A view from Chinese jewellery: Feminism, women and design post 1949

Published: 07.03.2022
Qian Wang
Edited by:
Edited at:
Edited on:
Qian Wang. Necklace: I do not cook pasta, I realize jewellery, 2019. Sterling silver, pasta.. Qian Wang
Necklace: I do not cook pasta, I realize jewellery, 2019
Sterling silver, pasta.
© By the author. Read Copyright.

This paper analysis the Chinese Contemporary Jewellery genre post-1949 with a focus on how it reflects and progresses feminism, and how to enhance women's right of speech and cultural superiority in the history of design.

First and foremost I would like to thank Professor Stephen Bottomley, for their invaluable guidance and rigorous critique combined with encouragement, which has helped to develop my ideas and bring the thesis to its present shape.
Most narratives of Chinese Contemporary Art start from the end of the Cultural Revolution. Contemporary Chinese art could be divided into four different stages, including the academism between 1976 and 1984, the eighty-five fine art movement as a radical change to the Chinese fine art between 1985 and 1989, the avant-garde art in the 1990s, and the art gallery age from the end of 1990s to the present. However, the post-1949 development of handicraft art, especially jewelry, was at a significantly slower pace than Chinese Contemporary art history [4]. Till June 2001, Dai Xianglong, governor of the People's Bank of China, announced the abolition of the planned management system of "unified purchase and distribution" of gold and the establishment of gold exchange in Shanghai [12]. After this, the Chinese jewellery industry developed with rapid growth and the jewelry industry has experienced the transition from material culture and consumption to the sharing economy. As women are the important participants in the rapid modernization process, Chinese female liberation has shifted from "Labor liberation" to "Consumption liberation”. This paper analysis the Chinese Contemporary Jewellery genre post-1949 with a focus on how it reflects and progresses feminism, and how to enhance women's right of speech and cultural superiority in the history of design. Based on the two time periods, with from 1949 to 2001 and after 2001, an analysis will be conducted of feminism, females and design using the research methodology for the history of female design from four different perspectives, including female designer and artist, gender-based labor division for design as a profession, research into female spending as well as gender research of item design [6].

Throughout the contemporary and modern history in China in the 20th century, jewelry was something that got overlooked by the Chinese people because of the "Left" deviation thought and the economic resurgence of post-war. It even gradually disappeared from the range of view held by historians studying jewelry and craftsmanship. Despite the stagnant development of commercial jewelry as a result of the planned economy following the establishment of PRC, the emergence of cooperation as a novel business model facilitated the transfer of craftsmanship proprietary as well as craftsmanship liberation to some extent. Qiu reviewed that “It broke down the conventional thinking that craftsmanship must be inherited by male offspring rather than female offspring, which allowed more females to enter the handicraft industry.” (Qiu. 2011) [10].

Whether from a technical point of view or a gender-based perspective, getting rid of the long-standing philosophy that craftsmanship must be inherited by male offspring rather than female offspring enabled more females to get into the handicraft industry, which marks a milestone for the male-dominated production value activities. During the development of the handicraft industry in China for thousands of years, in-family inheritance from one generation to another was preserved as a routine. Following the prevalence of business cooperation, technological proprietary started to transfer from the households to a social organization known as the grand group, which led to the liberation and spread of technical know-how. According to the records of Changes of Chinese Handicraft Culture written by Qiu the traditional in-family inheritance of technical know-how made many females, mothers, and daughters, prohibited from coming into contact with the materials, techniques, and finished products in relation to family-owned craftsmanship [10]. This is because the proprietary owners were unwilling to have people out of their family with a different surname inherit the craftsmanship. Unfortunately, some excellent women have to sacrifice their rights for the sake of family craft inheritance. A typical example is the five unmarried Chang-surnamed daughters who inherited the unique engraving grape skills of the family were forced to choose not to get married for a lifetime [9]. As pointed out by Judy Attfield in her critical article Form/female Follows Function/male: Feminist Critiques of Design, the unfair treatment towards females was not self-inflicted but attributed to the culture [6]. People were categorized into different classes based on their gender, social class, ethnicity, etc. It was taken for granted that people take the attitude that females are viewed as others. The notion of others defined females as the vulnerable in the relationship to males as a group, that is, males enjoyed their superiority as the benchmark to measure all the affairs. In contrast, females got marginalized.

