#MeToo supporters gather outside a Beijing courthouse in December 2020. (Photo: Andy Wong/Associated Press)

Topics: June 2022, Justice | Society

Patriarchy still binds the fates of women in China

The fight for equality continues in a country where women's voices are still being taken away


She sits on the brown leather couch, her wrinkled fingers tracing the delicate black characters on the weekly Chinese newspaper. Ever so slightly, her eyes squint as she struggles to dissect each character on the page with little success.

“Grandmama,” I ask, as she cradles my tiny body on her lap, “why didn’t you go to college?” Her dark eyes stare back softly: “I had no choice.”

Foot binding, the horrible practice of women’s subjugation, and a powerful metaphor for male dominance, was banned in 1949, just before my grandmother was born in 1956. But the forces of patriarchal dominance continue to bind women’s fates.

When Chinese men are 17, it is prime time for them to begin considering career paths, whether it be military school, a four-year degree or entering the workforce. At 17, my grandmother had just given birth to my father. All of her male friends were still in school as her young soul was burdened with motherhood. 

A Chinese woman’s value is linked to her obedience, her appearance and her ability to raise male heirs. And while Communist leader Mao Zedong did say, “Women hold up half the sky,” gender equality was not made law until 1995. It is true there are more educational opportunities for women in China today than before. Even so, according to the New York Times, there are “unofficial but widespread” gender quotas in universities that favour men, and women must score higher than men to get in. In 2012, the education ministry defended these quotas as being in China’s national interest. 

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Of 14,000 national civil service jobs, five percent require applicants to be male, stating that these jobs are too “tedious” and “heavy” for women to bear. Likewise, employed women are paid 20 percent less than their male counterparts. 

After centuries of oppression, feminist movements have slowly sprouted throughout the nation.

I spent three years living in mainland China, and in my time there I connected with many others who shared my feminist values. Last June, a friend of mine received massive backlash on social media after reposting hashtags about the #MeToo and #NotYourPerfectVictim movements. All her posts were “shadow banned” — blocked from publication — by the government.

She was not alone. Since 2018, millions of Chinese women who have used #MeToo on social media found their postings to be among the top 10 most censored topics on Chinese social media apps. Dozens of prominent Chinese feminist activists have even reported their accounts being suspended or removed.

So long as authoritarian, patriarchal leaders remain in power, Chinese citizens, and especially women, will have their voices taken away, their resolve to fight back drained with each passing day. As an American citizen, I am fortunate to be writing about my experiences and perspectives on women’s oppression. This is a privilege that women in China do not have. Until they achieve full equality, my fight for their rights will continue. 


Sophia Li is a freelance writer in Dallas who was raised in a Chinese immigrant household.

This column first appeared in Broadview’s June 2022 issue with the title “Their fates are still bound by patriarchy.”

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