Today is International Women’s Day, a holiday that celebrates the achievements of women around the world. In China, the day has been observed since March 1924, and its significance has been invoked by generations of Chinese women who, by giving speeches, organizing marches, or going on strike, have both furthered women’s liberation and the struggle for national independence and liberation.
The first public celebration of International Women’s Day in China took place in March 1924 in the southern city of Guangzhou, when 2,000 people gathered for a mass meeting in what is known today as People’s Park. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and their nationalist rivals, the Kuomintang (KMT), had just formed the First United Front to counter imperialist expansion and regional militarism in China, and female Communist Party and Communist Youth League members were permitted to join the KMT on an individual basis.
At the time, the head of the KMT’s Central Women’s Department was He Xiangning, who had heard about International Women’s Day from the wife of the influential Soviet advisor Mikhail Borodin. He Xiangning persuaded the Women’s Department to organize the Guangzhou rally, and gave a speech explaining the oppression faced by women and encouraging female attendees to unite behind the struggle against imperialism and feudalism in the name of personal and national liberation.
Word of the event spread throughout China and it has been commemorated ever since. The following year, female representatives from around the country gathered in Beijing to protest against the government’s refusal to grant women the right to vote. In 1927 the central city of Wuhan was the site of a CCP-organized march that drew 100,000 women. Unverified reports of the event claim that certain radical women’s groups marched either fully or partially naked, although this move is only remembered in unofficial histories of the movement.
In the 1920s, China was a hotchpotch of competing territories run by military warlords. In Jiangxi, the eastern Chinese province that housed the CCP’s remote base areas, a pioneering Chinese soviet first celebrated the holiday in 1932 with a March 8 commemorative meeting. Tens of thousands of people participated, and Mao Zedong gave a speech and reviewed the ranks of female Red Guards. From the late 1930s, CCP central authorities would use International Women’s Day as an opportunity to give an annual update on the rights, privileges, and social status of women, as part of a larger plan to mobilize women behind the broader Communist movement.
Even after the collapse of the First United Front, the day continued to be used as an important means to mobilize women. In 1931, a range of Nanjing-based women’s groups petitioned the KMT headquarters demanding a quota be established for women’s participation in the National Assembly. This indirectly led to the successful election of female delegates during the 1936 election, a major step forward in the history of women’s participation in modern Chinese politics. Even during the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945, International Women’s Day continued to be celebrated around the country with the goal of mobilizing women to take part in the war effort.
As the French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs noted, holiday celebrations are an important means of constructing what he termed “collective memory” — the shared knowledge present in the memories of members of a social group. Annual Women’s Day celebrations helped Chinese women to reinforce bonds of identity and construct a collective memory of women’s liberation. Prior to Women’s Day, there had never been such an overtly political holiday for Chinese women, and many gratefully seized opportunities to gather and march — although such events were predominantly an urban phenomenon prior to the CCP’s reunification of China in 1949.
After 1949, Women’s Day was still invoked as a means of establishing and reinforcing the country’s changing gender relations. While Chinese women are still fighting for full equality with their male counterparts, the early years of the People’s Republic often saw the state treat women in remarkably progressive ways. For example, on Women’s Day 1951, more than 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Beijing and Shanghai to protest the post-war American occupation of Japan. When some people heckled a number of former prostitutes among the marchers, the government singled out the hecklers for punishment. In a country where known sex workers were historically seen as social outcasts, the state’s willingness to protect their legal rights signaled a sharp break from the past.
Alongside women’s rising status was the concept of the “new Chinese woman,” a state-sanctioned female ideal that cast women as tireless model workers, nurturing mothers, and brave pioneers of Chinese socialism. This image was widely propagated at the behest of the Women’s Federation from 1960, when the organization started using March 8 to annually honor Chinese women who had made exceptional contributions to socialist advancement. Images of new Chinese women now appear quaint at best and problematic at worst, considering that many of them lauded women most able to demonstrate traits traditionally viewed as masculine. But they stood largely in contrast with the demure, chaste, and submissive female ideals that had preceded them.
Women’s Day celebrations often took the form of strikes and demonstrations. Since the 1990s, however, we have gradually begun to forget this revolutionary tradition. In recent years, college campuses have witnessed the rise of “Girl’s Day” celebrations, held on March 7. Many universities hold events for female students and hang red banners encouraging fellow students to appreciate the contribution women make to campus life. At the same time, companies like Alibaba, China’s e-commerce behemoth, now promote large-scale sales on March 8 that encourage female consumers to treat themselves to typically “feminine” discounted products — often calling the event “Goddess Day” or “Queen’s Day.”
More and more young Chinese women are shunning International Women’s Day, a problem that is partially due to nomenclature. Women’s Day is translated as funüjie, a word that contains a term that youngsters increasingly use to refer to older, married women and that connotes a certain frumpiness and a lack of sophistication. Meanwhile, nüshengjie — the Chinese word for “Girl’s Day” — conveys more positive notions of youth, beauty, and vivaciousness.
After nearly a century of International Women’s Day in China, the meaning of the holiday is slowly being lost. Today, as women both in China and abroad continue to face significant gender inequality, we must work to convince younger generations that the cause of emancipation is still something worth fighting for.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.