At 4 a.m. Sept. 7, 2017, 37-year-old entrepreneur Su Xiangmao jumped to his death. In a note, supposedly written by Su just before his fatal leap, he accused his “vicious” ex-wife of 104 days, Zhai Xinxin, of blackmailing him into despair and financial ruin.
On the internet, furious netizens sprang into action, digging through Zhai’s social media photos, her personal information, and the details of her past relationships. Soon they started posting information they claimed proved the 31-year-old had attended paid boot camps and joined online groups meant to help women “fish millionaires.”
That same year, popular blogger Lengxuecainü — Chinese for “cold-blooded talented woman” — wrote: “The most comfortable way of life is staying single and childless (no need to buy an apartment).” Another typical Lengxuecainü post read, “I say this to those fools and scoundrels who keep saying, ‘What’s wrong with pursuing love?’ or ‘What’s wrong with devoting yourself to your family?’: Luxuries like ‘love’ and ‘family’ are not for you if you lack the resources to buy whatever you please. The way to go is work hard, make money, be economically independent and not a pushover.”
Zhai Xinxin and Lengxuecainü are familiar names to those acquainted with China’s often rancorous debate over feminism. The past few years have seen an uptick in women’s agitation in popular media and especially online. In 2015, for example, they condemned the annual televised Lunar New Year gala for its “misogynist” skits.
This emerging movement has been met with an equally fierce backlash, however. Critics treat feminism — or nüquan zhuyi, a term that can mean either “women’s rights” or “women’s privileges” — as a dirty word and complain about “feminist whores” and “feminist cancer.” Others make unfavorable comparisons between “Chinese country feminism” — a reference to the ubiquitous mongrel dogs and cats of the Chinese countryside — and the supposedly purer “Western” breed.
Naming matters. My research partner and I began our inquiry with the recognition that an unsympathetic public often lumps women’s discontent and agitation together under the label of “feminism” in an effort to contain them. To grasp the nature of gender antagonism in China therefore requires us to not assume a self-evident “Chinese feminism,” but to examine the forms in which women are disrupting the prevalent patriarchal social order. We call such female transgressions “made-in-China feminism,” or “C-fem.”
Changing gender and class relations in post-socialist China have led to the revival of patriarchal values and the rise of a highly competitive marriage market. In response, women have embraced new coping strategies. Some, like Zhai, practice hypergamy, or marrying up, seeing their sexuality as a means of acquiring material security. Others, such as Lengxuecainü, cherish autonomous female sexuality and see material security as a key guarantee of this ideal. Each of these two strands of C-fem redefine and realign resources, rights, and responsibilities in a particular way, even as the public conflates the two into one undifferentiated “feminism.”
C-fem has developed in a cultural and material context vastly different from the “global north” societies of North America and Europe. Radical measures taken during the first three decades after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 produced a relatively egalitarian society in which the percentage of women working outside the home was among the highest in world history — about 90% in urban areas in the 1970s. Traditional femininity was strongly discouraged.
Left: A 1974 propaganda poster declaring, “Women hold up half the sky.” From Det Kgl. Bibliotek; Right: A 1985 magazine ad for a health supplement. From kongfz.com
But the economic reforms China undertook beginning in 1978 brought about drastic changes on both the gender and class fronts. Images of feminized women began to flood popular culture, where they were equated with modernization and globalization. To rectify Mao’s de-gendered, ascetic culture, society embraced an essentialized notion of womanhood, further affirmed by the rise of consumer culture and the recent reinvention — cheered by male elites — of Confucianism.
Over the last three decades, urban gender gaps in labor force participation, unemployment rates, and income have dramatically widened — despite diminishing gender disparities in education. At the same time, the pressure on women to settle for marriage has increased, culminating in a panic over the fate of the country’s “leftover women” — women who stay unmarried into their late twenties and beyond — beginning in the ’00s.
In short, the post-socialist state, market forces, and rekindled patriarchal values have culminated in a gendered marriage market that incentivizes hypergamy by institutionalizing women’s sexuality as a means to economic security.
Even as this shift was taking place, however, the one-child policy implemented in 1980 altered how women understood their place in society. Most Chinese women born in urban areas during the 1980s and ’90s were single children. Without male siblings, they received all the best resources at their families’ disposal and many experienced little, if any, gender bias growing up.
Their belief that they were entitled to equal opportunities and treatment only began to crumble as they navigated the education system and workplace, both of which explicitly favor men. This discrepancy between expectation and reality has unintentionally cultivated a cohort of tech-savvy young women with unprecedented gender awareness and an aversion toward gender inequality. It also partly explains C-fem’s explosive dynamism on the Chinese internet over the course of the past decade.
