From the Nordic countries to Latin America, state governments have been adopting different strategies to combat gender inequality, largely influenced by culture-specific perceptions and preconceptions. Feminism as a social movement in the People’s Republic of China has been largely defined by the relationship between the society and the government in the county. By no means, this is to argue that feminism as a social movement has been overlooked or suppressed by the government, but unsurprisingly indeed, China seems to have come up with its very own approach to gender equality. This article will provide an outlook on Feminism in China from the Mao years up until recent developments focusing particularly on governmental measures.


From a historical perspective, modern feminism in China was brought along by the revolutionary 1950s. After thousands of years of women having an inferior status in the society, reinforced by feudalism and traditional Confucianist values, the Maoist era turned out to be a milestone in China’s feminist history. Political slogans like “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” reflected the desire to challenge the traditional patriarchal mindset of people. Indeed, not only was an unprecedented number of females mobilized into paid employment but also, due to the so-called ‘cadre management system’, they could aspire to be involved in the political life of Maoist China (Zeng, 2014). While women were rarely appointed to high positions in the governmental hierarchy and their political participation was often restricted to the role of ‘revolutionary youth’, these developments were also a step forward. However, the most significant change came along in the private sphere with the introduction of the new Marriage Law in 1950, which prohibited concubinage, formally allowed women a free choice in marriage, the right to divorce and awarded them custody of their children and significantly improved their inheritance rights (Croll, 1974; Curtin, 1975). In addition, some efforts were made to combat illiteracy, which had previously been a problem, particularly prevalent among women (Harper-Hinton, 2009).


Interestingly enough, although the ‘trend’ for female liberation had been put into motion, and already had given women considerable decision-making power by the end of the 1990s, especially in urban households (Gates, 1993; Yan, 1997), a certain ambiguity arose in the post-Mao era. On the one hand, the globalization and the growing exposure towards the ‘Western’ values and attitudes could not go unnoticed. However, the reforms and ‘opening-up’ have also sparkled a reverse process: since the government has largely retracted from the private sphere during the privatization and industrialization efforts, the traditional patriarchal family values somewhat resurrected (Leung, 2003). The culmination of it was the widespread manifestation of the so-called Son Preference, which was facilitated by the introduction of the infamous one-child policy. In rural areas, the preference for sons stemmed from the hard labor required to sustain their agricultural based lifestyle (Berik, Dong & Summerfield, 2007). In cities, it was widely believed that sons would be more capable to provide for their elderly parents, as women were legally disadvantaged in the labour market (e.g. women were often forced to retire as much as ten years earlier than men, thereby confining them to their homes). Maltreatment of young girls, underreporting of female births and infanticide have been some of the devastating consequences of the son preference. It is particularly striking that women themselves seem to have been the facilitators of such preferences by acting as advocates for the patriarchal family (Greenhalgh, 1994).


The implementation of the one-child policy per se was an important indicator of the role of women in Chinese society. Women’s bodies – and indeed, the policy mainly affected women (male contraception did not receive enough promotion or popularity)— became an object of tight control by the state in order to achieve government-set population goals. Digging a little deeper, women liberation campaign during the Maoist period was to a large extent implemented in order to reach their ambitious economic goals. Gender equality was prescribed by the government—a government exclusively made up by men.



Has anything changed?


Modern-day China is home to an outstanding number of successful, well-educated women working for Fortune 500 companies or creating their own businesses, women who are striving as hard as men towards self-realization in various spheres. Indeed, China has the biggest number of self-made women-billionaires in the world (The Hurun Report, 2016). While attitudes towards gender roles in China is the whole separate topic, it is worth to take a look at the official discourse in the country.


Only just a quarter of the Chinese Communist Party’s about 89.4 million members are women (Meisenheimer, 2017) As we move up the political ladder, the number of women drastically decrease. The twenty-five-member Politburo currently only has one female – Sun Chunlan. Furthermore, the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo has never had a female representative. Strong gender stereotypes and a man-oriented political culture make it hard for women to break the political glass ceiling.


