The River is Moving: Shanghai Women Writers Talk about Writing, Feminization and Feminism

Long Wind (2006).

Wang Anyi: I can’t help it, but I don’t, I don’t like to be called a feminist, and I don’t want to be a feminist (laughter).… If I think of this problem from the standpoint of feminism, it should—it would narrow my mind.


      What is the consequence of the well-known divide that exists between the literature written by Chinese women sometimes in and for the West, and literature written by women writers in and for the Mainland Chinese audience. Witness the attention that two erotic-pop novels, Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui (2001) and K: The Art of Love by Hong Ying (2003) received in America in the past few years. Wei Hui’s “banned in China” label was a swift advertisement for sales in England and America; and the sensational libel case against Hong Ying in China created a surprising market for her book in Taiwan and England. 

     When I traveled to Shanghai in the summer of 2001 to interview some Chinese women writers, I carried these two images of China’s literature in mind. Traveling sleepless, thousands of miles across two continents, what first greeted me, driving into Shanghai from the airport were images of feet and wheels in motion: the traffic.  My cab was part of a river of bicycles, buses, cars, wagons pulled by hand or hauled, unmuffled tractors, pedi-cabs, mopeds—wheeled contraptions of all kinds—and pedestrians like skittish blackbirds weaving in and out. The rhythm, balance and speed of this river of traffic were maintained, against all odds. 

     From this river emerged a woman in a pink gauze dress, white gloves to the elbow, ribbons trailing from her broad straw hat—her stiletto pumps in smart action as she pedaled by my window on her rickety bike. It was my first image of what has come to be called the “new” Chinese woman. This “feminine” image would return to challenge other images of the purposeful Chinese woman in the seemingly genderless Mao suit or in the Red Guard uniform with a red star shining upon her cap worn during the Cultural Revolution: images made popular in the U.S. media.

    Wei Rong, the contemporary Beijing painter, captures aspects of evolving Chinese women and the ideologies that underlie their appearance. Chinese women along with the help of capitalist investment in beautifying products are refashioning themselves. In a recent super-realist painting, Wei Rong juxtaposes old photographs of men in traditional Chinese garb surrounding a vividly painted nude young woman with rouged cheeks staring into a cosmetic case mirror. On the wall, looking down upon this scene is the faded/fading photographic image of a serious-faced women dressed in a gray Mao uniform. In another work, “Chanting in Spring,” He similarly presents two ideologies: a collage of photographs of men gathered to compose poems upon the arrival of spring. One man is looking at a book, another writing, another gazing at an erotic album, and joining them is a young girl playing a flute and wearing a hat with a red star that relates to the period of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1967–77). In these paintings we find the juxtaposition of the old and the new Chinese woman, one enhancing her body and her beauty with cosmetics (Avon sells very well in China now); another, representing nostalgia (or perhaps cynicism) for a time of political commitments and national purpose. My images on that road in 2001 and later share in this mixture of nostalgia and cynicism, the traditions and the new kinds of fun, and the two images of women, newly “feminized” or in cultural uniforms. 

    There is, at this moment in China, an ideological complexity in the clothes that women wear. And this is revealed in the pop literature by which Americans increasingly come to know the Chinese woman. In Wei Hui’s novel, the main character, Coco (after Chanel) is involved with Tian Tian, her impotent artistic soul mate, but passionately drawn to Mark, a sexy, married German businessman. Schooled in the clichés of the harlequin novel, Wei Hui has Coco compare herself to “a princess in a Mid-Eastern harem and Medusa too.”  Announcing Henry Miller as her guru, Coco describes her generation ”our bodies were already tarnished and our minds beyond help.” Yet these bodies are in hot materialist pursuit, and the self-consciousness about fashion is erotically charged scenes is humorous: “he nimbly slipped off my CK underpants.”  How do we “read” such images in America; how are they “read” in China? As Virginia Woolf remarks in Orlando: “There is much to support the view that it is the clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

     How are Chinese women’s hearts, brains, tongues and bodies molded by the new CK labels or notions of being “modern”? What does this newly observed “feminization” mean? Does it connect with liberal economic reforms in China, and globalization in general? Or is it an outgrowth of “feminism”? How do we distinguish between “feminization” and “feminism” now, seemingly, in contest over Chinese women’s bodies: economic reforms are accelerating the production and consumption of new products for women, and feminism encouraging a new pride in sexuality. And how do “feminization” and “feminism” relate to women’s concerns about other women in rural China, the new expression in Chinese society, the boom in women’s writing since the early 1980s in China, and now the “new woman’s” publications abroad?

