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Chinese Women and Feminist Thought, Beijing,22-24 June 1995

Chinese women and feminist thought:

an international symposium
An international symposium on Chinese Women and
Feminist Thought was held in Beijing on 22-24 June
1995, hosted by the Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences, funded by the Ford Foundation, and originating
in the annual Philosophy Summer School organized
jointly by academics from China, Britain and Australia.

About fifty women participated, including a number of
non-Chinese women from the UK and the USA. The
objective ofthe symposium was to help create a dialogue
between Chinese and Western women concerning
feminism and the situation of women in both China and
the West. It is only recently, of course, since the advent
of the new ‘socialist market economy’ in China, the
withdrawal of direct state control from many areas of
Chinese life since the end of the period of the Cultural
Revolution, and the opening of China to Western visitors,
that such a symposium has become conceivable. Many
of the papers given and the discussion groups held
focused on the tensions and contradictions in the
experience of Chinese women during a period of official
social and cultural change.

For fifty years there has been an official ideology of
sexual equality in China, backed by the bringing of
women into public production on a large scale and
frequently coercive education programmes to hammer
the point home. Yet there still exists widespread belief in
the biological basis of differences between the sexes,
preference for boy children, and in some areas arranged
marriage – which amount to a ‘traffic in women’. With
the coming of the market, women are made redundant
first or not hired on the pretext (patently bogus, given the
one-child policy) that their maternal role interferes with
their job performance. The official policy and widespread
involvement of women in work in the public sphere also
seem to have had little impact on the sexual division of
labour in the home, leading to the familiar ‘double
burden’. Hence the position of women is still seen as a
social problem, and part of the motivation for this
conference seems to have been an interest within
intellectual circles in academic feminism in the West as
a possible source of ‘theory’ which could address this

But Western feminists refused to privilege particular
moments of feminist theory over others, emphasizing
instead the contradictory and diverse positions that face
women, which lead to plurality in both theory and
practice. Furthermore, the Chinese presentations showed
contradictions and differences in the positions of Chinese
women. Not only were there differences between urban
and rural women (and unaddressed differences between
women of different ethnic groups); but for some,
economic change brought possibilities of personal
autonomy and enhancement, where for others the
removal of state protection produced the feminization of
poverty with which we are all very familiar. Moreover,
the advent of the market has led to the commercialization
and commodification of female labour and the increasing
use of women as objects of sexual exploitation. The
comparison between the Chinese and Western
participants formed a network of overlapping similarities
and differences which made it impossible to speak of
distinct and separately homogeneous Chinese and
Western perspectives.

One of the recurrent themes was the issue of whether
sexual equality or sexual difference was the right strategy
for women to pursue. The official line on sexual equality
had been to attempt to make women’s lives as much like
men’s as possible, with acknowledged differences being
perceived as weaknesses by a paternalistic state.

Insistence on difference, however – visible in the
feminine clothes of some of the younger women and
heard in the desire expressed by some for more time to
devote to their personal and familial lives – runs the risk
of reinforcing essentialist claims, justifying exclusions
from the job market. These dilemmas were familiar to all
the participants, although for Western women the
moment of demands for sexual equality has been in a
capitalist system without the protection of a paternalist
state. The appropriate moment of feminism cannot be
generalized in either system. It involves making strategic
decisions on specific issues. There were, however,
recognizably common aims around the need to
reorganize public life so that the options were not
equality on men’s terms or difference and discrimination.

Radical Philosophy 74 (NovlOec 1995)


The issue of sexual difference echoed through the
debate on ethics. There was considerable interest in the
so-called feminist ethic of care, often contrasted with
ethical theories centred around rights and justice. Here
particular context was given to discussion of the
comparison between the care ethic and elements of
Confucian thought. There was hot debate between those
who thought Confucianism could be reformed and those
who regarded it as responsible for the entrenched
traditionalism with regard to women’s position. Those
adopting the latter view argued that women badly need a
framework of rights to protect them in the face of an
emphasis on sacrifice for the social good, which had been
a feature of both Confucianism and the version of
Chinese Marxist thought which formed the background
to some of the presentations. It became clear that the
masculinity which some feminist writers have detected
in elements of liberal political thought required

The patchwork of similarities and differences was
also evident in discussions of reproduction and the
family. The one-child policy means that state policy
reaches right into the most personal aspect of women’s
lives – not least in that continual abortions represent a
considerable health risk for women. The procedure for
allocating housing, which requires marriage, means that
the heterosexual family unit is strongly privileged. The
response of women was at times ambiguous. Domestic
violence is being recognized as an issue, as is the
restriction on women’s free time imposed by domestic
labour, but the commitment to the family unit still
appeared strong, and most of the calls received on the
women’s hot line concerned not violence but the distress
caused by a husband finding an alternative partner and
wishing for divorce. There was a marked silence on
issues of sexuality and preferred sexual practices. One
man openly distributed a gay and lesbian newsletter with
information on safe sexual practices, but admitted that
most people who preferred same-sex partners
nonetheless ended up married. The slogan ‘the personal
is political’ did not have the resonance that it had found
in the personal lives of some of the Western participants.

The Chinese papers noted the role that men had played in
Chinese history in promoting the cause of sexual
equality. Most of the women were anxious not to be
portrayed as man-haters. However, for many of us
present, the position of women was not simply a social
problem, but manifested itself in the acute difficulty of
living alongside many of the masculinities we currently

The issue of difference has been at the forefront of
feminist discourse during the last decade. Insistence on


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the distinctiveness of women’s experience was a
response to the supposedly neutral category of the
‘human’, which rendered such distinctiveness invisible.

Such a moment was, however, closely followed by the
challenge of differences between women. The specificity
of the many locations within which women are placed
was felt to have been lost in descriptions of female
experiences that suggested a homogeneity privileging
white, Western, middle-class women. Our thinking about
difference is fraught with pitfalls. The creation of
categories of radical ‘otherness’ was a strategy of
legitimation for relations of dominance, which
enthusiastic endorsement of difference can serve to
reinforce. We need to be able to speak about difference
without reifying it into radical alterity, producing quite
separate viewpoints, each distinct, internally homogeneous and closed to others. Encounters such as this
conference, however, show the situation to be much
messier, and the spatial metaphors of perspective or
location to be potentially misleading. For if I am
occupying one spatial location, or have one spatial
perspective on the world, I cannot simultaneously occupy
others, and to come to grasp alternative perspectives I
need to move out of my own. But the frameworks and
presuppositions I bring to understanding my experiences
have materially and historically based elements common
with those of others.

The process of understanding across difference is .

difficult to theorize. It is never complete, often
unexpected, but rarely totally impossible. Recognition
of shared experiences, values or political objectives can
provide moments of commonality despite the specificity
of very different political and social frameworks.

Attention to specificity can lead to blank
incomprehension, but also to critical and epistemologically progressive shifts in our patterns of theorizing.

Quite apart from experiential commonalities that are
discovered through discussion, women worldwide are
linked in ways of which they are often not even aware,
by such things as the increasing internationalization of
trade and the global mobility of capital. A feminism
which remains parochial stands ever less chance of
understanding or confronting the forces that connect
women who may be quite unaware of one another’s
existence and experience. The need for new forms of
international understanding and for the transcending of
merely localized perspectives is acute. The discussions
of this symposium went some way towards meeting that

Jean Grimshaw
and Kathleen Lennon

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