China’s New Feminists16 min read

Bearing the torch from centuries-old activism – Leta Hong Fincher

When I visited Hangzhou in November 2015 –roughly half a year after the Feminist Five were released – two feminist activists in their twenties invited me to tour the city’s most scenic landmark, West Lake, in the middle of a rainstorm. We paid an old man to row us across the lake in a small boat covered with an awning to keep us semi-dry. As the rain fell, Gina (a pseudonym) – who worked at the Weizhiming Women’s Rights Center – and Zhu Xixi, a feminist PhD student at Zhejiang University, told me how state security agents had summoned them for questioning several times since the detention of the Feminist Five. Gina’s landlord had just threatened to evict her after coming under pressure from the police, while Zhu Xixi was warned that she might be expelled from her university.

After talking and rowing for a while, Gina and Zhu pointed to one of the fog-shrouded, gray stone bridges curving over the lake and said that the tomb of China’s most famous feminist revolutionary, Qiu Jin, was near there. A native of Zhejiang Province, Qiu Jin was beheaded in 1907 in the city of Shaoxing, about thirty-seven miles from Hangzhou, for plotting to overthrow the Qing empire.

Zhu explained that she and her feminist sisters used to sing Qiu Jin’s protest song, “Demand Women’s Rights.” “But the words were too archaic and hard to remember,” said Zhu. When the film Les Miserables came out, a team of feminists adapted one of the songs, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and rewrote the lyrics into “A Song for All Women,” which is much easier to memorize. “Will you join me / In the long fight for our rights?” goes the new song. It has become the feminist movement’s anthem of solidarity.

“Hey, let’s take a picture here!” Zhu suggested, so I took out my phone and we snapped some photos from our boat as Gina and Zhu smiled, holding up two fingers to flash the V-for-victory sign. That moment with young feminist activists in a rainstorm on Hangzhou’s West Lake, near Qiu Jin’s tomb, seemed pregnant with history.

Qiu Jin, the feminist revolutionary who tried to bring down the Qing dynasty

One hundred and ten years earlier, at the tumultuous turn of the twentieth century, the cross-dressing feminist icon, Qiu Jin, was writing songs, lyrical poems, and essays aimed at emancipating Chinese women and urging them to join the Nationalist (Guomindang) revolution. In 1905, she joined the revolutionary league of the future president of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan). She also began writing one of her most important – yet unfinished – works, Stones of the Jingwei Bird, a song combined with traditional oral narrative in a form known as the tanci, which alternated between prose and sung poetry.

Qiu Jin left her husband and two children behind in China to study and give political speeches to Chinese students in Tokyo, where she wrote much of Stones of the Jingwei Bird. As one version of the Chinese legend of Jingwei has it, the youngest daughter of Fiery Emperor Yandi was named Nüwa, meaning “Little Girl.” Nüwa longed to see the sun rise over the ocean, so she rowed in a boat out to the East Sea at dawn. As she was rowing, the cruel East Sea whipped up a heavy storm that capsized her boat and drowned her.

At the moment of her death, Nüwa transformed into a magnificent bird with a white beak and large red claws, screaming out “jingwei, jingwei!” in anger and pain. Jingwei, the soul of Nüwa named after the sound of her anguished screams, sought revenge by picking up stones in her claws from the mountain where she used to live, flying back and dropping them into the sea each day to fill it up. The East Sea mocked Jingwei and told her to abandon her pitiful effort. “You silly little bird, how could you ever dream of filling me up with those stupid stones?” But she vowed never to give up. Jingwei would persist every day for thousands of years – no matter how long it took – until she succeeded in filling the sea.

“Chinese women will throw off their shackles and stand up with passion; they will all become heroines,” Qiu Jin wrote

Qiu Jin used the myth of Jingwei as a metaphor for the struggle of Chinese women fighting for their freedom and their country. “With all my heart, I beseech and beg my [two hundred] million female compatriots to assume their responsibility as citizens. Arise! Arise! Chinese women, arise!” she wrote. “Chinese women will throw off their shackles and stand up with passion; they will all become heroines. They will ascend the stage of the new world, where the heavens have mandated that they reconsolidate the nation.”

Qiu Jin herself was beheaded at the age of thirty-one, before she could finish writing Stones of the Jingwei Bird. Her life and work have interesting parallels with the resistance of young feminists in China today, who are so often ridiculed as inconsequential “little girls.” The legend of Jingwei gave rise to the Chinese aphorism jingwei tian hai, “Jingwei fills the sea,” meaning perseverance in carrying out an enormous task against seemingly impossible odds.

