For Li Maizi, one of the five women's rights activists who became international figures after their arrest early last year for their social advocacy, feminism is not a question of choice but a natural activity.
“I can’t give up. It’s more like a part of my body, it’s in my heart, in my mind. It’s a lifestyle for me, to be a radical feminist lesbian. The most important thing is that what I do is right,” she says.
"Feminism is not a crime," Li said in a video testimony to the Asia Society in New York this year.
China's feminists are tough, committed and unafraid to be detained for their rights, but their movement is lumped in with other areas of activism that are seen as a threat to the Communist Party, and the women are worried about their families and their partners, their futures. They are keeping a low profile.
There are more female billionaires in China than in any other country, and relatively high levels of female participation in the workforce at about 70 per cent, which is higher than in Ireland.
But women are underrepresented in politics and there are some deeply ingrained sexist values in Chinese society, many based on traditional Confucian values and exacerbated by economic inequality as the wealth gap expands.
Among the actions carried out by Li Maizi and her activist colleagues before their arrest was the occupation of men’s toilets to call for more women’s bathrooms; wearing blood-spattered wedding gowns to protest against domestic violence; and shaving their heads to highlight inequality of access to education.
‘Men only’ ads
Initially the feminists were successful. The demonstrations led some city governments to suggest that new buildings should have a higher ratio of toilets for women. They also successfully highlighted discrimination against women in “men only” job ads, and their campaigning helped lead to the introduction of domestic violence legislation.
Then in March last year, police detained five of the movement’s “ringleaders” as they were about to take a campaign against sexual harassment on to public transport. They were held for 37 days.
Li has spoken of her fear during her detention, of how the interrogators would mock and threaten her. “They insulted my gender identity, they insulted my gender expression and my sexual orientation . . . I worried about my parents.”
Another one of the five, Wu Rongrong, has said fate and chance made her a social worker and a feminist.
“As a child, I grew up in an extremely patriarchal environment where girls were regarded as worthless. Too many times, I witnessed promising young girls from our village forced to abandon their studies and go to work to support their brothers’ education,” she told the China Change website.
A key moment for her came with a famous case in 2009, when a young woman, Deng Yujiao, who worked in a massage parlour, stabbed to death a government official who had been sexually harassing her. After public protests offering her support, prosecutors dropped a murder charge and replaced it with one of intentional assault. Wu and a classmate put on a performance art piece called Deng Yujiao could be Any One of Us. Her interrogators asked her repeatedly about this work when she was in detention.
“I’m not some mastermind conspirator working behind the scenes to disturb the social order. I just want to call attention to the plight of women facing sexual harassment, and call for more public measures to punish and deter perpetrators,” Wu said.
It’s not just radical activists becoming more aware of the need for a different approach. Sun Lin works in public relations, which is generally more enlightened than other sectors, but she does not believe Chinese women have the same opportunities as men in their jobs.
“Chinese women are of course fighting for equal rights, equal wages and the same rights as men but there is a price to pay. The fixed label our society has put on women is ‘minority’ and ‘weak’,” says Sun.
Often during job interviews with women, employers will consider things like maternity leave or wedding leave, and what that will do to costs.
“It’s true that in the public relations industry there are more women than men, but it is also true that men have a better chance at getting promoted. They are more comfortable in dealing with issues outside of work, like drinking. . . Most of the company leaders I know are men,” says Sun.
Veteran women's rights activist Feng Yuan sees this rising awareness. "It seems to be fashionable for some young people to identify as a feminist, although it's still a negative label for overall society, and may get some attention from some authorities as feminism tends to be treated as a politically sensitive thing by the authorities," she says.
Tricia Kehoe, a China scholar from Wexford at Nottingham University, says the feminist movement remains a largely urban phenomenon, mainly confined to Shanghai, Beijing and the bigger eastern cities.
“A lot of my friends [in China] would definitely advocate for gender equality, particularly women would feel that strongly, but identifying as a feminist is really something quite different,” said Kehoe.
This may come down to common misunderstandings about what feminism is, something that happens all over, not just in China. “Campaigns, social media, blogs, essays being pumped out by self-identified feminists, they are starting conversations and generating a great deal of awareness,” says Kehoe.
Change will have to include men to be real and sustainable, and as New York University Shanghai lecturer Xuan Li points out, it's always to difficult for those who are enjoying the benefit of the existing hierarchy to realise the privilege they are enjoying.
“There is a lot more awareness from better-educated working women that could push this thing forward. One thing is to also bring the men on board,” she says. “It’s definitely better than many years ago, that people start to accept words like ‘feminism’. It’s still a little bit stigmatised, although not so much nowadays.”
“Another way that things could change is to work on gender education at home and in schools. Probably my generation and the older generation are more or less lost, but it’s not too late to start for boys and girls,” says Li.
Clearly China has a way to go until Mao’s dictum that “women hold up half the sky” starts to ring true.
The writer Perry Link, in Anatomy of Chinese, said the phrase has generally been mistranslated, and that it should read, "women can hold up half the sky", rather than they do actually hold it up.
"It does not take a feminist to recognise that Chinese peasant women, in their many kinds of hard work, had already been holding up half or more of the sky for several centuries before Mao made this comment," Link writes.
“In asserting only that an equal contribution from women is possible, not actual, Mao was hardly the feminist that many in the West took him to be.”