     Such questions are fraught even in America. “Feminism,” under attack by regressive critics like Christina Hoff Sommers (Who Stole Feminism?), who portray it as a movement of elites that is cut off from the needs of the ordinary women. Diane Zoeller charges that liberal democracy as developed in the United States is a problematic model in globalizing concerns about women’s human rights, and recent discussion of International Tribunals asserts the importance of introducing gender as a dimension of human rights. In exploring these questions with Chinese women writers and intellectuals in Mainland China, I found that there are as many ways of looking at the issue as there are of viewing Wallace Stevens’s blackbird:

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

     I proceeded to discuss feminism, feminization and views of the body and sexuality with five women writers: Wang Anyi, one of China’s leading and most widely translated writers, a woman of serene looks and independent mind; Lu Xing’er, a popular Shanghai novelist, chic-looking and refreshingly honest about women’s roles; Xu Xiaobin, a successful Beijing writer and filmmaker who has intelligently assessed the role of the woman writer in China; Wang Zhousheng, a Shanghai writer and critic, proudly flanked by her husband and red-scarf pioneer daughter, and Jiang Yun, a sensitive and talented writer from Taiyuan in the rural province of Shanxi, an industrial area where she was a factory worker during the Cultural Revolution. Has economic reform affected women’s opportunities, I asked? What does feminization and feminism mean in China? Is feminism viewed as a Western movement? Does feminism influence a writer’s choice of subject style of expression? How are sexuality and women’s bodies viewed in Chinese society, and how do they represent this in their wriitng? How do Chinese urban women writers relate to rural women in China or other women in the world?

Wang Anyi, the most widely translated Chinese woman writer in America (aside from Eileen Chang) sees the communist goal of equality as still present in Chinese society. In my interview, she tells me that she does not overtly concern herself with women’s issues.

PL: Feminism is the desire for equal voice in society and literature, equal access to education, job opportunities, salaries, the sharing of power and decision-making in government. Do any of these issues apply to the condition of Chinese women?  

WA: What should I say? This has the same meaning with what the communist party declared about man and woman, the equalness, the equality between man and woman.

PL: In America and the West, we have the same pronouncements, the same words, but not necessarily the same practice. Does the practice of equality exist in China?    |

WA: It’s an issue which socialists should deal with.… It’s not a literary issue. At least, it’s not my issue.

PL: From an American point of view, you are writing about feminist issues, or, at least, women’s issues.  

WA: I can’t help it, but I don’t, I don’t like to be called a feminist, and I don’t want to be a feminist (laughter).… If I think of this problem from the standpoint of feminism,, it should—it would narrow my mind.  

PL: You mention that patriarchy prevails. It prevails in many places. But the rhetoric of China is socialist. I understand that there would be no need for feminism if you had socialism. What is the relationship between feminism and socialism?    

WA: (laughter) I think it is very funny to say that when you have socialism you don’t have to talk about feminism.

Undercutting her initial stance, Wang Anyi’s laughter concedes the growing awareness of the need to address gender as a separate issue even under socialism. Personally reluctant to separate “gender” from the analysis of “class,” she introduces the legacy of the Communist Party on the “woman question,” reminding us that any notion of a “movement” develops alongside the country’s political movements

     The recognition of women as a separate social category was first raised in the late nineteenth century, when women’s education, marriage rights and bound feet became part of the Quing Dynasty’s undercutting of feudal thinking. During the May 4 movement, 1919, the issue was again raised by Ding Ling, one of its leading writers: “When will it no longer be necessary to attach special weight to the word ‘woman’ and raise it specially?” she asked (“Thoughts on March 8th, 1942”). And we ask again now, “Is it necessary to attach special weight to the word “woman” in contemporary Chinese society?

     Despite Wang Anyi’s stated position—her claim that she has no interest in women’s issues—her writing reveals otherwise. In her novel, Love in a Small Town, she has turned away from traditional ideas and writes openly about a pair of sexually obsessed teenagers sent down to a rural dance troupe during the Cultural Revolution. China Daily reports that publishers are equal for such writing and have helped to create a class of readers now labeled as “peeping toms.”

PL: In Love in a Small Town, you write about sexual obsession. Does your honesty about this experience—a subject traditionally not dealt with in women’s writing in China—have anything to do with feminism?  

WA: I have nothing to do with feminism; I’m not a feminist.

PL: What does feminism mean to you?

WA: Feminism is a thing in Western countries, and in China we have different circumstances, we have different conditions. I think feminism has exaggerated the difference, the confrontation between man and woman.  

