

People are now abandoning traditional norms. Modern women, just alike, do not limit themselves to the role of “good wife” and “wise mother”. I think your observation about the “glass ceiling”, both in a political, business and academic career, is correct. Aggression in pursuit of a career occurs in both men and women. The difference is that in the case of the former, it does not surprise, and in the case of women, it is criticized. The system, however, forces such “masculinized” attitudes on women.

EH: It seems that during the Cultural Revolution, the so-called Iron Girls (铁姑娘 tiě gū niang) – women who eagerly joined the workforce under Mao’s rule – were treated more equally than the women today. Did the sent down to the village urban women really bring more freedom to rural women at that time? Did the Maoist “women hold a half of the sky” slogan mean just the same duties or also the same rights?

WL: At that time, economic development, including agricultural production and industrialization, was a big concern of the top leadership including Mao. The participation of women in the labor force, both in urban and rural areas, was welcome. Some women felt compelled to join the workforce and were consequently subjected to a double burden – inside and outside home. This was to some extent balanced, however, by the Party’s call for equal sharing of responsibilities at home as well as creation of the public institutional childcare facilities in China.

Some of the women complained that calling them to work added to their responsibilities and took away their choice to remain full-time housewives. As in most social movements, initiated by the government or by the nation-state, individuals or some sub-groups have to sacrifice their choices so that the younger generation would have more freedom. In the case of younger educated women who did not yet have many household responsibilities, it was a form of liberation that allowed them to create a brand new identity. I believe this has brought many benefits to Chinese society. This allowed Chinese women to contribute to the home budget and become financially independent.

EH: When it comes to institutions upholding women’s rights, there is the All-China Women’s Federation established in 1949. Are there other governmental or non-governmental organizations defending women’s rights in China? Do they take specific actions or legal steps, e.g. in the context of the new unified civil code?

WL: The All-China Women’s Federation is a so-called GONGO (government-organized non-governmental organization), thus a non-governmental organization with a strong governmental background. Another government institution is The National Working Committee on Children and Women, which belongs to the State Council.

Referring to the All-China Women’s Federation, its member’s wage and status are identical to those of the government officers. Such an organization perfectly serves as a bridge between society and government. It is a reliable channel of communication and a shortcut for women’s interest groups to reach the government. However, this institution must be careful not to cross the line between the government and mass women’s organisations, and try to remain in a safe, neutral position. When it contributes to the success of women’s rights, it doesn’t admit it. When a case is potentially sensitive, it is either not defended against the government or postponed until a more favorable time.

It could be similar in the case of the new civil code and unfavorable provisions concerning divorce law. The public may have been disappointed by its silence, but I think it may have been a misunderstanding. An institution of this type must act behind the scenes, and the results of its gentle but consistent influence on government are visible after a decade or two. Only when the matter is quiet and the people involved have the courage to speak up, concrete decisions will be made. It is difficult to judge, both for ordinary people and for academic researchers, what is happening there if you are an outsider.

Professor Wang Zheng from the University of Michigan examined the documents and interviewed top leaders of the All-China Women’s Federation in the 1950s-1960s. She wrote in a very sophisticated fashion about how these women try to walk the fine line between women’s expectations and the risk of being exposed to disgrace of government. In my opinion, the policy of the Chinese government is not very gender-sensitive. But what influence the All-China Women’s Federation has, and to what extent it would be ready to express its opposite position, remains a question.

EH: Moving to Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and open door policy, it has created new opportunities for development. Were they equal for both men and women? Was that one of the reasons for the emergence of the so-called “leftovers” (剩 女 shèngnǚ) – successful women who remain single?

WL: As I mentioned, I think government policy is not particularly gender-sensitive. 99.99 percent of top leaders have been men. In Mao’s time, they believed that women’s labor-force participation was a form of women’s liberation. They did not think about the burden it brings to women. The reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping had nothing to do with gender-sensitivity directly, but they unintentionally created the conditions for the development of a more open society. Opening up to Western culture, discussions on sexuality, economic development, and migration from the countryside to the cities could have had a positive impact on the situation of women.

In the 1980s, China’s top sociologists, the male sociologists I would say, initiated a discussion about the return of women to home. Due to the too large Chinese population, a one-child policy was introduced at that time. Thus, these sociologists suggested that women should return home to reduce the number of employees on the labor market and to ensure that everyone performed their own duties to which they are best suited. However, the Communist Party did not even pay attention to this discussion and did not take into account such a possibility. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms did not change that either. This is probably the only manifestation of gender-sensitivity in Chinese policy.

However, Deng’s policy also had negative consequences. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Household Responsibility System was introduced, which was the land reform policy. As it was usually men who signed the contract, especially in the countryside, their name was on the household registration contract. In the event of a divorce, it was the woman who had to move out and had no right to the land. However, after 20-30 years, first the academy, and then the All-China Women’s Federation, realized it. That is why, in 2018, the All-China Women’s Federation promoted nationwide policy that in case rural families re-sign their land contract it is required to display the names of all members of the household.

