A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Contemporary Chinese Feminist Activist Rhetorics: #MeToo in China

Chen Chen, Winthrop University

Xiaobo Wang, Sam Houston State University

(Published February 17, 2022)


Chinese rhetorical scholars have argued for using a dialogic comparative rhetorical lens to enrich and diversify our understanding of rhetorical theories, especially in response to the need to understand non-western rhetorics on their own terms. Scholars of Chinese feminisms from rhetorical and literary perspectives have presented good examples of how to read non-western rhetorical texts in ways that enrich feminist theories and methodologies. In this article, we turn our focus to the current #MeToo movement in China, as it has manifested as an object of rhetorical analysis to theorize contemporary Chinese feminist rhetorics in the digital sphere.

The rhetorical strategies invented and adopted by Chinese feminist activists and supporters across the world reflect the unique styles of Chinese feminist movement, a movement centered on anti-sexual harassment/assault and in pursuit of gender equality. Networked with the international #MeToo movement, Chinese feminist rhetoricians are responsive to the local sociopolitical and cultural contexts of China and its connections with western feminist ideals and practices. The access to truth is an indispensable premise of deliberative democracy (Porpora and Sekalala 942). Thus, to achieve gender equality in the post-truth era, the Chinese feminist movement has to fight against both internet surveillance and inherent patriarchal logic that resulted from feudalism, Confucianism, and a nondemocratic society from ancient to modern and postmodern times. More recently, neoliberal ideologies and economic globalization further presented challenges to globally networked social movements. Biesecker has warned us about how neoliberal governance shaped “a distinct regime of truth” (330). Therefore, the situated rhetorical condition is one that has always been assembling the traits of the post-truth era. In China, the dominant discourse is increasingly driven by affiliations with a nationalistic and patriarchal identity. Consequently, feminist resistance is at once driven by validating women’s emotions, identities, experiences and an epistemological urgency to establish a sound collective understanding of advocacy for women’s rights.

By recognizing and amplifying the outstanding work of Chinese feminist activists both in China and abroad, our goal here is to theorize Chinese feminist resistance rhetorics in the #MeToo era based on their actions and knowledge they’ve developed. Specifically, we seek to address the following questions: What activist rhetorical strategies are manifested in the Chinese #MeToo movement? How does Chinese feminist discourse and activism circulate? Finally, what can we learn from the Chinese #MeToo movement about transnational activism against intersectional oppressions of women?

Studying Chinese Rhetorics

Our rhetorical analysis is theoretically and methodologically informed by the comparative rhetorical lenses developed by scholars who study comparative and Chinese rhetoric. Mao and Wang claimed that scholars of comparative rhetoric have challenged Euro-American conceptions and practices and provided new methods of analysis of diverse rhetorical traditions and practices of people across times and spaces. “Recognizing the ethical, epistemic, and political implications” of comparative studies, scholars of comparative rhetoric proposed to study the rhetorical texts that “have been under-represented, under-recognized, or dismissed” (Mao and Wang 240). The globalization of comparative rhetoric entails not only a “rethinking of the comparative enterprise,” but the “construction of the ‘Other’” (240). This mode of rethinking requires us to “move away from divides and binaries and promote nuanced analysis and discursive open-endedness” (240) and foster the “habits of living in a pluralistic and globalizing world,” which is also the process that Royster and Kirsch defined as “a multidimensional sense of diversity” (cited in Mao and Wang 241). Wang has proposed a “transrhetorical practice” that requires scholars of rhetoric to dialogue with one another when languages and cultures limit our understanding of the world. Similarly, Swearingen has argued that having dialogues with the stranger/the Other continues to be an issue of identity and politics, of law and ethics, that can be informed by transnational, historical, and cultural studies, which becomes increasingly important in the current climate of resurgent nationalisms and related polarized identities (308). In this article, we hope to construct the “Other” by theorizing contemporary Chinese feminist activist rhetoric to initiate a dialogue with Western feminism.