Qiu Jin and other progressive intellectuals, such as Sun Yat-sen, Liang Qichao, and He-Yin Zhen (also known as He Zhen), formed part of a revolutionary movement at the turn of the twentieth century, much of which was organized in exile from Japan, Hong Kong, and the United States. Some of China’s intellectual cross-fertilization and social- movement organizing today happens outside the country (during study abroad or visiting fellowships at universities), just as it did more than a century ago. It even happens in some of the same places, such as the United States and Hong Kong, though progressive Taiwan is the destination of choice for today’s Chinese feminists rather than Japan. The most committed feminist activists today frequently share ideas with activists in other fields, such as rights lawyers, labor rights activists, and of course, LGBTQ rights activists.

When I first met with Hangzhou feminists in 2015, Wu Rongrong of the Feminist Five was still recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by her mistreatment in detention. Gina, her young assistant, had spent almost two months traveling more than 1,200 miles by bus, fleeing the security agents deployed in a multiprovince crackdown on feminist activists. Over many hours during that rain-soaked afternoon, she recounted her ordeal as a fugitive.

On March 6, 2015, Gina was eating lunch at the Weizhiming Women’s Rights Center with half a dozen colleagues and volunteers when she received a call from the Hangzhou Public Security Bureau saying they wanted to meet with her.

“I don’t believe you. How do I know who you are? We get a lot of crank calls,” Gina replied.

“We know your boss, Wu Rongrong.”

“Then call Wu Rongrong directly. Please don’t call our office,” said Gina.

Gina had begun working for the women’s center less than a year earlier, when she graduated from university in Henan Province in the summer of 2014. Only twenty-four years old, Gina had never been questioned by the police before and did not know what to do. She felt like getting some fresh air to collect her thoughts, so she went downstairs.

Gina noticed the building guard talking in the foyer with several men who mentioned her office number, and she realized they must be state security agents. She called up to her office and told everyone there to leave right away. Then she called the Public Security Bureau, offering to meet them at a public mall close to the police station.

Two men and a woman from Hangzhou state security waited for her at the meeting place and said they needed to have a “proper chat” at the police station. Gina suggested talking at a fast-food restaurant, in public, but they said it was not a suitable place. “The police station is here to protect the people’s safety,” said one of the agents.

This worried Gina and made her even more determined not to go to the station. She kept on walking and proposing different public places to chat, until the agents relented and booked a private room at a restaurant. By the time they arrived, the private room had six or seven agents – all but one of them men – already seated around a table. The new agents did not identify themselves, but Gina could tell by their accents that they must have flown down from Beijing.

“Who organized this anti-sexual harassment activity? The timing is very bad. Don’t you know the National People’s Congress [China’s parliament] is meeting?”

Gina said she did not know who had organized the campaign and that she had just seen it on the internet. She brought along samples of the anti–sexual harassment stickers they were planning to hand out and tried to explain the problem of gender inequality in China, but none of the agents wanted to listen. “Cancel your activity now.”

“The security agents waited for her at the meeting place and said they needed to have a ‘proper chat’ at the police station”

After several hours of questioning, the agents let her go. By this time, it was late at night and Gina had heard that some of her feminist sisters, including Li Maizi and Zheng Churan, had been arrested in different cities, so she began packing up the stickers at the women’s center. Then she climbed into her bunk bed in the adjacent room of the two-room office (which doubled as her residence) and slept fitfully.

Early the next morning, March 7, Gina took the box of stickers over to Zhu Xixi’s dorm room at Zhejiang University. Wu Rongrong arrived at the Hangzhou airport at around two in the afternoon and texted that she was back. Gina called Wu repeatedly but her phone did not pick up. She deduced that Wu must have been detained by state security.

Gina called the Hangzhou security agent who usually monitored Wu Rongrong (Gina had saved his phone number), and he confirmed that state security agents from Beijing had come to Hangzhou to arrest Wu. Gina waited at Zhu Xixi’s dorm room and fretted with several other feminists about what they should do now, when the agent called again: “We must meet with you immediately.” Gina called the women’s center and told everyone to leave and shut down their cellphones. Then Zhu Xixi also received a call from a Hangzhou security agent demanding to meet with her on campus.

“You need to go into hiding too,” Gina told Zhu. They all left the dormitory, had dinner one last time together, then scattered.

Gina and one friend stuck together. They decided they could not leave Hangzhou by train because they would have to show their identity cards to buy tickets, making it easy for security agents to track them down. Instead, they spent that night at the home of a stranger, arranged by their feminist “rescue team.” Early the next morning, they boarded a public bus bound for a distant suburb.

They could not stay at any hotels because they would be required to register their identity cards, so they arrived at the next town late at night and slept at a twenty-four-hour McDonald’s, then got on another bus the next morning. If they headed through several provinces, they believed that it would be much more difficult for security agents to track them down.

