Feminism in Asia

1. Introduction
2. History of feminism in Asia and China
3. The current situation: the struggle of women workers and farmers
4. Conclusion
5. Bibliography

Traditionally, Asia was characterised as a very conservative region, especially compared to Western world, including Europe and the US. As a result, for from the Western point of view Asia remained a region where old traditions dominated in the society and affected all spheres of life. Not surprisingly that since the ancient times there have been a lot of myths about Asia and for centuries this continent remained a kind of terra incognita for Europeans. In this respect probably the most mysterious country in Asian continent was China, which, being geographically distant from Europe, often remained in isolation. This isolation produced a significant impact on the development of China because it affected its national culture, traditions, economic and political development, social structure, etc.
However, the 20th century was a period when mankind made a significant and unparalleled progress practically in all spheres of life and this progress was basically caused by wide use of technological innovations that caused a great economic growth. As a result, the process of globalisation became the main trend in international relations and practically all countries of the world are involve in this process, including Asian countries at large and China in particular. Obviously, the process of globalisation affects not only economic or political spheres but it also produces a significant impact on cultural life of people. Practically, it means that Western ideology has started to spread all over the world since it is not a secret that Western countries, especially the US, are the leading power in the process of globalisation. This is why the retrospection of views on Asia through Western point of view is not occasional because it is Western ideology that currently affects dramatically Asian traditional culture, beliefs and values.
In this respect, it is very important to underline that despite the fact that many Asian countries suffer from globalisation and impact of Western culture and ideas, the latter can also produce a positive impact on Asian set of values. The latter concerns in particular the development and spread of feminist movement in Asia, and especially in China where this process is particularly problematic because of the political domination of the Communist party and communist ideology. Nonetheless, despite all restrictions and obstacles feminism gradually paves its road to Asia and local women gradually become more and more socially active, they really start to attempt to protect their rights and struggle for equal opportunities and in certain countries and in certain spheres they really achieved amazing results, which cannot be assessed otherwise but positively. This is why, it is extremely important to realize what is going on in Asia, especially in China, which unfortunately still remains to a significant extent, unknown country, in relation to feminism and feminist movement. To put it more precisely, it is necessary to properly evaluate the position of women in Asian societies, their role and define the extent to which they are really equal to men and whether there are any changes at all. In this respect, Western countries, where feminist movement actually engendered may be viewed as a sample for comparison of the progress made by Asian countries, such as China, in the development of local feminist movements and improvement of the position of women.

History of feminism in Asia and China
Speaking about the development of feminism, it is primarily necessary to trace its historical development and find out what the progress has been made in recent years in Asian countries, especially in China, which is actually the country where live over 1,3 billion of people. Naturally, it is very important to know what is the position of women in the country with such a huge number of people living there. Obviously, in order to properly assess the progress of the recent years it is also necessary to discuss the historical position of women in Asian societies and discuss the history of development of feminist movements and feminist ideology in Asia aiming at the great change for better of the position of women in this continent.
In fact, the necessity of changes for better of the position of women is one of the key points in the ideology of practically all feminist movements not only in Asia but all over the world. Nonetheless, Asian women probably need more such positive changes since the oppression of women in Asian countries was historically much more sever than in Europe or other Western societies.
On analysing the historical situation and position of women in Asia it is hardly possible to argue that their position was extremely deprived. It should be said that women traditionally played a secondary role in Asian societies and they could not practically realize themselves in all those spheres where men dominated. Actually, these were practically all spheres of life, excluding probably household, which was traditionally considered to be the domain of women. On other words, traditionally, Asian women were predominantly concerned about their homes, families and that was practically all where they could realise themselves while their social position remained absolutely insignificant. It means that political, economic and social life was totally controlled by men in Asia, including China, where such trends were probably the strongest.
In such a situation women’s rights were basically limited by their families and homes, where they also had to totally obey to men and their will. Unfortunately, such a situation had much more serious consequences than simply lack of civil rights or equality of women and men. In actuality, the situation was much more difficult and in certain cases simply tragic for women because often they were treated like some objects that can be bought or sold without any particular attention to their personal interests, needs and desires.
