In China, a country with the world’s second largest economy, women create 41 percent of the GDP. In 1990, Chinese women’s annual salary was about 80 percent of their male counterparts. Six years ago, the number became 60 percent. Simple statistics like this, regardless of the complex reasons behind them, blatantly show the unfair treatment received by women in China.
“So we are in an age of conflicts and resistance,” said Lu Pin, a leading Chinese feminist activist who gave a talk titled “Feminism in China: Women’s Bodies on the Frontline” on Thursday, April 27.
The talk was delivered by Lu in mandarin Chinese and simultaneously interpreted by Jingyi Wu ’17, one of the organizers of the event. Wu started the audience off by recalling how she “stumbled upon, by some fate, the very first of young Chinese feminist conferences” as “a young and naïve high school student,” and met Lu.
Having worked for the women’s rights movement in China for more than 20 years, Lu is the founder of “Feminist Voices,” which is “the most influential feminist media in China.” Last year, she co-founded a new organization based in the U.S. to support feminist movement back home.
Social media platforms have been Lu and her colleagues’ main battlefield for years. In 2012, their project themed “Nude Photos against Domestic Violence” came out on the internet, and featured photos of women with different levels of nudity and symbols of violence or suppression on them. Through these provocative photos, they wanted to gather support for their ongoing plan to advocate for “the legislation of the very first anti-domestic violence law” in China.
In reality, although their efforts resulted in successful legislation, Lu said that the nude photos had a very limited effect. The few photos that caught attention were taken down by the original website, and most photos simply did not attract many. “So we were quite disappointed. Why aren’t people interested in nude photos?” Lu said.
“The deeper reason is that although these photos are nude, they are not sexy. The women in them are not sexy. The type of bodies that they depict are not subject to male gaze. They are not to be fantasized [about], and they are not feminine enough.” She argued that because these depictions of “stubborn, calm and angry” women “cannot really be consumed by men,” they failed to be disseminated.
From the incident, Lu learned that when women in China’s patriarchal society try to give their own definitions of their bodies, and to challenge “the sexiness as the only rule,” the society refuses to listen to them. She emphasized the necessity of body resistance, given that women in China are suffering from oppression in the form of “bodily hardships.” “The bodies are these suppressed women’s last and sometimes only resort to resistance,” she said.
China does not seem to lack grassroots feminist initiatives, and many are creative in their ways. In 2013, Lu supported a group of Chinese female university students and their play titled “Our Vaginas, Ourselves” to advocate for women’s sexual independence. Unfortunately, in mainstream online media platforms, photos of them holding signs about “What My Vagina Says” received mostly criticism.
Linking the two similar events, Lu concluded: “For the women who cannot be used, the public wants to ignore them. And for the women who refuse to be used and directly challenge men’s sexual power, the public gives them harsh criticism.”
These incidents also shed light on the social stigmatization Chinese women are facing today, which simply expects them to carry out familial duties. In fact, Lü pointed out that China’s current chairman Xi Jinping explicitly expressed that at a news conference in 2012.
Feminists in China were astounded. For Lu, this shows something more than the state’s warning of its own feminists. “It has a deeper connotation, which is that the state, through requiring women to stabilize the family, can stabilize the whole nation,” she said.
Apparently, the Chinese government’s efforts to push back feminism have only increased in recent years. In 2015, five of Lu’s colleagues were arrested and detained for a month for organizing a protest on public transportations to call attention to sexual harassment on these very areas. According to Lu, for the state they became “troublemakers,” and their actions were “threats to stabilization and the manager of this stabilization, the state.”
Actions have become harder for Lu and her fellow activists. Nevertheless, the large number of “ordinary Chinese feminists” did not give up. “We are in an unprecedented age,” Lu said. “From 2012, I’ve witnessed how fast the Chinese feminist community is growing.”
Today, many among them are women who are highly educated and live in bigger cities. Their anger has even led to the creation of the term “straight men cancer (*=(k❊ڈ),” which has its own Wikipedia page now, as a criticism of male chauvinists and sexists in China.
Still, there are existing obstacles for the many feminist activists in China. For Lu, they tend to lack knowledge about the living conditions of the lower class people, the pervasive role played by the state in gender inequality and the ability to “turn their anger into action.”
Importantly, the pressure does not only come from within. Lu argued that most people here in the U.S. are probably unaware of the impact of Trump’s election on women rights’ movements in China.
“Trump’s election is seen by a lot of chauvinist men to be signifying the defeat of women and feminism,” she said. “On the Chinese internet, the attack against feminism has upgraded to a new level after November of 2016.”
After her media platform “Feminist Voices” was censored and silenced for 30 days last year, and seeing the support from around the world she received during that time, Lu co-founded and registered a new organization called “Chinese Feminist Collectives” in New York City.
“For us, the contact with our friends back in China is essential,” she said at the post-event dinner at Chellis House. “If you are an overseas organization and lack the contact with domestic communities, the things you say lose their value.”
Women’s protests throughout China have led Lu to realize that “the rise of China is happening at the cost of extreme hardships of women.” In response to what the next step for feminists in China is, Lu said that the most important thing is to survive and “to live longer than our opponents.” She also believes that it is the time for “guerrilla wars,” and to “keep ‘sabotaging’” whenever they get the chance to intervene.
Her organization is currently planning to host feminist training sessions for high school students in Beijing. “In the face of the very harsh political environment, what we are doing is to continuously expand our community temporally and spatially,” she said.