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  • Varieties of Feminisms in Contemporary China:Local Reception and Reinvention of Liberal Feminism in Ford Foundation Projects
  • R. Yang (bio)

This article explores how liberal feminism has been received and hybridized with local feminisms in post-socialist China. Based on interviews and documents from four Ford Foundation projects, the results show how local actors appropriated elements from three strands of feminism: liberal, socialist, and cultural. Conflicts among these strands were reconciled by de-emphasizing the structural origins of gender inequality and putting impetus for change on individual women. The human rights-based understandings of gender equality are thereby converted into women's obligation to improve their "quality" and exercise their legal rights, which ignores intersectional disadvantages confronting rural women.


There are varieties of Western feminist thoughts, which differ in how they understand the sources and expressions of gender inequality, the politics of addressing them, and differences among women (Lorber 2012). Some of these thoughts have informed the development of Chinese feminism at varying historical periods (Barlow 2004). The indigenous Chinese women's movement gained momentum when the rights-based liberal feminist ideas were transmitted through global institutions, reaching a peak when the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. But global ideas get amplified, transformed, or muted under different local circumstances (Tsutsui 2017). The diffusion of liberal ideas to China—an authoritarian state with histories of "state patriarchy championing women's emancipation" (Wang 2005, 519)—invites questions regarding how new feminist logics change local actors' understanding of gender inequality and how they coexist with preexisting ideology and gender politics. [End Page 510]

Using case studies of Ford Foundation–sponsored projects that aimed to promote rural women's political participation in the early 2000s, this article addresses the question of how liberal feminism has intermingled with existent local feminisms in post-socialist China. The projects involved the Ford Foundation, local governments, the official Women's Federation, and women's non-governmental organization (WNGO). The projects provide an opportunity for analyzing the coexistence of various feminisms. The data come from interviews with ten participants and analysis of forty-eight documents from four Ford Foundation projects. I identify three feminist sources that are operationalized on the ground—socialist feminism, human rights-based liberal feminism, and cultural feminism. Socialist feminism references legacies of feminism endorsed during the socialist era and the state-sponsored "Marxist theory on women," which dismisses systematic gender inequality in contemporary China. Liberal feminism here refers specifically to an individual-centered and human rights-based feminist logic that was partially adopted by local actors. Cultural feminism describes a version that celebrates femininity in order to advocate and legitimize women's political participation. I argue that in implementing the Ford Foundation–sponsored projects, local actors consciously adopted elements from these three feminist logics for pragmatic reasons, yet in so doing tended to de-emphasize the structural origins of gender inequality and put impetus for challenging gender inequality on individual women.

To provide context for understanding the case projects, I begin by discussing the changing status of women in recent Chinese history and elaborating the theme of hybridized feminism in post-socialist China. I then introduce the four projects and describe my data collection. Finally, I discuss the implications for understanding contemporary development and challenges of feminism in China.

Women and Feminist Voices During China's Political and Cultural Transformation

The conceptualization of women as an independent entity came in tandem with China's pursuit of modernity more than a century ago. Before then, the Confucian signifier of woman—funü, which means wife and daughter—limited women to kinship roles (Barlow 1994). The new subject position of women was soon incorporated into the nationalist project, where Confucian funü's obligations toward the family were redirected toward the nation-state (Barlow 1994; Duara 1998). The early twentieth-century intellectuals tied together the narratives of "modernization of Chinese women" and the salvation of the nation under foreign imperial threat (Edwards 2000; Glosser 2003). To save the nation, the "backward" women need to be modernized.

This narrative was inherited when Communist China was founded in 1949. The Mao regime (1949–1976) built its legitimacy partly on the liberation of [End Page...


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