Critical Eye: Now, Not When

Ma Qiusha: From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiaobeili, 2007, video, 8 minutes.

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IN MARCH 2018, after Wesleyan University assistant professor Wang Ao accused him on Chinese social media of sexually assaulting several female Chinese students, noted curator Gary Xu was stripped of his appointment as curator of the 2018 Shenzhen Art Biennale, denied renewal of his contract with the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute as a visiting professor, and forced to resign his associate professorship at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.1 Then, on September 24, Beijing-based curator and writer Li Bowen was accused of “repeated patterns of deceit, gaslighting and abuse,” and resigned his post at Ocula.com.2 These allegations follow the high-profile outing of several other Chinese public figures,3 and response from the Western media has been swift: the #MeToo movement has “finally” spread to China and its art world, despite the resistance of an authoritarian regime. This awakening is often presented as inevitable but belated, since it would necessarily take time to reach the less developed East. Similarly, the regime in question—the Chinese Communist Party—is portrayed as monolithic; to suggest that there could be Chinese feminists who are not also political dissidents is scandalous.4

The problem is, not all Chinese women who support the #MeToo movement in China would identify as feminist, and not all Chinese women who do identify as feminist are dissidents.5 This mental slippage can be seen in earlier publications such as Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, by Chinese-American writer Leta Hong Fincher, who titles her book as though the colon were an equal sign, and as though, before this awakening, most Chinese women were in a state of dogmatic slumber. “The more women are free agents, independent and beholden to no one,” Hong Fincher writes, “the more they can resist and disrupt the patriarchal authoritarian order.”6 Though her book may serve as a helpful primer on Chinese feminism for Western audiences, it offers Chinese women only two choices: remain a victim or become a dissident. 

In the view of UCLA professor Shu-mei Shih, these narratives share a belief in cultural difference that “takes the form of one of two poles: reified absolutism or a ‘been there, done that’ superiority complex.”7 The Chinese Other, too opaque and time-consuming to understand, is written about in ethnic or, in this case, Cold War shorthand: harsh, authoritarian China, long stuck in an earlier stage of development, is finally becoming a little more like us.

The assumption that a good Chinese feminist is a dissident—elsewhere, Hong Fincher compares the women she interviews with the long-imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo8—reduces the complex motives that animate Chinese activist groups like United Motion, whose public WeChat channel was one of the first to spread word of the Gary Xu case on social media. Seeking to raise awareness of sexual harassment and the glass ceiling, United Motion—consisting of one female and two male curators and writers—works for gender equality in the art industry and elsewhere by organizing artist programs and workshops, conducting research, and providing legal consultancy services.9 Contrary to the expectations of commentators like Hong Fincher, the group wants to stay with the trouble—to work under a regime, that, like the Trump administration, has not been toppled, despite the wishful thinking of the Hong Finchers of the world.

 

LAST SPRING, United Motion took part in the group exhibition “Genders Engender” at the nonprofit Taikang Space in Beijing. The show reflected the tenuous relationship between the Chinese art world and feminism. Potentially troublesome, for example, was the seeming contradiction between the curatorial text for “Genders Engender,” which states that the show did not present “feminist art,”10 and the fact that the great majority of the eleven individual artists and groups selected were Chinese women dealing with issues of representation, social justice, and gender bias. 

Rather than dismiss this disavowal as false consciousness—or fear of political backlash—and thereby resort to the stereotypes that Shih has identified, it is much more productive to look at the history of Chinese feminism, as refracted through the works of three of the participating artists: Huang Jingyuan, Ma Qiusha, and Li Shuang.

Huang Jingyuan aims to expand women’s narratives by exploring the theme of motherhood “pared of its usual sentimentality.” Her ongoing project “Writing Mothers,” a set of diaristic writings by contributors of various ages and backgrounds, explores “the potential of a feminist critique offered through the lens of family life.”11 For the duration of “Genders Engender,” Huang showed sample texts and used part of the gallery for meetings, discussions, and workshops. The results of these activities were dubbed the first “episode” of the project; at the end of July, they were published as a small book available in print and online.12 The second episode was displayed this fall as part of the group exhibition “Crush” at the Para Site in Hong Kong.

