• In Art, a Strong Voice for Chinese Women

In Art, a Strong Voice for Chinese Women

BEIJING - It almost wouldn't be a real Chinese art opening without security officials barging in and ordering paintings off the wall.

By that yardstick alone, the Saturday opening of Bald Girls, a feminist art show in the 798 arts district of Beijing, was a tremendous success. Plainclothes officers rushed into the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art shortly before the afternoon opening and demanded the removal of two paintings by Lan Jiny, an artist based in Germany, according to the show's organizer, Xu Juan.

Feminist art in China, a country where very few women dare say they are feminists for fear of social ostracism, is still a tiny phenomenon. But, in fact, the show on Saturday didn't need the censorship to have an impact. The artist's actions were dramatic enough. And what they said was: The world's attention may be transfixed by a handful of female Chinese billionaires, but the true situation of the country's 653 million women is parlous.

With two empty spaces on a nearby wall where the offending images had hung (one was a painting of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and the other was of Ms. Lan posing as the late Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's wife), a crowd of about 100 people watched in silence as the three artists, Ms. Lan, Xiao Lu and Li Xinmo, drained glasses of mixed red and white wine before hurling them to the floor, where they lay in dangerous, shining splinters.

Then Ms. Xiao sat down on a collapsible chair while Ms. Lan and Ms. Li shaved off her hair with electric razors. The spectators pressed forward, gasping, "Wow, that's intense," and "I wouldn't dare do it, would you?"

Ms. Xiao is perhaps China's best-known female contemporary artist, who attained worldwide fame in February 1989, when she pulled out a gun and fired two shots into her art installation, "Dialogue," at a Beijing exhibition. The act - inspired by disappointment in love, she has said - seemed to eerily presage the gunfire that began on June 4 that year, when the army killed hundreds of civilians, ending months of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

Her straight, hip-length hair came off like floaty strands of seaweed.

Next, Ms. Li's gleaming bangs and waist-length hair fell to the floor, adding to a growing black pile.

Lastly, Ms. Lan's hair tumbled off in big, shoulder-length curls.

Bald as three Buddhist nuns, they stood up and smiled at the crowd, which clapped, part admiring, part appalled.

The next day, at a one-day forum in a seminar room next to the exhibition, the artists explained why they did it.

"We wanted to declare in a public place that we are feminist artists," said Ms. Xiao.

Going bald was a show of defiance against traditional Chinese standards of female beauty, which, importantly, include long, glossy hair, she said.

"In China today the problem of women's rights is very, very serious," said Ms. Xiao.

"We did it to express our innermost feelings," said Ms. Li. "Because in China, no one wants to acknowledge the problem that women don't have rights. And women don't want to admit that they are feminists."

Said Ms. Lan: "Some people said shaving our heads was a mistake, that it turned us into men."

"But who says women should have long hair and men should have short hair? I'm not denying my femininity. I love my womanly identity. I wear women's clothes and high heels," she said, pointing to her high-heeled boots. "I just don't want to be placed in a vulnerable social group because of my femininity."

There was a wider context to their action.

The same afternoon that the three artists shaved their heads, on the other side of town, about 2,000 delegates gathered for the opening of the annual session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a group of carefully chosen advisers to the Communist government.

Two days later, on Monday, the National People's Congress, or Chinese Parliament, opened its annual meeting, attended by about 3,000 carefully vetted delegates.

Measured against the power of those 5,000 people - mostly men - the three women's statement seemed hopelessly small. They were aware of the contrast but undaunted.

"They are very big and have a lot of power," Ms. Xiao said. "We are very small and have very little power. But we are chasing power."

"If this society really respected women, there would be more women in positions of power," she said. "It's a real, an actual, problem in China today."

With foreigners dazzled by China's apparently miraculous economic growth, a narrative has sprung up overseas that Chinese women are doing well because a few prominent women are doing extremely well in business. This viewpoint is illustrated by a recent article in Newsweek magazine: "Amy Chua Profiles Four Female Tycoons in China."

The artists see it differently.

Through history, they said, Chinese women who prosper virtually all have a husband next to them from whom they borrow essential social capital - masculinity.

Ms. Chua appears to concede this, writing that "some might point out" that nearly all her interviewees "got an extra boost from their successful and well-connected husbands."

Said Ms. Lu: "No matter what female hero you look at in Chinese history" - singling out the Tang dynasty empress Wu Zetian; Sun Yat-sen's wife, Song Qingling; and Jiang Qing - "at their side they all had a very powerful husband. And only by using their husband's power did they realize their goals and influence. In China, women don't have their own power that truly belongs to them.

"So women and men really aren't equal," she said. "I think Chinese women's liberation will depend on each woman taking power for herself, really for herself, and not with a man. And only in that way will Chinese women gain equality."

By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW - Published: March 7, 2012