Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002

Ping-Chun Hsiung, Maria Jaschok, and Cecilia Milwertz (eds), with Red Chan

Chinese Women Organizing:
Cadres, Feminists, Muslims, Queers

Oxford and New York: Berg Press, 2001, 332 pages;
ISBN: 1 85973 541 X (paper); price: $US23.50

review by Arianne M. Gaetano,

  1. Chinese Women Organizing is a substantial addition to a burgeoning scholarship on the new wave of women's organising in China, offering a more comprehensive treatment of the topic than available in English until now.[1] The volume covers organising activities during two decades since the implementation of economic reforms, and in particular following the UN Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995.[2] In a well-crafted introduction, the editors state their intention to document a wide variety of women's organising activity, including within the party-state's All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), among social, religious and academic popular groups, and especially in the interstices between these often blurred boundaries of 'state' and 'popular'. The book's highlights include the personal testimonies of several of China's pioneer women organisers. Deftly translated from Chinese, these colourfully convey the euphoria as well as the frustration of bringing women's organising to life, while detailing some creative strategies and methods employed in that process. The volume makes an important argument about the nature of organising in reform-era China, with broad implications for the study of emerging civil society and public sphere, and raises some thought-provoking questions for future research agendas to address. As a timely reference guide to the happenings and issues surrounding grassroots women's organising in contemporary China, the volume will appeal to scholars of contemporary China and of post-socialist political transitions, and to academics and activists concerned with the Chinese women's movement and global feminisms.
  2. The book evolved from a 1999 workshop, held at Oxford University, which brought together over fifty international participants. In the Preface, the editors present their 'feminist vision' of an inclusive and egalitarian forum, and the book achieves that goal. The volume presents diverse voices ranging from a noted European scholar of Chinese women's movement history, overseas Chinese feminist academics, a European activist and international development worker based in Beijing, organisers from China, and international donor agency representatives. An annotated lexicon of key terms and relevant women's organisations is a handy reference, providing Chinese characters and pinyin alongside the English translations. With nearly a dozen essays plus an introduction, the editors obviously could not adapt the entire set of workshop presentations. Rather, they have informatively included a list of all workshop participants and their affiliations, complete with presentation abstracts, in the Appendices. The volume also maintains the flavour of a workshop by interspersing excerpts from the conference's more lively discussions, in four subsections ('Other Voices, Other Conversations') that augment the themes raised in each of five main parts (Parts II-VI). Similarly, in lieu of a conclusion, the final 'Post-workshop Reflections' gives space to the thoughts of several workshop participants whose papers were not published. As a result of this ambitious structure, the book does not leave readers with a sense of closure. But it does successfully convey a pregnant moment of recent Chinese history—one of abundant activity and attendant contradictions and challenges—and opens the door to future theoretical and empirical inquiry.
  3. In the introduction, the editors note their decision to emphasise organising—'the content and process of activities' (p. 6)—in order to move away from the focus on organisation structure or classification that has characterised much of the English literature to date, which has largely aimed at finding evidence of a civil society and evaluating the extent of non-state space or a public sphere.[3] This is an important distinction, for it reflects a more inclusive understanding of the range of possibilities for organising in contemporary China, and, as the editors acknowledge, embraces the constantly shifting and fluid character of women's organising activities in a society in flux. Participants dismiss as too simplistic (e.g., based on a rigid state/non-state binary), or irrelevant, debates which so preoccupied China-watchers at the time of the 1995 NGO forum, as to whether the ACWF qualifies as an NGO (as it was designated for the 1995 conference and frequently maintains) or whether China has any true NGOs (given the legal provision that all NGOs must register with authorities), and shift attention to the outcomes and achievements of organising efforts.
  4. Indeed, a majority of the chapters assess the ACWF and emphasise the generally mutually enhancing relationship between it and smaller, local forms of popular organising. Naihua Zhang provocatively argues for a historicised and contextual view of China's largest 'NGO,' that implies deconstructing the concept of 'NGO,' and in turn, 'civil society' and 'citizenship,' in western discourse. Zhang proposes that such labels obscure how the tools of global feminism are being strategically deployed in this local arena to reposition women's organising vis-à-vis the party-state in pursuit of feminist goals. Jin Yihong cogently explicates the structure of the ACWF-party complex and presents evidence that the market economy and new forms of organising are weakening the Women's Federation's internal cohesion and administrative authority, forcing it to flexibly reposition itself both within and outside of the party-state. Liu Bohong expands this point and provides numerous examples of ACWF affiliates involved in providing women with social services, professional and development resources, and education. Like Liu Bohong and several panelists, Gao Xiaoxian exemplifies the practice of Women's Federation cadres to individually wear several hats, and in her essay details precisely how she has taken advantage of her multiple positions to promote a feminist agenda across official and popular boundaries. Similarly, the Woman's Media Watch Network (Cai Yiping, Feng Yuan, and Guo Yanqiu) describe their manipulation of linkages with the ACWF's vast media to educate the public about gender bias in reporting and advertising. Women's studies scholar Du Fangqin argues that close collaboration with cadres and government is critical not only to garnering political support for academic institutes in which such programmes reside, but also for connecting theoretical research to policy design and political decision-making. Finally, members of the US-based Chinese Society for Women's Studies (Xiaolan Bao with Wu Xu) underscore both the necessity and the fruitfulness of collaborations between local and diasporian women's activists, on the one hand, and various levels of the Women's Federation on the other. On the whole, these authors are optimistic about the potential for feminist aims to be incrementally advanced within and through the expansive web of the ACWF. They appear less sanguine about effecting broader social change in light of the marginalisation of women's issues within the party-state, on the one hand, and the challenges to a feminist agenda posed by the growing market economy, on the other. However, few essays offer any direct assessment of the broader impact of particular organising activities.
