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GLOBAL | summer 2007

Women on the Verge
Contesting stereotypes and taboos in China’s changing economy

HANG YIN, 50-YEAR-OLD OWNER OF THE COMPANY NINE DRAGONS PAPER, BUILT her $3.4 billion fortune by importing U.S. waste paper for recycling in China. When she was identified last October as China’s richest person—and the first woman to top the list—it was a sign of both progress and socioeconomic inequality. While growing numbers of Chinese women gain success as independent entrepreneurs, the majority still find their options and incomes far lower than men’s.

Freer choices in life, education, career and family come at the cost of pressure to “succeed” according to narrow definitions. The decline of Communist ideology has allowed a resurgence of traditional Chinese biases that celebrate women’s domestic role over their social and economic accomplishments. The frenetic pace of development, while boosting the country’s economy, has commodified almost everything, including women.

Though the majority of urban Chinese women are employed full-time, popular culture and advertising depict them almost exclusively in romantic and domestic settings even more stereotypical than Western images. Young women promote apparel, cosmetics, diet products; older women pitch baby formula, cookware; men hawk cars and electronics.

“Young women talk about how finding a husband is finding an income,” observes one of China’s few successful female filmmakers, Peng Xiaolian, whose films explore daily challenges faced by Chinese women, “[as if] a woman’s role just is to be a capable housekeeper, a ‘face-giving’ wife.”

“We protest the media a lot,” says Zhou Meizhen, who teaches at the Shanghai Women Cadres’ College and co-founded, in 1992, China’s first women’s support hotline. “It’s now different from under Communism. Society is very commercial, and turns women into a commercial product. Women are conditioned to assess themselves according to the sexual marketplace, which shapes behavior in the workplace.” Last year, the broadcasting watchdog agency instituted a ban on TV and radio ads for products claiming to aid breast enhancement, height growth and weight loss (see Ms., Fall 2006).

Zhong Yin Sun, professor of sociology at Fudan University and currently a visiting scholar at Harvard, deplores resurrected stereotypes and terminology: “People assume men should be older, smarter (better educated, at any rate), taller, and earning more money, while women should be younger, dumber, shorter, and poorer.… A career woman is a ‘white collar beauty’ [traditionally feminine], or a ‘dragon lady’ [pejorative for one ‘too capable’ to find a husband, a successful but ‘unattractive’ woman, or one in an unhappy marriage]. There also is ‘exquisite woman,’ whose high social status causes difficulty finding the right man, due to ‘marry up’ culture.”

A recent study published in the Shanghai Daily found female college graduates in the city earned 70 percent of what their male peers made, citing self-discrimination in the form of lower wage expectations as a primary cause. Another cause for lower wages is that women are considered ill-suited for technical, scientific or engineering fields, so rarely enter them. In cultural fields, the dynamics are slightly different. Many journalists are women in their early 20s, but most editors are men in their 50s. While China’s most prominent artists are men, women are gaining attention in China’s burgeoning art scene (at this year’s Venice Biennial, four women were chosen as the only artists to represent China). Curators and gallery and museum staff are largely women, but filmmakers and theater directors are predominantly men.

In private industry, married women are commonly demoted or fired during childbearing years, as employers believe mothers contribute only token efforts at work. “It’s illegal to lay them off, but you can demote them,” says Zhou, “[by] just claiming they didn’t work hard. Discrimination is hard to prove.”

Protective laws exist but are unenforced. In 2005, China outlawed sexual harassment, but “it is still common,” says Zhou. “Several cases have been prosecuted, none successfully.” Other forms of discrimination are legal and part of the social infrastructure. Women’s retirement age, 55, remains five years lower than men’s, and women are first to be laid off during privatizing or downsizing—a major problem for already disadvantaged blue-collar women. “During the market reform, gendered layoffs became a critical issue,” notes Sun. “Some local newspapers openly advocated ‘women return home’ policies, so feminist scholars and organizations counterattacked.”

The situation of Chinese women varies greatly depending on location and class. In rural areas, tradition remains strongest. Only 12.5 percent of rural government or party officials are women, illiteracy rates are higher for women than men, girls’ education is marginalized and most women juggle low-paid jobs along with farm work and housework. Urban, educated women enjoy a much better position.

The one-child policy, coupled with a cultural preference for sons, has created a still-growing gender gap: 119 males born for every 100 females (the global average is 105 to 100). Still, fewer children per household may have reduced domestic burdens: Less than a quarter of women are full-time housewives. Nonetheless, young women face pressure to find that well-off man who promises the new standard of living, and men face pressure to present trappings of financial stability in order to attract a spouse. This “beautiful wife, successful husband” ideal has popularized couples with vastly disparate ages, backgrounds and economic positions.

“If men have money, they’ll go for younger women, a mistress and/or a second wife,” says Zhou. It is normal, though illegal, for wealthy men to practice polygamy secretly. Entire “mistress villages” have sprouted outside prosperous cities, most famously around the port city of Shenzhen, though they can also be found in the suburbs of any major metropolis. Meanwhile, divorce is getting easier, commoner and less stigmatized—much of it fueled by extramarital affairs.

Overall, ensured “rights” in the Western sense remain years away for Chinese women (and men, too), but are inching forward. While the removal of state-enforced egalitarianism under Maoism has allowed the return of traditional roles and workplace discrimination, women are quietly fighting back. According to Zhong, female college enrollment has increased to about 50 percent during the past half century, through both Communist and reform eras, and women now comprise 45 percent of China’s formal labor force. Abortion remains accessible, and is becoming more frequent among unmarried women in the absence of comprehensive sex education. Premarital sex and homosexuality are increasingly acceptable.

Even the greatest taboo, single motherhood, is being contested. After breaking up with her boyfriend, a 28-year-old reporter, calling herself “Ground Melon Pig,” decided to keep her pregnancy and even blog about it, despite regulations and social attitudes discouraging out-ofwedlock birth as “bad for the child’s growth and social morality.” She has stirred up lively debate online and in mainstream media. Such a discussion would have been impossible in China even a few years ago.