Feminist Theory and Imperialism: A Class (and Chinese) Perspective

Chinese female scholars have long debated how to understand Western feminism in relation to the Communist Party-led women's liberation movement. In this article, Professor Xueping Zhong examines the radical roots of "funv (women' in Chinese)" and the class implications, opening space for more complex dialogues between Chinese and Western feminisms attentive to imperialism, class, and unfinished gender liberation globally.
March 8, 2024
Xueping Zhong
Professor in the Chinese department at Tufts University

Despite the rather broad-sounding title for my presentation today, the particular perspective I evoke in the subtitle—a class (and Chinese) perspective—is where the point of my intervention will get specific.  More to the point, I will revisit two Chinese terms, “funv” (woman/women) and “nvxing” (female), respectively, and reflect on the extent to which their class implications, and tensions within, constitute a Chinese version of “gender trouble” for (Western liberal) feminist theory.  Indeed, anyone familiar with feminist debates regarding the CCP-led women’s liberation would know that, in Chinese, there has remained an interesting tension between these two terms.  Compared with their English counterparts “woman/women” and “female,” “funv” and “nvxing” in Chinese have more history-related political implications, and the tensions between and debates about them are largely oriented around how to make sense of those implications, especially in relation to the Chinese revolution.  That is, while both terms can be considered as “modern” nomenclature, one can say that their “coinage”—as “event of language,” as some scholars have termed it—has a different kind of, and perhaps larger, political implications than their corresponding English terms.  

In May 1950, the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China issued the first law of New China, the “Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China.” It established the new democratic marriage system, promoting freedom of marriage, monogamy, gender equality, and the protection of women and children’s legitimate interests. The photo shows women collectively studying the marriage law.

Elsewhere I have written about issues related to the tensions between the two terms in relation to the question of class.  Today, I will continue this line of inquiry, but do so by focusing on the relationship between the class nature of the CCP-led revolution and the class implications of the functioning dynamics.  In many ways, either implicitly or explicitly, the two terms have always been part of the “language of class” (to evoke Lin Chun, among other scholars) characteristic of China’s revolutionary, anti-revolutionary, and counter-revolutionary struggles throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century.  And it is in this sense that I argue that this characteristic can be explored in conjunction with the “feminist theory and imperialism” dynamics.

Related to this point is an interesting question: If both these Chinese terms have (albeit different) class implications, why is it often the case that, relative to “nvxing” (female), the term “funv” (woman/women), especially in relation to funv jiefang or women’s liberation, has encountered more feminist discontent than the notion of “nvxing,” whose (petty bourgeois) class implications appear to have concerned many feminist critics much less?  I will address this question by way of three points: (1) the relationship between women’s liberation and China’s national struggles in class terms; (2) a (brief) revisit of the classed revolutionary origin of the term “funv” (as in funv jiefang or women’s liberation); and (3) the rise, or the return, of “nvxing” (female) in class terms against the backdrop of the derevolutionizing cultural turn in the reform-era China.  And considering the conference’s central inquiry here, I will end this discussion by posing some additional questions.

1. The relationship between women’s liberation and China’s national struggles in class terms

Applying the concept of “catachresis” in her seminal book The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism, Professor Tani Barlow explores the ways in which “terms for women and their rules of play” in modern China produced the subject of (modern) women.  As such, her study aims at pointing out the extent to which many different “rules of play” have informed the construction of the subject of “modern” Chinese women that is simultaneously becoming and still becoming.  The concept of “catachresis” in this sense highlights both the dialectics and trajectory of “the becoming” in relation to history.  In the chapter titled “Theorizing ‘Women,’” Professor Barlow focuses on the “historical catachresis” of the word “fu” (woman) and eventually links it to the development of the term “funv” (woman/women) in modern China.  She further notes, in particular, the term’s trajectory in becoming “a state category” after the founding of the PRC in 1949, a point that in essence echoes many feminists’ preferred identification of the CCP-led women’s liberation as “state feminism,” indeed a term that came to be applied by feminist critics and women scholars shortly after the start of China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s.

What often gets elided in this focus on the connection between the (the PRC) “state” and “funv,” interestingly, is the connection between China as a “nation” and “funv,” and the fact that the PRC as nation(-state) is the result of the Chinese national revolutions and struggles that ought to be understood in class terms.  What happens, then, if we (circa Rosa Luxemburg and related debates) pair “funv” with “nation” and highlight the connection between the two premised on the “classed” nature of both?