However, there remained no breakthrough in changing this sort of cultural attitude for the Chinese history of design. By looking at the prior literature, it can be found out that there were only a small number of female craftsmen. Throughout the history of traditional development, female designers were preset to a hierarchical framework, where the great designers tended to be male. Weren’t there any great female designers known to people? From the early 1970s, after Linda Nochlin finished her research work on female artists, this question became a rhetorical question [9]. Afterward, Isabelle Anscombe conducted an analysis in the paper Woman’s Touch as published in 1984, of the female designers taking part in the major design campaigns since the 1960s [5]. She discussed whether their criticism of art had an impact on that age, which provided a new perspective to treating female designers for exploring Chinese design. Besides, it made an assessment of their attainment in the industry history where females were increasingly marginalized.

In terms of jewellery genre, under the pressure of policies that stringent regulation on precious metals like gold and silver, there is less gold and silver in the market so the handicraft works featuring jade and ivory carvings became the mainstream in the period from 1949 to 2001. Producing politics-themed artistic works serving politics was made responsible for those craftsmen as well as artists, for example, the large-sized ivory carving work “Chengkun rail line”, which is displayed in the exhibition hall of the UN building and measures 110cm in height and 195cm in width. Designed collectively by Shuwen WANG from the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory, Zhiqian YANG, and others, as well as created collectively by 140 craftsmen including ivory carving craftsmen Shihui YANG and Shizhong YANG, it represents one of the items gifted to the UN by China in 1973. Another example is the giant landscape paints placed in the grand hall inside the commemoration hall for the body of MAO Zedong in 1957, all of which were created separately by those prominent artists of traditional Chinese painting, such as Song QIAN, Shanyue GUAN, Xiongcai LI, Zixi WEI and Keran LI. Of them, several items were created collectively. Despite being compliant with the requirements, they evoked a sense of tediousness. The giant wall carpet behind where MAO Zedong was seated was a task assigned in the absence of Yongyu HUANG, a painter as well as wood carving craftsman. It was created by a female craftsman within the possibly shortest space of time [13]. On the largest-ever National Handicrafts and Fine Art Exhibition held in Beijing since the establishment of PRC, the jade and ivory caving works like the engraved ivory ball “Friendship First”, which originated from Guangdong, were known to people as a sort of political gifts. By looking up prior literature, it was found difficult to identify the works associated with jewelry intended for mass consumption during this particular period. Meanwhile, influenced by the long-standing moral concepts imposed on females and conservative aesthetical attitude, the appreciation of female beauty was difficult to express in an explicit way. Although women's gender identity, political rights, speech rights and reproductive rights, were still not freed from the moral shackles of feudal society during this period, it is worth mentioning that women were included in the post-war reconstruction and economic recovery. In the productive career of economic construction, women began to have jobs and wealth.

From 1949 to 2001, the strict control of national laws and regulations on precious metals such as gold and silver, limited its market circulation, thus leading to the severe blank in the design of gold and silver products in China during this period. In April 1950, the Measures for the Administration of Gold and Silver (Draft) was formulated by the People's Bank of China, according to it, gold as an important strategic resource was under strict control of exploitation. All products must be sold to the state with state fixed price, and cannot be used for circulation or private trading. On a trial basis in October 1977, the policy of "unified management, purchase and distribution" was formally established. Till June 2001, Dai Xianglong, governor of the People's Bank of China, announced the abolition of the planned management system of "unified purchase and distribution" of gold and the establishment of gold exchange in Shanghai [12]. In the next year, the license management system for retail gold products was abolished and the approval system was implemented. In March 2003, the power to import and export gold was fully delegated. It was not until 2001 that the state abolished the "unified purchase and distribution" of gold and silver management system, the jewelry industry underwent unprecedented changes. Individual demand for jewelry increased and jewelry styles began to show avant-garde, bold and novel trends.

