Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

Historian’s new book examines modern Chinese feminism

Historian and Rice University professor Tani Barlow defined an event as “a politically inspired action to establish a newly discovered truth.” Barlow’s most recent book, “In the Event of Women,” characterizes women by the way they enact change, rather than as a group or broad idea. 

At a lecture Wednesday hosted by the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Working Group, Barlow discussed her latest book which explores opposing views of women during the Cultural Revolution in China led by communist leader Mao Zedong from 1966 to 1976. She related these diverging ideas about the nature of women to the question of women’s roles in modern China. 

While researching and writing, Barlow grappled with what femininity looks like and what happens when the question of femininity becomes political.

“The question is, ‘How would a woman emerge onto the horizon of history?’” Barlow asked. 

In her book, Barlow argues that feminism in general can be understood through China. She explained that a universal truth has to be theorized through another tradition, while calling upon Chinese intellectual history. She examined the intersection between Chinese traditions and modern evolutionary arguments that show how men and women are different but equal. 

“They have equal natural nights, and they must equally thrive for a good society,” Barlow explained. 

Barlow uses philosophy and sociology to show how advertisers in the 20th century pushed a new view of women. In older depictions of women before the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, their physical bodies were rarely depicted, mirroring their exclusion from Chinese society. However, advertisements ranging from fertilizer to beauty products in the 1920s and 1930s began to sexualize women in order to market commodities.

It is important to note the changes in attitudes toward women and depictions of women in media because history manifests itself in the way people communicate, Barlow said.

“When you see depictions of women in everyday life change, it means that expectations are different and images appear as an inspiration or aspiration,” Barlow said. 

She discusses changing ideas about the role of women in the last chapter of her book. During the chapter, Barlow examines the conflict between two powerful women at the apex of Chinese state power, Wang Guangmei and Jiang Qing. Guangmei was the wife of Liu Shaoqi, who served as the president of the People’s Republic of China from 1959 to 1968, and Qing was Mao Zedong’s fourth wife.

These women were at the center of Chinese revolutionary history, she explained.

“They were fighting over the appropriate way for women to behave on the global scale,” Barlow said.

Guangmei was targeted because she represented “bourgeois” values that the Communist Party opposed, according to Barlow. Jiang was punished for wearing provocative clothing, like a pearl necklace, which was deemed “impure.” Both women faced public humiliation and imprisonment for their actions. 

Although women’s material bodies have been politicized and sexualized, Barlow identified the power to influence the narrative of history and the future as a crucial step for liberating women.

Barlow explained that the struggle to identify the role of women and how women should act remains a serious problem today. She discussed how feminist philosophy can be applied to focus on making changes to how people view women, rather than confirming a definition, which would not welcome all people who identify as women. 

Barlow said women are not defined by their bodies. “In the Event of Women” refers to the discoveries of women that are constantly changing and in transition, she said.

“While the truth of sexual reproduction will always be transitive, the event of women is a never fully completed political struggle to establish truth and justice,” she said.

Contact Caroline Collins at