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Feminism in Chinese Literature, Culture, Society

“Traditional Woman” and “New Woman” in the early twentieth century

At the turn of the century, the concepts of the “traditional woman” and the “new woman” began to collide in Chinese society, thus prompting a significant change in the manner in which women were depicted in literature. In their short stories, “School Principal” and “The New Year’s Sacrifice,” Lu Lihua and Lu Xun describe the “new women” as more independent and inquisitive than “traditional women.” “New women” dare to explore their opportunities and challenge societal norms, even though they do so in a rather subtle way. “Old women,” in turn, are depicted as being threatened into submission and having no agency of their own.

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In “The New Year’s Sacrifice,” Hsiang Lin’s Wife is kidnapped, which is symbolic of her not being allowed to act of her own volition (Xun 11). The fact that the author does not give her a name and instead calls her Hsiang Lin’s Wife also implies her submissiveness. Lihua, in turn, portrays a character who is willing to push the envelope of societal norms and question them instead of conforming to the prescribed status quo: “I always admired Mulan, who had gone into the army” (Lihua 147).

Therefore, whereas Lihua’s character subverts the centuries-old stereotypes that were thriving in Chinese society at the time, the protagonist in Xun’s short novel instead reinforces them. As a result, the divide between the “old women” and “new women” of Chinese society becomes all the more evident. Despite the fact that both short novels indicate that changes must be made to traditions that deprecate women’s attempts at gaining a voice in Chinese society, it is Lihua’s character that creates a more hopeful image.

He Yin Zhen’s role in Chinese feminist movements

When considering the rise of the feminist movement in China, one might be surprised about the peculiar lack of women’s involvement in this social change. What was supposed to be headed by women by its design might be seen as largely encouraged and promoted by male Chinese poets and artists? However, a closer look at the topic will reveal that women were also active participants, even though the conservative system of the time made their voices barely audible. The work of He Yin sheds a lot of light on the process of women’s liberation and the sources of women’s oppression in China.

He Yin Zhen addressed the problem of women’s subordinate status in China in her “On the Question of Women’s Liberation,” where she stressed that the presence of the ruling class served as the foundation for the continued oppression of women (Zhen 11). The presence of rigid traditions, which the people at the helm of the Chinese government were reinforcing, affected the way in which Chinese women were treated to a considerable extent. As a result, the problem of inequality remained unresolved in Chinese society.

In addition, He Yin sought a way to introduce the concept of women’s liberation to a broader audience. She used her poetry and writing in general as the means of conveying a very condensed yet poignant message to women all over China and convincing them that they had the right to be heard. Yin’s study of unpaid female labor in China showed how despicable gender inequality in China was at the time. Appealing to both reason and emotion, He Yin’s arguments reached their target audience and created the foundation for the further struggle for equality.

How modem writers of later generations revised early feminist ideals

In order to understand the current state of the feminist movement, one will have to view it from a historical perspective. Placing the feminist movement in the cultural context of China requires taking a retrospective view of the works of early Chinese feminists, such as Xiao Hong’s “Hands.” This short novel offers an insight into the patriarchal relationships in early 20th century China, thus allowing readers to draw conclusions about the differences between the current state of feminism in China and the situation that prevailed in the early 1910s.

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In particular, the short novel indicates that there used to be a close connection between the success of the feminist movement and the social status of Chinese women. The rigid norms of patriarchal society were actively supported by representatives of the lower class, thus preventing Chinese women from gaining their voice (Hong 164). Therefore Hong’s approach toward deconstructing the phenomenon of early feminism implies viewing it through the prism of social constraints.

The attempt to view the early feminist movement as a response to social restrictions, as well as to determine the societal issues that stifled the early feminist movement, can be considered a reasonable way of studying the feminist movement in China. The movement was heavily influenced by the traditions to which the lower class was attached. Therefore, it is crucial to study the struggle for independence that occurred within this environment as well as to define the factors that allowed the movement to grow and expand. As a result, an insightful analysis of what defined early feminists’ attempts at restoring gender balance within the context of early 20th century China becomes a possibility.

How gender equality policies practiced during the socialist period, shaped different women’s lives and views

The introduction of socialist principles into Chinese society and the transition to a new set of economic principles entailed an array of social changes in China, with an alteration in gender roles being one of the key changes. These innovations affected the way in which Chinese women were represented in society. It would be wrong to claim that the change toward a socialist perspective implied an immediate establishment of women’s rights.