It should be said that such a situation remained practically unchanged for centuries and really significant changes had started only since 20th century. The main reason why feminism had started to rapidly develop in Asia since the 20th century is the great changes that took place in the world. In fact the world became more united or, to put it more precisely, more involved because from the beginning of the century countries, their ideologies, philosophies, cultures and traditions became a part of the world politics and international relations. However, the main role in the change in the views on the role of women and their position in the society occurred in the result of a significant economic progress, which occurred initially in Western countries and later was spread in Asian countries. It should be pointed out that even countries, which are economically poor and undeveloped were also affected by the general progress.
At first glance, it seems as though there is no practical reason to link economic progress and the development of feminism in Asian countries, such as China. However, on a profound reflection, it became obvious that economic progress resulted in great socio-political changes that occurred in Asian countries and change the life of societies at large and women in particular. The latter fact is particularly obvious when it is applied to China because this country was a really degrading state at the beginning of the 20th century torn apart by Western countries which divided China in different parts where some of Western countries dominated. Such a situation had a dubious effect.
On the one hand, the presence of Western countries in China as well as in other countries of Asia made Western ideology closer to Asians because it was considered and perceived as more powerful and more progressive since it permitted Western states to dominate in the world. At the same time, it is necessary to point out that in Europe as well as in the US feminist movement was particularly strong at the beginning of the 20th century and later but what is probably more important is the fact that Western culture and ideology placed women into much higher social position than Oriental ones. This is why Asian societies naturally acquired Western lifestyle, philosophy, ideology, moral values and views. However, it does not necessarily mean that they absolutely accepted what Western culture suggested or simply borrowed or copied Western experience in their countries. In fact they simply realised that there are alternatives to their traditional lifestyle and, in relation to women, these alternatives were not bad. Obviously, in a way, the presence and the influence of Western countries, which actually colonised many Asian countries, produced a stimulating impact on the development of feminist movements in Asia and probably changed the views of men on the role and position of women in the society.
On the other hand, the presence of Western states in Asia produced another affected and stimulated the development of extremist movements in Asia aiming at the achievements of real freedom and independence of Asian countries, especially such as China with long historical traditions. As a result, Asian countries won their independence but with independence they also acquired a great experience of struggle for their rights and freedom.
Naturally, this experience affected the whole society and women could not remain distanced form social and political life in their countries and they also started their own struggle for their rights. In such a situation, the past experience of Asian countries in the development of revolutionary movement and ideology produced a positive impact on the development and spread of feminist movements in Asia because women clearly realised that socio-economic and political life is changing, the opportunities of men to realise their abilities and skills grow while the position of women remained unchanged.
Consequently, the most progressive part of female population of Asia could not remain passive anymore and started to struggle for their rights against the domination of men in practically all spheres of life. However, unlike revolutionary movements feminist ones could not achieve any results using violence. In stark contrast, women had to use only peaceful means of protest or a kind of opposition in order to improve their position somehow. At the same time, it should be pointed out that feminist movement in Asia were not so strong as they were in Europe or in the US. This is why they could hardly achieve results similar to those that Western women had achieved in their struggle for equal rights and opportunities.
Nonetheless, Asian feminist movements had got support from men and that was what they were probably expected the least. Such, at first glance paradoxical situation, when men strive for improvement of the position of women that naturally means that they have to refuse from certain privileges, may be easily explain and the historical experience of Asian countries to struggle for their freedom turned to be very helpful because often, in order to achieve independence and freedom Asian countries had to organize revolutionary movement. In this respect, it is extremely important to underline that one of the most popular and widely spread revolutionary ideology in the 20th century was communism which affected many Asian countries as well as other countries worldwide. In relation to feminist movement, it is necessary to point out that one of the basic principles of communism was equality of all people regardless of their gender, religious or political beliefs, educational level, etc. Naturally, in such a situation when a revolutionary movement eventually gained the power it had to realise what it initially proclaimed when it needed wide public support.
In this respect, the experience of China is particularly noteworthy since it was one of the first Asian countries where the communist revolutionary movement and communist ideology won and where the basic principles of this ideology had to be applied facing a significant problems in certain contradictions existing between political ideology and cultural traditions. Not surprisingly that such a split between the ideology of the dominant political power and cultural traditions resulted in the Cultural Revolution that took place in China in the epoch when Mao was ruling this country.