Relationship guru Ayawawa (standing, in black) gives a speech during a training course, October 2019. From @ Ayawawa on Weibo
The first and most pronounced type of C-fem we identified in our research is what we call the “entrepreneurial” strand. Entrepreneurial C-fem encourages women to exercise their autonomy on the marriage market in order to maximize their personal returns. According to this line of thought, women’s power over men is derived from their sexual attractiveness. Broadly defined, this includes not just looks but also the ability to perform traditional feminine and domestic roles, and it requires careful calculation and self-discipline.
An extreme example of the entrepreneurial strand is Zhai Xinxin — a highly calculating female predator who repeatedly extracted material benefits from a series of heterosexual relationships, culminating in the death of a husband. But perhaps a more representative model is the relationship guru Ayawawa. According to Ayawawa, women looking to compete on the marriage market must look attractive, marry young, and project an image of virtue, chastity, and loyalty.
Hypergamy of the sort practiced by Zhai or advocated by Ayawawa is not new to China. What distinguishes entrepreneurial C-fem is its emphasis on women’s individual agency and its blunt utilitarian view of marriage and heterosexual relationships in general. A woman’s ultimate goal is personal economic security, rather than the economic success or respectability of her family, and she pursues this aim on her own.
The second, albeit often overlooked, strand of C-fem — which we term “non-cooperative C-fem” — operates by the opposite logic. It cherishes autonomous female sexuality, and considers personal economic standing not as an end in itself but as a means to sexual autonomy.
Older unmarried women are often stigmatized as “leftovers” in China, but non-cooperative C-fem has offered an alternative interpretation. Punning on the Chinese words for “leftover” and “success” — both pronounced sheng — they argue that these women aren’t “leftovers,” but “successes” whose excellent education and economic resources render them neither keen on conventional marriages nor willing to settle for mediocre men.
When Lengxuecainü argued that “the most comfortable way of life” for women in urban centers is to stay single and childless, she was pointing out that prevalent marriage norms subjugate women and require substantial economic resources. Rather than pursuing family life, women should make a life for themselves through hard work.
While the two strands rest on different logic, both poke at the hidden injuries of class. Entrepreneurial C-fem urges economic calculation in romantic relationships, whereas non-cooperative C-fem boasts of women’s self-earned spots in the class hierarchy. This arouses the ire of men, especially those in disadvantaged economic positions. Lengxuecainü, to name just one example, ultimately deleted her social media account after her critics attempted to dox her.
Combined with glaring economic inequality, this anti-feminist backlash transposes the simmering discontent toward the country’s — largely male — elites onto transgressors of the gender order. Feminists — always characterized as the entrepreneurial variety — shoulder the blame for abandoning conventional gender norms and serving as sexual resources for upper-class men.
To acknowledge and confront non-cooperative C-fem separately would be emasculating. After all, hegemonic masculinity in post-socialist China entails economic success and possession of female sexuality. By dismissing the hypergamous marriage market and focusing on women’s professional achievements, non-cooperative C-fem poses a dual threat to the patriarchal social order. Maintaining a studious ignorance of the difference between it and entrepreneurial C-fem allows the anti-feminist backlash to more effectively appropriate suppressed class antagonism as they seek to contain female transgressions against the social order.
Statues in Beijing, Aug. 23, 2008. Zhang Kaixin/IC
A careful investigation into the different strands of C-fem also helps to challenge two common narratives of gender politics in China. Liberal observers of Chinese feminism have singled out actions and voices that potentially challenge regime legitimacy, paying little attention to the highly diverse nature of local gender contentions. Chinese neo-left critics, on the other hand, criticize Chinese feminism as a product of neoliberalism, conflating it with post-second wave identity politics in the West, despite the latter originating from a different political, cultural, and economic milieu. Both intellectual accounts suffer from an analytical blindness to local context.
Is what’s currently happening in China a continuation of Western feminism? Is it particularly exhilarating because it echoes the Western liberal vision and challenges China’s political system? Or is it the “Chinese country feminism” that its critics deride as leeching off economic inequality?
These questions point to a series of unspoken priorities and presumptions behind the current transnational discussion of contemporary “Chinese feminism” — now with quotation marks to create distance between the term and the on-the-ground reality of C-fem. Feminism invokes sentiments and critiques developed in the West, while glossing over the strands of gender antagonism that are endemic in post-socialist China. We hope our analysis can help spark a new global conversation around feminism — one that serves the complexity of local women’s struggles.
Yige Dong made an equal contribution to the research and writing of this essay. She is an assistant professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound. This essay draws material from our article published in Critical Asian Studies, which can be read here.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A woman walks past a poster in Beijing, Aug. 28, 2018. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/VCG)