Quite the contrary: as shown in Zhang Naihua’s “In a World Together Yet Apart: Urban and Rural Women Coming of Age in the Seventies,” the shift toward viewing women as a labor force instead of as the embodiment of maternity did not do Chinese women any favors (Nahua 5). However, the necessity of expanding the Chinese market, and therefore the number of people in the Chinese labor force, compelled the Chinese government to reconsider the set of rights to which women were initially entitled and expand it significantly (Nahua 7). The sense of unity that remained persistent among Chinese women during this time period can be regarded as a catalyst for further change toward more liberal values: “There must have been some kind of luck that brought us and kept us together” (Nahua 11).

These changes that the era of Mao’s reign caused were somehow stifled in Zhang Kangkang’s “The Right to Love,” yet the author also focused on the shift in priorities that could be observed during Mao’s reign. According to Kangkang, the regime reduced the role of women to that of a machine, yet it also contributed to unity among Chinese women (18). These changes in the set of values on whose basis interactions between the genders occurred provided the foundation for a massive change in the future. Women realized that their contribution to changes in society mattered, which served as an extraordinarily empowering tool and an impetus for further social progress.

Specific issues and challenges women in China face today

Although the feminist movement in China has affected the lives of its women to a considerable extent, there is still a plethora of challenges that this demographic must face on a regular basis. Inequalities persist in Chinese society that prevents women from developing independence and feeling like they are valued members of society. These concerns are reflected in Zhang Naihua’s “In a World Together Yet Apart: Urban and Rural Women Coming of Age in the Seventies,” where the author stresses the necessity to bridge the gap between the rural and urban areas of China.

According to Nashua, there is a massive gap and, therefore, a significant lack of understanding between rural and urban members of Chinese society. Offering more extensive educational opportunities for women living in urban areas, as well as building awareness among this demographic, is particularly important for the further promotion of collaboration between urban and rural communities. As a result, positive dynamics will be observed within this environment.

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Similar to Naihua, Xu addresses the issue of modern inequalities yet focuses on the social prejudices that still define the roles of women in Chinese society. For instance, the idea of marriage as the ultimate goal for Chinese women is criticized in the novel. The idea of a woman’s life is viewed as fulfilling only in the case of marriage, and maternity is exposed in its absurdity (Xu 7). Despite the lack of topics common to both novels, they both deconstruct the current concept of femininity in Chinese society and address the factors that prevent the feminist movement from growing.

Ye Mimi’s poems and films

Taking a look back at the works that have been studied during the semester, I must mention that Ye Mimi’s poems are by far my favorite literary works that have been explored so far. The poignant and sharp observations that the poet makes when analyzing the roles of women in Chinese society are truly fascinating and thought-provoking.

Her set of poems titled “A Moth Laid Its Eggs in My Armpit, and Then It Died” (Ye 32) is one of the finest specimens of poetry that addresses contemporary feminist issues in China. The air of wistfulness that the poem encapsulates renders the author’s feelings perfectly, making the reader feel the weight of societal prejudices that Chinese women have been experiencing over the past few centuries.

The problem of the lack of support for women’s endeavor to fight for justice and independence is perhaps the most problematic issue that Ye Mimi addresses in her poems. For instance, in “I Recorded Her,” Ye Mimi stresses the challenge of expressing emotions that have been kept concealed so long that they can hardly be released anymore: “I wanted to ask her more, but somehow the words got stuck” (Ye 34). The silence that reaches the point of being uncomfortable is described in the poem, thus helping to convey the tragedy of the situation and emphasizing the necessity to fight against oppression. Powerful and inspiring, Ye Mimi’s poetry is one of the spiritual pillars that support contemporary Chinese feminism.

Works Cited

Hong, Xiao. “Hands.” The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, edited by Joseph S.M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt, Columbia University Press, 1995, pp. 161-173.

Kangkang, Zhang. The Right to Love. AbeBooks, 1977.

Lihua, Lu. “School Principal.” Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories, edited by Wang Zheng, University of California Press, 1999, pp. 145-186.

Nahua, Zhang. “In a World Together Yet Apart: Urban and Rural Women Coming of Age in the Seventies.” Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era, edited by Xueping Zhong et al., Rutgers University Press, 2001, pp. 3-26.

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Xu, Naijian. “Because I am Thirty and Unmarried.” One Half of the Sky: Stories from Contemporary Women Writers of China, edited by Roberts R. Dod Mead, 1988, pp. 125- 135.

Xun, Lu. “The New Year’s Sacrifice.” Selected Stories of Lu Hsun, Foreign Languages Press, 1972, pp. 1-17.

Ye, Mimi. “I Recorded Her.” A Moth Laid Its Eggs in My Armpit, and Then It Died, edited by Mimi Ye et al. Chinese University Press, 2013, pp. 31-38.

Zhen, He-Yin. On the Question of Women’s Liberation. Tianyi Press, 1907.

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