The oppositional gaze and unruly bodies: Chinese feminists in action

Feminism in China is found to be perceived as morally deviant, foreign-rooted, and intertwined with issues like nationalism, social polarization, and a modernizationtradition contradiction.26

In her book Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (2018), advocate and scholar Leta Hong Fincher recorded a moment of resistance and self-empowerment from an interview with a detained feminist activist who looked back at her male interrogators. Li Tingting (also known as Li Maizi) was arrested by the police in 2015 at the age of 25 and taken away from her home, along with her girlfriend Teresa. At the station, one of the first things the police did was deprive them of any belongings they had, including the glasses of near-sighted Teresa. Then Li was put in a separate room and two men questioned her about the motives and funding for her activism without identifying themselves nor explaining the charges against her. In the process of this interrogation, Li, although in an extremely disadvantageous position without any kind of support, derived a sense of power and resistance by using her good eyesight to stare at the male questioners, saying, “The good thing about not being blind [being near-sighted and deprived of glasses] is that you can see the interrogators’ faces [...] That’s kind of a threat, because they’re afraid you’ll remember them.”2 Li’s realization echoes what bell hooks points out about the power in looking.28 LiTingting’s case epitomizes the struggles and strategies of Chinese feminists in the face of government censorship and control. When street protests and mass movements are not possible, the act of looking back—be it literal or metaphorical—becomes the site of resistance and self-empowerment.

LiTingting belongs to a group of young feminists who created the most recent wave of feminist movements in China since 2012.The group of young women organized a series of regional protests including the “Wounded Bride,” “Occupying Men’s Toilet,” and “Bald Sisters” events, focusing on social issues related to women’s welfare in different aspects of life such as domestic violence, the availability of public bathrooms for women, and gender discrimination in university admissions. The activists demonstrated creative spontaneity by engaging with current events and generating striking images for newsworthy stories. At the center of these movements was a strategy that combines the use of online and offline resources, embodied in the creation and dissemination of a set of visually powerful images of women-in-action.The images circulating from the “Wounded Bride” and the “Bald Sisters” protests are not only sensational but also created a spectacle that disrupted normative gender assumptions.

Visual images play an important role in extending the influence of these Chinese feminist movements and in engaging the general public. Compared with protests in the West, most offline feminist demonstrations in China were very limited in their scale, consisting of only a small group of participants due to heavy political restraints on mass public gatherings. However, images of the feminist protests generated instant interest, receiving coverage by both the traditional news outlets and independent outlets in social media. While public protests of social problems in China are highly sensitive and heavily censored, some mainstream and official news agencies reported the visual protests staged by feminist activists in the early stages of the movements. For example, both China Daily and reported on the “Wounded Bride” protests that took place at various points in 2012 with about 10 or fewer participants at each of the street gatherings, depoliticizing them as a “street performance art against domestic violence.” The fact that these small-scale street protests were being reported by major official mouthpieces allowed feminist activism to be seen and taken into consideration by decision makers—and this was particularly important since the first “Wounded Bride” protest was launched to support a legal case involving domestic violence.

Inspired by the Brides’ March, a few Chinese activists employed the striking visual combination of wedding and wounds of abuse to raise public awareness of domestic violence, expressing their support for Kim Lee. Kim was a victim of domestic violence who filed a legal case against her husband Li Yang, a billionaire and the founder of a highly successful company for English education. The case caused a sensation in Chinese society where the issue of domestic abuse had been often neglected. The activists wore white bridal gowns tainted with blood outside the courthouse in Chaoyang district, where Kim Lee’s case was being deliberated. The group also organized further “Wounded Bride” campaigns for Valentine’s Day and during the United Nations’ End Violence Against Women campaign in 2012, and even started a public petition, collecting more than 12,000 signatures for introducing an anti-domestic violence law in China, the largest women’s rights action to date.2 ' In 2013, the final jurisdiction for the case against Li Yang ruled in favor of the plaintiff Kim Lee, granting her a divorce on the grounds of domestic violence, full custody of her child, and a sum of $1.9 million in child support. The case not only established a landmark precedent in China but also contributed to a longtime and concerted effort that led to the approval of China’s first domestic violence law in 2015.

Along with persistent lobbying and campaigning by established women’s rights groups, a new generation of feminists started to play an important role in Chinese feminist movements, mobilizing social media and online resources to support offline efforts. The photo of the “Wounded Bride” protest in Beijing, featuring women activists Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, and Xiao Meili in white wedding gowns tainted with blood, became an iconic image for feminist movements around this time, creating a vision of feminist women in action. In the photograph, the three activists stand in the middle of the street in Beijing, their faces showing bruises and bloodstains, holding up posters that reads, “Love is not an excuse for violence.” To some audiences, these Chinese feminist actions may appear much less radical than their Western counterparts in terms of the scale and the extent of issues engaged. However, when we situate them in a society of heightened political control and censorship, it becomes clear that what these women achieved entailed immense risk. Unlike in the West, it is impossible for Chinese feminists to organize a large-scale parade. The only form of mobilization available is through a staged photo shooting with a group of limited and trusted participants, and even such cases of small-scale gatherings could be disbanded by the police or security forces. The very action of standing in the street of a country where public protests are not allowed and advocating for feminism in itself embodied the spirit of“looking back”—resisting both the patriarchal culture that condones domestic violence and the political control of anyone who dares to challenge the existing social and cultural structure.

