In May 2018, the China Academic Network on Gender (CHANGE) was inaugurated with a conference that it held at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in partnership with SOAS, King’s College London (KCL) and East China Normal University (ECNU). The conference, ‘Articulating Gender in Modern China: Retro-Prospective Encounters’, brought together researchers from Europe and China whose research focuses on gender issues in modern China.
Launching a New Platform
The conference was opened with the keynote speech by Prof. Jiang Jin (ECNU) on the ‘State of the Field of Gender and Women’s Studies in China.’ Prof. Jiang made a brief historical overview that emphasises how women’s liberation through the 1950 Marriage Law effectively served as an important benchmark of modernity and legitimacy for the CCP after the founding of the PRC. She then brushed a panorama of the field, dating it back to the 1980s when the first generation of western scholars such as Gail Hershatter and Emily Honig started to research gender issues in China after the Cultural Revolution. Prof. Jiang highlighted the cultural and historical background that scholars researching gender in China and the West brought with them to the field. As China emerged from the Cultural Revolution, Chinese scholars of gender, such as Li Xiaojiang 李小江 , started to unpick the gendered norms of the previous decades.
The 1990s saw a booming period of publication, translation, and institution building. Efforts were made to establish women’s studies as its own academic discipline in China within the educational curriculum of universities, with the support of organisations such as the Ford Foundation. As those efforts ultimately failed, the beginning of the twenty-first century saw in turn a flourishing of establishment of research centres dedicated to women’s studies. Prof. Jiang then showed how Chinese scholars had explored to create a Chinese theory in terms of gender studies. With changes in academic discussions starting from the 1980s, gender issues also gradually attracting public attention.
A final remark underlined how historically academic women’s studies in China lacked a corresponding social movement, which now starts to take shape with the recent MeToo movement. Zhu Yuhang (ECNU) outlined the recent sexual harassment cases in China and highlighted how international campaigns such as the ‘MeToo movement’ have also had an impact in China as students start to rethink gender relations. The extent to which these recent discussions about gender and sexual harassment in the public realm, particularly via social media, will ally with Chinese gender scholars’ continued efforts to find a more central and permanent home for their subject is a question which is yet to be answered.
Facilitated by Prof. Françoise Lauwaert (ULB), the roundtable discussed the practical, institutional, fieldwork-related challenges, and practices of doing gender research in China today, comparing the differences and similarities among disciplines and geographies. Participants included Jiang Jin who works on Shanghai, Katrien Jacobs (CUHK) on Hong Kong, Séagh Kehoe (Nottingham) on Tibet and Nepal. Jennifer Altehenger’s (KCL) research focuses on propaganda, popular culture production and material culture in PRC China, while Colette Harris (SOAS) has been working on masculinities and femininities in Central Asia and Africa. Various questions were raised and debated during this lively session, with much engagement from the audience: How to use alternative (artistic, performative, …) methods to teach students in relation to gender? What are the risks and benefits of social media compared to traditional ethnography for gender-related topics? Does building an academic field of gender studies make one an activist? Challenges of reciprocity that research entails and the suitability of universities’ current ethics committees and frameworks for the practicalities of doing gender research in China were also questioned.
The first day of the conference ended in a session titled ‘Gender & Asia in Dialogue’. Prof. Peter Jackson (Australia National University) brought together queer and religious practices in contemporary Thailand in a talk ‘A World Ever More Enchanted: Modernity Makes Magic in 21st Century Southeast Asia’. Françoise Lauwaert discussed crossing the borders between genders and species in Chinese religious fiction. The papers complemented each other in their discussion of how magic in fiction and practice has intertwined with ideas about class, gender fluidity and border crossing from historical and modern perspectives in China and Southeast Asia.
Being Gendered and Gendered Beings in China
The first panel on the second day discussed the intervention and interaction among individuals, organisations, and the Chinese state in gender negotiations in historical and modern times. Vanessa Frangville (ULB) chaired the panel. The question of the relationship between gender, religion and female agency in China was raised in Zhu Yuhang’s and Hollie Gowan’s (Leeds) papers. Hollie Gowan’s talk also provided interesting methodological insights into conducting interviews with women in faith based organisation in China, giving examples of the types of questions she asked when attempting to unpick women’s understanding of selfhood and identity. The next two papers highlighted the intersection of ethnicity, gender and class in the feminist movements in contemporary China. Kailing’s Xie’s (York) presentation on China’s well-educated urban daughters highlighted the challenges and paradoxes that this group of privileged middle class women face in their pursuit of an increasingly unobtainable vision of ideal womanhood as portrayed in state and social media discourses. Séagh Kehoe’s talk discussed the intersectionality of Gender and ethnicity in China and the problem currently facing the middle class feminist movement in urban China of how to bring non-Han perspectives and experiences of gender into the debate.
Entitled ‘Deciphering Sexuality and Gender: Literary Works, Visual Sources and Social Space’’, the second panel asked to shift our perspective to the grassroots, and to consider how individuals negotiate the heteronormative discourses that permeate state sponsored discussion of gender identity and sexuality in modern China. Florine Leplâtre’s (INALCO) paper dissected the types of female activism displayed in two late Qing novels and questioned to what extent the concept of Femonationalism can be usefully applied to this type of fiction. Katrien Jacobs’ (Chinese University of Hong Kong) research into gender and pornography explores the positive ‘after-glow’ felt after viewing pornography. Questions relating to queer pornographies and different cultural influences in pornography across Asia and the West also arose. Lucas Monteil’s (Paris 8 University) research looks at the individual negotiations that male homosexuals in modern China face when negotiating the heteronormative expectations of society about marriage. Stijn Deklerck (KU Leuven) highlighted collective strategies of the LGBTQ+ community in these negotiations and also touched on the relationship between his status as an activist and research on LGBTQ+ issues in modern China. Both Lucas and Stijn shared visual sources with the group to allow an understanding of the spaces and methods used by the LGBTQ+ community to articulate their gendered identities in China.
In the closing talk, Prof. Jiang Jin also discussed gender identity and the application of visual materials. Her talk ‘Women Playing Men: Same-Sex Relations in Shaoxing Opera in Republican Shanghai’, was based on her book Women Playing Men: Yue Opera and Social Change in Twentieth-century Shanghai (Washington, 2009). It explored how female opera stars could, by adopting the dress and characteristics of men, push at the boundaries of what was considered permissible between sexes in terms of onstage intimacy as the viewers were aware that both players were female. According to Prof. Jiang, female opera stars playing men’s roles could experiment with new subject positions and strategies for asserting their identities.
From opera actress playing men to gay choir seeking social recognition, gender is continuously looking for new articulations in China. Addressing the question how the lens of gender helps us see what we ought to see, the conference provides stories of feminists in late Qing, female beggars in republican Shanghai, middle class mothers, women from ethnic minority groups, and LGBTQ+ people in contemporary China. These discussions marked the launching of CHANGE’s online platform, which is dedicated to the dynamic and diverse articulation of gender in China. Gender, as well as its changes and challenges will continue inspiring new questions and new insights into modern China.