In the first episode, poet Wang Wei likens the gendering of a homeland to the figure of the heroic mother—both are “natural, self-evident, and indisputable.” Chen Shuyu, founder of the nonprofit Beijing art space Institute for Provocation, remembers reading in school depictions of virtuous mothers, and contrasting them to the much quirkier mothers found in novels by writers like Eileen Chang. The great mothers sounded all alike, while the odd mothers “each require their own portrait.”

The traditional figure of the great mother was echoed in the “iron girls” of the Cultural Revolution. The campaign to encourage women to join the workforce was born out of the Party’s advocacy of gender equality as a radical anticapitalist possibility. In 1950, policies ensuring equal pay were ratified, and the government’s subsequent push for female workers to enter factories and fields prompted many Western feminists to hail Chinese women as pioneers on the world stage. However, much like the European and American left’s fascination with Maoism in the ’60s, this view became an embarrassment after China opened up following the death of Mao Zedong. During the ’80s, it became obvious that these “pioneering” women had really lived through an era in which, according to writer and “Writing Mothers” participant Meng Jiang, “expressions of gender difference and desire were systematically repressed.”  Women were expected to show that they could be just like men by working side by side with them.

Li Xiaojiang, considered the founder of women’s studies in China, highlights the hypocrisy of this suppression of gender difference by citing the “double burden” women were forced to bear during the Cultural Revolution. Mothers were expected not only to work all day, but also to take care of the children and maintain the home.13 “Writing Mothers” contributor Song Yi, cofounder of the Migrant Workers’ Video Collective, also sees the state’s ideal woman emerge in the figure of the “motherland”:

She seems to be a kind of de-gendered elder. The qualities we associate with the motherland, like tolerance, selflessness, perseverance, and care—these qualities are not necessarily feminine. They belong to a character that’s been created out of the spiritual needs of the oppressed, and we give it the name of “Mother.”

The economic reforms of the ’80s transformed the ideal of the great mother from iron girl into homemaker. Meng Jiang makes a similar point, arguing that “in the post-Mao era, discourses of gender and desire reentered the public sphere. . . . Women have had to undergo refeminization of their bodies and their behaviour.”

The disassembling of the planned economy led to swaths of women being fired and a government push for women to reembrace domesticity. New campaigns encouraged women to think of themselves as mothers who would support the state by keeping the home stable. There was a strong pre-Mao antecedent for this. For nearly half a century, during the Late Qing Dynasty and Republican eras, male intellectuals addressing the “women problem” (funü wenti) advocated a limited number of women’s rights—just enough to propel China’s modernization—effectively subordinating women’s issues to the national interest. It is little wonder, given this historical record, that the state version has made the word “feminism” repellent to many Chinese women.

In her entry for the second episode of “Writing Mothers,” Ke Qianting, associate professor at Sun Yat-sen University, talks about her mother’s lack of interest in “mainstream patriotic discourse”:

She doesn’t watch CCTV, she uses her own experience to parse the relationship between nation and self. Her opinions of patriotism and of foreign countries are very similar to those of the female characters, trampled on by their husbands, in Xiao Hong’s Field of Life and Death, I think. Everyone says the Japanese devils are hateful, but it’s only these women who know that the men who exploit them in their daily lives are the most hateful. Everyone says they “need to love the country,” but these women never knew a time when the country loved them.

Like Ke’s mother, many women artists decided to withdraw from national and thus also feminist discussions. The end of the Cultural Revolution saw the resurgence of “boudoir painting” (guigehua), which focuses on domestic and natural subjects divorced from all politics. Despite the influx of Western feminist texts, women artists emerging during the 1980s and ’90s generally avoided all explicit forms of feminism, unwilling to have a Western definition replace the statist one.

 

MA QIUSHA SEEMED visibly annoyed when we spoke to her about viewing her art through a feminist lens. She was quick, for example, to distance herself from “NOW: A Dialogue on Female Chinese Contemporary Artists,” a five-venue survey she participated in earlier this year in the United Kingdom.14 After all, Ma has been subjected to oversimplified labeling for more than a decade. One of her earliest and best-known works is the video From No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiaobeili (2007), in which the artist stares directly into the camera and slowly speaks about her experience growing up as an only child, with strict parents who were disappointed that she was not born a boy. The film ends with Ma revealing a bloody razor that has been in her mouth for the entire duration of the monologue.