In his work on Chinese rhetorics, LuMing Mao claims that finding the critical answers to the questions of whats and wheres of Chinese rhetoric can not only help us better understand the differences that undergird Western and Chinese rhetoric, but also afford us valuable opportunities to open up new spaces for studying Chinese rhetoric and advance cross-cultural communication in today’s global contact zones (“Searching for the Way” 329). Mao critiques the study of the Chinese rhetorical tradition in the United States, stating that it has regularly been conducted in the general context of comparative rhetoric, with a particular interest in comparing it with the Euro-American rhetorical tradition. This has turned us away from our own discursive conditions, i.e., the Chinese native’s point of view. He suggests that significant comparative rhetorical processes happen only when rhetorical scholars put in the utmost efforts to connect with other rhetorical traditions and face up to the complex, historically determined relations of power, i.e., when rhetoricians can represent the “native’s” (referring to Chinese native’s point of view in Mao’s text) point of view that can contribute to a discourse of reciprocity (“Studying the Chines Rhetorical Tradition in the Present” 235). Similarly, Lyon emphasizes the deep study of key texts within a specific culture, which teaches a more cross-cultural literacy than an anthology of multicultural or transnational texts does (351). She also claims cross-cultural literacy relies on recognizing how a culture’s texts speak to its own history, other texts, and contexts (351).

Given the popularity of social media platforms in China and the increasingly intensive state-sanctioned information control and manipulation in recent years, we need renewed attention to contemporary Chinese rhetorics, especially those manifested in digital social networks. One pitfall that Western perspectives can encounter when looking at Chinese cultural and rhetorical contexts is that they may focus primarily on the culture of surveillance and control, which risks neglecting the lived experiences of Chinese people and assumes that  they are passive victims. Networked digital media has presented new challenges, but also new opportunities for more creative and innovative civic participation for Chinese people whose resistance has always been persistent. As Margaret Roberts theorized, the censorship model of China is typically a porous one rather than direct erasure of information that’s more fear-based. Therefore, certain information is hard to find (friction), or the platforms are flooded with other information the government preferred[1],. This tactic is usually reserved for influencing users, such as journalists or public opinion leaders. Activists in all social arenas trying to challenge the dominant ideologies have been learning to deal with this complexity of control and actively combating it.

The Battlefields for Chinese Feminisms

Inspired by the post-Mao Ze Dong women’s rhetoric born of its specific historical and cultural milieu, Wu proposes “an enlightened feminist rhetorical theory that can both clarify and unravel cultural and political complexities…and can strengthen transnational connectivity of feminist ideas” (408). Similar to LuMing Mao and Lyon’s calls for studying native texts of a culture, Wu’s theoretical framework was developed within the historical and sociocultural contexts of Chinese women writers. Guided by this enlightened feminist rhetorical theory in our analysis, we first unpack the historical legacies of modern Chinese feminisms and the contemporary complicated sociopolitical challenges faced by Chinese feminists and activists.

Progressive women writers and feminist activists in China from the early 20th century to the Post-Mao Zedong era reconceptualized the western feminism (nüquanzhuyi) in the Chinese context and challenged Mao’s legacy on women’s issues. Bo Wang’s analysis showed that early 20th-century Chinese women writers used the genre sanwen, a vernacular essay form that emphasized “writer’s individual personality in writing,” and introduced and redefined traditional morals and values to develop a new nüquanzhuyi for Chinese women (“Engaging Nunquanzhuyi” 390-391). As a result, new terms such as nüquan (women’s rights) and nannüpingdeng (equality between men and women) were introduced and reinforced. However, Chinese post-Mao women writers “deny that they are feminists” and believe “feminist standpoint is mostly imported from the West” (Wu 407). The contention around the label of “feminism” (nüquanzhuyi) as it localized in China is partly because of the shifting tensions between China and the West that have shaped the contemporary scene of feminist discourses in China, especially in fraught social media spaces. But we must caution against the monolithic view that Chinese feminism was solely the result of a localization of western import and pay more attention to the common pursuit of gender equality of global feminism and the unique experiential knowledge of Chinese feminist activism.

Even though more women entered the official political arena and were able to advocate for women’s rights through legislative moves soon after the founding of the new China, such as the “open door” policy in the 70s and 80s, the passing of the “marriage law,” and the establishment of All-Women’s Federation, these developments were often predicated on the systemic support of dominant communist and socialist political ideologies and hidden as part of the political movement rather than highlighted as feminist efforts (All-China Women’s Federation). Yet, the flourishing of NGOs related to women’s issues in the 90s since the 1995 Women’s Conference in Beijing was a result of the success of modern Chinese women advocates. Nonetheless, more gender-based discriminatory practices abounded because of the lack of systemic support for women’s rights in the workforce (Leung). Ideologically, it was believed that women’s problems were solved through the Communist Party’s official Marxist and Maoist perspective that “women hold up half of the sky” (Xu 204). The advent of the 21st century saw a shift of such advocacy work from within the “system” to outside the “system” as exemplified by the work of activist leaders such as Lü Pin, the founder of Feminist Voices, China’s first online feminist publication[2].

