- Finding Women in the State: A Socialist Feminist Revolution in the People's Republic of China, 1949–1964 by Zheng Wang
I recently attended a lecture by a well-known China watcher who is often cited for her expertise on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policies related to women and gender equality. When an audience member asked whether there were contestations, over antifeminist policies, between the Party leadership and officials in the Women's Federation (Funü lianhehui 妇女联合会, or Fulian), the speaker responded by claiming that the Fulian cannot be considered a feminist organization as it is simply an arm of the Party. While this claim is not entirely false, it is misleading. Moreover, such a position is all too common in the reportage and scholarship on the People's Republic of China (PRC): the CCP is often portrayed as a thoroughly patriarchal, Borg-like monolith, just as masculinist and oppressive to women as any other modern state power, despite its early claims to the contrary. Thus, Zheng Wang's forceful and convincing argument to the contrary makes her new book a crucial intervention in the fields of PRC history and the history of Chinese feminism. As her title suggests, among [End Page 408] Party members and PRC state leaders, Wang finds committed feminist women, who truly endeavored to bring about a socialist feminist revolution.
Finding Women in the State, organized into two parts and eight chapters, considers the work of Chinese Communist feminists through a series of cases. Because Wang's argument requires the close reading and unpacking of extremely rich and detailed source materials, her chapters are quite dense. And her discussion is so wide-ranging that one sometimes senses at least two different books in this one volume. But in the end, all of the pieces coalesce around Wang's answer to an important historiographical question: how do we evaluate the CCP's famous claim to have liberated women, epitomized in Mao Zedong's all-too-oft-quoted pronouncement that "women hold up half the sky"? The research conducted over the past several decades suggests one answer: Chinese women were, and remain, partially liberated—thanks to the whims of a male-dominated and patriarchal Communist Party that nevertheless maintained its rhetoric supporting gender equality and thus sporadically promoted women's rights when doing so did not undermine other Party goals. Wang shows, however, that what appears to be a series of half-hearted and superficial concessions made by a masculinist state are actually evidence of hard-won victories achieved by women working in the Women's Federation and other Party-state units; these feminists were truly committed to the Maoist claim that women's liberation was central to China's socialist revolution.
Wang does not deny that the sites in which state feminists worked, such as the Women's Federation, were inseparable parts of the Communist Party. Indeed, it was enthusiasm for socialism's liberatory promise that led these women to join the revolution. Those feminists who held positions within the PRC state certainly demonstrated their loyalty to the Party. Crucially, however, Wang shows that cadres and leaders who did women's work (funü gongzuo 妇女工作) also saw themselves as quasi-independent actors, dedicated to opposing patriarchy in Chinese society and in the Communist state. And their pursuit of a bona fide feminist agenda caused repeated clashes between state feminists and other Party members, including those in the central leadership. This book traces the histories of those state feminists committed to women's work. It demonstrates that while their battles were all uphill and against strong opposition from many Party men, [End Page 409] state feminists fought hard and sometimes successfully fomented real change for Chinese women. Wang reveals that the effects of state feminism can be seen everywhere during the socialist period, even in high-level Party policy and propaganda.
She also argues, however, that historians must search for feminism in PRC history because it...