“Visual Representation of Gender and Class in a Changing China” was a seminar hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs on 18 March 2016, and co-sponsored by the Asian Institute and University of Toronto Scarborough. This event, as a part of the East Asia Seminar Series and Critical China Studies Workshop, featured Professor Wang Zheng. She is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and History and Associate Scientist of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of her new book, Finding Women in the State: A Socialist Feminist Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1964. China has undergone rapid transformation from a socialist to a market economy within the past couple decades. The change simultaneously brought about the integration of the Chinese women as critical actors within the new system in unprecedented numbers. Focusing on the state-sponsored magazine, Women of China, Professor Wang elaborated on the effects of this transformation. She spoke about the stark contrast between the socialist and capitalist China from the perspectives of the magazine’s editors – who deeply subscribe to traditional Chinese culture. Through a detailed discussion with many illustrations at hand, Professor Wang highlighted how the ideology of old generations have been overthrown entirely by their younger counterparts.
The first half of the presentation was devoted to the discussion on the Women of China’s endeavor to establish a “socialist feminist cultural front” during the Maoist era. During the 1950s, immediately after People’s Republic of China was founded, women with rural backgrounds and from ethnic minorities were frequently featured on the magazine’s cover. Along with the previously oppressed women, the working class, or laodong renmi (劳动人民) was glorified as well. However, there was a popular belief amongst the Communist Party of China’s male officials who considered women incapable of “masculine” jobs. Professor Wang supported this point with an example of a cartoon published during this period. A male official remarks to the first woman in the cartoon, “You have too much housework, you should resign!” He then proceeds to the second woman who is asking for a sick leave and states, “You cannot ask for a leave, you should resign!” Lastly, he tells the third woman asking for a maternity leave, “No, you should resign!” After he “eliminated” all three women, he finally becomes satisfied with the all-male work environment. Female leaders referred to this systematic discrimination as “feudal thinking”, or fengjian sixiang (封建思想), which must be eradicated. Interestingly, there is a gap between the contents and the cover of the magazine. The cover picture did not keep up with the political tempo. However, the contents conformed to the Party’s initiatives by assigning at least one editorial in every issue to discuss governmental decrees. The cover of the magazine thus became a “cultural front”, which constantly featured capable, versatile women contributing to the making of the new China.
The promotion of the female image in China’s socialist construction came hand in hand with the idea of the “socialist new women”. These women were no longer identified exclusively by their marital status, sexuality, material wealth, age, looks, or body type, but rather by their commitment to productive work in service for the Chinese nation and its citizenry. This was also the reason why the working class and rural women were glorified. Many cover pages of Women of China vividly captured China’s transformation from socialism to capitalism in the post-socialist China period.
However, during the 1980s and 90s, the cover page featured urban elite women dressed in fashionable clothing or women with children enjoying their motherhood – while the “asexual” socialist new women representations were abandoned. There has not been a single image of a peasant or a low-income worker on the cover page since 1998. Successful entrepreneurs and urban celebrities replaced the peasants and workers. The “leaders” of China during the Maoist era have been altered. Similar to other women magazines, Women of China was lured into the commercial interests of portraying women as sexually appealing to cater to their new audience – apolitical individuals in the new capitalist China. Thin, revealing, and transparent, or Shou lu tou (瘦露透), the new images of women in China are skinny women dressed in provocative clothing. Such look became a trend for Chinese women after China transitioned to capitalism.
Further, Professor Wang conducted an interview with Shi Yumei, an ex-editor of Women of China. When Professor Wang showed the new cover page to Shi, the editor responded indignantly that this is an insult to Chinese women. As a socialist cultural actor who aimed to create a feminist front, she felt that the current editors have lost sight of the magazine’s original goal. Professor Wang once gave a presentation in 2009 about her research to the magazine’s current editors, and discussed the socialist history of the magazine. They readily admitted that the magazine was nothing more than a commodity in contemporary China. The socialist China period where a rural woman could be proudly displayed as the cover image was no more. Peasants today are now looked down upon as backward, rustic or Tu (土). They are systematically excluded from the dominant visual representation, despite the fact that China’s fast-developing economy still relies on their cheap labor.
In conclusion, Professor Wang demonstrated her expertise in women studies within the post-Mao period by engaging the audience with various forms of Chinese media. The pervasive image representations of working women were only the propagandist project of socialist state feminism. State feminism to empower women was promoted within the socialist state, where the majority did not even identify as feminists. The effort to change the image of the “backwarded” and “feudal” women by the state feminists via engaging with the political agenda was destroyed as China transitioned to capitalism. The gap between socialism and capitalism was filled by the rapid change of visual representation of women that catered to an evolving consumer-market.
Gloria Liu is a second year student studying East Asian Studies and Sociology at the University of Toronto. She currently serves as a copy-editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies. She is interested in Mao’s China and particularly experiences of individuals during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.