Beauty and the Barrier: constraining women’s political participation in China

Louise Edwards

UNSW Sydney

The barriers inhibiting women’s participation in formal politics in China continues despite decades of CCP-led training programs, quotas and special Party structures like the All China Women’s Federation. The persistent low numbers of women in national-level political bodies suggests that the problem is as much ‘cultural’ as it is ‘structural’. The well-documented discomfort the presence of ‘women in power’ produces in western democracies is often manifest in hostile or belittling media reports. In China media discourse about political leaders is more ‘restrained’, so the marginalisation occurs primarily through trivialising women’s political authority by presenting them as the ‘aesthetic sex’—in a cultural frame where power is antithetical to beauty. I draw on recent media commentary to show that women politicians are often explained as being useful for ‘softening’ China’s international image or ‘decorating and enlivening’ the otherwise austere domestic political landscape through their beauty, style and grace. Media presentation of these idealised aesthetic attributes as intrinsic to femininity and specific to women undermines programs aimed at expanding numbers of women in formal politics. Widespread social unease about women’s public exercise of power is mollified by the replaying of reassuring notions that ‘she’s just there for decoration’.


Louise Edwards is Scientia Professor of Chinese history at UNSW, Sydney. Her recent publications include Citizens of Beauty: Drawing Democratic Dreams in Republican China (Washington University Press, 2020) and ‘Victims, Apologies, and the Chinese in Australia,’ Journal of Chinese Overseas vol. 15 (2019).


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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