Due to the cancellation of the "unified purchase and distribution" gold and silver management system by the state in 2001, jewelry design and consumption began to develop rapidly. The data from the Chinese Commerce Commission showed that consumer spending in gold and jewelry increased from 454 tons in 2009 to 1175.4 tons in 2017. On one side, the moral concept in Chinese society tends to be open and the status of women gradually improves, breaking the traditional conservative moral concept and aesthetic attitude. People's appreciation of women is expressed in their heartfelt appreciation of female characteristics such as women's posture and clothing style. On the other side, as the market economy has increased consumer demand, feminism thinks that women should create their own way of life and more women have the ability to invest in their own image.

Under the circumstances of various promotions, jewelry brands have mushroomed, and a number of jewelry designer brands emergence with a new view. During this period, female designers of romantic style have emerged, including Anna Hu, Cindy Chao [16]. These jewelry styles absorb Chinese classical art and draw lessons from western "Art Nouveau" styles. They always choose precious metals and stones to create in the shape of flowers, birds, fish, human and animal figures, emphasizing women's pursuit of natural beauty and women's liberation. Elizabeth Wilson's Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (1985) considers gender issues in a broader cultural and political context and examines the debates on feminism and fashion. She thinks fashion is a "language" through which women can express themselves [14]. This point of view makes her avoid the cliché, avoid only regarding fashion as a manifestation of women's attachment to men, and fail to explain why women can find happiness and satisfaction in fashion. According to the report 2016 Chinese women living conditions that the consumption of urban women still keeps a vigorous trend in the traditional consumption field. Taking September 2016 as an example, women's personal consumption expenditure of the respondents was 4,280 yuan mainly spending on fashion and accessories, accounting for 42.7% of the total household expenditure [19]. Since 2011, the proportion of jewelry consumers aged 18-35 in the urban consumption quota has increased significantly. This group is characterized by its acceptance of multi-cultures, partly influenced by East Asian cultures, including South Korea and Japan, and its main style of choice is the sweet female style of South Korea and Japan. The other part of overseas returnees who received western education pursued more independent styles, such as de-sexist design. At the same time, the social proportion of homosexual cultural groups has inspired some jewelry brands to provide designs for such groups, such as the gay ring introduced by loveandpride and carrtie in the United States.

Zhixuan Zeng. Brooch:  Feminist, 2018.

As the main customer group of jewelry and object, women have a significant impact on the whole design. Although jewelry is gradually weakening as a symbol of social wealth and status, on the one hand, it is still used as a meaningful symbol of marriage and some cultural anniversaries due to its high value; on the other hand, it has become a "sharp weapon" for some people who resent the rich and those who slander women. Words such as “material girl" seen on social media make some traditional ignorant women follow the trend to slander or give up their rights and perform their "female behavior".

Since 2001, jewelry design, which focuses on aesthetics, innovation and experiment, has become a new force to be first launched in the academic field. For example, Professor Teng Fei established the contemporary jewelry design major in the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 2002 and Shannon Guo operated jewelry subject in Shanghai University in 2003. After that, the contemporary concept of jewelry really took root in China and developed gradually. [20] As the contemporary concept of jewelry has gone beyond handicraft and design, it pays more attention to spiritual content and emotional connection. It has also become a medium for artists to expound their ideas. Some artists in the group where women outnumber men have begun to pay attention to women's studies. Among them, Chinese young jewelry artist Jing Yang created the work "I am not a vase". She used her works to protest against the misunderstanding of women in China's value system, a beautiful yet stupid woman is dubbed 'a vase' - gorgeous, but hollow. Her work transforms many semantic platforms, like jewelry, the vase is an object that balances between being a utensil and being a piece of art  [21]. Another Chinese young artist Mian Wu concerned for female workers in a jewelry factory in "Underwear Gold". In Ceng Zhi Lei's "Brooch for Women's Rights Fighters", feminists objected to sex for the purpose of reproduction for a certain period of time. At that time, social background (law, religion) did not allow abortion. He set up a parade for the women's rights movement in society at that time and designed a support brooch for these women's rights fighters [22].

