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Contemporary Dragon Ladies9 min read

China historian Gina Tam on Women and Power by Mary Beard

The first woman to ever have been told to “shut up,” according to Mary Beard’s sharp manifesto Women and Power, was Odysseus’s wife Penelope. Upon recognizing that her son Telemachus was entertaining a group of unwelcome visitors, she intervenes, only to be told to return to her proper place. “Mother,” he tells her, “go back up into your quarters and take up your own work … speech will be the business of men.” For Beard, this is the beginning of an uncomfortable, long history of telling women to hold their tongues and take their place outside the inner circles of power – from Telemachus to the male CEOs of today’s board rooms, from the Amazonians to Theresa May, “notions of power that exclude women” have been strikingly durable across space and time.

Beard does not argue a strong causal link between misogyny in Greek and Roman mythology, and the current gatekeeping that keeps all but a select few women out of top positions in government, art, business or academia. But the parallels are striking. It is no accident that images of Hillary Clinton were grafted onto Medusa, the exemplification of the dangers of female power. When these tropes are repeated throughout history, the arguments against a woman’s legitimacy at the table feel reasonable, even if they are not. They inure us to the argument that women have no place in the public sphere. There is a reason that it is difficult to imagine what a female president should wear, or that a Google search of “professor” yields mostly pictures of men – the image of a woman with power or a voice cuts against that to which we are so accustomed.

As a Chinese historian, I find that Mary Beard’s story rings familiar. Stories of women who have sought power during China’s long history have been recorded, reinvented and disseminated since the Zhou dynasty (1046-314 BC), and they continue to texture China’s cultural landscape today. Yet in contrast to Europe and the United States, where these tropes are maintained by a diffuse network of groups with a voice in the public sphere, in China, the government has positioned itself as the sole arbiters of historical memory. This includes the history of women, and the Communist Party’s role in it. “Women hold up half the sky,” the Party proclaimed when they took power in 1949, and those so-called “backwards and feudal” gender roles of China’s past, those “notions of power that exclude women” that existed in China’s own cultural canon, were swept away with the old regime. Gone, they cried, were the cultural shackles that had held women back in Chinese society, wiped clean by the Communist saviors.

When one group deems themselves the sole arbiters of history, they often rob particular groups of their own voices, past and present. In China, this means that a complex, tangled history of women has become flattened by government that asserts that they have already rid the country of its unenlightened past. Yet without alternative narratives, those “notions of power that exclude women” remain resilient, overlooked by a government that claims they no longer even exist. This presents a unique challenge. How can anyone in China argue that historic tropes about women are keeping them out of power when their own government – the authors of China’s historical memory – tells us that the problem of gender inequality is a thing of the past?

A special place in hell…

China’s earliest written records also include stories about how women should behave. From the Han dynasty, they are known as the “three obediences”: women should be obedient to their father, husband and son; and the “four virtues”: women should display wifely virtue, speech, manner and work. Similarly, a panoply of historical or semi-historical female figures help to set a framework for thinking about women with power. From the philosopher Mencius’s mother, whose self-sacrifice allowed him to truly embody his potential as one of China’s foremost philosophers, to female characters in the popular kung-fu novel Water Margin, who are punished for adultery and a “long tongue,” Chinese literature does not lack for archetypes meant to promulgate a particular model of femininity.

There is a special place in the hell of Chinese historical memory, however, for women who transgress their prescribed roles. The most common women to enter the male-composed historical annals are “dangerous concubines” who use sex and cunning to influence the political decisions of the men to whom they are married. The stories of China’s femme fatale concubines such as Da Ji – a woman who, after becoming possessed by a nine-tailed fox spirit, would delight in cruelty and deception – give warning: beware of women who seek power, for they will surely deliver calamity.

This is similarly applied to those women who held sway over China’s empires. Deemed “dragon ladies” by Westerners, they are portrayed in Chinese texts as wielding power through conspiracy, murder and sex, and in the process, they often bring the country to its knees. Empress Dowager Lü’s (241-180 BC) reputation as a traitor taints records of her accomplishments. Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), the quintessential “dragon lady” of the late Qing, is often credited with single-handedly bringing about the fall of the Qing dynasty and destroying China’s millennia-old imperial tradition. Wu Zetian, the only woman to shed her gendered title of “dowager” to declare herself emperor, ruled Tang China for nearly 45 years; she is still remembered as much for her cunning and manipulation as she is for expanding Tang territory along the Silk Road into Central Asia.

