Everett Tucker of Mystic Politics examines the nuanced differences between eastern and western feminism, and Madame Mao’s unlikely association as a Maoist Feminist.
Feminism in post-Feudal China
Becoming Madame Mao, Anchee Min’s pseudo-historical account of Madame Mao Jiang Ching, the b-actress who became the communist lady-empress of China, is not a great foundation for an account of Chinese feminism, or even of a Maoist Feminist.
Madame Mao was an upwardly mobile opportunist, not a feminist. But through her defiant and aggressive clawing to the top of the socio-economic ladder she exemplifies the struggles of being female-bodied in post-feudal china. In a world of presupposed feminine submissiveness, arranged marriages, and a role to be limited to the domestic sphere, maybe being a vengeful ‘white boned demon’ is what it took for her to get the power usually relegated to men.
The narrative in Anchee Min’s becoming Madame Mao reveals a woman wanting attention from her husband, and not one actively fighting for women’s rights. We find in Madame Mao a polemic against the insecure predispositions of women rather than the evils of patriarchy, indeed it seems patriarchy is fine as long as her husband is the patriarch.
Jiang Ching went by a multiplicity of names, starting with her given name of Yunhe. She was born to a concubine just after the end of the Chi’ing dynasty which was in power since 1644, the epitome of feudal patriarchy.
During her first few years China was in the throes of reformation, and while she toddled and dribbled she unknowingly observed: the beginning of the first World War and Japan seizing holdings of the Shandong province in 1914; Beijing capitulating to Japan and China bowing to Germany and Britain in 1915; and in 1917 while nibbling the Chinese equivalent of dry cheerios she oversees China’s declaration of war on Germany.
She was born in a rural town to a low-dollar foot-warmer and concubine who saw the ritualistic binding of her child’s feet as a way out of the lower castes of the socio-economic totem pole. In her first act of defiance, at four years old she rips off her bindings, which if successful would have en-trained her feet in the traditional way to appear like “triangle-shaped rice cakes with toenails curled under the sole” (Min 6).
With such institutionalized brutality of women it isn’t hard to see why western feminism caught on in china a way it did in no other non-western culture. Subsequently she wrote off her mother, who seems to be an archetype for her of weak women, as if turning her back on her is closing a door on aspects of herself best left in the countryside- eking out an existence going door to door ‘warming feet’ (and beds).
After being introduced to opera the young Madame Mao, just a fledgling white boned demon at this point, gains the tools necessary to pick at the lock fixing her glass ceiling. The folk tales common to Chinese opera tell of heroines and royalty, of great women and high society, making Yunhe all too aware of her lowly status, especially upon entering school.
She pours herself into theater and flees her first arranged marriage to join a theater troupe. Eventually she lands a role in a Dolls House, which becomes the leitmotif of her narrative, every subsequent notion of independence or break in tradition or marital interaction is compared to Nora, and seems to be her introduction to western ideals of gender equality.
Ching, having changed her name to Lan Pan, becomes attached to the communist resistance through a lover. It is not the ideology that attracts her, per se, but the natural dislike of foreign influence, the chance for advancement in a new venue, and the opportunity to ingratiate herself upon a beau she finds dynamic and charming.
Her would-be autobiography in Becoming Madame Mao is a hotchpotch of pseudo-historical happenings that seem to miss any real feminist benchmarks in Chinese culture, such as the 1911 interruption of the equivalent of parliament by feminist student agitators.
The next significant event in her life is joining the Red Army and moving to mountainous Yenan, where she meets the future leader of red China, Mao Zedong. It is her knowledge of drama that gives her opportunity to catch his eye, writing a criticism of bourgeois art in China and the foreign influence in media.
Ching’s fight for women’s rights were seemingly restricted to her own struggles for ascendancy which crystallized in the gang of four and her works as head propagandist for Maoist china after the cultural revolution.
Jiang Ching seems more a student of Sun Tzu than Mao Zedong, more of a thick-black-theorist than a communist. By all accounts Jiang Ching was a ruthless, spiteful, and vengeful person who relentlessly hunted down past lovers, throwing them in prison or having them executed, as soon as she had any power. She was probably utilized as first lady more as an aesthetic token of female-bodied Maoism then she was for her intrinsic ability or belief in the cause of State Socialism. The white-boned skeleton of her story won’t hold feminine muscle. Let us look elsewhere.
