Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011
Louise Edwards

Gender, Politics and Democracy:
Women's Suffrage in China

Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 2008
ISBN: ????; pp. xii + 334. Notes, bibliography, illustrations

reviewed by Antonia Finnane

  1. No one looking at a photo of the leadership group in China in the early twenty-first century would have cause to imagine that women's political participation had been an issue in Chinese society in the preceding century. The line formation of men in suits looks impregnable. One can almost hear them all 'scoffing and guffawing' about equal participation for women, echoing the response of the Nanjing provisional parliament in 1912 to a proposal that sexual equality be enshrined in the constitution. Yet if one is tempted to conclude plus ça change from this comparison, it is not a conclusion to which Louise Edwards comes. To the contrary, her closely documented study of Chinese women's struggle for constitutional equality ends with the statement, 'China's women's suffrage activists revolutionized not only gender politics in China but also altered the entire Chinese political landscape' (p. 238).
  2. The grounds for this conclusion are laid in a book that traces political activism by women through the first half of the twentieth century, from the end of the Qing dynasty to the eve of the founding of the People's Republic. In the last decade or so of the Qing, from around the time of the 100 Days Reforms in 1898, what women citizens should be took shape within broader debates about citizenship, the state, and the nation. After throwing themselves into the anti-Manchu struggle, women activists were dismayed to be denied constitutional equality under the Republic. Their violent demonstration outside the chamber of the provisional parliament in Nanjing is one of the most notable events of the fledgling Republic's attempts to get off the ground, as well as one of the most dramatic in the story of the fight for women's rights in China. Successive generations of women, often women in the KMT, continued or resurrected the struggle over the following decades, with some victories, including gaining 'concrete political rights' (the right to vote and to be elected) (p. 192) via the constitution of 1936. This achievement was undermined by the advent of war, but Edwards shows in her final chapter that during the war women activists continued to strive for representation, especially through a quota system that would ensure they had a voice in the national arena.
  3. Books, like babies, are hard to name. The name of this one buries the thematic ('women's suffrage in China') under the problematic ('gender, politics, and democracy'). Neither its title nor sub-title quite convey the dimensions of the story of that unfolds in its pages, one best encapsulated in that resounding cry, 'votes for women!' Not all progressive women joined in that cry. Communists (Edwards gives the case of Xiang Jingyu) were inclined to identify suffragists with the bourgeoisie, and carefully differentiated the question of women's rights from the question of rights to vote for a parliament. But Communists had no monopoly on commitment to political change. In a series of pen portraits executed in the course of the book, Edwards provides a good sense of the energy, passion, and commitment of the suffragists, whose political positions in relationship to the major parties in fact varied considerably. The reader is introduced to leading figures in their ranks: Lin Zongsu, 'China's first woman journalist', who set up the Women's Suffrage Comrades' Society a month after the outbreak of the 1911 Revolution, and established a women's magazine, the Women's Times, which featured articles on women's education and women's suffrage; Tang Qunying, militant revolutionary, founder of newspapers such as the Women's Rights Daily and the Women's Vernacular News, and the key figure behind the formation of the Women's Suffrage Alliance (pp. 74–75); Chicago-trained Dr Wu Zhimei, founder of the United Women's Association in Guangdong which successfully campaigned for constitutional equality in Guangdong in 1921; the democrat Shi Liang, sometime leader of the Shanghai Women's National Salvation Society, later a leader in the Federation of Chinese Democratic parties, and appointed during the war to the Committee for the Promotion of Constitutionalism, a committee of the People's Political Council.
  4. Shi Liang, we are informed, continued in her 'role as a leader of the FCDP…'in the PRC well after 1949' (p. 202). This detail is a reminder that 'votes for women' was soon to become a cry in the wilderness. Edwards comments at one point on how Xiang Jingyu helped to effect a shift in the meaning of canzheng from 'suffrage' to 'political participation' more broadly (or fuzzily) considered. 'Parliamentary-style democracies,' she notes, 'were not central to [Xiang's] notion of political engagement' (p. 154). Xiang Jingyu would have seen eye to eye with the professor of journalism who, sixty years after the founding of the PRC, wrote in China Daily: 'it is misleading to pin democracy on free elections. More importance, instead, should be attached to a popular form of democracy – participatory democracy featuring public participation. Without full and democratic public participation, free election can be superficial and showy.' [1]
  5. It can be surmised that Edwards has not had the last word to say on suffrage, women's or otherwise: this story is a long way from being finished. In the meantime, the author—one of the most prolific contemporary scholars of gender issues in China—has made a welcome and valuable contribution to the field. This is a pioneering study that fills a significant gap in the political history of women's rights in modern China. If the conclusion sounds more optimistic than seems justified by reference to events in the second half of the twentieth century, it also challenges the reader to think about the achievements of suffragists in the first half. Their victories were few and usually incomplete, but they succeeded in making equal rights to political participation a matter of record in China.


    [1] Xiong Lei, 'Participatory Democracy Crucial,' in China Daily, 28 November 2009.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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