In the inner court of Beijing’s Forbidden City, a carving of the mythical phoenix decorates the outer wall of the empress’s palace like a talisman to ward off evil spirits. The phoenix was the court’s favorite symbol of the empresses’ power. According to legend, the phoenix died in a fiery death only to rise from the ashes of its own destruction. No wonder empresses held the phoenix dear. They probably thought that heaven guaranteed them immortal powers.
I think there is a modern variation of the traditional phoenix symbol. Like the mythical bird, Chinese women have had their historical moments, wielding power and then vanishing from sight. Yet in each era, their political spirit was reborn, usually with a different identity.
This century is a propitious time for a new Chinese phoenix to rise. Ideological certainties are being re-examined, and serious cracks have developed in the plan for paradise on earth. In China, as in many other one-time communist strongholds, things didn’t turn out quite as expected. Today, isolationism, big government, and central planning are unpopular artifacts, replaced by internationalism, private enterprise, and free markets.
Amidst this transition, Chinese women needed only a brief opportunity to become the center of national attention. The Fourth World Conference on Women provided that chance. According to scholars at Beijing University, the most immediate result of the Conference was a great leap forward in women’s political participation.
In the 1990s, Wu Qing, a distinguished professor of American studies at the Chinese International University, was a leading evangelist for the cause. Toting a grassroots political philosophy, she traveled around the country, speaking to communities and women’s groups. Her main message was that women must exercise their rights by voting and holding their local representatives accountable. Wu believed that the future of women’s political power lay in mobilizing their political consciousness and encouraging more independent-minded women to run for office. That kind of conviction was hard to beat.
Wu spoke from her own experience as a successful independent candidate for the prestigious People’s Congress. In her spare time, she opened her university office to her constituency to stay in touch with their concerns. They told her everything, from family problems to illnesses, and she listened. Her views may have strayed from the party line, but she insisted that everything she espoused was legal.
The Conference also marked a turning point for the largest women’s non-governmental organization in the world: The All China Women’s Federation (ACWF). There were stable financial resources that strengthened its political clout. Thanks to the visibility of the Conference, the ACWF had considerable backing from the government and international donors to provide services needed by Chinese women. The ACWF launched popular anti-poverty and literacy campaigns that reached millions of women. Its departments included human resources development, publicity and education, children’s work, and international liaison. A publishing house, several magazines, and the China Women’s Daily were also affiliated. These social services, combined with strong media outreach, guaranteed that the ACWF was a major player in the country’s struggle for social and economic reform.
The Conference didn’t turn China upside down by itself, but it clearly contributed to the country’s political renaissance. Above all, it helped to encourage many Chinese women to see themselves as leaders at the forefront of China’s modernization. Striving to be assertive and demanding self-respect, young women in particular are making progress toward power. They are challenging traditional authoritarian models of centralized power and heavy-handed rule. For the new leaders of the Chinese women’s movement, the imperial manner of authoritarian leadership is part of the old order.
The feminization of politics in China has taken on a new purpose: encouraging women’s equal participation and leadership in a democratic society. The phoenix has risen. May it grow strong and fly higher.