Women’s equality in China focus of research by CISAC honors student


1 Flora Wang
Flora Wang, left, and fellow 2013 CISAC Honors Students at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: 
James Kamp

While many of her fellow Stanford grads will be taking internships in Washington or high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley, Flora Wang is heading off the beaten path.

The 2013 CISAC honors student who majored in international relations will study gender equality as a Fulbright Research Scholar in the central Chinese city of Xi’an, home of the terracotta warriors and the eastern terminus of the fabled Silk Road.

Wang, who did her honors thesis at the Center for International Security and Cooperation on Chinese cyber nationalism and the Sino-Japanese relationship, will spend the next academic year studying the country’s marriage reform laws and how they impact women and their roles in society.

She will be mentored by Professor Wenhua Shan, founding dean of the School of Law at Xi’an Jiaotong University and an expert in international and comparative law.

Flora is one of 16 Stanford affiliates to be awarded a Fulbright for research and teaching abroad during the coming academic year. Her work will target the 2003 revision of China’s 1950 Marriage Law.

The Taiwanese-American said she turned toward Chinese women’s issues during her last months as a CISAC honors student because she believes the empowerment of women in the world’s most populous country is critical to international security.

“Women’s rights in the PRC really started with Mao, who made that now-iconic statement: `Women hold up half the sky,’” Wang said.

“The topic of marriage legal reform is connected to the state’s stability and security,” she added. “Both gender equality and the development of a fair and just legal system are indicators of a country’s progress and modernization.”

The rights of Chinese women have been evolving dramatically since the early days of modern China. The 1950 Marriage Law, instituted less than a year after Mao Zedong established the communist People’s Republic of China, laid the groundwork for women’s equality in marriage. In theory, it restricted common practices such as concubines, female infanticide and arranged marriages.

A Chinese marriage poster from 1953 that reads, ''In marriage, keep an eye on your own interests and return radiant after registration.''
Photo Credit: Wu Dezu (Landsberger collection)

Amendments to the Marriage Law over the past 60 years – with the last in 2003 – have served as a legal yardstick for measuring progress in women’s rights in the eyes of the Chinese government. Wang will be among the first scholars to bring recent developments to an international audience; she hopes to publish her findings.  

Wang spent her senior year at Stanford working on her honors thesis with Consulting Professor Tom Fingar, an expert on U.S.-China relations and intelligence, and Professor Andrew Walder, a specialist in conflict, stability and change in communist regimes. Both are senior fellows at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, CISAC’s parent organization.

“Through the CISAC honors college and our visits to places like the Pentagon and think tanks, I realized how important the relationship between the U.S. and China – as an emerging global power – is for the future of international security,” she said.

CISAC honors students spend two weeks in Washington, D.C., before their senior year for briefings and consultations with politicians and think tanks, government agencies such as the State Department and Homeland Security, as well as journalists at The New York Times and Washington Post.

Wang’s thesis looked at whether the rise of cyber nationalism accompanied by the rapid development of cyberspace in China has threatened Communist Party rule.

Her in-depth, 146-page document provides a rare analysis of Chinese online nationalism from March 2008 to December 2012.


Wang, whose grandfather was born in China, said that growing up in Taiwan sparked her interest in women’s issues.

“While Taiwan is very advanced, gender inequality is still very prevalent,” she said. “I still remember that our local library had a banner that said, `Boys and girls are just as equal,’ and thinking: If the government thinks it’s necessary to put up such a banner, that’s a powerful testament to the difficulty women face in societies still strongly affected by Confucian values.”

“When I interned at the International Labor Organization in Beijing through a Stanford in Government fellowship, I was able to visit China for the first time,” she said. “I had the opportunity to work on a project relating to maternity law reform in China … so when I was thinking of applying for the Fulbright I naturally turned to studying women’s issues from a legal perspective in China.”

Flora’s project will take advantage of the Marriage Law’s “barometer” effect in marriage reform. Her work will use marriage reform as a case study on the Chinese government’s reaction to the increasingly international character of Chinese society.

Most of the academic work on the 2003 revision to the Marriage Law has been closed to international scholars. Wang’s Fulbright project will use an array of research methods to open up these issues to an English-speaking audience.

Her affiliation with Professor Shan at Xi’an Jiaotong University will permit her to take law school classes and work in the university’s archives. Her association with Shan also will allow her to observe divorce court proceedings, giving her a rare, first-hand look at how today’s courts interpret the 2003 marriage reform.

She will conduct interviews with family lawyers and observe the outreach programs of the Shaanxi Women’s Federation, a government organization dedicated to family and marriage counseling in the province.

“I’m not sure where the Fulbright will take me, but in a perfect world I would love to attend law school,” Wang said. “And I definitely plan to continue being involved with women’s rights and promoting further understanding between China and the U.S.”