It is certainly tempting to read this work as symbolizing a traumatic inauguration into adulthood, marked by the psychological and sometimes physical violence imposed on young women for speaking their own lived truth. Girls growing up in China in the 1980s faced a strange paradox: because of the One Child Policy, many were given opportunities that they would never have had with male siblings—yet because of the transition away from socialism, the pretense of gender equality that state feminism provided was abandoned. The result: Ma’s parents were overbearing, pushing her to achieve in spite of the fact she was born a girl.

But there are other issues in and around No. 4. In addition to suggesting the difficulty—but necessity—of becoming a speaking subject, the work points to the perils of confession itself. Although Ma is best known for her videos incorporating the female body, she no longer wants them to be the focal point of her practice, citing them as the reason she has been made into a poster-child of the ’80s generation of women artists. “Genders Engender” curator Li Jia attests to the danger of being so closely associated with women’s art in China. Nearly all women artist exhibitions are considered “niche” endeavors, featuring participants chosen on the basis of gender rather than the strength of their work alone.15

In the catalogue for the 1998 show “Century Woman,” a seventy-artist survey held at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, male curator Jia Fangzhou gave a reductive definition of Chinese women’s art, listing a few essential characteristics. It is, he claims, intimate, intuitive, nonpolitical, detail-oriented, uninterested in men, drawn from traditional handicrafts, and fixated on daily life.16 Even today, critics and curators apply this sort of language to Chinese women’s art, calling attention, for example, to the intimate depiction of the body in Cui Xiuwen’s videos and Xiang Jing’s sculptures, or the use of everyday materials in Lin Tianmiao’s thread-wrapped objects.

We can see this marginalization of women’s art play out in China’s commercial and curatorial systems. Galleries disproportionately represent male artists, the highest-level art institutions are dominated by male professionals, and the top-ten-selling contemporary artists are all men, among them Liu Xiaodong, husband of painter Yu Hong.17 Indeed, many leading women artists are married to men who fare better in the market than they do; other such couples include Yin Xiuzhen and Song Dong, and Lu Qing and Ai Weiwei.   

While the Chinese art world frequently uses narrow interpretations to exclude women’s art from mainstream discussion, Western curators’ reliance on the categories of “Chinese” and “woman” can end up reinforcing a similarly limited reading, according to Joan Kee, a University of Michigan art historian. Kee challenges the Western multiculturalist concept of “Asian women’s art,” arguing that such a category erases many of the internal differences between the Asian women that it purports to describe, breeding laziness in curators who include artists merely for their Asianness and gender.18

One escape from these interpretations is deliberate erasure of the artist’s feminity. As installation artist Yin Xiuzhen observes, “typical praise for a woman artist would be something along the lines of, ‘Her art does not look like a woman’s work. It is very powerful.’”19 Is it any wonder that Ma and her predecessors—women artists like Lin, Yin, and others born in the 1960s and ’70s—have eschewed, or outright disavowed, the word “feminist” by calling it Western or saying their work has gone “beyond gender”?

 

LI SHUANG is keenly aware of the perils of Western legibility. Her video T (2017–18), which was shown in “Genders Engender” and then in the solo show “If Only the Cloud Knows” at New York’s SLEEPCENTER, expresses the ironies and difficulties of the translingual journey of the modern, liberal notion of “she” into Chinese. The four-channel T intersperses CGI with live-action footage, its title letter orphaned and overdetermined: taboo, transgress, transgender, text, tool, twink—these are just some of the relevant English words that “T” conjures up.

Perhaps it is toe that best describes the film’s central motif: a pair of small, hairless digital feet swing from a chair, toes wagging. The work functions as a kind of audio drag show: the voiceover, which is narrated by a woman whose voice grows noticeably computerized near the end, speaks from the position of a frustrated, sexist, twenty-something male: “[Women] are nothing but narcissistic passive aggressive little bitches who push and push with their tiny little feet until they get what they want.” The narrator, a service job employee, complains of being forced by the boss to speak “in a distinctly feminine manner.” “But I’m a man,” the girlish-sounding speaker says.

