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Women in China finally making a great leap forward

Mao once said that 'women hold up half the sky.' But only today are urban women making big gains.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2004


Qu Man and Yang Jie marry in a hotel courtyard with 85 people and a type of ceremony that is becoming common: Western. Statues of Roman gods and scads of purple balloons are part of an event complete with the throwing of rice and confetti. At one point, the parents of both bride Qu and groom Yang are called up front to speak at the ceremony. It seems like no big deal.

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Yet like many family matters in China, this wedding ritual represents an enormous change - mainly for the bride. Not long ago, less than 20 years, the bride's family did not attend her wedding, let alone speak at the ceremony. Brides were sent out the door by parents to the groom's family, where they were obliged to serve with duty and alacrity.

"Only in the past few years has a bride's family participated in the wedding ceremony [by speaking or toasting]," says Zhao, the host for Purple House, a Beijing wedding planner. "Before, no bride dared to include her parents. Now more care and value is placed on daughters and daughters-in-law."

In growing pockets of educated urban China, wives and daughters are claiming new status and power in the family. Their earning power is rising, there is new talk of mutual care and love, and there are simply fewer women than men, giving women leverage. At the same time, however, louder complaints are heard about a macho male culture in business, and of greater marital infidelity. Some scholars say women are in a pitched battle to ensure their gains over the past 50 years.

Holding up 'half the sky'

Since 1949 China has promised women's equality. "Women hold up half the sky," Mao said. His revolution turned society and family upside down: It abolished family property, and replaced family-jobs patronage with a state bureaucracy. Mao put a final, nationwide end to the centuries-old practice of "foot binding." For a time, communism was a girl's best friend.

China's 1950 marriage laws, for example, made men and women, at least theoretically, equal. They banned bride sales and concubines, and legalized divorce. For centuries men were allowed three or four wives, and women had no rights. It was a feudal world with brutally stark winners and losers. The film "Raise the Red Lantern," with its bitter, subtle infighting among concubines vying for the attentions of a patriarch, captures something of those family dynamics.

"Changes in the Chinese family were imposed quickly and radically," says Harvard University's Martin Whyte. "In most societies these changes would take generations. In Mao's China they were compressed into a time period, really, of two or three years. Changes [involving women] are probably more important than the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. By 1960, China had a 'modern society' in cities."

China is a developed country inside a developing country. Progress for women is found in cosmopolitan centers where law and culture are emphasized. Shanghai has always been a mecca for females. The mid-20th-century novels of Eileen Chang set in Shanghai that illustrate an independent voice for women are now extremely popular among college students.

In the metropolis, the family is undergoing a "permanent revolution." The phrase is actually Mao's. Courtship and choice between young people is more open - made possible by new wealth - new attitudes, and cellphones, and it is giving rise to new family types, the diminishing of patriarchy, and an often more confident and assertive female.

China's patriarchy is a feudal holdover, scholars say, where land equals power. Male children inherited land. In an urban culture, where mobility is valued, and land is not an issue, female talents are more emphasized.