Interview with Professor Min Dongchao

Categories: Meet the researchers

Professor Min Dongchao is the director of the Centre for Gender and Culture Studies at Shanghai University, Department of Culture Studies, Faculty of Humanities. She is currently a guest professor at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) in Copenhagen University. Her research stay is financed by the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship of the European Commission.

Professor Min gained a PhD in Women's Studies at the University of Manchester, the UK. She worked as a visiting scholar at the University of sussex, University of Leeds and was a Rockefeller Fellow in women's studies at University of Hawaii.

Professor Min's research interests are the areas of cross-culture knowledge, globalization, gender, and feminist philosophy. Her Marie Curie project is titled "Cross-Cultural Encounters - The Travels of Gender Theory and Practice to China and the Nordic Countries," and is concerned with the cross-cultural translation of knowledge and practices that may or may not take place when different cultures interact, and the resulting production of new knowledge.

NIAS - the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies - is an academically independent Nordic research and resource center, focusing on modern Asia from a predominantly social sciences perspective. NIAS is an integrated part of the University of Copenhagen with the status of a centre under the Department of Political Science.

Please introduce yourself and your research.

My name is Min Dongchao and I am a professor at the Department of Culture Studies, Shanghai University. I am currently working at the University of Copenhagen, with the support of the EU Marie Curie fellowship. The Marie Curie fellowship enabled me full-time research with good financial support in terms of salary as well as research funding. However, I am now approaching the end of my two years in Copenhagen, and I will soon return to Shanghai for the last, return phase of the project.

What is your project about?

My project deals with cross-cultural knowledge and translation. I look at how feminist and gender theories travel from abroad into China, how the term "gender" is interpreted and translated. I look into how people adopt these concepts, or why they refuse to adopt them, with specific focus on the Nordic countries and China. My research focuses on the period of 1980's into 1990's, when China was "catching up", getting back on the international track. I deal with translation issues: How do we translate feminism and gender? Translation is related to how people think about these concepts, how they use them or refuse them.

What is the state of women's studies in China?

Women's studies as an academic field started in the middle of 1980's when China opened its doors to foreign influence. The country started changing; however, new issues also emerged. Suddenly, young girls often found it more difficult to get a job, or they were paid less. When factories were restructuring, women workers were laid off first. After the events of 1989, the interest somewhat cooled off, up until 1995, when the UN's 4th World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. This brought a new wave of interest in gender studies.

What sparked your interest in the field, and research and academia in general?

When I was a kid, I liked painting. But during Cultural Revolution, universities were closed down and the society was upside down. I worked in a factory for eight years. All the workers had been encouraged to study philosophy, and I was the head of our study group. Every weekend we read works of Mao and Marx. We didn't have a lot of books but what we had sparked my interest in philosophy. In 1977, the universities opened their doors again, and philosophy seemed like the best option. My mum who was a professor at Tianjin Normal University certainly had an influence over me. I wanted to become a teacher at the university which is another reason why I went into academia. Thanks to my mother, I knew women can do as much as men, or more. I also learned a lot from interviewing women from the generation of the May 4th Movement thanks to my research - female doctors, philosophers, and film directors.

What is your motivation?

My motivation is to do something for the real world. I am interested in what is going on, I want to show that through my research in women's studies, I can contribute to the world and understanding of gender.

How do you translate the theoretical knowledge to the public?

One thing is teaching, another thing is writing. As an academic in gender studies, you must always keep an eye on what is going on. You need to communicate with the young generation, as well as all people around you.

Marie Curie is a prestigious European funding. How did you learn about it?

I got to know about it in 2010 from the Vice-President of my university. However the application deadline was in only one month. Later on, I met with a senior scholar in Copenhagen whom I knew for years. We agreed on working on the project together, so I applied the following year. Only writing down the application took over a month.

What are your tips to future applicants?

The key thing is a very good idea, which you need to work on. Also, you need to read carefully all available documents, to understand how your application is reviewed and examined. I read almost everything I could find, in order to understand how my research fits into the purpose of Marie Curie. Research-wise I didn't want to work on something completely new. This is not what Marie Curie is about, you have to have your foundations solid, work hard and take it further. Ideally you should also have a good working partner at your host institution. This is important especially for young researchers who just finished their PhD.

What are the biggest challenges for female researchers? Compare the situation in Europe and China.

In China, the situation is now very hard. When we started women's studies in 1980's, there was more space, everything was new. When I came back from the UK in 2004, I discovered that the whole society has become more conservative. When I moved back to China, it was hard to find a job in the beginning - I didn't fit in any department. The students have also changed. Before, the understanding was that if they worked hard, they would get a degree and then a job. But the situation started getting less favourable - female graduates get jobs harder. Schools also do not encourage female students to go into science. The lack of women in science - and as a result, a lack of role models - is a world-wide problem, similar in Europe and in China.

Why do you think that's the case?

There is a widespread idea that women are better suited to do literature or history, rather than physics or maths. I try to show that it is the society that thinks this way. It pushes girls away from certain fields from an early age. Gradually, they will adopt this view as their own. Yet another thing is the lack of women in top positions in research. Even in humanities, female professors are rare. More men than women reach the high rankings. When I came back to China in 2004, I was shocked to see how many women choose not to stay in academia. It is not they don't want to, but the environment makes it difficult. Some of them were from countryside; their family needed their money. So it is not just about the gender, male or female. Chinese society is unequal also in other terms - the rich and the poor, the city and the countryside. These categories influence gender inequality too. They are all connected, and in gender studies you must link women's issues to other issues as well. It is a big challenge to tackle. I am glad for the past two years, as Marie Curie gave me a fantastic chance to focus on my research and carry on.

What are the differences in gender studies in Europe and China? Is there cross-cultural knowledge exchange between the two?

I started women's studies in China but then moved to the UK. There, women/gender studies and feminism changed the whole society. It changed many women's lives, including mine. In Nordic countries, gender equality is supposed to be the furthest, although of course, you will also find conservative views who oppose this. I want to encourage the Chinese to appreciate Europe more. For years, China has been getting a lot of influence from the US, and it is never good to follow only one model. American influence is dominant, whereas in Europe, you see more diversity, different kinds of views, and different kinds of feminisms. Women's studies thrive in different parts of the world, not just the US.

How to get more girls into top research?

Better promotion of programmes such as Marie Curie is essential. If my university didn't pass on information about the programme to me, I wouldn't have known about its existence. I am eager on letting female scholars know there is this opportunity to go to Europe. There is no age limit to this fellowship, as long as you have a PhD. It is not easy to get it, but it is possible as long as you don't give up and work hard. We need to talk to students and encourage them. However, not all universities have a course on gender studies. Moreover, schools should promote gender awareness also to young girls and train teachers to talk about these issues with them. It can affect their whole life. At universities, it might be already too late.