China experienced vast change during the Maoist era, economically and socially. However, under Mao, one of the most significant changes that occurred was the transformation of feminism and the decline of binary genders. Among the major characteristics of gender relations during this period was that Chinese state feminism collapsed the boundary between the public and domestic spheres. One way in which women brought themselves into the public sphere is through literature. Gender power relationships could be expressed and explored through writing; May Fourth women’s literature as well as literature of the self allowed women the opportunity to build and strengthen their womanhood. In addition to this, women were now leaving their domestic work and entering the public workforce. Large numbers of women were becoming part of the waged labor force, and childcare was developed to accommodate a working mothers needs. Factories were formed to create employment opportunities for women and higher education as well as professional occupations were now admitting women into their institutions. Another important characteristic of gender relations under Maoist China was socialized reproduction; this included publicizing and addressing the need for maternity leave and child day care. These are three key characteristics of China’s state feminism under Mao. However the ultimate transformation that allowed for these other changes to occur under Mao was, that the state diminished patriarchal family power through replacing family units with collective units as the base unit of production and accounting. This was done in part because of Mao’s goal to turn China into an industrialized society. This nation-building project called for the mobilization of a female labor force. However, what occurred was not truly the process of bringing women into the workforce but instead bringing more “people” into the workforce. This last statement is better explained through the term “gender erasure”, the erasure of the female gender. The concept of “gender erasure” exposes the adverse impact the decline of binary genders had on the trajectory of feminism. Gender erasure reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution when unisex dress code was implemented, it was said that from the back you could not tell a female worker from a male worker. Kang Xiujin, a woman of the Maoist era states in a piece written by Mayfair Mei-hui Yang, “You only felt like a women when you gave birth; at other times you don’t exist as a woman”. This was a time where women went from being women to becoming their closest possible form of working men. Hair was short and make up was absent, women went from being unequal to non-existent in their sexuality. Gender erasure is the ultimate suppression of sexuality; gender politics were reduced to class politics, traditional prejudices and discriminations against women continued in less overt ways, women lost the means to articulate feminism and what femininity is completely as it disappeared from their society and culture as a whole.
China experiences another drastic change in feminism in the 1980s and 1990s in the post-Mao era. During the 1980s and ‘90s the primary agendas for Chinese feminism focused on the reconstruction of women’s identity. It became a priority to awaken the gender identification in women and to recreate their sexuality among the masculine. A hyper-feminism developed among women in China as a result of prolonged sexual suppression; Women wore feminine and even promiscuous clothing, make up became an essential to everyday life, sex was not longer taboo, beauty was embraced to the point of plastic surgery and women became the sexual being that they had hidden for years. This new feminine agenda led to three major shifts under new Market Economy. First, “sexualized women” found their place in mass media. Women who became over-sexualized as a result of the complete loss of their identity were now advertised as sexual beings by billboards, televisions, and magazines. Secondly, a rising new appreciation of femininity began to unfold; and lastly, not all but a large number of women returned to domestic household labor.
Western feminism is not useful for Chinese women to construct the new feminine discourse in China. In Western feminism women seek the right to be equals as men, to have to same opportunities as men, to have the same jobs and the same income as men. These are things women lack because of the “sexual difference” between themselves and men. Chinese feminism on the other hand, has different goals to achieve. Chinese feminists strive to reconstruct the female identity that a social discourse has rendered invisible, suppressed and denied them specifically. Western women did not experience a complete loss of the female identity but rather inequality based on their sex; this is why the means that Western feminists use are not useful to Chinese women. Their situations are different, their cultures are different and while similarities can potentially be drawn they do not coincide enough to suggest that Western feminism could help reconstruct the Chinese women’s female identity.