The University Record, May 23, 1994

Chinese scholar predicts boom in women’s studies programs

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

Research on women in mainland China surged suddenly about 10 years ago after the national press revealed the disturbing fact that female infanticide was still practiced in the countryside, according to Wang Zheng, a doctoral student in history at the University of California, Davis, and guest lecturer at a Women’s Studies Program brown bag last Tuesday.

Simultaneously, urban Chinese women became more aware of problems created in rural areas by China’s one-child policy, as well as of the abuse of rural women who had female babies.

“Shocked, researchers in the All-China Women’s Federation—a national women’s organization— and academics launched a campaign called “Protecting the Rights and Interests of Women and Children,” and followed up with research programs on women’s issues in general,” Zheng said. “The research is being done primarily by women themselves, and has become a social movement in its own right,” she added.

An outgrowth of that research was the development of women’s studies programs, but unlike Western scholars in women’s studies, most Chinese scholars “have no concept of gender as a cultural and social construction,” Zheng said. Instead, the Chinese try to reconcile women’s studies with Marxism and examine women’s problems through the lens of traditional 19th-century scientific principles.

“They also see gender as the product of biological determinism rather than social forces, and neglect the oppressive effects of a patriarchal society on women,” Zheng said.

Chinese scholars, however, are open to new ideas and eager to explore Western concepts in women’s studies. “One said to me, ‘Marxism can’t explain all the problems of women in today’s China, so tell me about Western theories on women.’ Most find the Western concept of gender easy to grasp once it is explained because social construction is familiar to them from Marxism,” Zheng said.

In contrast to Western women’s studies, which calls for liberation and gender equity, some Chinese scholars are promoting a new ideology that Zheng has dubbed “strong femininity.” Strong femininity argues that women should strive to make themselves strong to compete with men, but simultaneously be very feminine and compete only in non-male, service-oriented fields.

Ironically, many Chinese view the femininity movement as a liberating reform because it reverses Maoist gender policy that promoted equality with men but, many Chinese believe, “masculinized” women.

“The Chinese, however, cannot afford to have wives staying at home, not bringing in a paycheck, and after all these years of working, it is too hard for most women to imagine just staying home. The word ‘housewife’ has been a pejorative term since 1958,” Zheng added.

Zheng expects women’s studies programs to mushroom in China throughout the 1990s. In September 1995, the United Nations will host the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, “so the government is hastening to improve the status of Chinese women, including adding more women’s studies centers, by the next year.”

“The intellectual confrontation with thousands of Western feminists, activists and scholars from the West,” she adds, “should change research on women in China from a women’s movement advocating female consciousness to a women’s movement advocating gender consciousness.”