As gender becomes an increasingly heated issue in China, Yuting He and Ruairidh Brown explore how the ‘female boxer’ has become a key disciplinary image in this struggle – and how Chinese feminists contest it
Power, Thomas Hobbes tells us, is one’s 'present means, to obtain some future apparent Good'. An introductory textbook in the field of politics provides students with a similar definition – 'the ability of a political actor to achieve its goals'.
However, Michel Foucault challenges this definition. He highlights how modern power often functions as a disciplinary framework rather than a direct action. Power is maintained by the creation of social standards and norms that people are conditioned into believing they must live up to.
As a result, control is not exercised directly by one agent against the other. Instead, the self exercises control against the self in a disciplinary fashion, as a person tries to meet the expected norms and standards of society. This modern form of power Foucault terms disciplinary power.
Modern power often functions as a disciplinary framework of behavioural norms, rather than a direct action
Establishing norms or models of behaviour is the key to developing such models of power. People are then conditioned into believing they should emulate and embody these norms, and discredit and silence those who act to the contrary.
In the History of Madness, Foucault identified how the label of 'unreasonable' was given to socially unproductive activities. This delegitimised stigmatised life paths, whether those of single mothers, prostitutes, the unemployed, or other groups, as possible valid ways of life.
Such a model of 'rationality' is evident in political discourse. Liberal theory often equates what is liberal with what is rational and what is 'human'. This implies that what is not 'liberal' is thus 'irrational' and 'inhuman'. Anyone aspiring to rationality and humanness, therefore, ought to discipline themself according to liberal norms.
Scots Law, in fact, still identifies its laws as ‘within reason’. This implies that acting contrary to them is to act beyond reason – ergo, to be irrational.
However, Foucault did not confine his analysis to political actions. Instead, he demonstrated that disciplinary power was present in society more widely. The History of Sexuality, for instance, explored the idea of discipline in relation to our sexuality. We accept and incorporate certain sexual norms, believing they reflect our moral worth.
In China, the issue of gender equality has become increasingly heated. This is especially visible online, with netizen communities increasing in importance for Chinese feminism. Feminist netizens deploy satire and ‘trolling’ techniques to express grievances against misogyny in Chinese politics and society. The #MeToo movement also sheds renewed light upon issues such as sexual harassment.
However, as a consequence of this activism, feminism has also come to be treated with increasing suspicion. It is even sometimes regarded as a risk to China’s stability. Indeed, some blamed protests against zero-Covid policies on feminists.
Feminist netizens are also increasingly attacked online, predominantly by Chinese men. They repeatedly label those who speak out against sexism and misogyny as 'extreme' 'female boxers'.
The 'female boxer” and 'feminism' have become intrinsically linked in contemporary Chinese discourse. At one level, this is a pun in Mandarin Chinese. 'Female boxer' in Mandarin is 女拳 (nv quan). Feminism, meanwhile, is 女权主义 (nv quan zhu yi). Contemporary Chinese usually drops 主义 (zhu yi), meaning ‘-ism’. As a result, feminism, when spoken, sounds the same as female boxer: 女权 (nv quan).
The association is, however, also normative and disciplinary. This has its roots in traditional Chinese gender norms, and arises from the belief that 'boxing' is an inappropriate and aggressive sport. Thus, it is not appropriate for Chinese women. Labelling feminists as 'boxers' thereby implies that their position or activity is contrary to social norms.
Like ‘cancel culture’, the label ‘female boxer’ denotes that a person is acting in a way which ought not to be socially acceptable
The pun has thus been exploited to stigmatise feminists. It implies that they are not genuine, but ‘fake feminists’ with ‘radical ideas’ and aggressive, violent, and inappropriate positions. This then increases the polarisation of Chinese society by fuelling the 'gender war'. Like ‘cancel culture’, ‘female boxer’ denotes a person acting in a way which ought not to be socially acceptable. Male netizens have adopted the strategy to mock feminists and mute their voices in online discussions.
In the Communist Youth League of China's comparison between the struggle against Covid-19 and the Long March, feminist netizens pointed out that there was no depiction of Chinese women. The Youth League responded by calling feminism a 'tumour' fuelled by 'female boxers'. In reality, women did indeed play a crucial role in both the revolution and the pandemic.
By labelling these female netizens 'boxers' and refusing to acknowledge their concerns, the Youth League sent a clear message that their observations are aggressive, disruptive and thus unacceptable.
Foucault maintained that resistance was inherent in power relations; where there is power there is resistance. Disciplinary images, therefore, can become symbols of emancipation and resistance as much as coercion.
Many Chinese feminists are taking ownership of the ‘boxer’ image rather than shying away from it
The disciplinary nature of the 'female boxer' has taken such a turn. Many Chinese feminists are taking ownership of the ‘boxer’ image rather than shying away from it. As is the case with the ‘SlutWalk’, such reclamation counters and neutralises stigmatisation.
Weili Zhang, the first Asian woman to win the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has been a notable figure in resisting and challenging Chinese gender norms. Netizens have questioned and mocked her, implying that her choice of sport made her not 'wife material' and that she would be ‘abusive’ to her partner. She, however, fought back, insisting that 'women should not be defined'.
Indeed, despite gendered tensions within Chinese society and politics, state media celebrated Zhang’s victory. They reported positively on her challenge to gender norms, quoting her assertion that the Octagon was not dominated by men and 'girls can do well, or even better'.
Buoyed by sporting success, Chinese feminists are contesting the disciplinary image of the 'female boxer', and turning a symbol of coercion into one of emancipation.