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.
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"Daughters are an economic benefit in the city, where mental work is greater than physical work," says Dong Zhiying, a scholar at the China Academy of Social Science (CASS). "Women do better in this area. One thing is sure today - men feel women have more power than before."Skip to next paragraph
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Qu Man, the bride with the Western-style wedding, is an example of greater status among urban women. Both she and Yang Jie work in a state accounting office. Yang says he chose Qu. But Qu chose just about everything else: She chose the wedding site. She also brought her parents to the wedding.
And that was not for show. It signals she will not be an old-style daughter-in-law, subservient, powerless, dependent. She will negotiate when to leave her career and have a child. If she is like many brides today, she will have told her husband already that if he expects her to live with his family, he must find a different wife.
"People's minds have changed," says Li Xiaowang, a 28-year-old clothes-shop manager in downtown Beijing. "The older generation has very old ideas. They want the woman to get married and have offspring, that's it. None of my friends thinks like that."
Yet family dynamics remain tremendously complicated. An urban culture of mistresses has been growing in China. Mistresses are so pervasive that in 2000, during a major revamping of marriage laws, a tightly knit coalition of women created a national furor by demanding that the use of concubines be made a crime. (The law did not pass.)
Feminists in China complain that women are often freer - freer to be exploited. The female body is on display as never before in a society that used to be publicly modest. A huge, shadowy industry exists of young women, "hostesses," whose job is to please men. Business culture emphasizes macho guys who need to be seen sitting with several ornamental women in order to show power. Husbands have had an upper hand for years, since they have been able to divorce their wives and keep the perks of their jobs, while leaving wives to fend for themselves.
The 1980 law established a divorce process that takes six months; previously, divorce took two years and was frowned on. The new law made divorce acceptable. The law was introduced to help couples forced into arranged loveless marriages to separate. It was a safety-valve for many women with abusive husbands. But mainly it served city men returning from the Cultural Revolution. They had been "sent down" to the countryside by Mao to learn about earthy Chinese peasant wisdom, and while on the farm had picked up peasant wives; the woman in these relationships often was unwelcome in the urban home of the husband's family.
As China became a market economy, the 1980 laws were used by husbands to divorce wives quickly, and make off with earnings. Family laws were in no way keeping pace with marriage laws. A new 2001 marriage law, for example, makes a man's having a concubine one of several explicit grounds for divorce, and improved terms of financial settlements. But wives without means remain at risk. Feminists in China are also starting to argue that while women and men were made equal by the 1950 marriage law, women were not free to be fully female, but were simply made equally soulless "objects ... equal robots," as one puts it.
"As a concept, women's equality in China is quite advanced," says a senior Chinese scholar. "But the practice lags far behind. Laws change not to help women, but because the problems flood out of control."
Urban China's divorce rate is climbing; at various times this has been considered a natural adjustment of marriage conditions that were artificial or intolerable. Educated women, for example, are often less likely to tolerate philandering, crudity, and unregenerate attitudes of Chinese husbands, they point out. Many women have worked hard to secure their jobs, and their identity is less tied to old cultural assumptions of lower self-worth.