Feminism in post-Communist Europe
The women’s movement in post-communist Europe is hard to frame using western ideals of feminist activism against gender inequality- if one will even admit to there being feminism in post-communist Eurasia. It is not that there aren’t plenty of issues western women would recognize as the trappings of patriarchy, and ripe for activism… Jeffrey Goldfarb enumerates some:
They are experiencing a disproportionate level of unemployment. Their rights to abortions are threatened. A rebirth of traditionalism uses them to symbolize the values of home, hearth, and religious revival. They have lost social services. Their number has drastically dropped in parliamentary institutions. They still struggle with the burdens of the second shift, they have experienced high rates of domestic violence, and, in the war zones of the former Yugoslavia, they have been subjected to systematic campaigns of rape as acts of war. (1)
The women who helped build the post-communist government were marginalized. In fact the very women who participated in the drafting of the new democratic experiments don’t consider themselves feminists! They would reconcile their activity as democratic. While this might not seem like a great jump-off for ‘radical feminism’, steady yourself for the other shoe to drop.
The inequality of old came back with neo-conservative vigor. As soon as the Berlin wall fell, displaced and marginalized conservatives, usually religious, began aggressive posturing to impose the male-oriented control structures that existed before the spread of State Socialism, immediately campaigning against reproductive rights. The perplexing issue is why women seeking to combat this oppression consider themselves feminists?
To answer this obvious paradox we need to examine the context that central-European women are exposed to western feminism in. In communist propaganda gender inequality was tied to the faults of capitalistic society as a whole. It was the intrinsic failings of objectivist consumerism that led to the degradation of women, not their primordial culture.
We find this contrasted, if not bizarro-world doppelgänger’d, with capitalistic criticisms of feminism and communism, quaintly phrased by Kenneth Minogue in The goddess that failed:
Feminism tends to accept from Marxism an overarching understanding of capitalism as the basic form of oppression, but it has its own names for the evil system: “patriarchy” or “phallocentrism.” Like Marxism feminism is prone to fragmenting into different understandings of the strategy by which the system is to be understood and destroyed. Feminists face, however, a serious problem from which Marxists are free. They are uncomfortably torn between the thesis that women are indistinguishable from men, and the very different thesis that women represent a sane and healthy value system, quite different from the brutalities of masculinity. (1)
This is exactly the sort of cultural bias and context in which central-European women found it natural to reject ‘feminism’ in, which to them must have been so much capitalistic propaganda. Eastern-European feminism is relegated to the elite, to the ones emancipated from visceral reactions to terms barely understood, and doesn’t carry much currency with women who struggle for citizen rights instead of womanly rights.
Western interlopers may not be well received- and western feminism is just as off-set, except its peculiarity is a political orientation/utilization. In the western world feminism is a vehicle for political activism, or achieved through politics, as much as in the Eastern paradigms it is in the rights to avoid politics that women feel empowered.
It is important to note that western feminists project their ethno-centric prejudice about gender on to other cultures which results in an apple-to-orange comparison that falls flat. Nanette Funk explains that the fundamental differences in socio-economic modalities of government have inculcated different understandings of:
The concepts of “feminism,” “emancipation,” “equality,” and “quotas” all have different meanings East and West, as does the relationship of the individual to the totality. “Feminism” was appropriated by state socialism to connote spoiled Western women who hated men and could afford the luxury of indulging themselves in very privileged societies. This criticism was rooted in the communist conception of feminism as a ‘bourgeois’ movement that divided the class. (1)
The question of why there is no feminism in central Europe is akin to asking why there is no socialism in America. It exists, but in different forms peculiar to the originating culture that aren’t readily obvious to the outsider.
Feminism is an interloping brand, as explained by Jeffrey Goldfarb: “Feminism appears as a foreign ideology, looking dangerously like other, sometimes unwanted, imports, such as McDonalds, Coca Cola, and Hollywood films” (Goldfarb 1).
Polish women often value subordination to family over individualistic goals, which seems patriarchal to western peoples as that seems in lock-step with Victorian and Abrahamic paradigms on domesticity- however to polish women it is a luxury they didn’t have in socially-oriented state socialism, so it equates to indulgency of individual values of the familial unit.