This is why offline activism had very limited space for impact, and Chinese feminists used it mainly as a means to “make the news” (Li and Li 2O1730; Lii 2018d). In reviewing Chinese feminist movements from 2012 to 2015, Lii Pin (a key member who worked mostly behind the scenes of many feminist initiatives) pointed out that one of their strategies was to increase visibility and reportage of women’s issues in mass media: “the aim of every action was to make the news, following the logic of mass media and occupying its content.”’1 A visually striking image served as the best medium to attract attention, provoke debate, and take an oppositional stance without triggering the mechanisms of censorship. By resorting to the power of images and the influence of both social and mass media, Chinese feminist movements entered a new stage of “media activism” (Wang 201832; Han 201833; Li and Li 2017).

Using image and social media as the backbone of these movements, new Chinese feminists invariably participated in the creation of visual spectacles, but of a different and subversive type that challenged dominant ways of representing and looking at female bodies. The images they produced in movements between the years of 2012 and 2015 such as the “Bald Sisters,” “nude selfies,” and “armpit hair photo contest” not only resisted normative and photogenic portrayals of female bodies, but also brought attention to important and practical issues relevant to women’s welfare. An illustrative example is the “Bald Sisters” campaign, centered on the problem of gender discrimination in Chinese university admissions requiring female applicants to achieve higher scores to qualify for top universities.To protest this phenomenon and to make it more visible in the public sphere, a group of four feminists started a campaign by shaving their hair at the foot of the ConfucianistTemple in Guangzhou.This was a potent protest, because hair has rich symbolic meanings in Chinese culture. In traditional China, Confucianism sees hair as a part of the physical body received from parents, so tradition dictates that it should be cared for carefully. Given this association, shaving ones hair off constitutes a gesture of total disobedience. In addition, the Chinese idiom “long-haired women have little insights” betrays blatant sexism. Aware of the cultural implications of hair in Chinese culture, the protestors chose to become bald, performing “a complete break with the traditional social female image of a woman.”34 The Guangzhou campaign was echoed by feminists in Beijing and also by anonymous online supporters who shaved their own hair and shared their “selfies” in support. According to Xiao Meili, one of the first who shaved her hair, the campaign not only exceeded expectations by receiving the support of so many strangers but also attracted attention far beyond initial imagination.3’ The women with bald heads created a powerful image of resistance, returning the male gaze that often casts and shapes what a female should look like. Similarly, the nude selfies campaign subverted the erotic image of female nudity and used the body as a site for protesting domestic violence and the “Armpit Hair Photo contest” challenged the social norm of shaving and created a set of provocative images of unruly female bodies. By voluntarily rendering themselves as spectacles and engaging in transgressive acts that sought to redefine standards for evaluating the female body, Chinese feminists brought problematic gender norms to the forefront of social attention and discussion.

This series of feminist efforts culminated in a nationwide campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation, which was planned as an event celebrating International Womens Day in 2015. However, before the campaign could take place, many feminist activists were arrested on March 6, 2015 for engaging in “subversive activities.” Among them were Wei Tingling, Zheng Churan, Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, and Wang Man (who later became known as the “Feminist Five”), detained by the Chinese government for 37 days.36 They were accused of taking part in movements and having connections to foreign powers subversive to the country. This major crackdown led to a diminishing space for organized visual protests and online feminist movements. Nonetheless, these movements have left behind a legacy and created significant impacts vital to the development of more spontaneous feminist movements such as #MeToo in China in the years that followed.

The rise of a new generation of feminists and their bold practices engaging visual images and social media needs to be put into perspective within both historical and transnational contexts. The development of feminism in China, marked by progress and setbacks in a time of political caprice, provides a telling case of the global circulation of ideas and images related to womens activism. Representations of women and womens bodies have been central to the emergence of female subjectivities and feminist movements ever since the late 19th century when womens magazines played an essential role in fostering the image of modern women in China. In the communist era, the image of proletarian women was brought to the forefront and promoted in revolutionary propaganda posters and films while liberal feminist movements were replaced by top-down state feminism woven into the socialist nationalist discourse. The Reform era witnessed a gradual process of reintroducing femininity in an age of fast-paced globalization and commercialization. The current wave of feminist movements was thus part of a long social process, which women responded to by working to denaturalize gender images and to reverse the power relations between the gaze and the spectator.

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