The #MeToo Movement Comes to China

Chairman Mao famously said that “women hold up half the sky.” Nonetheless, it has been difficult for women to break the ‘glass ceiling’ in China’s central committee, despite a female leader in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

International Women’s Day (国际妇女节 - Guójì fùnǚ jié) has been celebrated in China since 1922 and was reaffirmed after the founding of the People’s Republic of China by the State Council on December 23, 1949.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal reverberated around the globe with the #MeToo meme and found form in China as #我也是 (wǒ yěshì). For this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8, we look at the most influential women in China’s history.

1. Lady Fuhao 妇好 (?-1200BC)

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Lady Fuhao was one of the wives of King Wu Ding (武丁王) of the Shang Dynasty. According to inscriptions, Lady Fuhao led numerous military battles and defeated enemies - who fought against the Shang for generations. Besides being the most powerful general in her time, she served as the high priestess, who conducted special rituals for the dynasty. Lady Fuhao was the first female general that had been recorded in Chinese history.

2. Empress Lǚ Zhi 吕后 (241BC-180BC)

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Empress Lǚ was the empress consort of Emperor Gaozu (汉高祖), the founder of the Han Dynasty. After Emperor Gaozu died, she took over the court and strongly encouraged Taoism, laying the solid foundation of “The Rule of Wen and Jing” (文景之治), which was then to become one of the golden ages of Chinese history. Empress Lǚ was considered as the first woman to assume the title “Empress” after Qin Shi Huang (the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty) unified China.

3. Lady Xian 冼夫人 (512-602AD)

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Lady Xian was a notable female leader of Li people (俚人). Living through three dynasties of Liang (梁), Chen (陈) and Sui (隋); Lady Xian endeavored to maintain national peace and unity in the Lingnan area, what is now the region of Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan Provinces. She was admired as the “Saint Mother of Lingnan” (岭南圣母), and was praised by the former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai as “the First Heroine of China”. 

4. Princess Wencheng 文成公主 (625-680AD)

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Princess Wencheng belonged to a minor branch of the royal clan in the Tang Dynasty. In 641, in accordance with Emperor Taizong’s “marriage alliance” policy, she was sent to Tibet and married to King Songtsen Gampo, the founder of the Tibetan Empire. Princess Wencheng was credited with bringing Han Chinese culture and Buddhism to Tibet and promoting harmonious relationships between China and Tibet in her time.

5. Empress Wu Zetian 武则天 (624-705AD)

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Empress Wu was the only officially recognized female ruler of China in more than two millennia. During her reign of nearly half a century, Empress Wu showed a brilliant talent for leadership by recruiting intellectuals, engaging foreign diplomats and boosting the economy. She not only maintained domestic stability, but also greatly expanded the Chinese empire and international trade. Because of her contribution, the Tang Dynasty remained prosperous for many generations.

6. Empress Cixi 慈禧太后 (1835-1905AD)

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After rising from being an imperial concubine to the power behind the throne of the late Qing Dynasty, Empress Dowager Cixi faced the internal chaos and foreign incursions. Although she didn’t stop the corruption rife in the dynasty, she supported the Self-Strengthening Movement and military reforms, which opened the gate to modernization. Historians have long held differing opinions of her, making her one of the most controversial figures in Chinese history.

7. Qiu Jin 秋瑾 (1875-1907AD)

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Under the nom de plume, “The Women Knight of Mirror Lake” (鉴湖女侠), Qiu Jin wrote a number of articles advocating equal rights for women and the abolition of “foot binding.” She was a member of revolutionary groups devoted to overturning feudalism. Qiu Jin was captured by the Qing authorities and beheaded at the age of thirty-two, dying a heroine and the pioneer of Chinese feminism.

8. He Xiangning 何香凝 (1878-1972AD)

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Born into a wealthy family in Hong Kong, since she was young He Xiangning was determined to become a feminist. She was an outstanding politician after joining the Chinese United League, an underground movement founded by Sun Yat-sen, and was later appointed as the Minister for Women’s Affairs. In 1924, He Xiangning organized China’s first rally for International Women’s Day. She was also well versed in poetry and painting.

9. Soong Ching-Ling 宋庆龄 (1893-1981AD)

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In 1911, Soong Ching-ling was one of the leaders of the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命) and she was also known as the wife of Sun Yat-Sen. Together with her siblings, Soong Ching-Ling played a prominent role in politics, acting as the Vice President of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1975, and taking part in a number of international activities, notably with the former USSR. She dedicated herself to ameliorating challenges in women and children’s education and health. She is honored as the “Mother of Modern China.”

10. Soong Mei-Ling 宋美龄 (1898-2003AD)

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Being the youngest of the three Soong sisters, Soong Mei-Ling was one of the most influential political figures during the Republican Era (1912-1949). As the wife of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek (蒋介石) and the First Lady of the Republic of China, Soong Mei-Ling was active in political and international affairs. During the Second Sino-Japanese war (WWII), she conducted several tours to the United States for gaining support. She was highly praised for her intelligence and elegance both at home and abroad. 

Written by Alice Lǚ (吕小洲), a doctor from the First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou; plus contribution and editing by Peter Fenton (冯彼得), the Foreign Legal Expert at Evertop Law in Guangzhou (E:

Who is a woman you want to pay tribute to this Women's Day? What will you do for her? Let us know by commenting below!