PL: Do you think that being more honest about the body has anything to do with feminism?    

WA: Honest about the body?

PL: Honest about the desires of the body, about the sexuality of the young woman and man in your story.    

WA:  (laughter) I can’t remember.

When Xu Xiaobin, a Beijing writer and filmmaker, read Wang Anyi’s story and others about sexual awakening and love during the Cultural Revolution, she related that she found them “very artificial and hypocritical” because during her years in the countryside the girls never spoke to the boys.… only a certain age group would feel the freedom of the fervor and mainly, they were the children. The high school students didn’t feel that fervor. Maybe at the very beginning, but not for very long.”

     Wang Xiaoying agrees with this sentiment relating to me that in the past a woman writer “was not supposed to talk about sex or the body in public. But that is changing.” We read in the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 10, 2001) that there is a new craze in China’s coastal cities: getting photographed in the nude. Though China is traditionally a puritanical nation, young women who were once expelled for dating in college now rush into modernity seeking “mature” and “sexy” photos in the growing number of photo studies addressing this need. Novels like Wei Hui’s hugely popular Shanghai Baby also blow the cover off traditional Chinese Puritanism. But what does it reveal about the ordinary Chinese woman? Wang Zhousheng in my interview reacted with anger to Wei Hui’s blatant use of sexuality as “regressive,” and a play for the Western market. She observed that “capitalism” encouraged over sexualized roles for women. 

The blackbird whirled in the autumn


It was a small part of the pantomime.

Lu Xing’er shares Wang Anyi’s negative view of the term “feminism”:

LX: Feminism in Mainland China has a bad meaning. Women do not like people to label them feminists because it implies that they are a woman who is in power. Then you are not a woman anymore; you’re just like a man. Chinese women don’t like to be considered such a kind of woman, a man-like woman.  

Lu Xing’er makes a distinction between being “feminine,” being a woman, and being a “feminist”—“a man-like woman,” [one] who has power. Strolling through the streets of Shanghai, one also realizes that “feminization” is reflected everywhere in the new ads and images of women on the covers of popular magazines that encourage consumption of products to “beautify.” “Power” in a woman, suggests Lu Xing’er, kills male desire. Wang Xiaoping agrees:

WX: I have nothing to do with feminism, though I don’t know too much about the theory of feminism.… Does “feminism” in Western countries mean the same thing as in China: we keep talking about women’s liberation and equal rights between men and women here.… is it because the women in Western countries are more liberated or they have been more oppressed than women in China?

When I asked Xu Xiaobin what “feminism” meant in China, she responded:

XX: An American critic, years ago, made the comment on women in China, saying that the level of liberation of Chinese women is the highest in “outside expression and social organization,” but also the lowest in terms of the awareness of women themselves.

PL: So there is a split between the rhetoric of the state and practice?

XX: Yes.

I tell her that Virginia Woolf, now the icon of feminists all over the world, also refused the label “feminist,” asserting that the word no longer had any meaning, as women has already won the right to earn a living; however, she never denied her interest in women and their cultural and economic problems. “Feminism” in China has negative vibes, because it is tainted by a “Western” or “American” movement, but also because it is viscerally related to an image: a man-like woman in power, This is the antithesis of the “feminized” woman who has become the ideal for many young more sexualized Chinese women, perhaps in cultural reaction to the former “genderless” clothes or uniforms of the Mao period. From the perspective of socialism and certain Chinese women, such cultural uniforms were liberating in that the clothes gave the women the freedom to move and lead. A friend of mine in Beijing also noted that though the Mao fashion may look genderless to Westerners, young women were extremely self-conscious about the cut of their pants and the placement of the pocket on the jacket. As in all cultural observations, clothes and otherwise, we see, but we do not see what makes us see only certain things in 

another culture.

     In Rae Yang’s novel Spider Eaters, a female Chinese professor is teaching in America: “to her American colleagues and students, she is very Chinese. Yet her Chinese friends say that she is westernized. Some suspect that she is a feminist, because she is too independent.” Independence and power in a woman in the popular imagination makes her less “feminine” and feared (somewhat like Hilary Clinton in America). And women in China want to be more “feminine,” says Yiming Ren, a postmodernist scholar at SASS: “this, for some women, translates into seeking a rich man or a Western man who can offer a woman financial support, a good life style, the opportunity to stay at home and not work or to live abroad.” In contrast to earlier periods when equality between the sexes was emphasized as part of socialist or communist practice or during the period of Maoism when women “ held up half the sky,” there is now a popular image of a woman who wants to assert   difference” and “feminization” as a part of this. Some women say they want to be different from men and, if they work, they want to have gender-differentiated jobs in nursing or as secretaries.   