There is a special place in the hell of Chinese historical memory for women who transgress their prescribed roles”

Yet while patriarchal systems bound the space in which women are able to exercise power, there are ways in which we can read these histories with more complexity. The accomplishments in statecraft of Empress Lü and Emperor Wu Zetian, while accompanied by stories of their manipulation or sexual exploits, are recorded and celebrated. Ban Zhao (45-116 AD), author of the Book of Han and proponent of female education, is one of the world’s oldest female historians. And while cultural practices like chastity arches, meant to honor female martyrs of sexual virtue, epitomize the restrictions of a patriarchal system, there is a certain amount of power inherent in serving as the arbiter of moral behavior. The ways in which women express agency and power have not been absent in Chinese history – they simply were, and still are, enshrined within a limited framework.

“Women hold up half the sky”

Today, these complex notions about women in power have been replaced by a simpler historical framework. One of the major ideological influences of the Communist Party, the iconoclastic May Fourth Movement (1919), emphasized how the oppression of women in “traditional society” via economic dependency, arranged marriage, footbinding and illiteracy made the entire country “backward.” It was not simply that women exercised agency within an oppressive system – they lacked agency altogether. Several decades later, the Communist Party unveiled a platform meant to address past inequities and promote “equality of men and women” (nannü pingdeng), or gender equality. Visual propaganda plastered across walls during the tenure of Mao Zedong emphasized –through the smiling female welders, engineers and farmers – that women could do anything men could do.

Despite this black-and-white history of oppression and liberation, the CCP’s drive to uproot these “backwards” notions of gender roles has not lived up to its promise. With few exceptions, women were kept out of political policy-making during the Communist Party’s early years. Of those who did find themselves in a place of considerable influence, their place in historical memory parallels the narratives of China’s historical dragon ladies. One of the only women to hold real political power since 1949 was Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing, who, like her dragon-lady predecessors, is primarily remembered for using cunning manipulation to convince her husband to unleash the Cultural Revolution, threatening to undo all of his progress. More recently, when Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai saw his power stripped by Xi Jinping, it was his wife Gu Kailai’s sexual exploits and greed that received much of the blame for his excesses. Given these narratives, and a party that refuses to recognize their impact, is it all that surprising that the Standing Committee of the Politburo has never had a female member?

Visual propaganda during the tenure of Mao Zedong emphasized that women could do anything men could do”

In this way, the Chinese Communist Party has both silenced the complexity of how women exercised power in the country’s past while ignoring how much these notions of women in power inform its present. In 2015, when Xi Jinping co-hosted a UN summit on women’s rights in New York, his government arrested the Feminist Five just before International Women’s Day for bringing attention to sexual assault. Just last month, chilling videos surfaced from a government-approved camp meant to inculcate women with “traditional” gender roles – don’t argue, don’t be lazy, don’t fight back if your husband hits you.

Similarly, as Beard notes about her own experience, scholars in China are subject to impossible standards. There, female scholars are referred to as “the third sex,” because femininity is seen as inimical to expertise. Recently, a male sociology professor at Zhejiang university claimed that “history has shown that women do not belong in academia,” to the chagrin of female graduate students. While perhaps the lack of an open forum like Twitter lessens the possibility of rape threats, death threats and doxxing that female scholars like Beard experience in Europe and the US, female scholars are given little more legitimacy than their Western counterparts.

The consequences of this public history of silencing women are especially apparent in comparison. After a disheartening year in the United States, women are battling these notions with a vengeance. Feminists in China, on the other hand, see their voices diminishing. In the US, the “silence breakers” on sexual assault were recently named Time magazine Person of the Year; in China, Xinhua News Agency wrote of sexual assault as a solely “Western problem.” In the United States, the number of women running for office has increased to unprecedented numbers; in China, the number of women on the Party’s Central Committee has hovered under ten percent.

This is not to glorify the United States and Europe – Beard has demonstrated just how much women are kept on the outside of Western power structures through intimidation, fear or discrimination. But in China, the striking difference between a government that claims to protect gender equality and the durability of patriarchal struggles presents a unique challenge. If the Communist Party has no interest in combating these “notions of power that exclude women,” and to instead go out of their way to silence those who might challenge them, will China ever be able to realize the promise it gave when it claimed that women hold up half the sky? ∎

Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto (Liveright, December 2017).

Header image: public domain on Wikicommons.

Gina Anne Tam

Gina Anne Tam is an assistant professor of history at Trinity University. She has written for The Nation and Foreign Affairs, and is currently writing a book about the cultural history of dialect in modern China.