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2021-04-08 11:19:22 Voices

What if there was a program allowing the government to go around collecting sperm from good-looking, smart, healthy men — celebrities, scientists, athletes, etc. — and put it in a bank where any woman could access it? The bank would be state-run, held to tight scientific and ethical standards, and provide a wide range of benefits for its single clients, including day care and health care. Would that be finally enough to stabilize China’s free-falling fertility rate?

It may sound like the plot to some absurdist “Brave New World” knockoff, but in some corners of the Chinese internet, radical, self-proclaimed feminists are serious about what they call zigong daode — “uterine morality” — and they’re not willing to accept anything but the very best genetic material.

The earliest use of uterine morality I’ve found was in a 2013 thread on the Baidu Feminism Tieba forum titled, “Women Should Establish ‘Morals of the Uterus.’” In it, the author makes a modest proposal: “The uterus is a holy site of human evolution, not a toxic factory for churning out garbage or petulant kids. Because women bear this huge responsibility, they should establish a system of uterine morals. For instance, births should be ‘neither random nor rampant,’ and (women should) ‘bear and rear better children.’”

The author’s proposal never really caught on, and over the next half-decade the term earned only sporadic mentions on sites popular among Chinese feminists like microblogging platform Weibo or the forum site Douban — where the thought experiment I proposed at the beginning of this article first appeared. Then, over the recent Spring Festival holiday, it suddenly burst back into the public eye, becoming a hotly debated topic among feminist users all over social media. In early February, for instance, a now-banned Weibo user named “Lin Mao Mao” tore into another poster for marrying a man much less attractive than herself, thereby condemning their future children to “ugliness.” Or another example: On Feb. 16, a user posted to the Ezu forum on Douban that “Women need morals of the womb. … You see women marrying some fugly dude like they’re blind and then popping out a couple of little piggies. If children are going to be that ugly, then their life is basically halfway over.”

Women are expected to realize that they have power over their choice of partners and their expectations for their children.

What fueled her rant, she added, was going home for the holidays and realizing how hideous her relatives’ kids were.

In essence, for a woman to have good uterine morals, she must take responsibility for her future children and pick a good-looking, intelligent, strong, financially sound man with no family history of genetic disorders. To advocates, this is common sense: a form of genetic selection intended to ensure that future generations evolve into healthy, beautiful, and intelligent beings. Some frame it as protecting the so-called rights of the unborn child. “Only women with a sense of ‘uterine morality’ truly love their children,” wrote one Weibo blogger. “They reject ugly, poor, sick, and abusive men, and they would never hurt their own descendants just to satisfy their sexual perversions.”

There’s also an element of female empowerment at play here. Women are expected to realize that they have power over their choice of partners and their expectations for their children. For instance, Qin Liwen, a former media personality and host of the feminist podcast Seahorse Planet who goes by the screen name “Pfaueninsel,” has argued that uterine morality is a way to “flip the script on the long history of men shaming women for their appearances or judging a woman’s reproductive value by her looks. It’s about reminding women of their own agency and their right to choose.”

iStock/People Visual

iStock/People Visual

Of course, there’s a difference between “uterine morality” and “reproductive freedom.” The latter encompasses the freedom to marry or date up or down, as women see fit, whereas for China’s uterine moralists, the whole point is stripping away the freedom to marry down. They encourage hypergamy — marrying up — while spurning and ridiculing those who, as they see it, deign to marry an inadequate man. Within the discourse of uterine morality, there are few problems that can’t be attributed to such a decision. One Douban user responded to a news article about a 10-year-old boy’s penile surgery by noting that “the kid is deformed because you (the mom) weren’t choosy and slept with a man who’s just barely a man.”

It’s hard to miss the influence of eugenics in the language of the uterine moralists. Better not to have kids at all, the argument goes, than to give birth to a child with a congenital disorder. Unsurprisingly, opponents have lambasted uterine morality’s tendency toward classism, racism, ableism, and genetic discrimination, directly linking proponents to Nazi eugenicists and social Darwinists. Others point out that the violent rhetoric of uterine morality is merely a mirror image of the patriarchy, and itself a misogynistic attack on women’s rights.

It’s hard to miss the influence of eugenics in the language of the uterine moralists.