Xi’s leadership (starting in 2012) signaled a return to the traditional, Confucian, patriarchal values that place a strong emphasis on family and filial piety (i.e., the country and the family are one and the same: harmonious families mean a harmonious country): 家国天下 (“family-state under heaven”), and certainly a return to the early 20th-century revolutionaries’ perception of women as “mothers of the nation” (Betraying Big Brother). The end of the one-child policy led to a culture of pushing women to get married and have more children. A post-womanist stance and a capitalist, neoliberal view of women’s issues commercializes women's bodies, gives a false sense of "power" to women, and creates simplified images of women and problematic dichotomous stereotypes. The arrest of the five feminists on Women’s Day in 2015 and the 2018 shutdown of Feminist Voices further demonstrated the increasingly shrinking public sphere for feminist activism in China.

The complex political, social, and cultural legacies in Chinese society resulted in feminism, now commonly referred to as nüquanzhuyi, still receiving hostility in the public sphere, especially on online social network sites that supposedly allow for a freer expression of opinions. Feminist scholar Li Sipan traces the history of feminist discursive presence on Weibo and rightfully points out that the commercialization of media through promoting “opinion leaders” on the platform led to an elitist discursive environment, dominated by patriarchal ideologies. Since 2013, through a series of actions, Weibo reframed their content strategy to be organized topically based on people’s interests, such as cars, tourism, food, etc., downplaying the platform’s role in promoting voices of public intellectuals or opinion leaders. This commercial interest-motivated shift resulted in an increase in female users of Weibo, which inadvertently helped with the rise of attention towards women’s and feminist issues. But Li’s research shows that female Weibo users are predominantly younger, college-age, or career women, living in more economically developed areas. This resulted in the emergence of some privileged, neoliberal feminist positions, such as the opinion that women should be independent and shouldn’t get married at all. However, even though social media platforms are run by private companies, they are also at the service of the state. The most recent onslaught of feminist accounts on Weibo for “inciting mass confrontation” reflects this social, cultural, political, and epistemological battle (“Feminist Thwarting China’s Population Goals.”). The emergence and more widespread discourses on feminism or women’s rights does not necessarily hide this complicated landscape of Weibo.

Consequently, as the “post-truth” wave intensifies, Chinese people supporting women’s rights—whether they are labeled or self-label as feminists or not—are coming up with innovative and creative ways to advance Chinese feminist rhetorics. Through analyzing artifacts created by Chinese women and feminist activists, we seek to chart the landscape of contemporary Chinese feminist rhetorics as a site for both reflective epistemological endeavors and transformative processes for shaping and establishing the presence of feminisms in the Chinese and transnational public sphere. Even as challenges exist and intensify at times, we continue to see voices pouring out and fighting for justice that sustains feminist critical discourses in online and offline spaces[3].

Responding to Bo Wang’s calls for an experiential approach to studying Chinese feminist discourses, we address questions such as: what feminist discourses do and how they circulate in the world and elicit responses. Our article here draws attention to the whats and wheres of contemporary Chinese feminist rhetorics to learn from activists’ work with an experiential approach. In the section below, we analyze the discursive practices of Chinese feminist activists in a transnational context by amplifying their rhetorical savvyness and illustrating how they continue to combat the perpetual “post-truth” state of China’s civic environment by practicing and theorizing Chinese rhetorical feminisms. 

Contemporary Chinese Feminist Rhetoric in the #MeToo Era

Democratic citizenship demands participation in the public sphere, questioning of our prejudices, and opening ourselves to “the critical space of arguments and counterarguments” (Porpora 951). When we decline to accept this responsibility, deliberative democracy disappears, and it is replaced by a pure power politics where each side tries to out mobilize the other without seeking persuasion (Porpora and Sekalala). Even though Tarana Burke initiated #MeToo within the African American communities, the movement became a worldwide campaign only when a privileged white woman voiced unfair treatment (Fileborn and Loney-Howes 6-9). While movements against sexual harassment/sexual assaults have long existed in China, the hashtag was brought to China by a Chinese expat living in the U.S. after being inspired by the Hollywood case[4].  Whereas social media should support democratic participation in this campaign, we see discrepancies in agency because of the inequality present in various platforms and cultural, sociopolitical contexts—China included.

Participation in the public sphere is extremely important in fighting against inequalities and oppressions in China since the nation state is not a democracy. Therefore, dissenters must find ways to counter pure power politics and intersectional oppressions. The advent of the #MeToo era brought renewed energy to the Chinese feminist movements. Its transnational nature and rhetorical richness illustrate the complexities of doing activism work in the Chinese context and how Chinese activists respond to such complexities with rhetorical savviness and resiliency. Facing ideological battles in both online and offline spaces, Chinese feminists have continued to fight for what they call “话语权” (discursive rights) and to create “话语空间” (discursive spaces) for feminism.

