On Jan. 2, 2011, Li Ruyi, a user of the popular question-and-answer platform Zhihu, created a new topic page on the site. There was nothing particularly extraordinary about this. Topic pages on Zhihu function like a cross between tags — collecting all Zhihu posts related to a given topic in one place — and a Wikipedia entry where curious netizens can read an open-source introduction to a subject or issue compiled by their fellow users. For the first three years of its existence, Li’s topic page attracted almost no interest or edits, but since 2014 it has experienced several bursts of user activity, amounting to thousands of modifications in the space of just a few years.
This sudden surge in user interest comes down to the topic Li chose: feminism. Wave after wave of Zhihu users has continually revised the entry in an attempt to either explain or cast doubts on the often-polarizing concept. One of the fiercest fights yet has been over what other topics should be listed as related to feminism. Of the 3,522 revisions to the post over the past decade, 2,701 pertain to adding and deleting related topics, which on Zhihu are categorized as either “parent terms” or “child terms” for topics and subtopics, respectively. Currently, there are only six subtopics listed for this entry: waves of feminism, feminists, feminist issues, feminist movements, feminist theories, and anti-feminism.
“Is Feminism Opposed to Men?”
After sifting through the post’s edit history, The Paper identified 107 related topics that were at some point listed on the “feminism” topic page. This list provides not only a window into how far-reaching the debate over feminism is in China, but also insight into the mindsets of both its proponents and detractors.
For example, prior to 2018, most related topics — such as gender discrimination, family fertility issues, and so on — were closely related to gender and women’s issues.
But after 2018, as feminism became more visible, newly added related topics began to deviate significantly from those proposed in the past. Instead of issues, more and more notable events and specific public figures were added and subsequently deleted by netizens on either side of an increasingly polarized debate. Some of the names added as examples of prominent historical feminists, for instance, were successful, powerful women; others those widely seen in China as deceitful or driven by vanity, like the Tang dynasty (618-907) empress Wu Zetian or the controversial socialite Guo Meimei.
That particular edit war may stem from the common perception in modern Chinese society that feminism is tantamount to confrontation with men and promoting the superiority of women. This belief is hotly contested by feminists, who argue that gender stereotypes need to be broken down not just for the sake of women, but also men. In her book “Looking at the World Through Gender,” Shen Yifei writes: “Gender is not just a women’s issue — men are also disciplined and restricted by society, and the liberation of women also implies the liberation of men.”
But misunderstandings and divisions over the term have only deepened in recent years, as have personal attacks on feminists. The black circles on the chart above represent pejorative terms added to the feminism page, including “princess syndrome,” “straight female cancer,” and “Chinese-style pseudo-feminism.” These terms and others like them mostly began popping up around 2018 and afterward.
On What Really Matters
The latest version of the feminism topic page states that feminism in every culture is unique, and that it seeks to deal with the diverse array of issues that women in a given culture face, such as female circumcision in Sudan, the glass ceiling in North America, and the abandonment of baby girls in China.
So it’s no surprise that the most frequently discussed topics over the years have been those relating to women’s daily lives. As shown in the infographic below, topics such as relationships between the sexes, housework, and contraception were repeatedly added and removed from the post on feminism around February 2016.
None of these issues have lasted at the top of Zhihu’s “feminism” topic page, but their brief flashes of importance can help us better understand the scope of this contentious subject in China.
Additional reporting: Wang Yasai and Kong Jiaxing.
This article was originally published by The Paper. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Liu Chang and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Wang Yasai for Sixth Tone)