Eight noteworthy stories from a tumultuous year for gender-based news and developments in China
From controversial videos and tragic stories to groundbreaking victories and legal strides, 2023 has been another tumultuous year for feminism in China. TWOC has compiled a list of this year’s most significant gender-based developments that sparked heated debate, ignited movements, and shaped the narrative of feminism in the country.
Zhang Guimei, the founder of China’s first free public school for girls in a remote county of Southwest China’s Yunnan province, was elected as the Vice Chairperson of the government-affiliated All-China Women’s Federation in October.
Born in 1957 in Heilongjiang province, Zhang moved to Yunnan with her family at the age of 17 and started her teaching career in 1990. For over 30 years, Zhang led a frugal life, saving every penny for her students. She donated over 400,000 yuan to the cause over the years and successfully sent over 2,000 girls to college.
However, a recent movie based on the life of the esteemed educator has sparked controversy. Many criticized Beyond the Clouds for its underdeveloped female characters and for a lack of respect for Zhang’s career.
In the film, significant changes were made to Zhang’s life, such as changing a student’s alcoholic father to her mother with the same vice. Additionally, Zhang’s motivation to run the school was solely attributed to the dying wish of her late husband.
When 24-year-old Zheng Linghua posted photos online of herself with her grandfather, she could never have predicted the waves of cyberbullying and harassment she would endure after. Zheng had achieved admittance to East China Normal University, a prestigious university in China known for its teachers’ training and education programs, but internet trolls relentlessly attacked her by misogynistic comments targeting her shiny pink hair, with many associating the color with prostitution and questioning her suitability as a future teacher. Some even went further, insinuating a dubious relationship between Zheng and her grandfather and suggesting the elderly man in the photo was her sugar daddy.
Despite trying to take legal action against the online bullies, collecting evidence, and demanding public apologies from them, the traumatic event left Zheng grappling with severe depression. She took her own life on February 19. Her death sparked wide discussion online, with people calling for more stringent regulations on cyberbullying. Her pink hair became a symbol of women’s right to express themselves freely, with many dying their hair the same color in solidarity.
Worst public service attempt
Following widespread discussions in 2022 about the sale of sanitary pads on high-speed trains, China’s state-owned railway operator once again sparked controversy. This time, they attracted scorn for their portrayal of women in a promotional video discouraging inappropriate behavior on trains.
Titled “A Beauty Blogger’s Beautiful Journey,” the short video shows a woman applying makeup next to a male passenger, before spilling sunscreen and setting powder on the man. The video ends with the caption, “If you’re considerate toward others, you will be more beautiful.” The clip quickly went viral after being posted on Douyin (China’s version of TikTok) by China Railway’s official account in July. Many netizens were baffled as to why doing makeup was considered inappropriate while screaming children and people taking their shoes off weren’t. Others pointed out the ludicrously exaggerated way the woman in the video applied her makeup.
China Railway eventually took down the video and apologized, stating “The purpose and intention behind our filming in no way involves insulting or disrespecting women.” Staff from the company also specified that there is currently no rule or regulation against people doing their makeup on the train, as long as it doesn’t disturb others.
Decades of family planning policies have made it extremely difficult for single mothers to register their children’s birth. Without this, it is almost impossible for their children to obtain a hukou (household registration), an essential document for a child’s education and access to social services.
However, rules have started to ease in recent years as part of the country’s effort to arrest a falling birth rate. Sichuan province lifted restrictions on birth registration on February 25, 2023. In July, a similar policy in Yunnan stipulated that children born out of wedlock could also gain household registration. While some worry that the shift in regulation might threaten the sanctity of marriage, many argue that the move protects the rights of single mothers, who already face significant societal and economic pressures.
When Lisa, a member of the renowned K-Pop group Blackpink, announced her performance at Crazy Horse Paris, a French cabaret venue known for its female nude dancers, in September, it stirred up huge controversy in China. While some fans supported Lisa’s decision to make her own decisions, many worried she might be setting the wrong example for her millions of teenage fans by participating in a strip show. Some argued that such shows are products of the male gaze and her participation marks a step back from the feminist movement and women’s liberation.
Lisa served as a mentor for two seasons on the popular Chinese reality show “Youth With You,” and she had amassed over 8 million followers on the Twitter-like platform Weibo before her account was disabled in early November, following the Crazy Horse controversy. The blowback didn’t end with Lisa: Zhang Jiani and Angela Yeung Wing, two Chinese celebrities photographed attending Lisa’s Paris show, have not appeared in public for months since and their social media accounts have been suspended.
When Taiwanese actor Chen Chien-chou was accused of sexually harassing a colleague this July, he wasn’t the one who was condemned across social media platforms the following week—rather, it was his wife, singer Fan Wei-chi, also known as Christine Fan. While Chen stood accused of sexual harassment, netizens saw Fan’s defense of her husband as a sign of complicity and started digging up dirt on her instead.
In China’s entertainment industry, examples of women publicly supporting their male partners in misconduct are numerous enough to have their own name: “wife PR (妻子公关).” The strategy redirects the public’s attention, and often their ire, onto the female partner, while the male celebrity’s original misconduct is downplayed or forgotten.
Gender and feminism advocates are divided on the question of how much agency women have when they choose to support their husbands in scandals, and whether they should shoulder a part of the blame for the harm their partners may have caused the victims. While some believe that by supporting their husbands, the celebrity wives set a bad example for other women, others point out that the wives also have their interests to protect. Alexwood, founder of a podcast on gender issues called Be a Dodo, told TWOC she hopes that the public will be more understanding towards these women, instead of judging or disparaging their character.
The Hupu goddess contest, China’s most infamous online beauty pageant, crowned an unconventional winner this September. For the first time in the competition’s eight-year history, users of Hupu, a male-dominant sports forum, voted for someone who isn’t a mainstream celebrity. The winner, Zhan Ying, is a 28-year-old professional Go player and one of the most popular livestreamers on the video streaming platform Bilibili.
Hupu has long been criticized for its misogynistic content and the Goddess contest is considered the epitome of the prevalent “male gaze” of the platform. Some perceived Zhan’s win as a positive change, signaling a departure from the platform’s emphasis on women’s appearances. Others, though, feel that the shift is only skin deep. Nainai, a feminist blogger on the social media platform Xiaohongshu, told TWOC that Zhan’s win remains mostly down to classic male preferences: “She is smart but still has that non-aggressive girl-next-door vibe that guys look for in a partner,” she said.
Big wins in sports
China’s female basketball team took home the Asian Cup title for the first time in 12 years, defeating defending champions Japan in the final on July 2. The team’s star trio—center Han Xu, forward Li Meng, and guard Yang Liwei—temporarily put their WNBA careers in the US on hold to participate in the tournament. Despite Yang’s injury, Han and Li played pivotal roles in leading the team to a 73-71 victory in a heated final game.
China’s women’s volleyball team, on the other hand, secured the silver medal in the FIVB Volleyball Women’s Nations League this July. Despite losing to the Türkiye national team in the final, this achievement still marks China’s best result in the tournament to date.