Strapped Down: Chinese Women and the Logic of American Feminism
Issue #38, May 1998
Recently, I gave an informal talk on Chinese culture to the residents of a battered women's shelter in New Haven, Connecticut. At the beginning of my presentation, I asked the women to tell me the things they already knew about China so that I could write them on the blackboard as a starting-place for our discussion. They called out their ideas -- "Rice!" "Unfriendly!" -- and I wrote them down. A woman said, tentatively, "They have to obey their husbands, right?" Another woman chimed in: "They kill girls, or send them to the orphanage." I wrote "sexism" on the blackboard, and we began to talk about the situation of Chinese women. These American women -- disadvantaged residents of one of the poorest, most troubled cities in the nation, forced by men's brutality to flee their homes to the shelter of this YWCA safe house -- had a strong sense that their own position, compared to the abject victimized status of "Chinese women," was one of privilege. At the end of our talk, one of the women mused, "I wonder if they get beat?"
In 1992, on my way into China, I rode a train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, and another from Guangzhou to Wuhan, a steel town of six million along the Yangtze River in Hubei province. I was beginning a two-year job teaching English in a Chinese university, and knew less about the place than the women at the YWCA. What struck me first was that the human landscape never let up: from Hong Kong to Wuhan, a distance of about 500 miles, there is nothing that remotely resembles wilderness. There are sparser patches between the cities and market towns, but every shred of land is inhabited and farmed and has been for thousands of years. The most surprising sight in this meticulously cultivated and ancient landscape came between stations, as we slowed to pass groups of peasants working on the tracks. Often there were women among them -- not women waving stop signs or caution flags (such things did not seem to exist in China) while the men did the digging, but women swinging picks and shovels, or resting with their male comrades by the tracks, spitting or eating steamed bread. These were compact women, but powerful; their short sinewy legs, sheathed in blue or green cotton trousers, were anything but delicate, and their black eyes fixed on me with bold, astonished gazes. Often they laughed out loud in disbelief and pointed.
In Wuhan, women drove buses, trucks, and cabs -- not just a few, but everywhere you looked. Old women with cropped hair jogged to market with bamboo carrying poles flexing rhythmically on their shoulders, bearing enormous baskets of eggplants, squash, and rice. Women spat, grunted, squatted and expertly blew their noses into the gutter with their fingers, demolishing any notions of Asian female "modesty" I might have had. Mothers nursed their babies on the sidewalks outside their shops, and old ladies carried their grandchildren on their backs, locking gnarled fingers underneath plump legs. They all stared at me, unabashed, amused, sometimes open-mouthed with surprise. I soon learned that the women of Wuhan, and of Hubei Province in general, had a reputation for fierceness, and from time to time I saw them engaged in physical combat on the street: a waitress brandishing a meat cleaver at a cook; a night-market vendor restrained by passers-by from attacking one of her competitors with the long hook used to take clothing down from its racks. "In heaven there's a nine-headed bird-monster; on earth there's a Hubei native," people would say, sometimes adding with a grin, "especially the women."
It seemed that although life was not easy for these women, and many could be viewed as victims of one sort or another (particularly as victims of poverty), the reality of their situation -- and their attitudes toward it -- had little connection to the image of the Asian woman as inevitably "getting beat." I began to take notice of the gaps between our ideas about Chinese women and the actuality I encountered during my two years immersed in the culture, learning the language and getting to know the people. When I came back home, among the culture shocks I experienced was the attitude that women in China are invariably mute victims of patriarchal-communist oppression, accepting abuse with downcast eyes. A peculiarly American notion of social "progress" has produced this belief: we in the West have progressed beyond outright barbarity toward women; sure we still have problems, but nothing like the brutality you encounter in the Third World. During the past several years, I've come to feel that feminism -- at least as it's been theorized and practiced in the United States since the nineteenth century -- has not only taken part in this set of assumptions about foreign cultures, but has actually been built atop it. American society at large has, in turn, taken hold of a "feminism" that assumes American cultural superiority, using the terms of feminist critique to assert the backwardness, the unworthiness, and the hopelessness of the non-white world.
