I (re)Learned in China There is an International Women's Day


BEIJING - A little less than two weeks ago was International Women’s Day (IWD). I thought I would dedicate that day’s two English classes to discussing issues related to IWD and the situation of women in China. It was not until two weeks ago sitting in my office in Beijing that I realized that IWD is a day when people actually do things, like giving gifts. For my friend and her colleagues in Beijing it meant working half a day. In college as part of team building exercises I used to always sign off on the bingo square that said I thought of myself as a feminist, I still long for the day when the United States will have a female president, and I came from a home where both parents worked and shared the cooking and cleaning.

When I first came to China in 2008 I felt somewhat at ease because to my eyes as I walked the streets of Beijing and Hangzhou, I didn’t see the same objectification of women in advertising as I did in the United States. It seemed that there was a greater gender balance in selling things, and both men and women had on more clothes than in the United States. Walking through Tokyo’s Shibuya at night later that month I looked up and saw a giant billboard of a woman scantily clad in a swimsuit, and it dawned on me that I was no longer in China. The following summer I had a similar reaction as I watched Indian music videos of women wearing less than I’m likely to see watching a Mainland Chinese video.

If I stop looking at the billboards and music videos for moment I can notice that in some ways the situation of women has improved since the Chinese Communist Party came into power and did things like banning foot-binding and women taking their husbands last name. Mao proclaimed that women hold up half the sky. Today in China according to the CIA World Factbook women go to school for twelve years and men for eleven. The literacy rate for both men and women is around 90%, men a few points higher, women a few points lower. Yet I often think to myself that there are the “limits of revolution.”

If one studies birthrates, employment, or domestic abuse, one will see that women and men often still are not equal. One day I tried to tell my language partner in Chinese that I think as China has become more market-based, it has put additional pressure on women, as they are encouraged to buy slimming bodysuits, teas and other products; none of which is unique to China.

More than in the United States, I have noticed segregation among the sexes, sometimes both groups are at the same table in a restaurant at different ends, and sometimes they are in completely different locations. In recent decades, at least going back to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), it was women coming together socially that created the foundation for later civil society groups (see Robert Weller’s work). The 1995 United Nations International Conference on Women in Beijing  where notably Hillary Clinton gave a speech, is seen in many ways as further creating opportunities for civic groups to address issues like domestic abuse.

Here I see parallels with the environmental movement, and how in some ways it seems that China and the US differ. Both China and the United States continue to face challenges regarding the status of women and also regarding environmental issues, though according to the World Economic Forum the United States is ranked 17th and China 33rd. Both International Women’s Day and the international environmental discourse in forum like the UN largely grew out of the US, in the 1910’s and the 1960’s respectively. In the case of China there are efforts by civic groups and government leaders today to try and engage with this international discourse and translate it for the Chinese situation. For the US it seems there is more of a desire to speak than to listen to and translate a dialogue that has evolved over the decades.

The fact that I am learning about IWD in China now means that over the years various women in my life missed out on extra gestures and gifts. Perhaps more importantly, I wonder if it means that the US is missing out on dialogue that could create a better and more equal situation for men and women.

Follow Chris on Twitter @enviroeberhardt

Feminism, Hillary Clinton