However, despite weak female representation in upper-level politics, the Chinese Communist party has recently been bringing gender equality back to its political agenda. In 2015 China, pledged to donate 10 million US dollars to the UN Women in order to assist other developing countries to build 100 health projects for women and children (Qiu, 2016). Domestically, considerable efforts were made to improve the legislation on women’s rights. These have already produced success stories, such as when the first workplace gender discrimination case was won in China in 2014. Additionally, the Anti-Domestic Violence Law of the People’s Republic of China took effect on 1 March 2016.


These and many other advances for women represent government’s concern with gender discrimination in the country, yet certain inconsistency is not hard to notice. One of the two government-controlled Women’s rights organizations, All-Women’s Federation is often criticized for being used as a tool for social control and to the promotion of population planning policy. An infamous example could be the stigmatizing articles posted by the Foundation about the ‘leftover women’ a term the organization introduced to define the unmarried women over the age of 27.  Another example would be the Feminist Five case – a group of by that time quite well-known feminists, who were arrested and detained in prison in 2015 because they had planned to give out stickers in Beijing subway on the eve of International Women’s Day in order to raise awareness about sexual harassment on public transport. Needless to mention the removal of the #metoo campaign posts or a very recent deletion of any posts related to Feminist Voices organization, including their page on Weibo – one of the largest Chinese social media websites.


All of this conflicting evidence proves, that just like everything in China, Feminism seems to have its very own, Chinese characteristics. For one thing, gender inequality is combatted in a very top-down manner, meaning that feminism is encouraged when it is promoted by the government, and punished when it stems from social activism.


Up until now, unlike in many western societies, where the state regulation of family life is a consequence of undermining social processes, like industrialization and urbanization, “state power and policies have been the creators, not the creations of a transformed society” (Davis & Harrell, 1993). The state plays definitive role in promoting gender equality, which, given the overwhelmingly male constitution of the government and a traditional Chinese emphasis on pragmatism and superiority of collective over the individual, leaves us thinking that female liberation as a concept was never a state objective, but a means of implementing other social and economic goals.   Nevertheless, with a growing number of educated women, stronger anti-discrimination legislation and the profusion of international gender-equality awareness campaigns, is there hope for a positive change in the near future?



The author of this opinion piece is our guest contributor Alexandra Zagaynova.

Avtorica tega prispevka je naša gostujoča kolumnistka Alexandra Zagaynova.


Reference list:


Berik, Gunseli, Dong Xiao-yuan, and Gale Summerfield (2007). China’s Transition and Feminist Economics. Feminist Economics, 13 (3/4): 1-33


Croll, Elisabeth (1974) ed. The Women’s movement in China: a selection of readings, 1949-1973. London: Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute


Curtin, Katie (1975). Women in China. New York: Pathfinder Press. 


Davis, Deborah & Harrell, Stevan (1993) Introduction. In Chinese Families in the Post-Mao Era. University if California Press. [online] Available at: Accessed: 21-03-2018


Gates, Hill (1993). Cultural Support for Birth Limitation among Urban Capital-owning Women. In Chinese Families in the Post-Mao Era ed. Davis, Deborah & Harrell, Stevan. University if California Press. [online] Available at: Accessed: 21-03-2018


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Harper-Hinton, Lily (2009). Chinese Women: Move but Not Leap Forward. China papers, 16


Leung, A. S. M. (2003). Feminism in transition: Chinese culture, ideology and the development of the women’s movement in China. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 20, pp. 359–374


Meisenheimer, Maylin (2017) China’s Leaky Political Pipeline. Council on Foreign Relations. Blog Post, October 10 [online]. Available at: Accessed: 08-05-2018


Qiu, Zhibo (2016). Why China Is So Interested in Gender Equality. The Diplomat, March 10 [online] Available at: Accessed: 08-05-2018


The Hurun Report (2016) cited in China dominates self-made woman rich list. BBC News. Business. [online] Available at: Accessed: 05-05-2018


Yan, Yunxiang (1997). The triumph of the conjugality: Structural transformation of family relations in a Chinese village. Ethnology, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 191-212. Published by: University of Pittsburgh. [online] Available at: Accessed: 26-03-2018


Zeng, Benxiang (2014). Women’s Political Participation in China: Improved or Not? Journal of International Women’s Studies, 15(1), 136-150. [online] Available at: Accessed: 21-03-2018