Mira Marody (via Goldfarb) notes:
In Poland, we observe a growing disorganization of family life which accumulates socially neglected problems of individuals, whereas many American feminists seem to pay for the equality of their social rights with increasing private problems, a great many of which have their source in the disintegration of their families. (1)
Jeffrey Goldfarb harmonizes:
“The emancipation of women brought by the communists is viewed as a failure, and renewed talk about such emancipation is viewed with suspicion. For many women, a life dedicated to the family and the home is much more desirable than enforced public engagement. And when those suggesting such engagement are obviously influenced by Marxism, and still seem to speak in its language of liberation, exploitation, and internationalism, as Western feminists do, they are rejected not only as aliens, but as representatives of a worn-out politics that has been central to past oppression. (1)
This is in line with neo-conservative criticisms of American liberalism that see individualism as the destruction of the nuclear family. Whole swaths of the population are fighting against what they perceive to be an erosion of their clannish values- but how much of their American micro-culture was a defense mechanism against immigrant bias? How would a catholic of polish descent in America compare to a catholic in Poland- is it the national socio-economic enculturation that frames the ideologies of eastern or western feminism, or the individual household’s faiths and beliefs? (or both?)
Part of the problem is the fallacy of no neutrality, often seen in pseudointellectual arguments for ideology. It is the presupposition that there are only two binary positions to adhere to: selfish individualism in the vein of Ayn Rand, or a mindless drone breastfeeding and up-keeping a home ran by a man.
There seems to be “a real theoretical impasse” (Goldfarb 1) which is Goldfarb elaborates as:
From the point of view of the feminist West, the common sense of the ordinary East European, which Marody reports and agrees with, is sexist; from the East European point of view, the feminist critique of the family, along with its theoretical resemblance in form and content to discredited ideologies, is unacceptable. For reasons based in lived experience, feminism, even when addressing the real concerns of women, does not provide a way of understanding or acting in the world, especially when it comes wrapped in a theoretically questionable package. (1)
While many anti-feminist polemics are framed with sexist and homophobic misogyny, there does exist an undesirable fundamentalist aspect with some of western feminisms adherents. There is the air that there is a pure ideology and all those who don’t work in perfect union with it are enemy combatants, sheep who sleep walk in and tacitly endorse their corrupt and intrinsically flawed society. This is true of most ideologies, though, and we shouldn’t dismiss the fundamental gender inequality the feminist movement sought to, and to some point did, address.
Female-bodied social activists in post-communist Europe aren’t flocking to create formalized and centralized committees that smack of the institutionalized causes that they feel deprived them of their values towards a socialist utopia. Feminism, or any ideology, needs to be approached organically and not as a new cause, which they are understandably reticent to pour themselves into.
It would seem that introducing the issues they care about, namely the freedom for family, as a woman’s issue, or ‘feminism’, would be effectively using semantics to build upon the currency of the terminology, working against the encultured bias against what they were raised to recognize as petit bourgeois behavior.
Indeed it is indigenous issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights which are creating the organic groundswell in these countries, although the overarching dominion of the Catholic Church in Poland makes such progress difficult. Even when the majority of people disagree with the tenets of the church or their position in political issues, there is the inculcated avoidance of a public and cohesive voice against it.
In these post-communist nations gender equality is naturally occurring in that all genders were equally oppressed in the political spheres. But as they entered into their fledgling experiments in democracy the men saw an ascendancy that mirrored the pre-communist patriarchy and the de facto masculinism of State Socialism. “The traditional social inequalities between men and women that the communists did not transform are now institutionalized in redefined public and private spheres, politicizing subordination, but also politicizing resistance to subordination.” (Goldfarb 1)
In the western world we recognize this as ripe for political action. It is in this roughshod reclamation of female subservience by men, politically and privately, which is the impetus for current and continued women’s movements in central Europe.
| Works Cited
1. Min, Anchee. Becoming Madame Mao. 1st. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. p1-327. Print.
2. Goldfarb, Jeffrey C.. “Why is there no feminism after communism?”. Social Research. 64.2 (Summer 1997) p235. Print.
3. Minogue, Kenneth. “The goddess that failed”. National Review. 43.21 (Nov. 18, 1991) p46. Print.
4. Perry, Susan H.. “Sharon Wesoky. Chinese Feminism Faces Globalization”. China Review International. 9.1 (Spring 2002) p281. Print.
5. Funk, Nanette. “Feminism And Post-Communism”. Hypatia 8.4 (1993): p85. Print.
Everett Tucker is the creator and editor of Mystic Politics. He is condescending, overconfident, under-educated, and extremely interested in exploring religiopolitical overlap, the psychology of belief, and the conspiratorial tropes & memes- real or otherwise- of popular culture. Signup for email updates to be notified of future journalistic hack work.
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