Is the point here, as Western feminist Judith Butler might argue, that this narrator no more “is” the “masculinity” that has been denied by the boss than women “are” the gender roles—bitchy or otherwise—they have been assigned by others?20 Certainly, a radical open-endedness is part of the allure of the work, and compels Anglophone viewers to apply their own cultural referents. Yet to restrict the work’s implications to English words is a serious epistemic error. The very temptation to commit such a transgression is precisely part of the meaning of Li’s video. The specter of an old transnational encounter lurks in this title: the drastically unequal linguistic exchange, fostered by Western imperialism, that convinced Chinese intellectuals their very language had suddenly become deficient.

“T” might well stand for ta, the phonetic spelling of all three Chinese third-person singular pronouns—male, female, and neuter. A standard piety would be to celebrate the choice, popular lately among China’s youth, to romanize ta rather than use the Chinese characters, since it makes the word’s gender ambiguous, much like the English “one” or “they” (when the latter is used for a singular referent of indeterminant or fluid gender). T’s meaning depends in part on dangling, then withdrawing, that red herring.

Historically, rather than being (as some alleged) a remnant of Chinese patriarchy and feudalism coded in the very grammar of the language, ta was already gender neutral. The current male and female forms were added by Chinese translators. Noting the existence in Romance languages of three gender-specific pronouns, they decided the all-purpose ta exemplfied a lack of linguistic precision21—a charge echoed today in claims that there is no good Chinese translation of the term “feminism.” Two words, nüquanzhuyi and nüxingzhuyi, which mean, approximately, “women’s rights” and “womanism,” are used in mainstream Chinese discussions. 

Yet how ironic that the terminology intended to help liberate queerness in China is now seen as being a poor copy of foreign models! To understand the several Chinese feminisms espoused in these two competing words requires understanding their own specific historical contexts. There have been attempts by scholars like Li Xiaojiang, Dai Jinhua, Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, Dorothy Ko, Wang Zheng, Tani Barlow, and Bo Wang to develop a Chinese feminist history that demonstrates both points of intersection with and divergence from the West.

Li Shuang’s installation If Only the Cloud Knows (2005-2018) offers a way of conceptualizing how one might be a Chinese feminist artist while still grappling with questions of global significance. For this work, Li uploaded to a single cloud website all the photographs and text messages she had generated between 2005 and 2015. She then allowed visitors to delete whatever they wanted.

One might, for example, write in a claim that Li is protesting internet censorship, or—conversely—that her piece transforms the viewer into the agent of a repressive, censorious government. Yet the impetus for the creation of this piece suggests the power of Li’s act of vulnerability. She was inspired by the childhood memory of her parents tearing down one of the walls of her room and erecting a glass barrier in its place. Li’s earlier video performance Marry Me for Chinese Citizenship revealed the immense difficulty Chinese women artists face in being seen beyond the victim/dissident narrative. On Valentine’s Day in 2015, Li walked around Times Square for six hours, wearing a sign with marry me for chinese citizenship on its front and i don’t cook on its back. This sardonic cultural inversion ridiculed a common myth about Chinese women—that they all want to marry American men and thereby secure their passage westward. The piece gained particular relevance when, just a year later, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, prompting Americans to say, half in jest, that they felt compelled to change their citizenship. One hour after Trump’s election, a tote bag bearing Li’s proposition sold over five hundred copies online.22

During the performance, however, many passersby were blind to the sign’s implications, misreading it as a bid to obtain an American green card. A man offered to marry Li for $10,000, and a woman admonished the artist for her desperation and low self-esteem. Later, John Barthelette—an American cultural commentator and translator in Taiwan, and author of the book Trump Your English—posted a picture of Li’s bag on Facebook, commenting, “Miss, do you know what your bag says?”23 The sign, in other words, functioned as Rorschach test, disclosing the biases of its viewers. It also expressed Li’s inability to fit into narratives of the genderless iron girl, ultra-feminine housewife, token Asian woman artist, bold dissident, or Western-educated feminist. Li is now collaborating with a lawyer to produce a publication on how to apply for Chinese citizenship. Her video ends by declaring: “Marry Me for Chinese Citizenship has nothing to do with being Chinese, Asian, human, woman.”  These words point us, ultimately, to the ongoing need for Chinese women artists to construct their own narratives.