In June 1950, the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China enacted the “Land Reform Law of the People’s Republic of China.” This led to a nationwide land reform movement in rural areas, granting women the right to own and inherit land. The photo shows women in Pingle Township, Luoyang County, Henan Province, registering and receiving land certificates

Despite the well-known (and debatable) argument that Marx’s notion of class was delivered to the wrong address—the nation/nationalism—an argument that has received much credence among some of the China scholars in the West, if one takes women’s issues and women’s liberation in China into their central vision, this argument can be shown to be narrowly construed and itself male centric.  That is, in relation to China’s revolutionary struggles against imperialist aggressions and colonial domination, and also in relation to the socialist goal of the CCP-led revolution, the term “funv” as in funv jiefang (women’s liberation) is in fact both classed and gendered.  Or better yet, as Lin Chun points out, women’s liberation is part and parcel of both national and social/class liberation; and in this sense the dual natured communist revolution was intrinsically “feminist” as well and not only because of its indispensable female agency and participation.

Let me elaborate a bit further.

In March 1953, the Central People’s Government issued the “Election Law of the National People’s Congress and Local People’s Congresses at All Levels,” which explicitly stated that women have equal rights to vote and be elected. The photo depicts women in Erxian Street, Jinan, Shandong Province, participating in the election for people’s representatives.

In his study titled Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Maurice Meisner opens the book with the first chapter titled “Western Imperialism and the Weakness of Chinese Social Classes.”  Short as it is, the chapter essentially situates the Chinese revolutions within the context of the classed historical relationship between China and Western imperialism and classed social conditions within China itself.  Echoing Marx, Meisner perceives Western imperialism as “the unconscious tool of history” in creating conditions for a social revolution in China.  

At the same time, Meisner points out that “In a semicolonial country where the modern sector of the economy was dominated by the imperialist presence, it is hardly to be expected that the fledgling Chinese bourgeoisie could have been anything more than an extension of foreign capitalism, however much individual members of that class may have nurtured nationalist resentments against foreign domination.”  “The modern Chinese social structure,” Meisner continues, “was thus marked by the feebleness of the modern social classes: a weak bourgeoisie and an even weaker proletariat.  But it was not only the modern classes who were puny; the modern Chinese historical situation was marked by the weakness of all social classes.”  

As a result, according to Meisner, the conditions made it possible for “independent political powers” including China’s modern political parties—the Nationalist Party (KMT/GMD) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), respectively—to operate, not so much in representing social-class interests as in determining the fate of social classes.  

Coming from one of the few historians of China in the West with a Marxist stance, Meisner’s equal-opportunity assessment of the relationship between China’s modern political forces—the two political parties—and social classes, unfortunately, reads rather reductive, especially when it comes to him seeing the CCP mainly as an “independent political power” without its own class identification.  What does not appear to be central to Meisner’s field of vision, that is to say, is the Marxist understanding of class as structure and as formation and the fact that, as a political force, the CCP was more attuned to the classed nature of the relationship between China and the imperialist West within the historical context discussed by Meisner himself.  

In studying the revolutionary and socialist China and its postsocialist, and “counterrevolutionary,” transitions, Lin Chun, a Marxist scholar of political theory, has always been conscious of the need to understand modern China and the world, first and foremost, in class terms.   Her latest study of “revolution and counterrevolution in China” (2021) begins with a theoretical assessment of China and class but in a way that is more expansive than that of Meisner’s.  In the section titled “Class and nation: imperialism, nationalism and uneven development,” her discussion essentially echoes some other Marxist critics in considering China’s social and historical conditions around the turn of the 20th century.  Quoting Marx from Grundrisse, Lin Chun points out that the Marxian sense of the word “compress” “is perhaps better than combine…as it captures both the dynamic process of temporal synchrony and the spatial unevenness of compressed temporalities.”

Within such “compressed temporalities” is the relationship between class and nation in which, she argues, “the ruthless hegemonic agenda of global capitalism is responsible for sinking a civilization of continental scope and unparalleled wealth.”  And “the social and governing crises in a partially colonized China were directly attributable to foreign destruction, of which the astronomical war reparations imposed by unequal treaties was only one example.”  