Mian Wu. Pendant: Bra Gold,bras used by workers in gold factory, 2015. Gold, brass, price tag: silver, brass, gold plate. 14 x 14 x 3 cm.

Concerning Feminism art in China, art critics Liao Wen and Gao Minglu both pointed out that Chinese female art has not yet reached the stage of feminist art. They believed that the fundamental concerns of Western Feminism's doctrine and feminist art are the issue of political rights and women's right to speak. Chinese female artists are mainly concerned with women artists' own experience in expressing women's consciousness and women's art in their creation [4] [7]. Most of them adopt a moderate approach and do not involve political rights and women's right to speak. However, it exists the differences of the value discourse and power structure between the genders in the history of design and art, to some extent, it is a history of female artists, and exposing its underlying values, assumptions, silence, and prejudice is also a way to understand and record female artists, which is crucial for how to define art and artists in today's society. Meaningfully, Attfield (1989) pointed out that design cannot simply regard feminism as another research method, but is related to the political issue of equal rights. If men can learn feminism seriously, it will change the male-dominated discourse of design history [1].

In short, Jewelry, as an object that is in close contact with female groups, is not only women's self-liberation in pursuit of beauty, but also a way for women to freely express their will. It not only reflects the social attitude and way of treating women but also confirms the continuous awakening of women's self-consciousness. As a third-world country with a profound tradition and rapid modernization process, feminist art theory research will definitely promote the lagging development of feminist theory in China.


[1] Attfield, J. Form/female Follows Function/male: Feminist Critiques of Design. In John, A. W. (1989). Design History and the History of Design. (pp.199-225) London: Pluto Press.
[2] Bell, J. (1987) Doing Your Research Project. Buckingham: Open University Press.
[3] David Miller. Materials Culture and Mass Consumption. Wiley-Blackwell, 1987.
[4] Gao, M. Lu. (2006). The wall - Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art. Beijing: Renmin University Press
[5] Isabelle Anscombe (1984). A Woman’s Touch. Viking Books
[6] John, A. Walker. (1989). Design History and the History of Design. London: Pluto Press
[7] Liao, Wen. , Han, J Female art: an unavoidable problem in contemporary culture [J].Contemporary Artist, 2005(1): 6 9
[8] Mai, Q. Zhong. The whole event of Guangmei Wang “Necklace Incidents”[J] Literature and History p51 52.
[9] Nochlin, Linda. (1989) Women, Art and Power and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row. [10] Qiu, C. Lin. (2011). Changes of Chinese Handicraft Culture. Shanghai: Zhonghua book co. p4, p77.

[11] Rozsika Parker, Griselda Pollck. Old Misstresses: Women, Art, and Ideology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,1981, p3.
[12] Shen, S. From Control to Opening -- a Review of the Policy Evolution of Chinese Gold and Silver Circulation Industry Management [J]. Jewellery&Gold, 2019(3) :14 15.
[13] Sullivan, M. (2012) Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House. P346
[14] Wilson, E. (2003). Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Rutgers University Press. [15] William, G. Shuster Taxi to Panyu [J]. Reed Business Information, Inc.(US) 1997 (5): 152. [16] Wu, Yan. Hu Anna: Jewelry light life. [J] Golden Age. 2012(7):58 59
[17] Yuan, X. Y. (2015) Atypical, Design and History. Beijing: Peking University Press.
[18] The Analisis of Chinese Gold and Jewellery Industry in market size, growth amount of consumption 2018(11)
[19] 2017 Chinese women living conditions Analysis. 20170714/154454103007_2.shtml
[20] Teng Fei
[21] Jing Yang
[22] Wu mian and Ceng Zhi Lei Triple Parade 2018 exhibition


About the author

Qian WANG, Chinese jeweler, She graduated from Birmingham School of Jewellery in 2016, UK. In 2018, she worked as an artist Resident in LAO, Florence, Italy. Then she returned to Shanghai where she pursued her artistic career in art jewellery and education.

Qian WANG has been exhibiting her work worldwide, some of her exhibitions like ‘Voyagers’ in Schmuck, 9March, Gioielli in Fermento, JOYA Barcelona, PREZIOSA YOUNG, Inhorgenta Fair ect.