Actually, it should be pointed out that as soon as Mao and the Communist party gained power in China the life of women had changed dramatically. The main reason for such a change was, as it has been mentioned above, the communist ideology, one of the main principles of which Mao defined as follows: “the degree of women emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation” (Wang 1998, p27). As a result, it was an extremely important point for the ruling party in China to provide women with opportunities to become really equal because it also defined the general progress of Chinese society headed by the Communist party. In such a way, the development of feminism and improvement of the position of women in Chinese society became one of the basic goals of the official policy of the Communist party that governed in China.
In such a situation it seems to be quite natural that Mao initiated the changes through rejection of old, conservative traditions that limited the rights of women dramatically. For instance, one of the first steps undertaken by the Communist leader of China was enacting legislation which “outlawed oppressive marital practices deemed ’feudal’ and legalized divorce” (Fan 1997, p.259). Obviously it was a great progress that provided Chinese women with much more opportunities to be free from the will of men. In fact, this legislation implied the rejection of old traditions that were officially recognized as unacceptable and instead a new policy was suggested. To put it more precisely, it was like a kind of governmental appeal to women to take as much freedom as they can bear and at the same time the government provided women with an opportunity to protect their rights, notably women had got an important tool they could use against men’s oppression or even abuse, which actually was not rare in Chinese families, and this tool was divorce. Literally, it implied that in the case of any contradictions women could easily initiated divorce and consequently, men had to take into consideration the position of women at least within their families.
However, these changes in legislation provided freedom with more opportunities and relatively freedom in their relations with men only in terms of family. Naturally, in order to achieve real equality between men and women the government had to continue the struggle for women’s rights in social and economic spheres as well. Logically enough, Mao continued his legislative innovations aiming at the improvement of the position of women by further changes due to which “women were encouraged to participate in wage labour with creches for child care and other sources of support organized to alleviate their domestic responsibilities” (Fan 1997, p.372). This was also extremely important changes that provided Chinese women to gain certain advantages compared to their traditional position in socio-economic relations because these changes made them more socially protected and financially independent. By the way, it worth to note that it influenced not only social sphere of life but also affected domestic life of women as well since they had got another tool to oppose to men and become more independent because it was obvious that the right to divorce, for instance, was quite an efficient tool but obviously it was rather insufficient because often women totally depended on men financially. In such a way, the financial barrier on the progress of feminism and the improvement of women in China was partially eliminated.
Moreover, it is necessary to underline that during the Mao’s epoch women also had got opportunities to lead an active political life that was absolutely unbelievable for conservative China. In fact during this epoch it was possible to see women “in government positions in unprecedented numbers, they worked in factories and fields, they choose their husbands more often than ever before and participated in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1978) as Reed Guards, receiving re-education in the countryside and even acting violently in local outbursts” (Fan 1997, p.395).
Not surprisingly that this epoch acquired the name of the Cultural Revolution because the innovations in legislation which provided women with much more opportunities to become really equal members of Chinese society were extremely important and really revolutionary for Chinese people with traditional views. By the way, it is also noteworthy to mention that education also played an important role in the progress of feminism in China and the general improvement of the position of women in this Asian country. It should be pointed out that traditionally women had little or no access to education that made them really deprived of the possibility to be competitive enough compared to men in labour market for instance, as well as in everyday life because education used to be a privilege of men. The importance of the appearance of opportunities to receive better education for women in China that provided Chinese government in terms of its Cultural Revolution can be hardly underestimated because it created a basis for further acquisitions of women in their struggle for equal rights and opportunities. To put it more precisely, women had got an opportunity to do the same job that only men used to do and naturally they could expect to receive the same level of wages as men did. Consequently, they really became independent that was absolutely contrasting to the past experience of Chinese society where women were practically deprived of all these opportunities and their role was extremely limited, being basically concerned on their homes and families.
However, the changes in Chinese society did not stop with the end of the Cultural Revolution and the epoch of Mao. The changes, being once initiated could not be really stopped. However, the following changes in China affected women differently and it affected the life of women nowadays dramatically.

The current situation: the struggle of women workers and farmers
Speaking about the current situation in Asia at large and in China in particular, it should be pointed out that basically the current position of women in Asian societies is basically the result of great socio-economic changes that took place in Asian countries in the late 20th century. In fact, these changes defined the current position and often provoked the development of feminist movements.