At the same time, being part of the “weakest link” in the global capitalist expansion, the revolutionary struggles that China took on and their classed nature were conditioned, precisely, by this “agenda of global capitalism.”  Here is a longer quote explaining what she means:

“As the declining Qing state fell prey to the capitalist jungle and nationalist struggles arose, China became, so to speak, a ‘class nation’ in its global position. … Now under siege by rival imperialist forces, the globally recognizable ‘class’ status of China gave its resistance a coherent character. … It was this historical condition that compelled the Party to be defined as an innovative working-class organization in a New Democratic Revolution with a socialist outlook. The exploited and oppressed status of a nation-in-formation buttressed a collective self-consciousness in the form of revolutionary nationalism.”

In other words, a “class nation” being antagonistically relational in essence must therefore be understood within the contexts of both capitalism’s development in its original locale, its globalizing reach and that history, and the various struggles that resist its encroachment and/or endeavors to search for alternatives to transform a society without the dominance of capital and its various forms of articulation.  And it is in this sense, Lin Chun goes on to argue against “a trivialization of the Chinese Communist Revolution,” an approach that is “in common to both liberal revisionist and orthodox Marxist approaches.”  “What is missing,” she argues, “is the whole background of national and social crises that compelled a thoroughly revolutionary response in China.”

This “thoroughly revolutionary response in China” is, to reiterate, none other than the CCP-led revolution with a socialist outlook, a revolution that aimed at the overthrow of an imperialist-supported and existing ruling-class controlled state. Precisely because of the class nature of this struggle and what it led to—the founding of the PRC—that, I might add, would “win” the ire of the imperialist West against the post-1949 China.  

The classed nature of this revolution, now coming back to the topic at hand in relation to the funv-nvxing dynamics, would condition the class nature of the revolution-led women’s liberation and the notion of funv. That is, within the aforementioned “compressed temporalities” are also the funv-nvxing dynamics and dialectics which are closely related to the classed nature of the revolution-led women’s liberation (and its discontent).

2. A (brief) revisit of the classed revolutionary origin of the term “funv” (as in funv jiefang or women’s liberation)

The word “funv” was the chosen term in the resolution on women’s movement issued in 1922 by the then small and incipient Chinese Communist Party at its second central congress.  The resolution specifically noted that the overall revolutionary program would not be complete without the goal of women’s liberation.  It also stipulated that “the Chinese Communist Party considers women’s liberation to be part of the laborers’ liberation (laodong jiefang).  Only when the proletariat succeeds in obtaining political power can women be genuinely liberated.”  

After specifying three tasks for the historical moment at the time—including struggle for women’s suffrage and freedom, protect women workers’ and child workers’ interests, and destroy the constraints of all the old social and Confucian customs, the resolution further stipulated that “these movements (zhexie yundong) are mainly steps towards a complete liberation.  Under the system of private ownership, it is not possible for women to achieve true liberation.”  Thus politicized in class terms, the word “funv” would go on to become a key word in the Chinese revolutionary discourse in and about which debates over its meaning has continued.  (Due to time limit, I will not elaborate on this last point.)  

In March 1952, the All-China Democratic Women’s Federation invited female aviators, female tractor drivers, female tram drivers, and others in Beijing to attend a symposium. The photo shows Deng Yingchao taking a group photo with them.

It is important to note that calls for women’s liberation did not start from the CCP-led revolution.  If anything, layers of diverse views for change—either reformist or revolutionary—were already being expressed and argued by modern Chinese reformist and revolutionary intellectuals, men and women, at the turn of the 20th century.  Whether directly or implicitly, I might add, their attention to and debates about the “woman question” and some of their calls for revolution were enunciated and echoed against the background of China as a class nation struggling for independence and liberation.

Here are two (perhaps familiar) examples.  

