By Yuan Ren
A year ago, Lauren Gao was watching the Chinese New Year Gala TV show when she felt perturbed by the portrayal of two types of women in one of the sketches. It depicted a Nühanzi and a nushen – labels that had become popular in 2014. The former describes a “manly woman”, and was depicted on the show as a stubby woman approaching her 30s, unmarried and derided by peers around her; the latter a “goddess” – shown as young, slim, glamorous and worshipped.
The representations of the two female characters made then 16-year-old Gao, a sixth-form student from Beijing, acutely aware of her own attitudes. But the truth is that the sketch did reflect some commonly held perceptions of “strong” women in China. The term Nühanzi is often used to refer to women exhibiting “manly” traits; such women are sometimes considered unattractive and even repulsive within Chinese culture. Nühanzicharacteristics can range from being too independently minded to being too highly accomplished, neither of which are particularly favorable within traditional Chinese notions of femininity that dictate gentility and even fragility in women.
Feminism, unsurprisingly, is sometimes frowned upon and seen as an extreme ideology in China. Those who argue for women’s rights can often encounter derision, discrimination and bullying from family and peers. Even the law does not always protect feminists: last year, on International Women’s Day, local governments arrested five young female activists who had organized a protest against sexual harassment on public transport.
While the western media paid close attention to the event, many Chinese women had no idea it had even happened – feminism is not necessarily big news in China. .
But Gao did pay attention to the news and, at the end of 2014, together with a fellow student, 16-year-old Cui Yuxiao, founded the feminist club at the Dalton Academy, the international branch of the prestigious Affiliated High School of Peking University, one of the top two universities in the country.
Such a club of girls Gao’s age is more or less unheard of in China. Since November, the club has aimed to hold weekly sessions every Friday lunchtime. At each session, members present a feminist topic of interest, “with the purpose of helping other students discover something new [about feminism] that they wouldn’t see without ‘feminist lenses,’” says Gao.
So far, the club has attracted a fair amount of attention from students at the academy – the group’s account on WeChat (China’s most popular social media app) has up to 100 followers. The club even has a few male members who regularly attend.
At a recent club gathering, the girls played clips from the film Thelma and Louise that showed attempted rape. Sex itself is not a topic openly discussed in China, let alone within the context of consent and rape. (Even in the UK, such sensitive topics remain rarely breached in schools.)
Cui and Gao are not your average teenagers, nor do they symbolize a new wave of mainstream feminism in China. Both attend one of the most elite schools in the country and they have access to a wide range of western resources that include lessons on feminist ideology. With its host of foreign teachers, the school even offers elective classes on Simone de Beauvoir.
But for the Dalton girls, feminism has already affected their day-to-day thinking. Language, in particular, is where gender biases are noticeably ingrained, say Gao and Cui, who think they now pay much greater attention to how they talk about women.
“I’m much more aware of derogatory terms that people use about women without even thinking it about it,” says Cui. “And about common generalizations such as ‘girls shouldn’t study science subjects at university,’” adds Gao.
What kind of feminists do these girls consider themselves at 17 years old? “I’m not a very radical feminist,” says Gao. “I don’t think there’s any point in getting angry or berating an individual. These issues [of gender equality] are not the cause of one person – it is society, the accumulation of history.”
And what does she want to achieve with the feminist club? “I’m only trying to show people the problem and to analyze it – and I think that in itself is very important,” she says.