The Case Against "the Chinese"
During the 1980s, Chinese women were frequently depicted as the voiceless victims of socialist family planning, strapped to an operating table with their feet in stirrups, subjected to forced sterilization and abortion, under constant reproductive surveillance. Lately this image has been supplanted by what the press likes to call the "results" of the one-child policy: female infanticide and abandonment, Dickensian orphanages, and the traffic in women. In the current narrative of victimization, the image that circulates with the most regularity is that of the small girl, strapped to a board by heartless communist orphanage workers. The image of the girl or woman strapped to a table, in fact, is probably the most common depiction of Chinese womanhood in the American media.
A survey of print and electronic resources turns up articles and websites concerning the rape of Tibetan nuns, female infanticide, coercive family planning, the "dying rooms," and sometimes even footbinding, a long obsolete practice; about the dubious, possibly hormonally-engineered sex of female PRC athletes; about the traffic in women, the dearth of girl children, the one-child policy and its violation of women's bodies. There is an occasional article about the rise in domestic violence in Chinese society. There are, of course, many, many mail-order bride and pornography sites on the Web (in fact, a keyword search for "Chinese women" produces more sex-related sites than any other type). Neither print nor electronic sources contain much of anything about Chinese women that is not in some way connected to their physical -- usually sexual -- violation. Curiously, the pornographic websites, which do not necessarily mutilate or violate their objects, offer some of the least disturbing and violent depictions of Chinese women I've found.
For the past two years, I have wondered where all the Chinese women who are not raped, forcibly sterilized, kidnapped or beaten have disappeared to. Where are the articles about all-female rock bands in Beijing? About rural women shouldering the burden of food production for one fourth of the world's population as their sons and husbands take off to find construction work in the cities? About the legal challenges faced by divorced women in a society where divorce was, until recently, all but unheard of? Any of these stories -- and there are many more possibilities -- would convey the vast changes in the lives of Chinese women that this century has seen. Curiously, our attention has fixed on the oldest problems facing women in China: the traffic in women is news, to be sure, but it is by no means new. The all-girl Beijing rock band Cobra could not be more novel if it were composed of Martians.
In 1995, when the UN-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, Chinese society was put on trial by the Western media and condemned for its sexism and abuse of female citizens. Amnesty International released a report charging the Chinese government with "serious human rights abuses ranging from widespread kidnapping and forced marriage to rape and hideous torture by prison guards." No one seemed to question the proposition that the Chinese Communist Party was responsible for bride-selling and forced marriage, or to ask what, while the media was on the subject, life was like for the Chinese women who were not Tibetan nuns (after all, do we take life on Indian reservations or in Cabrini-Green as emblematic of the status of human rights in the United States? Perhaps we should). At the same time, many of the Western feminists attending the conference worked themselves up into a state of what can only be called hysteria over the harassment they believed "the Chinese" were inflicting on them. (A friend of mine who attended the conference -- and who sensibly attributed most of the logistical problems to the Chinese authorities' lack of resources and experience in handling such an event -- provided an almost unbelievable anecdote. An acquaintance of hers lost her camera early in the conference. Convinced that it had been stolen by the hotel staff, probably working hand in hand with the sinister Beijing Public Security Bureau, the woman spent the next several days admonishing her television set, which she believed was a disguised surveillance device, to give back her camera. When the hotel staff found and returned the camera, she considered her suspicions to have been confirmed.) The only sensible voice emerging from the commotion was that of Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote an editorial in Time pointing out that "when it comes to women's rights, there is no single 'evil empire' that can be isolated and embargoed." Ehrenreich concluded that Americans' morbid fascination with China's women's rights violations was a projection of our own problems "onto some distant Other."
