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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.

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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.

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"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