To frame our analysis of different rhetorical artifacts in this section, we start with an artifact of critical commentary and analysis that previews the kinds of challenges feminist discourse and activism faces. We will then analyze how Chinese women and feminists tell and circulate their stories, combat state information censorship and manipulation through wordplay, visual euphemism, multimodal genres, as well as expanding their activist effort to offline spaces despite limitations for “on-the-street” activism in an authoritarian state. As researchers, we enact the ethics of care and hope that Royster and Kirsch argued in our analysis by putting center stage the key narratives and activities of Chinese feminists. We follow the practices Glenn laid out to listen to, then tell, retell, and analyze the stories and experiences of these feminists and their work.

Critical Commentaries and Analyses

米米亚娜 (Mimi Yana) is a feminist, independent writer, and social innovation designer, with a long-term commitment to women’s issues and their progress. She is enthusiastic in organizing and participating in public activities, popularizing citizen education, especially around pan-social scientific topics such as gender, society, politics, and communications (@Nikko, https://matters.news/@Nikko). She has written extensively about Chinese women’s issues and feminism in China, making her one of what Glenn would call feminist rhetors enacting rhetorical feminism. Here we analyze her article 冲破茧房方能茁壮成长 | 致女权主义者 (“Only Breaking out of the Cocoon can Lead to Healthy Growth | To Feminists,” translation our own). In the piece, she categorizes some common types of feminist discourses on Weibo and critically analyzes their functions to warn feminists of the ways the discourses limit the feminist movement.

Mimi Yana’s address starts with a personal experience. She was invited to a get-together in Chengdu with a Chinese American scholar who was unfamiliar with feminism. She had concerns about this event because she wasn’t sure how this scholar or the diverse audience would respond to feminism. But her talk on the important moments of the Chinese feminist movement, her personal experiences as a feminist, and the common myths people might have about feminism captivated the audience.

This opening story immediately makes Mimi Yana’s writing engaging and accessible. By sharing her reflections on this experience of coming out of her comfort zone, she quickly paints the picture of a feminist as a real human being, establishing a similar ethos through writing that she likely did in person. From the sharing of this “offline event,” she transitions to the main point of this article: her disappointment in online feminist activism lately, specifically on Weibo. Throughout the article, she carefully maintains the ethos and trust she built with readers by emphasizing that the writing was based solely on her personal insights and by discussing larger contextual constraints, such as social network sites’ tendency to create information bubbles and the state’s control and manipulation of information.

Explaining the larger contextual constraints for feminist discourses online demonstrates Mimi Yana’s critical literacy skills toward digital media. Her acute observations of Weibo’s failure to provide a neutral public sphere (thus making it difficult to advance productive feminist discourses) reflect her strengths as a technofeminist. From there, she emphasizes that the lack of contemporary leading feminist voices in online spaces, especially because of the shutdown of feminist online publication Feminist Voices, combined with citizen’s lack of foundational education on democratic politics, makes it difficult for Chinese netizens to engage in fruitful, educated exchanges in online public spaces. The act of setting up context for her argument and reminding the readers of bigger picture issues presented a good opportunity for her to further dissect and illustrate what problematic feminist ideologies might look like online.

Mimi Yana warns her readers of three types of feminist ideologies on Weibo that have become too disembodied and, thus, too distant from the reality of women and feminists’ lives (paraphrase and translation our own):

The first type is propagated often by commercialism, which promotes a perfect image of women as beautiful, smart, strong, independent, rich, enjoying high social status and often both a good career and a successful love life. The second type is what we call jianpanxia-style (keyboard swordsmen) feminism, a sort of trolling that is very adamant and straightforward in attacking zhinan’ai (straight men cancer) and strictly examining and critiquing what they believed to be unfitting feminist discourses, often with hate speech and violent verbal attacks. Finally, the third type is the great and righteous scholarly feminism in the ivory tower, which she believed to be more like students rather than scholars of feminism because they often lack deep observations of reality even though they might be familiar with feminist theories and can reference famous feminist texts and discuss them with big words.

Mimi Yana recognizes and acknowledges these ideologies’ indispensable contributions to the fight for gender equality, despite their limitations. This feminist thought empowered women to fight back against patriarchal ideas and discourses in the public space, as well as spread feminist concepts and theories. However, she critiques how these ideologies overlook viewing women as real human beings, living real lives, with real desires and struggles. These ideologies put feminism on a pedestal where feminists had to be perfect at all times.