Ehrenreich was right, of course, and her brief polemic left me wondering how our obsession with the ravishment -- feudal, "communist," or global-capitalist -- of Chinese women had come to be. What are our problems and why must we displace them onto "some distant Other"? How does our fixation on the bodily violation of Chinese women reflect our own cultural situation and gender arrangements? Although titillation is always a factor in such representation, it seems likely that the discourse around Chinese womanhood has also been shaped by American gender politics, and in particular the concerns and history of American feminism. The dual imperatives of reader hard-ons and feminist rhetoric inform the "news" about Chinese women in curious ways. Information that is at bottom a kind of porn (innocent country girls ravished by steely-eyed bride-selling hooligans) is presented as purely feminist outrage, often by women reporters who undoubtedly are -- and should be -- outraged by what they've seen. If the stories we tell about Chinese women are stories about ourselves, then what can we make of the abundance of articles on the traffic in women and the brutalization of girl babies? Is it merely self-satisfaction at the thought that we ourselves have "progressed" beyond forced marriage and horrific orphanages, thanks to the higher degree of civilization we have attained?
Roe v. the Chinese Communist Party
A rather bizarre example of our current fixation on Chinese women is the issue of China's family planning policies, which became a conservative rallying point during the 1980s. Reaganites began the widespread outcry against China's supposedly centralized policy of forced abortion and sterilization for women who attempted to have a second child, and the debate over this issue operated like a funhouse image of the bitter American argument in the wake of Roe v. Wade. Even as conservatives were decrying Chinese women's lack of reproductive choice, they sought to divest American women of that same choice. The conservatives themselves charged that the pro-choice lobby (which was understandably suspicious of this sudden concern for the rights of Chinese women) cherished the right to have an abortion more than the right not to have one. The furor culminated with the United States' withdrawal of support from the UN's family planning programs on the grounds that they shored up China's "draconian" one-child policy.
The problem with this whole discussion was that no one really had the slightest idea what was actually going on in China, what was at stake there, and how the mass of ordinary Chinese people felt about it. No one knew (and in my opinion, no one knows to this day) how many forced abortions there were, whether they were mandated by the central government or took place in the provinces without its sanction, and moreover what kind of coercion was involved. Indeed, in Chinese culture "persuasion" and "force" often shade into each other in ways that are difficult for "freedom"-obsessed Americans to comprehend. If a pregnant woman is ostracized by her neighbors and nagged incessantly by family planning officials -- usually also neighbors or coworkers -- until she gives in, does this social pressure constitute the same kind of "force" as lashing her onto the abortionist's table? And is this social or state pressure more destructive -- and forceful -- than the traditional and still powerful family imperative to produce a son (a similar type of harassing, exhausting "persuasion" inflicted on women by their husband or in-laws)? One of the most challenging tasks of the Chinese family planning official is to make sure that a woman's in-laws (traditionally considered a young bride's worst enemies) don't hound her into "trying for a boy."
The fact that in the 1980s Chinese women and their reproductive systems were being buffeted by two opposed but equally paternalistic systems of social coercion was never part of American discussions on the subject of "communist" birth control. Further, reporting on the one-child policy focused almost exclusively on its most extreme and coercive moments (women hauled off kicking, screaming, and seven months pregnant to go under the knife), obscuring the fact that most urbanites complied willingly and that most rural Chinese were not subject to the same "draconian" rules (in fact, peasants -- at that time about three quarters of the population -- are usually permitted two children; members of ethnic minorities and couples who are only children themselves -- a group that soon will include almost every urban dweller -- can almost always have more than one). Finally, no American who has not visited China can have any idea of what it means to support a billion people on a small fraction of the world's arable land.