  5. The rich empirical content of several chapters, including those by Gao Xiaoxian, Xiaolan Bao with Wu Xu, and Cai Yiping and the Women's Media Watch Network are particularly valuable for imparting intimate glimpses of organisers' motivations, the sometimes happenstance circumstances surrounding their activism, and frank appraisal of setbacks. An exceptional essay by He Xiaopei epitomises this ability to connect the personal and political. In chronicling her awakening as a lesbian-feminist and the bittersweet stories of tongzhi (queers) organising despite an ignorant, and often hostile, environment, He makes the profound point that organising unfolds through a quest for answers and a posing of new questions. In their 'Conversation,' East Meets West Feminist Translation Group members Ge Youli and Susan Jolly relate poignant memories of their feminist organising, and reflect how their different positioning in regard to China and to global feminism, and their shared organising efforts, shaped their own identities and each other. Their dialogue format itself evokes the mutual respect, honesty, and friendship ideals of a feminist collaboration. These personal stories resonate nicely with the opening essay by Elisabeth Croll, who reviews some of the initial discoveries of 1970s Euro-American feminist explorations of female solidarity, and likewise contribute to the literature on cross-cultural women's organising. Moreover, these activists and their respective organisations suggest a social movement in the making, evidencing what the editors identify as 'cognitive praxis': a 'collective process of producing new forms of knowledge and practice' for social change (p. 7). To varying degrees, as explored in these essays, the organising process is forging a feminist identity and engendering social critique. In fact, the Oxford conference itself was an organising practice that produced its own intellectual insights and transformations, most noticeably turning attention to the marginalising of certain women's groups, and the need for a democratic feminist praxis.
  6. Thus, the inclusion of religious women into the conference and book framework was a bold move by the editors, for their presence sparked some heated discussion as to whether such organisations were truly 'gender-aware' (p. 119). Such a charge not only put their supporters on the defensive, but suggested that, for some mainland organisers in particular, this may have been their first encounter with religious women activists. Such reactions lent credence to Shui Jingjun's critical appraisal, in her overview of Christian and Muslim women's associations, of the power of the ACWF to selectively recognise and promote, and thereby politically legitimate, certain voices in the women's movement while ignoring others. Panelist Huang Yan, who reported on another organisation that was subject to scrutiny (p. 231), remarked upon the over-representation at the conference of women's organisations from large urban centers, and called for more support (e.g., international aid) for geographically remote and smaller women's groups.
  7. Other activists found themselves inspired by the conference to 'take 'organizing/organization'[4] as an 'issue' for reflection' (Gao Xiaoxian, p. 259). Gao Xiaoxian (p. 259) challenged that 'feminist organizations should not reproduce the patterns of chauvinist culture, elitism, or hierarchy,' while He Xiaopei (p. 190) appealed for a grassroots, bottom-up approach to organising. Members of the Chinese Society for Women's Studies similarly stressed that institutional change must be accompanied by 'democratic values' (p. 97). These counter-discourses indirectly address the perspicacious questions posed by Elisabeth Croll about how various organisations that comprise the Chinese women's movement conceptualise gender difference and male-female relations, and in turn how such constructs determine their organising methods and goals. While Shui Jingjun's chapter explicitly addresses the significance for a feminist theory of certain religious understandings of gender, a systematic treatment of these theoretical issues await future reflection, research, and writing.
  8. I commend the editors for their ambitious undertaking in accommodating so many diverse voices in this volume, and I am certain that much deliberation went into the editorial decisions to select certain presentations and merely abstract others. Yet in perusing the abstracts, I wished the presentations of either Han Henan (describing academic women's collaboration with a municipal Women's Federation branch) or Huang Yan (reporting on entrepreneurial activity of unemployed urban women) might have appeared in full, as these promised to be vivid, empirical studies. One might have been neatly substituted for either of two rather perfunctory analyses of the ACWF (Jin Yihong; Liu Bohong), which had much overlap. Likewise, Zhu Li's abstract drawn from her ethnography of a Buddhist monastery managed by nuns conveyed a more immediate sense of the experience of organising for religious women than did Shui Jingjun's rather detached overview of Christian and Muslim women's associations. On a related note, I would suggest the editors might have chosen a more general term than 'Muslim' (e.g., 'devotees') for the book's subtitle to indicate the volume's attention to multiple religious identities. Of course, these minor quibbles only reinforce that, as the first volume of its kind, Chinese Women Organizing has whet this reviewer's appetite for further reading on this stimulating topic.


    [1] Relevant works are listed in the comprehensive bibliography and in endnote (no. 2, p. 20), in Hsiung, Jaschok and Milwertz (eds), with Chan, Chinese Women Organizing, pp. 309-321. Most works published in English have been articles reporting on the activities of discrete organisations.

    [2] As numerous essays in this volume directly or indirectly attest, the strategic choice of Beijing to host both the UN meeting and the NGO forum in 1995 introduced China to a new discourse of the non-governmental organization (NGO) that in turn legitimated organizational activities of women activists, infusing them new energy and offering new resources and opportunities, such as for networking with international feminist groups and lending agencies.

    [3] For example, see Jude Howell, 'Prospects for NGOs in China,' in Development and Practice, 5, 1 (February 1995):5-15.

    [4] The volume's translator uses both the verb and the noun, as editors note that no verb 'organizing' exists in Chinese. Hsiung et al., Chinese Women Organizing, p. 7.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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