He-Yin Zhen, who is recognized by some feminist scholars as the first Chinese feminist, wrote in the early 20th century on topics including “the question of women’s liberation,” “the question of women’s labor,” “economic revolution and women’s revolution,” and the like.  In addition to focusing on how traditional culture controlled and constrained women, He-Yin Zhen astutely recognized the connection between social-economic structure and women, and questioned, for example, the economic and class issues that belied the seemingly modern European women’s “freedom” (a word, it is important to note, that she simultaneously evokes and interrogates).  Leaning towards anarchism, He-Yin Zhen insisted that women must seek their own liberation without relying on men.  At the same time, her arguments assert a strong social dimension in contending the importance for women to break out of traditional gender relations, as a system, in which women depended on men.  Her attention to economic issues and her questioning of what she perceived as class oppression between upper-class women and lower-class women and of what she terms as the “sham freedom” of European women, all mark the fact that, from the get-go, Chinese feminism was birthed out of a social—classed—awareness that in many ways was theoretically uncompromising.  

Echoing He-Yin Zhen’s arguments made in the early 20th century was, among others, Lu Xun’s unrelenting call for the need of a revolution when it comes to the “woman question.”  Indeed, known as “the father of modern Chinese literature,” Lu Xun is also known for his strong support for women’s liberation and for his recognition of the need for a thorough-going revolution in China only which would make a genuine women’s liberation possible.  

In his 1923 lecture, given at Beijing Women’s Normal College, titled “What Happens to Nora After She Leaves,” for example, Lu Xun offered a poignant discussion regarding why this question is more important than celebrating Ibsen’s tale of a middle-class wife deciding to leave home.  “What happens to her afterwards?” Lu Xun asks.  “Ibsen,” he notes in his signature sarcastic tone, “gave no answer, and now he’s dead.  Even if he weren’t dead, it wouldn’t be his responsibility to answer the question.  For Ibsen was writing poetry.”  

For Lu Xun, to ask “what happens after Nora walks out?” is to go beyond seeing it as a matter of petty bourgeois individual choice.  Because for Nora, Lu Xun maintains, despite having awakened, she “really has only two options: to fall into degradation or to return home” (258).  “Human beings,” Lu Xun remarks, “have one major defect: they are apt to get hungry.  To compensate for this defect and avoid acting like puppets, economic rights seem to be the most important factor in present-day society.  First, there must be a fair division of property between men and women in the family, second, there must be an equal division of power between men and women in society at large.  Unfortunately, I have no idea how to obtain these rights, other than that we will have to fight for them, perhaps with more violence than we have to fight for our political rights” (258-259).  Additionally, echoing He-Yin Zhen, even if indirectly, Lu Xun goes on to ask, “Are you no longer a puppet once you have won economic freedom?” His answer is “No, you are still a puppet.  It’s just that you are less subject to others’ control and more in control of other puppets.  In present-day society, it’s not only the case that women are men’s puppets, but men are other men’s puppets, women are other women’s puppets, and some men are even women’s puppets.  This is not something that can be remedied by a few women gaining economic rights” (260).  Thus, connecting women’s liberation with the need to fight the existing economic power structure, Lu Xun sees the need for a real revolution—a “whipping” in his word—even though he admitted that he did not know when and how it would come (262).  

One hundred years since these revolution-evoking views on the “woman question” and decades since the Chinese revolution and its accomplishments in women’s liberation endeavors, the class implications in all these arguments in relation to women’s liberation are still relevant in our times.  

But the term “funv” itself, however, has not aged as well.  This leads to my third point.

3. The rise, or the return, of “nvxing” (female) in class terms against the backdrop of the derevolutionizing cultural turn in the reform-era China

Indeed, coupled with the mistakes and calamities made by the CCP (especially during the Cultural Revolution) that eventually led to the opening up and economic reforms in the late 1970s, the CCP-led women’s liberation, along with the term “funv,” would encounter much feminist criticism.  There was, one can say, a “gender turn” in the reform-era’s assessing of the CCP-led women’s liberation.   But all of this was at the same time accompanied by the retreat of the state from gender-equality education and a simultaneous advancement of, in Danial Vukovich’s words, “liberal revenge” in (implicitly and explicitly) denouncing the revolution in total and, by extension, in questioning one of its most important accomplishments, namely women’s liberation. “Surfacing onto the historical horizon”—to borrow a term from the title of another seminal book by two Chinese women scholars, meanwhile, was the notion of “nvxing” specifically summoned (back) to replace “funv” as a “new” critical lens.   Through this new lens, the notion of “funv” came to be viewed negatively for, among other things, its alleged basing on male standards when promoting equality between men and women, and for its alleged lack of recognition of the “female difference.”

