The Uniqueness of Liberal Feminism in the Third World, Particularly in China

By Cheng Yiyu

Western feminist or general social media tends to convey the message about “third world women” as “powerless”, “illiterate” and “backward” which is very problematic because these are biased opinions by simply categorizing “third world women” as a unitary group having similar backgrounds, challenges, histories. In fact, “third world women” have diverse interests, sources of problems, and narratives based on their colonial-political-racial-ethnic backgrounds. Even though both third and western feminists’ main focus is “women issues”, many differences are worth drawing attention. Interestingly, among third-world countries, China can be viewed as an exceptional example due to its unique history and background.

The first case that mirrored the uniqueness is related to 5000 years’ long history of China. There have been numerous political and cultural reforms. One of the most systematic, traditional, and deep-rooted sexist ideologies and practices in China originated from the philosophy of “filial piety” of Confucius. The term stipulates that women must obey their ruler, and the young must obey the elderly. In Confucian, which presents the core of hierarchical society in China, women’s inferiority was firmly established.

Dominated by the unchallenged patriarchic discourse, women have considered men’s dependents without autonomy in social and domestic life in Western feminists’ perspectives. Thus, abusive behaviors such as trading women, domestic violence, and female infanticide were not uncommon, and these horrible practices remain for a relatively long time. Specifically, based on Fei Xiaotong’s theory that he points out in 《Xiangtu Zhongguo》(Rural China):

For Chinese families, the expansion route is patrilineal; it incorporates only those from the family’s father’s side. With few exceptions, families do not include daughters-in-law and sons-in-law at the same time. According to the patrilineal principle, married daughters and their husbands, the sons-in-law, are outside the family. But on the paternal side, the family can be expanded to include very distant kin. A family with five generations under the same roof would consist of all paternal relative.’ (Fei Xiongtong, 1984)

This general conventional concept is defective. Most of the driving factor of poverty is connected to the powerlessness of women. This condition arises from lack of employment, isolation, low levels of education, and lack of business capital access. Consequently, social development closely sticks to women’s empowerment.

According to Tazul Islam (Microcredit and Poverty Alleviation), Women tend to spend their income on something more beneficial for the household and use extra wages on things that are helpful to increase human capital development. Besides, children can have more chances to receive a proper education when women have income. This statement will be a more extended proof that the involvement of wives in decision-making in domestic work and the public sector correlates with the level of family welfare and further growth of a nation.

Until a reforming movement happened at the end of the 19th century by a group of intellectuals brought an end. The participants are several intellectuals exposed to Western cultures. They tried to advocate gender equality, including free love and marriage, equal educational opportunities for women, and the chance of labor force participation.

This outstanding period is the first feminist movement in Chinese history, or as known as May fourth Movement, during the 1910s and 1920s when most intellectuals protested against the government’s foreign invasion and corruption. It’s worth mentioning among the activists and reformers, mostly are male participants.

According to Stacey Judith, these male activists’ prior motivation in the feminist movement was related to their hope to liberate Chinese society and make China a further developed country. (Stacey, 1983). By tracing the origin of China’s weakness and underdevelopment, the Chinese traditional family structure accounts for a large proportion of the main reasons for China’s weak status previously.

Even though the May fourth Movement is considered the first formal feminist empowerment movement, prior to the 20th century, another critical role that triggered women’s social status is western Christianity missionaries. There is no doubt that the reform of Chinese modern women’s view mainly comes from awakening awareness in Chinese society. Still, the catalytic role of introducing western culture cannot be ignored. Those missionaries in religious robes became the earliest communicators of the concept of the west of feminism in China.

In the late Qing Dynasty, China was a male-dominated nation, and women were bound by the strict rules of three obedience and four virtues (from Confusion’s value). The male-dominated background hindered the evangelization of male missionaries. Therefore, female missionaries took a good gender advantage. There was an increasing proportion of female missionaries in China, and even surpassed the number of male missionaries, demonstrating the rise of feminist consciousness.

Also, female missionaries’ advantage enables them to have a deeper understanding of China and Chinese women’s living conditions. Female missionaries tended to pay attention to women’s education and family issues and strived to improve Chinese women’s social status and role. Chinese women’s foot-binding could be viewed as the most extreme example of women’s oppression, but it was never a common practice. Under the influence of the missionaries, emperor Guangxu eventually issued a ban on abolishing female foot binding.

The positive impacts that the missionaries brought besides liberating Chinese women’s feet and liberated Chinese women’s brains and established some girl schools. Advocating the idea that not only men could receive the proper education, but women also deserve the right to receive educational rights as men. With the establishment of girl schools, female missionaries brought tangible changes to women at the bottom class. And it brought the women’s issues to the vision of intellectuals in the upper class, who finally began to consider the future of women and the country and put women and men on the same level when solving national problems. Although female missionaries’ initial motivation to address women’s issues was to spread the gospel better and make Chinese women participate in missionary tasks. However, the advantage still brought the Chinese female liberation movement to a brand-new stage.

