Iron Girls, Strong Women, Beautiful Women Writers and Super Girls: A Discourse Analysis of the Gender Performance of Women in Contemporary China

Article excerpt


Using data collected from Shanghai from 2002 to 2005, this paper focuses on the gender performance of young women in today's China and how they understand their 'femininity' in their self-identification. Our analysis examines four popular ways of looking at and talking about Chinese women from the 1960s to the present, as 'iron girls', 'beautiful women writers', 'strong women', or 'super girls', and how the women themselves construct their femininity, with reference to these images, as virtuous in the 1970s, masculinised in the late 1980s, commercialised in the 1990s and androgynous in the twenty-first century.


In the last two decades many scholars, such as Susan Brownell, Angela Zito, Tani Barlow, Charlotte Furth, Emily Honig and Gail Hershatter, Li Xiaoping, William Jankowiak and Lisa Rofel, have attempted to illustrate the primacy of social gender over anatomical sex or sexuality in the construction of gender in China. (2) They have shown how gender is an important analytical tool for understanding women and Chinese society in the late twentieth century.

Honig's and Hershatter's work, for instance, argues that gender issues were subordinated to class struggle during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and modernisation during the 1980s. In both periods, women were told they could succeed by overcoming their own natural limitations. This was seen by American feminists as having a positive effect on Chinese women. (3) However, Li Xiaoping noted that in post-Mao China during the 1980s and 1990s the female body became a site on which party politics, consumer capitalism and patriarchy were played out. (4) Similarly, William Jankowiak has argued that in using women as a central metaphor or symbolic code for assessing the degree of social injustice and inequality, there is a tendency to generalise women, with no attention to social class or sexual orientation. (5) All of these scholars have argued that a broader context analysis is needed to understand women and gender issues in China.

Most Chinese researchers who have used the concept of 'gender' as a category of analysis have argued that the ideology of official gender equality was just a tool of state propaganda. Chinese women, they have shown, actually suffered great discriminations in many aspects of their lives such as in the division of housework and career development. (6) This analysis is useful in re-reading women's lives and social positions in China, a country where women were supposed to have achieved 'equality' with men. However, the problem with the existing literature on Chinese women is that it has failed to demonstrate the aspects of 'gender equality' that have influenced women after the Cultural Revolution in a positive way.

This article focuses on the experiences of young urban women in the rapidly changing China of the twenty-first century--experiences which have not been adequately covered in previous works. We argue that an in-depth understanding of how this new cohort of women live their lives will lead to a more nuanced discussion of images of women and a deeper understanding of their new identities in a changing context.

Using data collected from Shanghai in the period 2002 to 2005, this article examines four popular ways of looking at and talking about Chinese women from the 1960s to the present, namely: 'beautiful women writers', 'strong women', 'iron girls' and 'super girls'. The analysis focuses on gender performance and how young women in China understand their 'femininity' in their self-identification. Our study seeks to answer the following questions: In what ways do these four images or constructions of Chinese femininity affect the lives of women? What kind of 'femininity' do these women want to achieve and how do they go about achieving it? Where did they get the inspiration and the resources from which to construct their femininity?

From January 2003 to May 2004, Pei Yuxin interviewed forty women, aged between twenty-five and thirty-five, living in Shanghai. …


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