Mimi Yana critiques the neoliberal view of feminists. Similarly, Rebecca Dingo has warned against the neoliberal influence on feminism in a global context, which focuses too much on microlevel changes in individual behaviors to achieve gender equality. Aware of the danger of neoliberal feminism, Mimi Yana makes an argument for a systemic perspective of feminism while acknowledging that individual ideological struggles may always exist, since living a feminist life in a hostile context like China means continuous, difficult, critical self-reflections on one’s values and identities. Not unlike Sara Ahmed’s metaphor of the feminist killjoy as “a leaky container,” she re-affirms the contributions of the problematic feminist ideologies she criticizes but challenges the idea of a perfect feminist and a unifying, perfect feminism (171). Additionally, she encourages others to push for a more humane and embodied feminist ideology grounded in the realities women live in, especially across socioeconomic ladders. By recognizing that her privileged position allows her to participate in organized activism, Yana’s rhetorical approach was invitational and reflexive. Here, by criticizing the flaws of some online feminist discourse, Mimi Yana broadens the space for other feminist voices.

Mimi Yana’s article makes an important contribution to the development of Chinese feminism, especially in the context of a networked, technological society. It is grounded in embodied experiences and written with a rhetorically effective critical reflection on a feminist phenomenon that readers are likely to resonate with. Her acute, critical analysis of the advantages and downfalls of different online feminist discourses further reflects the epistemic struggles of Chinese feminisms and warns us against the simplistic views and easy labeling of “nüquanzhuyi.” Given this critical understanding of the Chinese social media landscape of feminist discourses, we now turn to artifacts that demonstrate how people have been able to advance the feminist movement in this landscape, both online and offline.


#MeToo came to China via storytelling. Many may recognize #MeToo’s official entrance to China in Luo Xixi’s article shared on Weibo in January 2018 where she, a Chinese expat living in the U.S., shared her story of being sexually harassed by her Ph.D. supervisor Chen Xiaowu at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics 12 years before. After the Harvey Weinstein case in Hollywood, Luo ran across a discussion thread about Chen Xiaowu on Zhihu, a Chinese Quora type of social network site where users post questions and answers about various topics. In the thread, several anonymous users shared their stories of being sexually harassed or assaulted by Chen Xiaowu. Upon reading these stories, Luo posted her own story. In the post, Luo explicitly regretted not sharing her story earlier so that other female students coming after her could have been warned about him. While this post on Zhihu was anonymous, she included a screenshot of the post in her article later posted on Weibo, titled “I want to use my real name to report Professor and Changjiang Scholar Chen Xiaowu of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, for sexually harassing female students.”

Luo’s story was significant not only because it networked Chinese women’s struggles with the global #MeToo movement in the public sphere, but also because it embodied the rhetorical power of online storytelling as an act of resistance in the fight for gender equality. Luo employed several strategies that are representative of these types of narratives, including its content creation, methods of circulation, and the suppression it received. In addition to using her real name, the recounting of her story was succinct but had enough details about the events that the evidence of Chen’s horrifying actions resonated with many other women who had similar experiences. Luo’s action of sharing her response on Zhihu in a more publicized post with her real name empowered other women to come forward and share their own encounters with Chen. Her journey of seeking justice illustrates and documents the challenges of feminist activism work and the resilience of Chinese women against the oppressions they face.

Not only did Luo’s article effectively share her experience, but she also took the effort to justify and reflect on her storytelling. This reflective process illustrates an attention to the complex sociopolitical contexts in China and a commitment to action—gestures commonly made by Chinese feminist activists. Luo hoped that her coming forward would not only bring an end to Chen Xiaowu’s actions, but also set a legal precedent for dealing with sexual harassment and assault cases in higher education in China. If there were no legal repercussions to Chen Xiaowu’s actions, at least he would be morally prosecuted on social network sites by the general public. Meanwhile, she referenced her own learning in this process about anti-sexual harassment and assault cases in China since the 1990s and expressed a positive outlook toward change in policy and legislature in China. She promised to continue to bring Chen Xiaowu’s case to upper echelons, such as the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (the mechanism in charge of internal affairs, especially to combat corruption and misdemeanors of Party members) and the Ministry of Education. He was eventually fired from the university.