     As I walked out of the Shanghai Educational Hotel after my interview with Wang Anyi, and down Huaihai Lu, one of the most elegant shopping streets in Shanghai (even Printemps is here), I see fashionable dress shops, cosmetics bars and glitzy new wedding studios. Here a Chinese bride can rent a billowy white or pastel-colored wedding dress (traditional Chinese red, no longer the fashion), be made up by a cosmetics artist, have her hair styled, and be photographed: a booming business with the new generation of China. How am I to understand Wang Anyi’s denial of issues for women or the label, feminist, in the face of all that is happening to women’s traditions, and the desire of women to become more “feminized” in cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai? Wang Anyi processes modernization, the changing economy and feminization in Shanghai as “Americanization,” the demon West. Socialist rhetoric has not changed; nevertheless, I observe that people in Shanghai enjoy shopping: They want things.

    When I connect feminist expression with the boom in women’s writing, Xu Xiaobin notes that the term “women’s writing” emerged in China at the end of the 1980s. Her own writing, she said, is described that way by publishers, and though she does not understand the difference between her writing and male authors’, she “really is more interested or concerned about women’s issues as…Chinese society is still patriarchal, male-created, male dominant.” Lu Xing’er historicizes my question in terms of her generation’s involvement in the Cultural Revolution. She notes with some bitterness:

LX:  When we were young, we were involved greatly in political affairs, and we never thought about our feelings, particularly the nature of mankind.  When we reached thirty years old, we had our own families and looked at our pasts, and we found that we had no knowledge of life. We didn’t know how or what we should be in life: how to be a wife, a daughter, a mother, no knowledge of that. We didn’t know how to be women. And we found that the relationships between men and women were too complicated, and difficult for us to deal with it. So that’s why many of us always have the failed feeling, feeling of fail[ure].

    A new generation of women in China is redefining what it means to be a woman. Pausing now, what do we make of women’s “failed feeling”? In another time and place, Virginia Woolf spoke of the views of men when World War I was over, and women were no longer needed to do certain jobs and participate in running society:

          Homes are the real places of the women.… Let them go back to their homes.…

The Government should give work to men.… Women must not rule over men.…

There are two worlds, one for women, the other for men.… Women have failed.…They have failed.… They have failed.    (Three Guineas).  

Are Chinese women content to go back to the home now that the Cultural Revolution is over and new economic reforms are in place? It has brought bitterness to some women, as they are a generation who missed out on an education and are now losing positions as industries and business try to increase productivity and profit. They are dismissed as “redundant labor,” their national role diminished in a new economy where men take the lead in profitable business ventures and technology. Wang Xiaoying relates the developing consciousness of feminism in China to this new development in economics: “Along with the economic development in  China in recent years has come increased conflicts between men and women. Women are more self-conscious and stronger than before.” When I asked if the conflicts were based on competition for jobs, entrance to universities or careers, she agreed. She also acknowledged that though Chinese women are now more educated, they have more difficulty in finding jobs. Employers, she says, fear that young women will become pregnant and the company would then be responsible for a pregnancy leave or have to make concessions for childcare.  Women may be considered undesirable employees (as sometimes in America) raising questions as Naihua Zhang and Wu Xu have articulated of “gender equity, female labor force participation, the social welfare system and women’s interests versus the state’s interests in economic reform.” Women’s interests vs. the State’s interests. But given the negative clamor about feminism in China, women can hardly hear themselves think or speak of the issue.

O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you image golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?

     I reminded Lu Xing’er of one of the female characters in her story, “Oh Bluebird,” who says: “We live in extraordinary times but our failures were due to history.” The women in that story feel that they failed because they did not get an education or have their youth or get to do the things they ought to have done as their lives were consumed by the Cultural Revolution. She agrees, stating that the boom in women’s writing is partly the result of women writers “looking back and focusing on the feelings, thinking and desires of women.… We didn’t have too much consciousness about sex or gender before and now we have awakened. Because in China, for a long time, women were treated the same as the men, just the same.” Now, she says, women do not want to be the same. Wang Zhousheng, also a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, shares this feeling. Planting rice and cotton in Cong Ming Island during the Revolution, she was a group leader. “I was very strong and could do all the things a boy can do.” She was proud of her strength, and of all the women writers I interviewed; she was the only one to identify herself as a “feminist.” Women of the younger generation, she says, now in their 20s, want to cultivate a different sexualized image of the body. She speaks of women writers after the 1970s who have different ideas about society and themselves: “If they are really individualists, it’s OK, but…they’re selfish…so I don’t find t here is spirit or soul in their books.” She speaks of a  Wei Hui—the writer so popular abroad—and Shanghai Baby: “She talk sexy, sexy, sexy. Yeah. But I think sexy is OK. But in my time it was prohibited. But when you talk about that, however, you should tell us something, you should tell us something about why you feel good.”  Cynically, Wang Zhousheng labels some of these women writers “educated hookers.” She, as a feminist, sees in this new kind of writing a re-orientalization of the Chinese women. They write of the flesh—the sex, money, feminization—she says, but they lack the soul, spirit and sacrifice of the older generation of women writers now in their 40s. “Memory has generation gaps,” says Jianying Sha in China Pop:

