What’s Love to a Feminist?
In late February, Quan Xixi, a popular vlogger, posted a video of herself and two other women interviewing the famous Japanese scholar and feminist Chizuko Ueno. The interview starts on a personal note. “Did you stay unmarried because you were hurt by a man?” Quan asks. “Or was it your family’s influence?”
The backlash to the video came swiftly and from all directions: Critics were stunned that, given the opportunity to interview one of the world’s leading feminist theorists, Quan and her friends would ask why she never married. Gender issues are a perennial hot topic on Chinese social media, but even discussions of the most chilling instances of gender-based violence — like the women found chained to walls in rural areas last year, or a young woman who died by suicide after an organized harassment campaign — seem to circle back to the same subjects: marriage, men, and whether either have anything to offer the modern middle-class woman.
This debate has become highly polarized. Quan and her friends, all of whom are married, seemed to see something radical in Ueno’s choice to stay single, perhaps equating her with China’s “No Kids, No Ring” influencers, self-proclaimed feminists who criticize anyone who chooses to get married. At the other end of the spectrum are advocates of “uterine morality,” who believe a woman’s highest calling is to reproduce with successful, attractive men. Even on issues like bride prices — traditional gifts of money to a bride’s family before marriage — Chinese feminists are split between those who see them as a feudal relic and those who believe women should extract what they can from the system while they have the chance.
To Dai Jinhua, a professor at Peking University and one of China’s foremost feminist cultural critics, this split is the natural outcome of abstracting class from discussions of gender. For a time, it seemed like capitalism might overturn feudal norms and liberate women. But 40 years after the start of marketization, that promise feels increasingly hollow. With social mobility on the decline, marriage stands out as a rare opportunity to move up the social ladder. Meanwhile, social media, which is dominated by educated, middle-class users, has crowded out discussions of broader inequalities affecting elderly women, the poor, and the disabled.
Dai has spent decades writing in the fields of film criticism, cultural studies, and feminism, often from an unabashedly, if also unorthodox, leftist perspective. Sometimes referred to as “China’s Susan Sontag,” she is widely recognized as one of contemporary China’s most charismatic scholars. Speaking with Sixth Tone from Beijing, Dai offered her perspective on social media polarization, the continued importance of class, and the necessity of balancing personal choice and structural change. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sixth Tone: Gender issues have been a hot-button topic on Chinese social media for some time now. What accounts for all the debate?
Dai: Globally, the second half of the 20th century was defined by three major issues: class, gender, and race.
Today we can see that the class issue has lost all salience. Although the most important change in the world in the last few decades has been the growing division between rich and poor, the latter’s existence is divorced from discussions of “class.” The term has disappeared from public discourse.
The issue of race, at least globally, has also ceased to be the source of critiques of imperialism and colonialism. Rather, it has been gradually internalized, with the center of conflict shifting to the subject of immigration from developed countries and regions.
That leaves gender. It remains valid, it can be spoken about, and people are willing to speak about it.
Sixth Tone: Does the explosion of gender-related discussions on Chinese social media really reflect a growing gender awareness among Chinese women?
Dai: Only some of them. It seems to me that online discussions of gender issues in China always feature the same group of people: young, well-educated, and, most importantly, high-income women living in urban areas.
These individuals are internet-savvy and adept at utilizing social media, and they have exhibited a heightened gender consciousness in recent years. This is also why, after decades of being an internationally renowned feminist, the Japanese scholar Chizuko Ueno suddenly became the standard-bearer of feminism in China in 2019. Ueno’s feminism, as well as her sociological and descriptive analysis of social phenomena, directly speak to the gender experiences and consciousness of this group.
However, we must be aware that there is a significant portion of women who are absent from this discourse. For instance, women in marginalized areas, migrant women, elderly women — a particular focus of Ueno — and those who may not be as proficient in using new media.
Sixth Tone: That may explain why so many of the issues being debated are most relevant to women of means. For instance, in the past few years, there has been a growing movement toward a “no kids, no ring” lifestyle. Advocates claim that “it’s better to get money than to get a man” who will only drain and oppress you.
