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

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.

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."

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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.

"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."

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.)

Macho culture also prevalent

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.

In fact, women are bringing greater demonstrable benefits to the family table, points out Li Yinhe of CASS. In 1950 women's earnings accounted for 20 percent of family income. The figure today is 40 percent. Increasingly, as in most of Asia, girls in China are leading their school classes in grades. More and more go to college and take white-collar jobs.

"Men in China have trouble marrying up; they usually want to marry down," says Martin Whyte of Harvard. "But the desirable women are moving up."

Women often initiate divorce

A new study in Guandong, where divorce has tripled, shows that 74 percent of divorces last year were initiated by women with at least one college degree.

Again, matters are not clear cut. Men often work terribly hard to find a wife, and once she is found, they hold onto her. A major gender imbalance is on the horizon, with far fewer girl babies born today than boys. Some 117 boys are born for every 100 girls, according to the family planning ministry in Beijing; much of the disparity may be in the countryside.

"With a surplus of men and a deficit of women, the ladies have more leverage," says Richard Baum of UCLA. "They are in the driver's seat in the long term."

Evidence also exists of growing status for women, based on intangibles: a greater emphasis on love inside marriage, implying a greater recognition of concepts like mutuality, and awareness of individuality.

Coke and candy for the girls

This fall a young college student spent $90, a huge sum for a student, buying a Coke and candies for every girl in the dormitory across from his. In response, at the appointed moment, the girls arranged for their room lights to be turned on (or off) to make the shape of a heart. It is a small thing. But it is the kind of small thing that didn't happen before.

Families with one child, a girl, now place great hope in her. In urban areas, men now say they don't care if their baby is a girl or boy. (A lively debate exists over whether they mean it.) Also, the virtues of having a girl are more explicitly stated in the city: "My parents and many parents I know feel that when the son moves out, his counsel will not be as reliable," she says. "He will look out for his interests first. But the daughter, even when she is married, can be trusted to think for the whole family."

"The daughter is easier to raise, cares more, and is less trouble," says Beijing University family sociologist Xia Xueluan. "That's the feeling."

Chinese living overseas are often a forerunner of mainland attitudes. In Taiwan, a major food-processing company began to sink after the father gave business operations to his oldest son. The son had no business sense. Stockbrokers, employees, and the patriarch himself began to sweat great drops.

Normally, the next son would take over. But the father bucked tradition and called home his daughter from a US graduate engineering program.

"I felt for my dad to pass by the second brother was a great honor for me, and I'm working all the time to make a profit," says Lu Yo.

In Hong Kong, parents from "good families" used to strictly screen young men who dated the daughters. Yet now, says Hong Kong marriage planner Evelyn Mills, daughters have started to sell their own choice back to the father and mother, a major change of dynamics in the family.

"There's a lot of outside influence from Hong Kong and Taiwan inside China today," says Martin Whyte of Harvard University.

One Beijing daughter in her 20s, however, who wants her boyfriend to move in, says that if parents' attitudes are liberalizing, as she often hears, "my dad doesn't know about it."

Parts one and two of this series appeared on Dec. 15 and Dec. 16.

One female executive's view

Li Yifei is managing director of MTV China. She was a national tai-chi champion at 13 and appeared in two martial-arts films at an equally tender age. She trained as a diplomat at Beijing College of Foreign Affairs and studied in the US, and worked at Burson Marsteller in Beijng before taking the top post at MTV/Viacom Asia here. She is the first Chinese female to make the cover of Fortune magazine, which named her one of 25 Rising Stars of the Next Generation of Global Leaders. She has a daughter and son; her husband, Wang Chao Yong, is CEO of a top investment firm, making them a bit of a power couple in Beijing. The Monitor interviewed her at her offices at Beijing's China World Tower.

ARE CAREER WOMEN IN CHINA INFLUENCED BY THE WEST?

"The influence of the West is significant in my life, and for women in Asia. I went to college at Baylor University, and spent time in the US. It helps to see a great many female executives abroad. Look at Condoleezza Rice. Look at Madeleine Albright, or Charlene Barshefsky [former US Trade Representative]. The message we get is: You don't need to be ashamed of being a female executive."

ARE THERE MORE CHINESE CAREER WOMEN?

"Chinese women are only now beginning to move out. Yes, if you look at the absolute numbers, especially at upper management and for entrepreneurs, we are still a tiny minority. But the growth of upper-level women is increasing. The most popular panel at the All-China Women's Federation conference is on "women in management." A lot of guys show up, too. The women I associate with, those in my generation who have education or college, are more sensitive and less threatening. They are a fit for the way corporate China is moving. They are good at talking in several worlds, to government officials, to ordinary people, to family. One of the most talented people working for me is a 28-year-old female, Liu Pei, who, despite her youth, has been the supervising producer of our China-MTV music awards four years in a row."

WHAT DO CHINESE WOMEN TALK TO YOU ABOUT?

"They often ask about the choice between a career, or marrying a rich man. Today a lot of women want both. But I think it is more difficult to manage a relationship if your key goal is to find a rich man. Women need to do things on their own, not be dependent on men. Even if you marry a rich man, I feel, you need to be curious and keep learning."

WERE YOUR PARENTS INFLUENTIAL?

"My own parents were very tough and had high expectations. I had to come out from under that pressure. I tried hard to fulfill my parents' dreams, but now I no longer find satisfaction in "doing this for my parents." It is better to relax and enjoy the work. Our parents lived a difficult life in a difficult age. Mother lost her job because of Communist Party politics, and they put her out to be shamed. We all have family that ended up on the wrong side of the civil war or the Cultural Revolution."

WHAT ABOUT YOUR KIDS?

"My daughter wants to be a pop singer. My son wants to be a Formula One race driver. In my youth these things didn't exist. No rock and roll, no fast cars. I actually don't believe in applying too much pressure. I tell my kids they don't need to be at the top, just maybe in the top 10! I want my daughter to be good, not just smart."

HOW DID YOU MEET YOUR HUSBAND?

"I met him at the Chinese Consulate in New York. We were introduced by a mutual friend and exchanged cards. We talked only about 10 minutes. He flew that night to Beijing. On the plane he thought about me, but his professor was busy helping him find a wife. Then he was called back to New York. On his second day there we actually ran into each other at a newsstand, and were buying the same newspaper."

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