In this respect, it should be said that the socio-economic changes mentioned above, basically concerned the great economic progress made by many Asian countries that affected directly local societies, especially women because in many cases the socio-economic changes resulted in democratisation of traditionally conservative Asian societies and their openness to foreign impact, including ideological, political, cultural and economic one. It should be pointed out that these changes affected directly feminist movements and improved significantly the position of women.
On analysing these changes, it should be pointed out that the progress, even though it could be basically economic but not political or social, still contributed to the changes in the position of women for better. To put it more precisely, it is possible to refer to the experience of the most successful countries where feminism had achieved the most positive results. Among these countries may be named those, which are situated in South-Eastern region of the continent, including Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and others. These countries turned to be extremely successful in their economic development basically due to the implementation of Western experience in their socio-economic life. Naturally, local peculiarities were also taken into consideration, but, nonetheless, the impact of Western economy and ideology was obvious.
As a result, nowadays many countries of the region take an active part in the process of globalisation that has made them to be more integrated in the world community than ever before. Naturally, feminist movements gain probably the most from such a situation because extremely liberal Western views on women and their role in the society affect directly Oriental societies that contributes to the improvement of the position of women in these countries. At the same time, the contemporary economic progress is practically impossible without active participation of possibly larger number of people in socio-economic development. The latter fact makes women part of the population of Asian countries an essential condition of further progress of the whole society.
Consequently, socio-economic progress of South-Eastern countries in Asia resulted in their democratisation and positive changes in relation to women and their struggle for equal rights and opportunities.
However, the economic progress is not always associated with political or democratic changes in Asia. For instance, there are South-Western countries where democracy is weak but due to economic progress, mainly based on the local natural resources, such as oil and gas, these countries have managed to improve their socio-economic position that inevitably leads to their integration in the world community. As a result, the countries of the region are more open to the influence of Western lifestyle, ideology and values though the position of women in many of these states is still extremely deprived while feminist movements remain too weak.
Anyway, probably the most remarkable situation may be observed in China, where political ideology, being actually not very democratic, if democratic at all, still cannot resist to the spread of feminist movements, which actually was initially stimulated and provoked by this non-democratic regime of the Communist party.
Unfortunately for feminist movements in China, the epoch of Mao’s Cultural Revolution may be viewed as a golden age because the progress of feminism in China in that epoch was really unprecedented and the following changes seem to be less significant compared to those, which were extremely radical in the middle of the 20th century. In this respect, it should be pointed out that the improvement of socio-economic positions of women during the epoch of Mao ruling turned to be quite contradictory because on the one hand, it really contributed to the integration of women in socio-economic and political life of Chinese society, on the other hand, it made women as responsible for the general situation in the country as men and consequently, they had to cope with the problems China faced as well as men did.
However, in late 1970s-1980s it turned to be that the positive changes that Chinese women gained became another domain where they were discriminated. In fact, the main problem of that epoch was closely related to the economic reform initiated by the new communist leader of the country, Deng Xiaoping, who “introduced the logic of the market as the new guide for economic policy” (Barlow 1993, p.242). In fact, what he suggested was his ‘Four Modernisations’ concerning agriculture, industry, national defence and science and industry. Obviously, the changes suggested aimed at the improvement of the situation in China and practically meant to make China closer to well-developed countries with open market economies, which were characterised by highly developed democratic principles dominating in their societies, where feminist movements were widely spread and rather influential.
However, for Chinese women and local feminist movements, the changes initiated in 1978 became a new challenge since they engendered a number of new problems they had never faced before though the new advantages they had got cannot be underestimated either. In this respect, it should be pointed out that in short-term perspective, the consequences of the changes started by Deng Xiaoping produced rather negative impact on the development of feminist movements in China and, to a certain extent, deteriorated the position of women in this country. On the other hand, in long-term perspective, it is hardly possible to argue that the changes led to the general improvement of socio-economic and political relations in the country and the position of women in Chinese society in particular.