Luo’s storytelling and reflection kindled the fire for the #MeToo movement in China in the public sphere. Like ripples in a pond, many other survivors came forward to share their own stories on social media; many university students also began drafting petitions to their institutions’ administrations to set up mechanisms to combat anti-sexual harassment/assaults on their campuses (similar to American Title IX offices). Stories popped up on Weibo and petitions circulated on WeChat, which helped build solidarity, encouragement, and even transformed identities for some women. Meanwhile, these stories propel change through documenting and collecting evidence, as well as organizing actions. Later in the Chinese #MeToo archive, 80 high profile cases of sexual assaults committed by professors and leaders in various fields and industries were documented (Digital archive of #MeToo in China). Throughout this process of storytelling, Luo, like several other survivors whose narratives drew significant public attention, has transformed her identity from a survivor to an advocate and activist who began to set groundwork for the progress of feminist movement in China. She joins other long-term feminist activists, such as Lü Pin, Xiao Meili, Zhang Leilei, Luo Xixi, and other survivors, such as Xianzi, who have become what Glenn calls “feminist rhetors” who “demonstrate the ways that public and private language use can be a means to create a different kind of world characterized by a different set of practices and values, ones that establish eudaemonia, the greatest good for all human beings” (5).

Further, the telling and circulation of stories has taken advantage of the multimodal affordances of social network sites and adeptly responded to various types of censorship, revealing the rhetorical savviness of these feminists. For example, the use of screenshots is very common in these types of content because they are perceived to provide concrete evidence and documentation that seems more realistic than third person accounts. In addition, many women wrote their narrative as a textual note then posted it as a long image on Weibo to circumvent the limitation of word counts. On WeChat, a long post may be broken down to multiple images and posted as a group on “Moments,” (aka “朋友圈” or “Friend Circles”), a private feed seen only by one’s chosen contacts/friends. Through systematic studies and experiments, Knockel found that two algorithms were used to filter images in WeChat moments: one filters images that have sensitive texts, the other filters images that are similar to those on a surveillance blacklist. Ways to fight filtering include mirroring or rotating images, changing the ratio of the original image, and blurring the images (Knockel et al). The censoring methods, often unpredictable to the untrained public eye, require continued creativity and innovation from netizens to evade, so users often try to repost, share as widely as they can, and save locally to preserve content.

Wordplay, visual euphemism, and other multimodal genres

Participating in online communications in China is often like playing a cat-and-mouse game. In response to such erratic control, Chinese netizens have always been creative in using wordplay or visual euphemisms to disguise sensitive information in their online posts. In the #MeToo movement, the most prominent example was how the phrase #MeToo was disguised. As an English phrase, #MeToo risked being censored right from the beginning because of the Chinese government’s fear of “western” ideological and cultural corruption of Chinese ideals. Consequently, some netizens came up with new ways to express “metoo.” “Metoo” was translated to 米兔 , pronounced “mi tu” in Chinese, meaning “rice bunny,” and “俺也一样” or “我也是” meaning “me too” literally. Sometimes, “rice bunny” was portrayed as an image showing a bunny and a bowl of rice: “metoo” as a visual euphemism (see figure 1).

#MeToo disguised as rice bunny.

Figure 1: #MeToo disguised as “rice bunny.” (Source: https://supchina.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/china-metoo-820x500.jpg)

Other multimodal genres also provided spaces to document the feminist movement and critically reflect on feminist activism. “有点田园” (Into the Fields, or more literally translated as “A Little Pastoral”) is a Weibo account originally created by Xiao Meili for her field trip walking across China to promote gender equality. She also created a category in her official, personal WeChat account with the same name. Xiao later began making a podcast where she invited women and feminist activists to discuss various issues and cases related to China’s contemporary feminist movement. Here is its description:


Into the Fields is a podcast striving to offer grounded opinions on gender and sexuality. Other than paying attention to the growth of chives in the field, we also care about any topics related to gender and sexuality in this field. Welcome to sit in our fields, if you don’t mind, we hope you like the dirt caught on your shoes too. (translation our own).

Into the Fields features dialogues between feminists about experiences of feminism, feminist concepts, the state of feminist issues in China, feminist criticisms of Chinese cultural content such as TV shows or films, and commentaries on current prominent events around feminist issues and gender equality. The phrase “harvesting chives” is often used in the finance industry and stock markets to indicate reaping profits over and over again during a boost in the market, like chives that keep growing during their growth period no matter how much you reap them. Using the metaphor of chives to insinuate the continued growth of feminists and feminism in China, the account description embodies a lighthearted humor—as opposed to the more combative and argumentative feminist rhetoric that has been criticized so much in dominant discourses. The use of the term “田园” (fields/pastoral) in the title is also an ironic response to a problematic discourse against feminism in online Chinese social network sites, labeling a form of feminism as “田园”—one that does not embody the perfect feminism and one that is men-hating. Lü Pin argues that this labeling is a “fake enemy” created by the patriarchal society to criticize feminism, create internal conflicts among feminists, and take over the discursive power of defining feminism on their own terms (Into the Fields). These dialogues and discussions provide an easier and more laid-back access to feminist issues; the host Xiao Meili and guests often laugh and share their own experiences and opinions with the occasional background of a cat meowing, creating the environment that feels like listeners are sitting in a living room with these feminists and having a conversation. As many feminist discourses do in online spaces, the podcast creates a virtual public to facilitate discussions and share diverse women’s stories.

