Beyond Han-Centrism: the “Ethnic Problem” in the Chinese Feminist and Queer Movement

Written by Naying Ren.

The problem of dealing with race and ethnicity in feminist and queer movements is typically a case of “easier said than done.” Whenever and wherever the notion of intersectionality is brought up in feminist dialogues today, ethnicity and race tend to be among the main and popular notions. Nonetheless, what has been done so far is totally another problem.

The feminist and queer movement in China is faced with this awkwardness as well, not to mention paradoxes and dilemmas. On the one hand, with the higher standard of political correctness among the activists, it is highly unlikely that Chinese feminist and queer activists do not take the stance of equality regardless of race and ethnicity. On the other hand, within the current landscape of the feminist and queer movement, little has been done in terms of ethnicity, compared to class or sexuality. While women workers’ stories have been told in political theatre by the workers themselves on the stage, ethnic minority women’s stories have only been mentioned in academic works. When transgender, lesbian, bisexual and pansexual women’s communities celebrate queer feminism, ethnic minority women are silenced and incorporated into the “universalized” (or “colonized,” to equate Chinese women with Han Chinese women) feminist and queer movement discourse in China.

Given the political sensitivity of the so-called “ethnic problems” (Minzuwenti, official Chinese reference to ethnicity related political issues; I translate it as “problem” rather than “matter” to show its implicit negativity in original Chinese) in China, from the “Tibet problem” to the “Xinjiang Uyghur Muslim problem”, from the silencing of news about ethnic conflicts in the public sphere to the prohibitions against young students competing in ethnically divided teams which are known only to those close to the students concerned, it is not difficult to imagine why ethnicity is not taken up by feminist and queer activism in China – an already sensitive topic here. Despite my steadfast support of queer feminism, I find it necessary to face and reflect on this inner marginalization.

Even if the structural Han-centrism could be excused for the vulnerability of queer feminist enterprise in China, the Han-centrism at the personal level under the layer of political correctness is more prevalent than as is commonly perceived. Without genuine understanding of what ethnic minority queers and feminists are facing in their lives, remarks that show prejudices, stereotypes, or even outright phobia (marked by Islamophobia) are not uncommon.

Ethnic minority queers and feminists, who are doubly or even triply marginalized, often find themselves speechless – because they have to explain and argue with everyone around them: Hanging out with fellow ethnic minorities, they struggle to talk about feminism and dare not to come out. Having a conversation with queers, they find it difficult to let other queers understand why ethnic minorities should be given more supportive policies in their education. Then when it comes to feminist and queer activist meetings, how many words do they have to speak before others could be on board with the simple call for having feminist and queer materials in more than the one language – Chinese, especially when the elder and working class ethnic minority people, whose mother tongues are other languages, might find it difficult to read the complicated and academic Chinese language used in our gender education materials?

As a Korean Chinese who grew up in China and conducted fieldwork in my hometown among Korean Chinese, I have encountered many stories that should be heard and taken seriously within the Chinese feminist and queer movement.

I have heard how many Korean Chinese choose not to come out not only due to family pressure or social pressure in work places, but also because, as an already marginalized group in China, they want to hang out with fellow Korean Chinese friends, among whom anything queer is still generally unacceptable. The intense inner social pressure among Korean Chinese is unimaginable for many outside the group, especially when most Korean Chinese are already socialized to be group-oriented and are afraid of marginalization inside the community. I have also listened to stories of domestic violence, in which family and personal honour, as well as more serious social stigmatization among Korean Chinese made divorce even harder for many Korean Chinese women.

Korean Chinese are already a comparatively privileged ethnic minority in China, among whom education level is comparatively high and adaptation to Chinese society has been comparatively good. How about those who belong to an ethnic minority group in China that has not even been officially recognized as a minority? How about those who cannot get access to education in their mother tongue, or have to choose between learning their mother tongue and having a good education? How about those queer ethnic minorities who have to struggle between not only their ethnicity and their sexuality, but also their religion and their gender identity?

Intersectionality loses its significance if it is only something that we talk about and never act upon. With sincerity as a queer feminist, I call for greater attention and more actions in relation to ethnicity in the Chinese feminist and queer movement. We could take the issue one step at a time, but before that, let’s take the first step together.

Naying Ren is an MPhil student of Social Anthropology at University of Oxford. She is a queer feminist activist and creative producer at CheekyChinUK. She is founder and producer at Vagina Project, a queer feminist applied theatre project based in Beijing, China and co-founder at the China LGBT+ Youth Network, a Chinese NGO that promotes LGBT+ rights with a focus on university community building. She tweets @rennaying. This article was first published on the blog Women and Gender in China (WAGIC) and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Taiwan Scenery Gallery/Flickr.

 

Categories: China