Haoning (Zoe) Guo
In the historian Jonathan D. Spence’s magnificent work The Death of Woman Wang, the woman known only by her surname Wang sought the comfort of an affair to escape an abusive marriage. But after finding herself abandoned by her new lover, Wang obtained sanctuary in a Taoist temple. Under the laws of the time, her estranged husband reclaimed her against her will. On a snowy night in 1672, he strangled the Woman Wang for her betrayal.
The moving drama of Wang in the rural county of T’an-ch’eng symbolized the fate of the “poor and forgotten” women in the 17th-century Chinese patriarchal society, in which women lived in obscurity, held no agency of their own, and were vulnerable to violence. Lifelong obedience to patriarchal construction was expected of them, and one misdemeanor could cost their lives.
The plight of Woman Wang, however, is not confined to the Chinese feudal society of the 17th century. Gender-based violence in contemporary China is still pervasive. In June 2022, four young women were brutally beaten by a group of men in a barbeque restaurant in Tangshan City of Hebei province in northern China. The surveillance footage went viral and elicited outrage even among the most silent in Chinese society. Many pointed out the systemic gender-based violence in Chinese culture — connecting the appalling Tangshan incident to everyday sexual, physical, and verbal violence that Chinese women vividly experience.
Some cases are high–profile, such as the discovery during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics of a chained woman in Feng county. Civil activists and ordinary citizens decried a society that failed to guarantee personal safety and deliver justice to the millions of missing and kidnapped women. Yet lower-level verbal assaults and sexual harassment experienced every day are rationalized by misogynist cultural norms. Many netizens believe that the violence against women in China is not just limited to isolated cases but instead reveals the historical patriarchy that still characterizes contemporary society.
Anastasia Zhang, a first-year graduate student from China, studying at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), recollects her memories of being assaulted by a man while riding public transportation. She remarked that she has “become used to assuming the worst of strangers” ever since. Witnessing the pervasive gender-based violence experienced by fellow women, she is occasionally startled by how “numb” she has become towards all the undelivered justice. The gender debate highlights the root of the insecurity millions of Chinese women feel.
But women and supporters are fighting back. Petitions urge the State Council to investigate human-trafficking cases, while volunteers circulate posters and feminist literature to denounce gender-based violence. China’s powerful censorship machine, however, makes resisting repression and raising awareness a challenge. Weibo and WeChat are the two social media giants that provide a forum for Chinese civil discourse. Both are heavily censored. Weibo and Wechat have ramped up their campaign to control cyber-dialogue. Weibo, for example, adopted a zero-tolerance approach toward “harmful speech,” including discussions that “incite gender confrontation.”
To circumvent censorship, tech-savvy millennials and Gen Z youths deploy tactical combinations of emojis, intentionally misspelled words, and homonyms. Decoding the Chinese internet lexicon requires understanding the Chinese language and the list of trigger words that internet platforms constantly revise. These efforts by young Chinese play a pivotal role in demonstrating solidarity with afflicted women, confronting toxic masculine values, and demanding social change. 🍬⛰️, emojis for “candy” and “mountain” symbolize the Tangshan incident.8⃣️🧒, conjures up the “eight children” born in captivity by the chained woman in Feng County. And ⛓️, the silver shackle, is a reminder of the misery of actual captivity for some and figurative captivity for others. Some internet activists even employ the word 蜜三刀 (Misandao, a fried dessert glazed in malt sugar associated with the cuisine of Xuzhou, where Feng County is located) to stigmatize the Feng County officials who failed to defend justice for the woman.
Another stratagem is to co-opt the official narrative ironically. Like a soldier unable to disobey his commander-in-chief, government censors dare not contravene party leaders, so activists use the words of party leaders as a call to action. “Women hold up half the sky” is Mao Zedong’s famous quote on the stance of the new Chinese government and was widely circulated amidst fierce discussions on gender-based violence and feminist awakening movements. Many internet users also reposted President Xi Jinping’s words at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, declaring, “protection of women’s rights and interests must become the commitment at the national level.” Using these quotes from party officers allows netizens to criticize the inaction of the local government officials without being scrubbed by the censorship machine. The struggle against gender-based violence in China endures, but tactics to circumvent censorship create much-needed room for open dialogue.
In the epilogue of The Death of Woman Wang, the husband was acquitted of his crime because the local magistrate concluded that Wang’s adultery justified her murder. Moreover, deference to patriarchal norms was prioritized because her killer was an only son who bore the burden of passing on his family lineage. Women in China feel the tragedy of the Woman Wang could happen to anyone to varying degrees. Zhang comments on two layers of insecurity she believes Chinese women face: “The first [layer] is that I fall victim to gender-based violence. The second is that a legal system underwriting the pains and sufferings of women would not deliver justice to me even after encountering the violence.”
Other concerns may soon replace the fleeting moments of united outrage against gender-based violence. Still, anger and confusion foment largely outside public discourse and could be reignited in response to the next brazen assault against women. People in China wonder from time to time whether “women hold up half of the sky” still holds true and whether the promise to protect women’s rights and gender equality will be delivered.