Networked Activism

Leading activists of Chinese rhetorical feminism in the #MeToo era are well aware of the impediments to organized action in China and the limitations of online feminist discourses to further the feminist movement. Therefore, they have been spending a lot of effort to create networked activism across platforms and spaces to circumvent these obstacles. In this section specifically, we discuss a case of an organized activity that has brought #MeToo in China from online to offline and back to the U.S.: the #MeToo in China exhibit named “The Voiceless Rise Up!”

A group of volunteers helped organize and set up the exhibit in July 2019, first in Beijing, and then in Guangzhou and Chengdu. The exhibit in both Guangzhou and Chengdu was shut down earlier than the scheduled closing date. Figure 2 below shows the poster for the exhibit in Chengdu with the end date scratched out and rewritten by hand, indicating that the exhibit was closed on September 5 rather than September 8 because of “inexorable force.” Another phrase was handwritten next to the title “The Voice of the Voiceless”: “the voiceless lost the voice again?” The exhibit was a strong rhetorical act that spoke back to the society and the government that did not listen to and silenced the women who were survivors of sexual harassment and assaults by using multimodal rhetorical artifacts that embodied significant moments of the feminist movement and metaphorically represented the oppressions of women, activists, and their resistance. One attendee in Chengdu, when asked if this was an exhibit about how women were hurt, responded, “no, it was an exhibit about resistance” (Meng De Si Jiu).

One of the most powerful installations in this exhibit was the use of barbed wires surrounded by audio playing survivors telling their stories. This installation used barbed wires to represent the thorny paths survivors have experienced in their quest to speak up about their stories and gain justice. For attendees, walking in a small space of multiple cages set up with spiralled barbed wires proved to be difficult; they had to be careful to not get their clothes or bodies caught and cut by the thorns. Thus, this installation not only visually and materially embodied survivors’ experiences, but it also created an experience for exhibit attendees to potentially personally mimic how these survivors must have felt.

Poster for #MeToo in China Exhibit.

Figure 2: Poster for #MeToo in China Exhibit in Chengdu. (Source: @Catchup性别平权姐妹 on Weibo. Unfortunately this account has since been deleted.)

An attendee took pictures of drops of blood when another attendee, a man, cut their hand by the wire at the Guangzhou exhibit and posted it to their WeChat account, @小铖smalltown (see figure 3). In this account, the visual juxtaposition of the blood drops and the barbed wires served as yet another remix of the exhibit online. As @小铖smalltown argued in their post, this installation and accident incidentally constituted “an unrehearsed performance art” that indicated an environment where facing sexual harassment is a thorny process could endanger anyone, even men. These feminist posts/actions further reflected that while this installation could be dangerous, it made visible the real dangers and struggles for survivors of sexual harassment and assault and prompted us to think about how to take down “the wires and thorns” of our society and create a “safe space” (paraphrase and translation our own). Just as Xiao Cheng (@小铖smalltown) noted and reflected on the “bloody accident” at the exhibit, we also argue that the act of documenting and reflecting their experience created another remix of the exhibit that allowed for its broader circulation in digital spaces, especially when the exhibits were often cut short and were on such a small scale that they could not reach a wider audience.

Barbed wire installation.

Figure 3: Barbed wire spiral installation with printed text in the middle, blood drops on the paper and the floor. (Source: @小铖smalltown (Xiao Cheng))