In short-term perspective, a number of socio-economic problems appeared in China that basically affected economic sphere of life, notably industry and agriculture. For instance, in agriculture the transition from communal farming to the family farming occurred. Unfortunately, such a transformation led to the situation when women “became ghettoised in low paying agricultural work”, moreover, the emphasis on the nuclear family “resurrected past Confucian ideals of the good woman and reintroduced oppressive marriage practices to these rural areas” (Barlow 1993, p.378). Obviously, it is an undeniable fact that such a shift deteriorated the position of women dramatically but on the other hand the past acquisition of Chinese feminism could not be really eliminated since women still had the same privileges and the deterioration of their position was rather a temporal result of the general deterioration of economic situation in the country. In longer-terms, it is obvious that women in China could really improve their position with the help of legislative and economic advantages they have already gained. For instance, they still have an access to education, consequently, they can have an opportunity to play an increasingly more important role in Chinese society and become equal to men within their families. However, it is an undeniable fact that the position of Chinese women in rural areas are really bad and needs to be improved that may be done only on the condition of further spread of feminist movements in this country.
At the time, it is worth to note that the changes affected not only agriculture but industry as well. Unfortunately, the changes also affected negatively the life of women in urban areas though, probably not so dramatically as in rural areas. However, urban women faced another set of problems. In fact, the privileges gained at the epoch of Mao turned to be one of the causes of their problems because in light of the economic reforms the use of female labour turned to be less economically profitable because women need more leave time and they were ‘childbearers’. Naturally, in the situation, when economic problems are rather serious women turn to be the most deprived because they are the less ‘economically efficient’. As a result, “women disproportionately were laid off and new women graduates had a much harder time locating employment than their male counterparts” (Barlow 1993, p.432).
Nonetheless, despite the seemingly deteriorated situation, in long-term perspective the position of women in China could be really improved, naturally on the condition of the further development of feminist movements. However, the possibility of such a development seems to be quite probable because of the official ‘open door policy’ which makes Chinese society more susceptible to the democratic influence, including the influence of feminist ideology.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that Asia still remains a rather problematic region for the spread of feminism because of numerous socio-economic, political and cultural problems preventing women living in this continent from gaining really equal rights and opportunities compared to men. At the same time, it is hardly possible to deny the great progress for many Asian countries made in relation to the improvement of the position of women and spread of feminist movements in these countries. However, it should be pointed out that in many countries, such as China, the role of government is extremely important in this process. As a result, feminist movements are very dependable on the official policy of the state. Nonetheless, the example of some South-Eastern Asian countries show that the economic liberalization accompanied by political democratisation may lead to positive results and improve significantly the position of women.

1. Barlow, Tani, ed. Gender Politics in Modern China: Writing and Feminism. Duke Univ. Press, 1993.
2. Bray, Francesca. Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Univ. of California Press, 1997.
3. Broyelle, Claudie. Women's Liberation in China. Trans. Michele Cohen and Gary Herman. 1977.
4. Cheung, Fanny. Gender and society in Hong Kong: A statistical profile. (Co-authored with R. Westwood and T. Mehrain) HK Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies Research Monograph No. 23. Hong Kong: HKIAPS, 1995.
5. Cheung, Fanny. Engendering Hong Kong society: A gender perspective of women's status. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press. 1997.
6. Cheung, Fanny, ed. Gender studies in Hong Kong, the People's Republic of China and Taiwan. (Co-edited with H.M. Yip and P.L. Kwok. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press (In Chinese), 1995.
7. Chow, Rey. Woman and Chinese Modernity: The Politics of Reading between West and East. 1990.
8. Dooling, Amy D. and Kristina M. Torgeson, ed. Writing Women in Modern China: An Anthology of Literature by Chinese Women from the Early Twentieth-Century. 1997.
9. Fan, Hong. Footbinding, Feminism, and Freedom: The Liberation of Women's Bodies in Modern China. Frank Cass and Co., 1997.
10. Gilmartin, Christina K., Gail Hershatter, Lisa Rofel, and Tyrene White, ed. Engendering China: Women, Culture, and the State. Harvard Univ. Press, 1994.
11. Kazuko, Ono. Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution, 1850-1950. Stanford Univ. Press, 1989.
12. Siu, Bobby. Women of China: Imperialism and Women’s Resistance, 1900-1949. 1982.
13. Thakur, Ravni. Rewriting Gender: Reading Contemporary Chinese Women. 1997.
14. Wang, Zeng. Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories Univ. of California Press, 1999.
15. Wang, Zheng. 1998. “Research on Women in Contemporary China,” in Guide to Women’s Studies in China. Gail Hershatter, Emily Honig, Susan Mann, and Lisa Rofel, eds. Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.

Our services