Above is an article published last spring on the Economist blog. It delves into the modern state of women in China, from calls for girls to wear more “modest dress” in public to avoid harassment to the dilemma of surface-level equality with women comprising 46% of a workforce still largely influenced by patriarchal management.
The Chinese generation growing up around the time of our baby-boomers faced a slightly different society than exists for women in China today. No small number of families required their daughters to give most if not all of their salary to the family, which could then be passed on to the sons of the family as needed. Indeed, having a son was considered to be good fortune to the extent that he was better able to provide for his parents and need not worry about things like marrying into a wealthier family. Thus, throughout Chinese history, giving birth to a son secured a woman more respect and support from her husband’s family. Announce that you are having a daughter, however, and you may as well announce the beginning of your doom.
Now, it may be surprising to hear that Mao Zedong, the infamous man who the West holds responsible for initiating mass starvation during the Cultural Revolution, was somewhat of a feminist. Mao once said that women “hold up half the sky”. During the May Fourth Movement, which refers to a social, political, and cultural movement that began on May 4th, 1919 when 5,000 students from Beijing University took to the streets to protest the Chinese government’s weak response to the Versailles Treaty, Mao joined the body of youth advocating modernization and an end to ”Confucianism”— the philosophy that had governed Chinese society for thousands of years (and still underlies Chinese mentality today). Throughout the May Fourth Movement and New Culture Movement, the call for gender equality was consistently at play. Along with modern ideas of “freedom in marriage and love”, the notion that women deserved new clout in Chinese society and in the family was discussed in dozens of articles and journals, the most famous being the New Youth journal. Mao Zedong himself wrote a number of essays promoting the rights of women in his youth. Strongly opposed to Confucianism, a philosophy whose teachings were often compatible with a bourgeois and elitist society, Mao joined the New Culture Movement before going on to establish the Communist Party, where he succeeded as an extremely gifted and intelligent orator.
Many scholars write that Chinese experienced a period of quasi gender equality throughout the 1950s and 1960s under the rule of Mao Zedong. The poster above, however, which depicts China’s support for North Vietnam during the war with the United States, proves that the status of women at that time was perhaps not without its limitations. Female “red guards” were undoubtedly given important roles during Mao’s era, cutting their hair short and dressing more or less the same as men, but some argue that they were still being forced to adapt to a “superior image”— i.e., the male. Take a look at the poster above, for example. Replace the woman’s hair with a hat and roughen up her facial features and she is essentially a man. Sexual relationships were highly discouraged among red guards during the Cultural Revolution— romantic love was seen as infringing on one’s love for the country. Women were thus essentially de-sexualized and then embraced as “equals”. The debate about whether this period in Chinese history represents true progress for women is still active among academics today.
At the same time Mao’s country was desexualizing women, Mao had a number of intimate relationships with highly influential, intelligent women throughout his life. He is known for being a romantic, writing poetry to brilliant women who inspired him with their courageous spirit. His second wife and first true love, Yang Kaihui, was so taken with Mao that she gave her life in 1930 after being captured by the KMT (Nationalist Party, opposed to the Communists), saying “Even if the seas run dry and the rocks crumble, I would never break off relations with Mao Zedong… I prefer to die for the success of Mao’s revolution career”. Mao’s fourth wife, actress Jiang Qing, also took up Mao’s cause, forming the “Gang of Four” and playing a crucial role in the CPC Propaganda Department throughout the Cultural Revolution.
After Mao’s death, the country welcomed in a new leader, Deng Xiaoping, who opened the country to economic development, complete with western ideas of female elegance and grace. Today, China embraces femininity to the Nth degree— there are more shops selling cutesy bows, stockings, scarves, fake eyelashes, and short skirts than there are gas stations (okay, I admit that’s my own statistic). Really though, China has gone from foot-binding to red guards to girly headbands in one 100-year block of time. It is precisely this rapidity of social transformation that makes the role of women in modern Chinese society a crap shoot, at best, depending on who you talk to.
My conclusion: China is still decades behind the U.S. in terms of how it considers women. While many Chinese women are emerging as leading intellectuals, proving their ability on standardized tests, in the workplace, and in society, there is still an underlying sense that women do not have the same responsibilities of men, that somehow their lives are not as difficult. This is what I see as most dangerous. There is a recent trend in China where girls expect men to provide them with houses, cars, and designer bags before agreeing to date them. The Internet is overflowing with frustrated statements from males who are fed up with all the responsibility— they’re attempting to court selfish, materialistic girls who abandoned the idea of “love” long ago to secure their financial futures. So yeah, girls, there’s no way you’ll be equal in society with that attitude. Toughen up, find yourself a clear-thinking mind and then we’ll see how the world views us.