First they headed west through Jiangxi Province to the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, central China, about 450 miles from Hangzhou. They stayed with a friend of a friend in Wuhan for about a week, then traveled 540 miles north by bus (staying at KFC or McDonald’s at night) to Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province, where a “training of trainers” course had been planned long in advance.

Gina had arranged to meet with another feminist attending the training session in Jinan, since she had thought that they would be safe so far from Hangzhou. But when she and her friend headed toward the meeting place, Gina was stunned to see police and plainclothes agents obviously patrolling and filming the area. Gina and her friend scrambled to turn back before anyone noticed them. Once they were out of view, Gina texted the third woman to warn her about the security patrols. “Don’t go back to the hotel! The police are there, let’s meet somewhere else,” Gina texted.

One of their supporters found a room for them at an obscure hostel in Jinan where they would not have to show any identification. That night the three women stayed together. The next morning, the third activist fled separately, while Gina and her travel companion boarded the first bus out of Jinan. This time they headed far south, to Jiangxi Province almost 800 miles away, where a feminist colleague had set up a safe house for them for several weeks.

“They couldn’t stay at any hotels because they would have to register their identity cards, so they slept at a twenty-four-hour McDonald’s”

Gina had cut herself off from her social media networks and felt extremely anxious not knowing what was happening or what lay in her own future. After a while, she used an internet phone service to call her parents in the mountains of rural Henan. Gina had barely told her parents anything about her feminist activism and dreaded their questions. When she was growing up, Gina’s parents had let her younger brother run around the mountains by himself because he was a boy, but they would not let her do the same and made her do housework instead.

“You’re a girl, you can’t just do what the boys do,” her mother had said when Gina complained. Gina’s father also beat her mother when he was angry, and her mother silently accepted the violence. From her childhood on, Gina could not tolerate these stifling traditions, and she told me that she felt she had become a true feminist long before she even heard the term. Gina studied very hard and, in the end, she was the one who went on to get a university degree while her brother never finished junior high school.

To her relief, Gina’s mother answered the phone. “Ma, there’s been a problem with my company, Weizhiming,” she said.

Her mother was worried and wanted to know if she could help. “There’s nothing you can do, Ma, try not to worry too much,” she said. Gina told her mother not to say anything to the security agents if they came by, and to tell her friend – a designated intermediary – if the agents did anything to them.

The next time she called to check on her parents while in hiding, her father answered. “You come home this instant!” he yelled at her. “No, I can’t,” she replied, but her father would not stop yelling, so she hung up.

Gina returned to Hangzhou after the Feminist Five were released from detention. With Wu Rongrong still recuperating, Gina felt a heavy responsibility to take charge of feminist organizing in Hangzhou. Wu and her partners had decided to announce the closure of the Weizhiming Women’s Center because of a new law restricting foreign-funded NGOs, requiring them to find government sponsors and register with the police. Informally, however, their group was hearing from more young women than ever before, all expressing keen interest. “The detention of the Feminist Five was awful, but on the other hand, so many more people started paying attention to our cause and volunteering,” said Gina.

Virtually all of the student volunteers for feminist activities in the past had been undergraduate or graduate students, but for the first time, Gina started getting messages from high-school students wanting to help organize campaigns. In response to the surge of new interest, Gina – a little too hastily – organized a public discussion on gender inequality and advertised it on WeChat. But the police, who closely monitored her communications, told her to cancel the event.

“I had thought that the political environment would improve, but now I feel so hopeless,” said Gina, becoming agitated as she talked to me during our long taxi ride through Hangzhou’s rainy streets, returning from our visit to West Lake. “Lately with the feminist movement, I just can’t see the way forward. So much of what we do doesn’t get any media attention, so nobody knows about it. Then I start asking myself, is it worth it to do something so risky when no one will ever report it?”

It began to pour outside and the rain beat down noisily on the roof of our car. The driver turned up the speed of his windshield wipers, sweeping rhythmic torrents of water back and forth. Gina paused to look out at the rain, then started sobbing. This determined young woman was clearly traumatized by her run-ins with state security, yet she remained deeply committed to building a feminist movement that could endure.

I asked what those outside China could do to help.

Qiu Jin’s grave in Hangzhou. Her cause lives on.

She said she didn’t know. “When I was in hiding, I cried myself to sleep almost every night. I heard about a woman who was taken into a detention center for some little thing and no one was allowed to visit her, and then all of a sudden she died there. Sometimes you wonder, what does it take to behave like a real human being in this terrible environment, when you’re not even treated like a human being yourself?”

As our taxi approached its destination – another meeting with feminist activists – Gina quickly wiped away her tears.

“We must keep training new recruits so that if we get taken away, there will always be more people behind us to take our place,” she said. ∎

This is an edited excerpt from Leta Hong Fincher, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (Verso, September 2018). All images are from Wikimedia Commons.