Even though the May 4th movement triggered the feminist movement in China, due to many of the activists being from city to the farming society in the 20th century, they did not catch much attention from the lower class or farming family, which account for the majority of the Chinese population. The advocation of female rights did not make it into the mainstream. By taking into account all the subjective factors, it is significant to solve the problem by standing at the lower class’s perspective. Grameen bank’s appearance in society plays a role model in contemporary women’s empowerment and changes the status quo of gender equalization in third-world countries.

Grameen bank is a microfinance organization and community development bank founded in Bangladesh, and it makes small loans to the impoverished without requiring collateral. It was originated in 1976 by Professor Muhammad Yunus at the University of Chittagong in a research project with a topic “how to design a credit delivery system to provide banking services to the rural poor.”

Members of Grameen bank is welcoming our research group

Grameen bank model has a positive contribution to economic empowerment for poor women and poverty alleviation in the rural area; the success can be concluded as it is reached by strengthening financial and social capital for women. Social capital becomes the guaranteeing factor for empowerment in the Grameen model. In the research, interviewing the members concluded to be more contextualized.

In Xuzhou, China, Mrs. Liu from Lukou village is a new Grameen bank loaning program member. Her family runs a small-scaled sheep farm to live. In the earlier years, they used their farming income to build houses in the village for their youngest son. Almost all the profits she made from sheep business were saved for the family, but she is never willing to spend even a penny more for herself and buy a new dress. Mrs. Liu’s two daughters have set up their own family in Xinyi town and their responsibilities, including bringing daily necessities from the city to Mrs. Liu and her husband. Based on Liu, “Our two daughters live in the house given by their husbands’ family, and we are just responsible for making some money and buying houses for our son and grandson.” Throughout the whole interview session, they never mentioned their

granddaughter, to which she responded, “her father is in charge of her daughter’s life.”

Moreover, under the circumstance that her son is not qualified enough to leave the village and work in the city, Mrs. Liu tends to help raise her grandson rather than her granddaughter. When the family has abundant resources and capabilities to obtain resources, Mrs. Liu’s primary choice is always to stand on the son’s side more. Additionally, Mrs. Liu prefers to choose based on what is suitable for her family, instead of her self-pursuit, which seems to be a subconsciousness that ties herself with her family. Nevertheless, when it came to the topic of members’ thoughts about women empowerment, including Mrs. Liu, have surprisingly got all definite answers, for instance, “there are no preferences for sons anymore, we like daughters equally like sons.”

Mrs. Liu’s sheep farm

And almost every woman in the village stated that they have enough financial capital to live on her own, instead of depending on men. Even if they verbally indicated that they treat girls and boys equally, there is some potential and invisible gender discrimination. Through the observation, the research group discovered that when the members started to talk about empowerment, they responded very swiftly and briefly, assuming that their attitudes towards similar questions were avoiding, rather than confronting them directly.

Furthermore, as studied more thoroughly, the concept of feminism from rural China started to be blurrier. Initially, the group assumed that the members are described from the western feminist aspect, ‘powerless,’ ‘illiterate,’ and ‘backward.’ However, in our case, women in rural China seemed to be financially empowered already and can get involved in family decision-making. But the concept of women empowerment is never a common topic and the point of view that “Women deserve equal rights as men do” never made into the mainstream. Chinese feminist ideology was sponsored and diffused through the state system or governmental reform, but not from individual initiatives. On the other hand, western feminist movements have more individualized views on gender equality, and almost every reform is originated from an individual or a small group, not societal awareness.

Reasons can be assumed from the recent attention from government and country on women’s liberation. On September fourth, 1995, World Women Conference was held in Beijing. The previous president Jiang Zemin said, “The Chinese government always believes equality between men and women is an important measure of social civilization. We are paying more attention to women’s development and progress.” This is the first time that Chinese leaders promised the world that China would make gender equality a basic state policy, and it got written into China’s development plan since then. A long time after the Beijing World Women’s Conference, more strategy and law got issued. Therefore, the conference is a significant turning point in the history of Chinese women’s empowerment. The government started to realize society’s consciousness on gender topics can reflect the level of a country’s civilization. It is a milestone in the road of women’s empowerment in China.

In conclusion, although much shreds of evidence elucidate women’s issues has already gained enough support and deserved attention, but to make the empowerment to come true, it is necessary to encourage women to fight for their rights from the knowledge and cultural level. Yet the emergence of voice from third world feminists is very significant because it can prevent misrepresentation and misconception of third world women.

In China’s particular case, most rural women, farm work, and housework occupy too much time in their lives, so they don’t have enough energy and time to explore their personal needs. The Grameen bank provided a platform that gives rural women a chance to speak as individuals in the social network. Empowerment is achieved through self-definition and mutual support among members to form a women community culture. To some extent, this also influences the community culture, and people are more closely connected. The Grameen bank loaning system certainly brings rural women together keeps them connected.

There is still a long way to walk and explore for rural women empowerment in China, and the essential key is to make them realize that what rights they deserve, and it is a frequent public topic that should be discussed. Hopeful there is more organization like Grameen bank, to aid women’s empowerment from the basics.


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