Dai: That argument represents a painful self-awareness among women. After the introduction of China’s Property Law in 2007, the relationship between marriage and private ownership ceased to be hidden. In her book “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China,” the scholar Leta Hong Fincher shows how a dramatic influx of social wealth was integrated through marriage into a new, male-dominated economic system. “Leftover women” found themselves on the outside looking in. The anger we see now represents an attempt by these women to reverse the situation, albeit one necessarily framed as a matter of individual choice rather than a systemic problem.
Marriage is an institution, the basic unit of modern society. When you make a choice that this institution does not encourage or allow, it’s identified as a radical gesture. Ironically, many of these “radical” gestures are distorted mirror images of the logic that underpins patriarchal marriage. “It’s better to get money than to get a man” represents an understanding of marriage as a property sharing arrangement. In the end, our freedom, like the “normalcy” and security promised by the system, is based on the amount of money and wealth we have, not on the practice of alternative, different values and structures.
Sixth Tone: But the thing is, if we look back at the historical process of women’s quest for freedom and emancipation, being single isn’t radical at all. Why has it become such a lightning rod?
Dai: It’s true that in my own generation, the choice to stay single did not seem to require as much fanfare as it does today. On the contrary, when my contemporaries and I made the choice to get married and have children, we felt obligated to explain it to our friends. We were somewhat embarrassed: It was seen as “vulgar,” a kind of submission to the bourgeois world that we once despised.
The process of women’s emancipation in the early People’s Republic period ran deep. Women of my time enjoyed more autonomy, and our independence of spirit, life, and action was not something we felt the need to think about. That women today seem to feel it necessary to declare, explain, and legitimize their decision to stay single is a clear sign of regression.
The truth is that gender issues and realities have never been on a gradual, linear process of development, and, overall, the story of gender structures in Chinese society is one of regression.
Sixth Tone: At the other end of the spectrum, there are many women who view intimate relationships in a purely utilitarian manner and see marriage and childbirth as transactional arrangements. For example, influencers on social media list their partners’ salaries, career paths, and their in-laws’ financial statuses as necessary preconditions for marriage. Others post their partners’ inexpensive gifts online and ask their followers whether they should break up.
Dai: The first thing that comes to my mind is an old Soviet film, “Office Romance.” In it, one of the characters ridicules his girlfriend’s ambition to become a general’s wife. He points out that to achieve this, she would first have to marry a soldier, accompany him to the border, experience war and hardship, and only then, perhaps, she would become a general’s wife.
Do you see my point? This type of logic is no longer applicable in today’s society. The problem isn’t whether someone is willing to marry a “soldier,” but rather that it’s much harder for soldiers to become generals. Generals are created through a different path.
Gender issues aren’t only about women. When an individual’s security — their education, healthcare, childcare, even their very lives — is determined by their financial standing, it’s no surprise that people view marriage as a transactional arrangement.
Sixth Tone: So you’re saying that, as social classes solidify, people’s efforts may not necessarily be rewarded. Therefore, it may be necessary to focus on maximizing your personal interests as best you can, including by adopting a utilitarian perspective toward affection and intimate relationships.
Dai: Regarding the “no kids, no ring” movement you mentioned earlier, there’s nothing inherently wrong with women making this choice on an individual level. However, as a collective, their ability to make this decision is influenced by their social status and their economic power. It’s a provocative gesture that highlights their privilege and can only be made by those in the upper class, not the lower class. In other words, regardless of whether you’re proud and rebellious or pragmatic and submissive, you’re still bound by social values and structures that are determined by your financial means.
Sixth Tone: Yes. Both sides essentially link marriage and money.
Dai: The desire to replace men with money is a distorted reflection of patriarchal beliefs.
The logic of capitalism can, at times, contribute to overcoming gender hierarchies. This is why some people believed that, as capitalism progressed, the patriarchy would inevitably be dismantled. It’s like the old meme: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Neither capitalism nor the internet really care who you are so long as you generate profits.
However, while capitalism has broken down traditional class barriers, it’s also created and perpetuated another class structure built on inequality. That’s why the belief that capitalism is inherently patriarchal is a core part of feminism. When you embrace capitalism and its promises of success, competition, and financial security, you are also embracing patriarchy.