My generation of Chinese, born in the fifties and sixties, were considered the Red children. “Born and raised under the red flag,” and “flowers of the motherland” were two typical, proud phases of the time to sum up our incredible good luck. Our rite of passage was the Cultural Revolution, our coming-of-age experience, political fanaticism—screaming mass rallies, delirious faith in the Great Helmsman Chairman Mao, brainwashing propaganda as education.

The sacrifice (and later disillusionment) of this older generation who lived through the Cultural Revolution enters their writing, and this is a point that the writers come back to again and again. It is a point of tension between generations of women writers: those who came of age during a period of national fervor and commitment, and those younger women, born in the eighties, who are more preoccupied with self-enhancement, the body, sex, the Western market and money. Lu Xing’er notes that in the 1970-80s “writers were more likely to write about grand issues, the outside world.” In the past few decades, in reaction, she and her generation have “moved into the inner life of characters,” while some of the younger writers produce “what the market wants.” This inner life of the older generation was somehow on hold during “A Lapse of Time,” to use a Wang Anyi phrase. But the younger generation writes of sex, money, travel, clothes, computers, America—and feminization.  Mainstream Chinese writing is still very much about society and social matters, yet even in the exposure of corruption in society, there must be representative heroes of government and socialism, as Jeff Kinkley reminds us in Chinese Justice: The Fiction. But women have swerved from this line, and many have begun to write about their inner lives, their split selves, as well as sex, beauty and money. As Xu Xiaobin says, “I write for myself.” Speaking of her novel Double Fish Star, she describes an alienated woman who does not get along very well in society. In her mind, there are three men through whom she finds her identity. One is her husband, indifferent to her and obsessed with making money; another is her boss, a kind of CEO in a corporation, sharp and manipulative; the third is the driver, the chauffeur of her husband who offers her warmth and sexuality (shades of Lady Chatterley). She tries to escape from these three men—symbolizing money, power and sexuality—but never succeeds. The critics, reports Xu Xiaobin, applauded her story and later it was made into a movie. “What a surprise this was,” she said, as generally prizes are given to stories that deal with more realistic social issues than inner explorations. And yet after all this talk about “feminization” of a new “sexualized” generation of women and women writers and the denial of “feminism” by Shanghai women writers, one observes that it blurs an underlying reality in China. The kind of work that Chinese women do is changing—like their clothes—with globalization. But was the parade of beauty I observed in Beijing and Shanghai eclipsing the image of the other 80 percent of Chinese women in rural areas who work in cheap labor pools in factories or service work in Chinese and multinational work places? To find out, I interviewed Jiang Yun, a cheerful and intelligent woman writer whose novel Escaping the Affair was published in Paris, Jiang developed a sympathy for the women she worked with in a factory in rural and industrialized Taiyuan (six hours south of Beijing) during the Cultural Revolution, and these women, she said, sometimes become characters in her stories. Honestly acknowledging that some women are viewed as commodities in the rural areas of China, as brides or prostitutes, she spoke movingly of the vulnerability of women who were unaware and “unable to protect themselves and their rights.” She particularly spoke about areas like Shanxi province, where she has lived her whole life, now with her children and husband, Li Rui, an accomplished novelist who has also written about rural themes, for example, in Thick Dust. Jiang spoke of “the pain caused by women’s poorness.” Is socialism eclipsing the concern for women’s rights? Is the growing interest in capitalism and the free market that is opening up in China doing the same? Do the erotic pop novels written by Chinese women, now gaining visibility and popularity in Taiwan, England and America reflect the lives or address the issues of most women’s lives in China? Does either economic system attend to Chinese women’s needs?

The river is moving

The blackbird must be flying.

Lines quoted from Wallace Stevens “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”







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