Before the reform and opening-up, the colors of clothing in China were mostly blue, white, and gray. After the reform and opening-up, people’s pursuit of clothing colors shifted towards vibrant and bold hues.

It is in this context that the term “nvxing” or female would (re)emerge along with various criticisms of the shortcomings of the CCP-led women’s liberation.  The criticized shortcomings include women’s double burden, lack of fully acknowledging “female” difference, women being subject mainly the “state interests” and therefore lacking in their own sense of the “self,” and the like.  Western feminist arguments that genuine women’s liberation ought to be from the bottom up would also become a “natural” standard for assessing and judging China’s women’s liberation and the term “funv.”  The introduction of “gender” into China in the 1990s, additionally, would further elide the notion of “funv” as a feminist-enough category due to its (supposed) gender blindness to female difference.  In addition to becoming a political suspect, the not-feminine-enough notion of “funv” would also become an object of public ridicule.  Indeed, a reversed gender discrimination of sort—against supposedly “androgenized” women—would happen in (what I have referred to as) the “post-women’s-liberation” China.  Meanwhile, the term “nvxing”—symbolizing the return of the repressed “femaleness”—would “reclass” women’s issues away from revolution into such domains as “the feminine,” “the personal,” “the body,” the “desiring sexual being,” and men’s binary opposite.  

Here, one might suggest that we have encountered a Chinese version of the “cunning of history” (Nancy Fraser) with the “help” of the global reach of Western liberal feminism’s own version of the “cunning of history.”  On the one hand, in face of the state retreating from explicitly upholding gender equality discourse and policies—in terms of “nan-nv pingdeng” or equality between men and women, the rise of the notion of “gender” had the potential to help better reform the gender-equality policies and social-cultural practices, and to some extent it did.  But, on the other hand, without at the same time upholding the legacies of women’s liberation, what tended towards an ahistorical claim of the female and femininity has mainly helped ready women towards consumerism-informed desire and its logic and, I venture to argue, towards a petty-bourgeois subjectivity biased towards the power of capital as opposed to labor.   That is, in class terms, the decline of “funv” and the rise of “nvxing” was coupled with the rise and coming into dominance of an urban petty bourgeois culture and its own class and gender implications, largely manifested in the postrevolution reform-era’s production of a femininity-assumed, self-desire-enhanced, female-identity-oriented, derevolutionized “modern female” with a degree of gender consciousness premised on the male-female binary opposition.  

The consumer power of urban middle-class women has gradually gained attention and promotion from brands and businesses, who have crafted shopping festivals targeting ‘women’ as the main consumer group. March 8th International Women’s Day was even temporarily rebranded as ‘Goddess Day (nvshen jie).’ However, with recent criticism of consumerism and emphasis on respecting professional women, many young women on social media are calling to restore the proper name of ‘Women’s Day (funv jie).’

At the same time, in this post-women’s liberation context in China, Western feminist theory has also encountered a kind of “gender trouble” of its own when many Chinese women scholars have pushed back by way of their own take on the history and legacies of the Chinese revolution and women’s liberation.  One wonders whether this “gender trouble” in essence reflects a kind of “class trouble” with regard to (Western) feminist theory itself.  In China, at least, the implications of the push back, along with the funv-nvxing matrix (as it were), can be better understood in the context of the last four decades in which the market-oriented reforms have laid bare the consequences of the self-claimed socialist state’s retreat in upholding women’s liberation politics and policies, and of the advancement of the market economy and its capitalist logic.  

Given the time limit, I’ll end the discussion by circling back to title of my presentation and ask whether an insistence on recognizing the classed nature of “funv” as in funv jiefang or women’s liberation in China and the classed nature of the funv-nvxing dynamic related to the Chinese revolution might help generate, or at least renew, questions regarding “feminist theory and imperialism.” So, here are a few additional questions:

1) Is there a gender dimension in imperialist history and how is it related to its class (and racial) dimensions? In what ways has the “divorce” with Marxism hindered (Western) feminist understanding and theorization on this front? 2) How does “feminist theory” in the West understand and address the issue of imperialism without doing so by proxy of anti-imperialist revolutions and struggles in the non-Western world? 3) Is it possible for feminist theory to contribute more to anti-imperialist struggles? If yes, how? If not, why?


Xueping Zhong
Professor in the Chinese department at Tufts University
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