This brings us to discuss the networked nature of the Chinese #MeToo exhibit. As we argued earlier, documentation of the movement—from the stories of survivors to the reflections of activists—has always been both a challenge and a priority. The exhibit itself has served the purpose of both documenting and further spreading awareness of the movement. At the same time, shutting it down early mimicked the censoring of online discourse. However, just like how Mimi Yana sought to use Matters.org as an uncensored platform to express her opinions, the Chinese #MeToo exhibit also found another less controlled platform. In October 2019, the exhibit was set up in New York City. #MeToo was brought to China from the U.S. Now, like a full circle, Chinese #MeToo was brought to the U.S. Neither of us live close to New York City, so unfortunately we were unable to visit the exhibit, but we were able to follow its progress on WeChat and Weibo, which broadcast the event back to Chinese audiences to further mobilize online support and action for feminist causes in China. A highlight of the event was when all volunteers and attendees, after the opening ceremony, stood outside the exhibit building, hand in hand, and formed a human chain on the street and chanted: “我们支持Jingyao!” (We support Jingyao!); “米兔在中国!” (MeToo in China!); “失语者的抗争!” (Resistance of the Voiceless); “我也不是完美受害者!” (I’m not a perfect victim either!); “女权主义者长这样!” (This is what feminists look like!); “我们都是女权之声!” (We are all Feminist Voices!) (translation our own). A video of the chanting was posted on Weibo for all Chinese netizens to see, which further remixed the event and added to its rhetorical velocity once it was posted and circulated on Weibo (Unfortunately, this video has since been deleted on Weibo).

Mimi Yana's account of the exhibit as one of the organizers was yet another example of documentation and critical reflection of Chinese feminists’ activism work. From her account, we learned that in just about two weeks, dozens of volunteers had come together to set up all of the installations, with the guidance of exhibit organizers from China, to try to recreate the Chinese exhibit, such as the barbed wire installation. On top of that, organizers also added a new installation on the oppressions, harassment, and censorship received by feminists in China during the anti-sexual harassment and assault movement in recent years, such as police arrest, police harassment of their family members, closure of social media accounts, and public slander. The number of times they were subject to these acts were printed on colored paper and pasted on the wall in the shapes of the words “Resisters Unite!” Once again, activists adopted powerful visual and artistic rhetorical strategies to tell their stories in an innovative way to showcase their strength.


Cheryl Glenn has identified that sister rhetors enact rhetorical feminism through “a set of practices that includes disidentification with hegemonic rhetoric; goals that are dialogic and transactional; attention to marginalized audiences; respect for vernaculars, experiences, and emotion; a reshaping of the rhetorical appeals; and uses of alternative delivery systems—all anchored in hope” (5). In many ways, Chinese sister rhetors adopt similar practices in that they strive to create discursive spaces that challenge hegemonic patriarchal rhetorics and foster dialogic reflections on Chinese women’s issues in local and global contexts. Their efforts are grounded in personal and collective experiences and emotions, and their rhetorics are multimodal and networked. All are, also, anchored in hope.

Further, the critical reflective and epistemic analysis of Chinese feminist discourse exemplified by activists such as Mimi Yana, Xiao Meili, and Lü Pin, does not take #MeToo for granted, but rather invite us to consider more cautiously what’s perceived or labeled as “feminism” in digital spheres. This, in a way, echoes Burgess’s call to reconsider how truth is valued or recognized during the #MeToo movement under the backdrop of the post-truth era. Thus, Chinese sister rhetors pay special attention to the networked ways of knowledge production, dissemination, circulation, and documentation with the goal to not only empower individual Chinese women by equipping them with such knowledge, but to also construct and sustain a feminist movement that is productive and reflective.

As Chinese researchers in the U.S., we have the responsibility to bridge a linguistic gap and introduce contemporary Chinese rhetorical feminist activisms to U.S. rhetorical studies. The transnational nature of Chinese feminist rhetorics is self-evident, but as researchers we need to be careful with how we understand this transnational positionality: networked transnational efforts mean that Chinese activists are very aware of their local constraints and problematic western capitalist and neoliberal values. This is not about them “learning from western feminists” but about how they have built their own knowledge and frameworks locally, which warrants their own “place” on the international stage and contributes to transnational understandings of feminism.

Therefore, our attempt here to theorize Chinese feminist activist rhetoric is a careful one and not without limitations. Such rhetoric is grounded deeply in women’s and activists’ lived experiences, and reflective, critical engagement with feminist issues and ideals, marked by resiliency and strong epistemic underpinning. Under the global influence of the post-truth era, it is imperative that we avoid simplistic, reductionist views of global activist movements. Our work must be guided by critically contextualized frameworks. We invite researchers to complement textual analysis with other ethnographic or participatory methods to unpack more in-depth the complex work of activists.

*All Chinese names are written in the order of last name followed by their given names unless they are scholars who have been known for their name written with given names first in the U.S.

[1] See Yang on wumaodang or the 50-cent party who serve as government mouthpieces.

[2] See notes of her online lecture on “witnessing Chinese feminist movement for 20 years” compiled by @ZoeDuan.

[3] See Chen and Wang on the transnational support for Jingyao and Zhang for the most recent update on the progress on Xianzi’s fight for justice.

[4] See details in “Storytelling”.

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