Indeed, the uterine moralists are seemingly ignorant of the actual lived experiences of many women. For instance, they have repeatedly called women marrying up a “feminist solution,” because they believe women’s reproductive autonomy is being curbed by a combination of policies, family pressure, and male oppression. As they see it, all “downward marriages” are coerced. But this is based on a misunderstanding. If anything, it’s the tiered structure of female hypergamy that is the source of male dominance, both inside and outside the home.

Still, just because the uterine moralists espouse radical views doesn’t mean we should ignore the very real problems that birthed them. However absurd, uterine morality expresses the desire of self-proclaimed “radical feminists” to change, reimagine, or subvert existing gender relations. In this, uterine moralists and their critics are actually aligned. Both sides are concerned with the sexism rampant within media discourse, and they are both highly sensitive to and active in discussing issues like gender violence.

Where they differ is in how uterine moralists refuse to understand, or simply have not considered, what “structural change” would actually entail. Take Pfaueninsel, the podcaster, for instance. During an interview, she once argued that China’s feminists can be split into two camps. “One wing believes that women are powerless and have to depend on society, and so we need to be out there demanding societal changes before we can pull ourselves up,” she claimed. “The other wing believes that it’s too hard to change the broader environment, so it comes down to individuals taking a stand to effect change.”

Pfaueninsel identifies with the first wing — or at least, she used to. Increasingly, her language mimics that of the individualists. And in fairness, the “individual resistance” that she’s begun to advocate for makes sense. Women’s individual experiences and battles can inspire other women, and give each other hope or ideas for how to deal with discrimination and violence. However, too many bloggers on Weibo who claim to be “radical feminists” have no practical experience in advocating for gender equality, and they often put their personal experiences on a pedestal. Principles like “self-reliance,” “self-improvement,” and “resistance” soon lose all meaning, becoming not calls to wake up, but extremist maxims with which they can bludgeon women who they deem insufficiently woke. 

Trina Dalziel/Ikon Images/People Visual

Trina Dalziel/Ikon Images/People Visual

Ironically, if you take this faith in individual resistance to its logical conclusion, you can easily end up arguing that every individual must assume responsibility for the adversities they face. Do that, and you end up rationalizing the status quo. Moreover, the focus on individual tactics often ignores the societal aspect of gender inequality. It becomes a kind of self-preservation mechanism for middle-class women who have the means to extricate themselves from at least some of these inequalities. With that sense of self-preservation comes indifference and apathy toward other vulnerable groups — including other women. They tend to blame these women for their own suffering, and rarely express sympathy for those less advantaged than them.

The focus on individual tactics often ignores the societal aspect of gender inequality.

This often forms into criticism of the other wing of Chinese feminism: a faction that has long worked to provide social services for women, effect policy change and judicial reform, and secure more public resources for the elimination of gender violence. Take for example the criticisms radical feminists like Pfaueninsel directed at the migrant women and children’s social work organization Green Rose this March — an attack that revealed the radicals’ lack of practical experience.

Ultimately, uterine morality’s resurgence in popularity should be understood within the context of a growing misogynistic backlash in China, and the concurrent polarization of Chinese feminism into different online factions. In recent years, feminist groups have faced severe financial and political limitations, making it harder for people to understand or engage in women’s advocacy. Many members of the younger generation of feminist keyboard warriors have no concept of pre-2015 feminist activism. Isolated in their real lives, their only outlet for their frustrations is the internet. It’s not surprising that, rather than engage with their immediate environment, they’ve focused their energies instead on combating hypermasculinity online and berating “disappointing” women into wokeness.

To be honest, I’m not sure if supporters of uterine morals are actually interested in action. Becoming an activist is risky, financially precarious, and to an extent, still a privilege enjoyed only by a small group of well-educated people in large cities. Still, arguments over uterine morals would likely be far less fraught if feminist keyboard warriors and their allies could do more than just vent. Helping provide real-life social services to women, carrying out legislative advocacy in support of abuse victims, pushing for policy changes, or seeking more public resources in the fight to eliminate gender-based violence — these all help to remind us what the real issues are.

This article is an extract from the author’s forthcoming essay. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Wang Zhenhao for Sixth Tone)