The so-called “leftovers” emerged because, thanks to better education, they no longer had to rely on a man to maintain their status or secure their financial situation. Ironically, it was the first time the All-China Women’s Federation used the term without realizing its far-reaching negative implications. Now, after more than five years of discussion on this subject, the term is not used in both the common language and the media. Although the term is no longer used, the impact on the younger generation is evident. Young girls experience anxiety related to the age of marriage and the age of childbirth. They experience the pressure of having to reconcile their career and family life. Until now, women over the age of 30 have been viewed as “leftovers”. However, this line is moving downwards and 25-year-old girls fear they will be “leftovers”.

EH: Is it the so-called “leftovers” who started feminist movements such as the Feminist Five? Do women in China know and react to world events like #MeToo?

WL: I think the atmosphere in politics is settled now. Controversial topics and very different opinions are not discussed in the media. Gender is one of the few of its kind that can be discussed in public. Perhaps because it became more visible, or because other topics could not be discussed. The Chinese can see that in the last five years many issues have been discussed from a gender perspective.

I don’t know if I can say that feminism is a movement. However, they can confront their views there, and raise discussions about gender. These people must have a position on this matter, build their value system.

In 2018, a Chinese woman living in America reported a sexual harassment event taking place at Beihang University (北京航空航天大学). This started the Chinese #MeToo movement that ran throughout 2018 and 2019. The topic became high-profile, and employees belonging to professions such as university professors, reporters, NGO leaders, etc. felt that they were in the crosshairs. When two accusations of sexual harassment turned out to be wrong, men used it to their advantage to undermine credibility of women. Funnily enough, it hit less powerful men the hardest, because no similar cases were reported among government officials or leaders of financial institutions. I think this movement gave women a sense of unity. While others accused them of not disclosing the crime immediately after it was committed, they may have found understanding among themselves. They created a safe space on the Internet, where they called each other sisters. However, the Chinese government disliked #MeToo, which has become a taboo.

I am not sure about the future on this point. Gender concerns all of us, so many people give themselves the right to speak as an expert. In this situation, it is difficult to remain in a neutral position, everyone feels that they have to be clearly for or against and easily adopts radical attitudes. However, what is certain is that it is good that the gender theme has become visible, and perhaps there will be more space in society to talk openly about it.

EH: In Poland, many women under the “pro-choice” slogan are demanding extension of the right to abortion. What is the perspective of ordinary people in China on this issue? Has the one-child policy led to the liberalization of the abortion law?

WL: When the one-child policy was introduced in early 1980s, women who had at least one healthy child and became pregnant again were forced by the government to have an abortion. At the same time, one-child policy made abortion a reasonable means either to the end of contraception or getting rid of a child of the non-preferred sex. Therefore, abortion still has its legitimacy in people’s minds and government policy. On the other hand, in traditional Chinese culture such as Buddhism, abortion is not a good thing. Therefore, many people feel an internal conflict and remorse when persuading others or considering an abortion.

From the perspective of ordinary people, abortion is a way to end an unwanted pregnancy. However, the government now has a problem with low birth rates, so it does not allow abortion unconditionally, but until a specific month at the latest. I think as long as the government sets an upper limit on the number of children, abortion will be acceptable. If the limit is lifted, this acceptance could decrease. One factor is the government’s family planning policy. Another is the rights of the unborn child. Yet another is the child of an illegitimate relationship. In the latter case, if the birth of a child from an illegitimate relationship were legal, in the society’s opinion there would be no grounds for abortion and the perception of this act would be negative.

EH: So far, we have talked a lot about the challenges facing women in China. To end on a positive note, I would like to ask you about the dreams and goals of young Chinese women.

WL: I think that young Chinese women have great ambitions in the context of their future career. However, many of them still dream of a romantic relationship. One where they would be treated equally, whether it is a homosexual or heterosexual relationship. Equal not only in terms of sharing household chores, but also in terms of emotional involvement. Others, on the other hand, feel that the heterosexual relationship is a trap for them and want to remain single. Some of them would like to become single mothers. I would say their dreams are very diverse. I think it’s very good because women at my age didn’t have that choice, they had to get married one day. While young girls don’t need to institutionalize their relationship for life, they can have friends for life, and that might be enough for them. I think young Chinese women can make forms of marriage and family institutions more diverse. I don’t know if it’s their dream, but it’s my dream for sure (laughing)!

Niniejszy materiał znajdą Państwo w Kwartalniku Boyma nr – 7/2021

Ewelina Horoszkiewicz

Absolwentka Zarządzania i Sinologii na Uniwersytecie Warszawskim. Studentka studiów magisterskich w ramach programu Contemporary China Studies na Uniwersytecie Renmin w Pekinie, gdzie zajmuje się przemianami politycznymi, gospodarczymi i społecznymi współczesnych Chin.

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