It’s crucial to understand that gender roles are not inherent qualities that correspond with our physical bodies and physiology. Rather, they are a system of power dynamics.
Sixth Tone: That makes me think of one of the most popular gender archetypes currently: “Sisters.” Older, successful women, they are invariably characterized as beautiful, whip-smart, and ageless all at once. They’re often seen with younger “puppy boyfriends.” While hailed by some Chinese feminists, I wonder if this lifestyle is a form of “pseudo-feminism.”
Dai: It’s not just “pseudo-feminism,” but “anti-feminism.”
To me, feminism is about advocating for social equality, challenging the capitalist patriarchy, and creating alternative social values and choices. The “sister” lifestyle represents a privileged few who flaunt their high-class status. What lies behind their “ageless” appearance? Expensive cosmetic procedures. And their “puppy boyfriends”? It’s a female version of the old practice of men owning and controlling women. In my opinion, it embodies a privileged feminized version of patriarchal logic.
Sixth Tone: Meanwhile, there’s also been a tremendous surge in “shipping” culture among Chinese women. Are people today simply more used to satisfying their desires for intimacy through relationships with cultural products?
Dai: I’d say this is symptomatic of a more serious problem: The rejection, or virtualization, of intimacy. I don’t think people ship because they crave intimacy and are looking for substitutes. Rather, the enjoyment people derive from these activities stems from narcissism disguised as love. Idols tend to reflect a mirror image of their fans, or else provide a sense of possession, power, and dominance through commercial relationships, the consumption of media, or public professions of admiration. While fandom culture is often characterized by fanaticism, it lacks genuine loyalty.
This is a significant problem. It is through the building, breaking, and re-building of authentic intimate relationships that we experience growth. The atrophy and absence of intimate relationships is a major cause of the global epidemic of depression and various psychological disorders today. People are losing their capacity — and even their desire — to love.
Sixth Tone: Why do you think this is happening?
Dai: Well, there are several reasons. One of the most significant is the impact of the internet on human social relations. When you use a website or app, you are asked to define yourself by selecting certain options. These choices then become the basis for the social connections the platform facilitates. Big data and algorithms match users with similar traits, resulting in social partners who are essentially replicas of yourself. This virtual self-replication creates or reinforces narcissistic tendencies, promoting a culture of self-centeredness and self-satisfaction.
In China, the one-child policy also played a role. An only child with two parents and four grandparents will grow up in an adult world, with no reciprocal partnerships from the start. They receive an abundance of love from adults, but also experience control and aggression disguised as love. To cope, they may repress empathy and view those around them as functional objects relative to their needs.
It’s scary. Love is a mini-miracle, and one of the ultimate meanings of life. But now, people are eliminating the possibility of enjoying this miracle.
The irony is that, for the past three years, we have been more isolated from each other than ever. And the truth is, when a disaster finally breaks out, you either help each other, or you die alone.
Sixth Tone: The last time I interviewed you, a few years ago now, I remember you saying that individuals can only try to stay clear-headed about the world around them. That seems increasingly difficult. Do you still believe that women should focus on staying clear-headed?
Dai: It’s not as hopeless as it seems. There are always alternatives, and it’s still possible to break free. Yes, it can be difficult, but how else can you escape? Will shouting “death to men” solve the persecution and pressure that women face in a patriarchal society? Suffering is caused by the reality of your condition, not by your recognition of that reality.
I’ve always believed in the possibility of choosing or building something better. I remember a married friend of mine once suddenly exploded at me: “You’re (also) married, by what right do you still enjoy all the freedom of an unmarried woman?”
I was taken aback. By what right? By no right. By the choices I’ve made and the love I’ve earned. I don’t think she was necessarily angry at me; perhaps she’d given up too much in her own marriage, something she clearly believed to be necessary to preserve it.
You must confront the question of how much of your pain is a result of the structural state of society, and how much is due to yourself. Are you complaining and feeling disillusioned, while quietly internalizing gender inequality? Have you given up on finding a loving partner who practices equality in favor of more materialistic concerns? Have you fought? Have you demanded more? Have you said no? That’s what I mean by staying clear-headed.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A photo of Dai Jinhua. Courtesy of Ping Shen)