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EssayNüStories

China’s #MeToo: In literature and reality, the patriarchy keeps women from helping women. But they’re fighting back.

BY EMILY MATSON

In both literature and in real life, women in China are reluctant to stand up for one another and themselves, and are implicated in their own oppression. Yet some women have started to fight back.

Despite Mao Zedong’s famous proclamation that “women hold up half the sky,” sexism is still rampant in Chinese society. The #MeToo movement emerged in China in early 2018 to protest sexual harassment and the assault of women, particularly by misogynistic professors and other social elites. This outgrowth has been especially potent because Chinese women not only have to fight against the patriarchy, but also against the repressive system of domestic censorship that clamps down on anything that smacks of foreign interference that could potentially destabilize the party-state.  

For this reason, the #MeToo movement in China has had to employ different tactics than in the United States. Whereas in the US, #MeToo was spearheaded by investigative journalism in the entertainment industry, in China it was initiated on social media at universities. And unlike in the US, most of the Chinese accusers have been ordinary women without celebrity status, such as Luo Xixi. 

Luo, a PhD recipient from Beijing’s Beihang University, is widely credited with catalyzing China’s #MeToo movementOn January 1, 2018, she wrote a letter on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, accusing her former advisor of sexual assault that was viewed by more than 3 million people within a day.  Luo’s actions led to a flurry of activity on Chinese social media and the coining of the hashtag #MeToo Zai Zhongguo or #MeToo in China, which was utilized over 5 million times before being censored on Weibo two weeks later. After this, participants stayed one step ahead of the censors, utilizing VPNs and creating new hashtags such as #MiTu, which literally means “rice bunny.

Despite the subsequent outpouring of accusations against university professors, nonprofit heads, CCTV anchors, and even monks, however, China’s #MeToo movement has largely been limited to the urban, educated elite. Most women are still afraid of coming forward due to potential societal repercussions. Similarly to Western women, Chinese women fear the loss of their jobs, financial stability, and social respect. Chinese society is also both patriarchal and hierarchical, which makes women reluctant to confront their superiors.  

Out of a combination of ignorance and fear, then, many Chinese women are still hesitant to stand up for themselves and their fellow females. This is hardly new issue, but was problematized a century ago by Chinese literary luminaries Lu Xun and Qiu Jin. Lu Xun, by far the most celebrated modern Chinese author, was infamous for his sardonic critiques of Chinese society and what he saw as its moral bankruptcy. As was the case with many of his contemporaries in the May Fourth Movement, he was also an outspoken feminist and saw women as the ultimate victims of traditional Chinese society and Confucian morality.  

A woodblock print of “Xianglin’s Wife” in Lu Xun’s “New Year’s Sacrifice” made by Gu Yan in 1956. Credit: Muban Educational Trust

One of Lu Xun’s most heartbreaking stories is “A New Year’s Sacrifice,” which portrays the tragic fate of a character that we only ever know as “Xianglin’s wife.” Xianglin’s wife is in many ways the early 20th century Chinese equivalent of Hester Prynn in Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter. In her case, though, the societal ostracization comes not from adultery and a baby out of wedlock, but merely from remarrying. After her second husband and young son die, Xianglin’s wife is forever stigmatized as “unlucky” in her community, until she eventually dies a pauper, reduced over time to begging in the streets. 

As with The Scarlet Letter, it is natural to place all the blame on the men for the misogyny perpetuated in “New Year’s Sacrifice.” However, as one of my insightful undergraduate students noted, the characters in the story most active in maintaining the status quo are actually women. “Old Mrs. Wei” colludes with the former mother-in-law of Xianglin’s wife to drag the poor young woman kicking and screaming to the bedchamber for her second marriage. The narrator’s aunt refuses to let Xianglin’s wife touch the new year’s sacrifices due to her “unlucky” reputation. Lastly, in a callous comment that makes one shiver, Mrs. Liu contends that it would have been better for Xianglin’s wife to commit suicide than remarry, as now she would be split in half in the underworld.   

There are certainly cases of women failing to support other women in China today as well, such as a notorious case reported in the South China Morning Times in early October of 2018. Local police were alerted after receiving an anonymous call describing a woman screaming for help from a dormitory on the Wuhan University campus. According to the official police report, a 17-year-old male was accused of raping a migrant worker of the same age in a dorm room. The case received widespread media attention and a slew of angry online comments after an unnamed student, who claimed to have been the anonymous caller, posted his version of the events. He said that the dorm’s female security officer had merely sat in her office the whole time the woman was screaming, and refused to do anything. Furthermore, once the police finally arrived, she claimed it was probably just a minor lover’s quarrel. 

Photograph of a young Qiu Jin, who was also a notorious cross-dresser.

Whether it’s a refusal to defend others or a reluctance to speak up for themselves, then, are Chinese women bound to be implicated in their own societal oppression? Qiu Jin, considered to be China’s first feminist, certainly seems to think so. A famous anti-Manchu revolutionary martyr, Qiu was convinced that overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and Confucian cultural norms would be in the best interests of women, and thus of China as a whole. In a famous speech she made in 1904, Qiu both implicated women in their own oppression and returned agency to them: 

When long ago those rotten Confucians started to spout such nonsense as “Man is lofty, woman lowly”…we women should have had the guts to mobilize our comrades and oppose them. And when the Last Ruler of the Chen dynasty began the practice of foot-binding, we should have been shamed into raising an army and routing out that villain! But nothing like that happened – how is it that we bind our own feet whenever someone else wants to shackle our legs? Men are afraid that if we acquire understanding and knowledge, we will climb up over their heads, and so they do not allow us to study. Why is it that we obey them and do not oppose them? It is all because we women have ourselves abdicated our responsibilities.

Although Qiu largely blamed herself and her female compatriots for the perpetuation of misogynistic systems, however, she also saw a way forward. Women must actively advocate for themselves and liberate themselves through education, regardless of their age or social status. Today, Chinese women are more educated than ever, and their increased knowledge of the world is largely what has made them increasingly intolerant of the patriarchy. It is telling that the most prominent activists in the #MeToo movement, such as Luo Xixi, are highly educated young women. Thus, although there is still a long way to go before gender equality becomes a reality in China, we can be hopeful that Qiu Jin’s dream is slowly but surely coming true.  

About the author

Portrait of the author. Credit: Emily Matson.

Emily Matson is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, studying modern Chinese history.  Matson’s dissertation is on museums in Northeastern China that commemorate the Manchukuo era and how this regional narrative has interacted with the national narrative from Beijing over time. In addition to modern Chinese history,  she also has expertise in modern Japanese history and the interdisciplinary field of historical memory.

About the editor

Jessie Lau is a journalist and artist from Hong Kong covering identity, human rights and politics, with a focus on China and other parts of Asia. Her work has been published by Foreign Policy, The Nation and The Economist, among others. She serves as Board Member and Online Editor-in-Chief at NüVoices, and was formerly a reporter with the South China Morning Post. Website: www.laujessie.com. Twitter: @_laujessie