Although the American discourse around Chinese reproductive rights was initiated by conservatives, it has lately drawn the mantle of feminism closely around itself: in article after article, the increase in misogynistic practices like female infanticide and the abandonment of little girls is described, with the proper tone of civilized outrage, as the result of the "communist," barbarous anti-woman one-child policy. Never mind that female infanticide and the revilement of girls has been going on for thousands of years and that the communists were the first to make a dent in these attitudes and practices; never mind that the same anti-female attitudes exist in many non-communist societies with little government control over people's reproductive lives (the only country in the world in which girls are preferred, according to one recent study, is Jamaica); never mind that the one-child policy is only indirectly the "cause" of the problem (indeed, you could as easily say that "Western technology," in the form of the ultrasound machines used for determining the sex of fetuses, is to blame).
From our positions on both sides of the Roe v. Wade barricade, then and now, what we see when we look at China is ourselves: the issue of women and "choice" and the baby-killing that may or may not result from government policies. "Should governments allow women the right to choose?" we asked, never considering that in some cultures (perhaps including our own -- but that's another essay) this right is fraught with complications before it is even granted. In the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, "government control" of reproductive decisions was the only kind of pressure we recognized, and indeed the only kind we looked for. The hot topic of the American women's movement, by means of Republican ideological sleight-of-hand, had been grafted onto a situation and a civilization that could not be more different from our own. Feminism, somehow, didn't feel like feminism any more. Those of us who believed both in a woman's right to choose and in the sovereignty of Third World nations wondered how we had come to this pass.
The Sins of Our Mothers
American feminism was born of the notion of progress in the early nineteenth century: in order to legitimize the idea that women's sphere should be broadened, feminists of all stripes attached women's demands to the already accepted idea of glorious and inevitable national progress. If America was the chosen nation, then American women were the chosen women, and it was their duty to lead the unfortunate women of the world to the promised land of liberation. Furthermore, the "first-wave" women's movement of the mid nineteenth century -- the foundation of modern feminism -- was built atop a figurative relationship between black and white women and shaped by veteran abolitionists who had first formulated their indictment of white men as a critique of slavery. As the historian Karen Sanchez-Eppler has argued, mid-century feminists obliquely represented their own oppression by decrying the deplorable circumstances of black women. Their abolitionist passion was not insincere, but it did provide a vehicle for feminist complaints that could not yet be voiced directly about sexual abuse, women's lack of personal freedom and legal status, and confinement in the domestic sphere.
Since that time, white American women have had an odd tendency to represent their own concerns obliquely through images of women of color: from Pearl Buck to Mary Daly, they have frequently understood their position as women through a discourse of race. If the nineteenth century was alternately intrigued and horrified by the idea of white female confinement, enslavement, and sexual victimization, we can fairly say that the twentieth century is more obsessively fixated on the problem of female sexuality: its control, its violation, its "liberation." These days, the focus is still on the physical violation of women of color, but African and African-American misery have been replaced by Chinese kidnapping, gang rape, baby-killing, and the strapping of orphans to boards.
The women's movement, even as it has challenged the more gruesome distortions of patriarchal ideology, has depended on essential elements of that ideology for its sustenance and success. In turn, the mainstream culture has reabsorbed these distortions, once they've passed through a kind of PC ideology-laundering operation (it's feminist, so it must be good!). This process has given rise to a situation in which the most rabid reactionaries can invoke the discourse of women's rights in defense of inhumane policies like withdrawing American support for UN programs. What's more, it is disturbingly ironic that even the perceptions of impoverished women in YWCA shelters have been shaped by our society's belief in its own superior civility toward and "treatment" of women. Bizarrely, the American women who are "getting beat," just as surely as those who are spared this fate, imagine themselves and their situation in relation to a distant Other. Perhaps the practical work of the women's movement has been helped along by this tactic of displacement. Or maybe we -- like our foremothers -- just like to think of ourselves as the chosen women.
Juliette Guilbert is a graduate student in the American Studies Program at Yale University. She is currently writing a dissertation about women's historical fiction in nineteenth-century America. Her goal is to one day know enough Chinese characters to read a newspaper.