FACES OF CHINESE WOMEN

by Xinran, with Shen-Shen Xiao

The renowned Canadian director Robert Lepage has an unfailing depiction of understanding Chinese women. In The Dragons' Trilogy, his masterpiece of the East meets the West, 1930s Quebec has created an imaginary China with a group of 'faceless' and silenced Chinese laundry women dancing Tai Chi and martial arts. It is true that 'faceless' is perhaps the first impression to anyone who is unfamiliar with a foreign culture. In the meantime, Lepage also indicated that with heads bent down, the first Chinese women who settled in North America were invisible. 

And what do the faces of the once weakened and lowered Chinese women look like now; the confident smiles on Chinese businesswomen's faces, the serious faces of diligent Chinese students in London colleges, the glamorous faces of Chinese film stars on international silver screens, or the dirty and sad faces of Chinese peasants in countryside which have been used as 'the evidence of communist abuse' in the western media since 1949? 

Actually, not only westerners find it difficult to get a clear picture, but also Chinese women themselves have been confused by the standards of women's rights, liberation, freedom and democracy since the 1980s, when China was opened to the world for the first time in more than three thousand years of recorded history, and they started to learn these words. 

Five years ago, there was a big debate amongst newspapers in Beijing. A young twenty year-old lady, Zhaozhao, had been a 'star' since a very young age. She was constantly the top girl in class, an active member of different recreational activities and always a winner of all sorts of competitions. At the age of sixteen she entered the law department of Peking University, the Chinese equivalent of Oxford. In short, Zhaozhao was the incarnation of a 'gifted child' in Chinese terms and certainly the ideal model for us younger kids to follow. However, not long after her graduation, Zhaozhao get married and intended to become a full-time mum. This caused a big fuss amongst her family and friends. Zhaozhao and her husband insisted on spending as much time as they could with the child they were expecting, whereas Zhaozhao's parents thought the idea of their daughter being a housewife was unacceptable. 

'Should female college graduates be housewives?'
'Why should female graduates not have their own choice of life?'
'What is the standard of being a good Chinese woman?'
One woman's simple choice became a national debate. 

This might sound ridiculous in the West where individual choices are highly valued. In a society like China which has been 'unified by political needs' for nearly forty years, any personal behaviour can be constantly judged by moral public opinion. Funnily enough, on the one hand, framed with a combination of rural feudal values, communist moral traits and a spot of western liberal influence, public judgements are diverse, fluid, and forever changing. On the other hand, when coming to a particular topic that conflicts with social 'norms' this is not the case. 

"See how much money our country has spent cultivating the 'future hopes of China'," commented one female reader in a letter to the newspaper, "and now those girls turn up saying they only want to be housewives! Shouldn't they be ashamed of their irresponsibility and ungratefulness?" 

Another representative opinion against housewives with a college degree is exemplified by the discontent and indignation, and the reason behind them, by Zhaozhao's experience, which hinted at different levels of unfairness in the background of Chinese education and the gap between the city and the countryside. Although great efforts have been made to educate 90% of the Chinese population, higher education is still a rare privilege amongst the whole population of China. People refer to those who successfully passed the college entry exam as 'golden carps leaping over the dragon bridge', implying both the competitiveness of the exam and the bright future and opportunities for college students. College is the springboard from a rough and illiterate rural life. 

Apart from that, compared with the older generation who lost their youth and opportunity in the Cultural Revolution, the younger generation has been receiving enormous support from the state to ensure they pursue a higher education. To sum up, Zhaozhao's luck at having this chance was surely expected to make a 'greater' payback to society than being a housewife. 

"When I was in college, I used to call myself a feminist, you know. I understood how important it is for women to be financially independent. But the principle is not to be compared to the daily life with my husband and child. When I was a child, I remember the loneliness and fright of being locked up at home when my mum and dad had both gone to work. I also remember having to count the days at my granny's house waiting for my parents to pick me up. I thank my parents for supporting me and everything but I don't want my only child to fight for my spare time with my daily job and housework. I want him to be healthy, happy and have my full devotion" Zhaozhao protested. "Fighting for women's rights is, first of all, to respect human rights, isn't it? That is my choice and my husband has been very understanding and supportive. He respects and cherishes my job as a housewife, if not putting it a 'career'." 

Mao Zedong empowered hundreds of millions of Chinese women to be the most liberated among East Asian countries in 1949 along with the establishment of the People's Republic of China and his fevered proclamation that "women hold up half the sky." Ragingly criticising the traditional Confucian view of the roles of each sex, communist ideology pushed women into farmyards, factories and even construction sites to positions that were usually occupied by men. Women were indeed regarded as an equal constructor of the revolutionary fruits. However, the traditional roles of women after work in the domestic scene have not been affected much by egalitarianism. The problem of working women carrying the major burden in housework and child care is not an isolated problem in China; it is universal among liberated western women as well. Structured by gender stereotypes and cultural clichés, society looks down upon housewives. From the public responses to Zhaozhao it would be fair to maintain that 'housewife' is regarded as a negative term. 

In fact, in almost any country, including developed ones, 'housewife' has become a term for uneducated or less knowledgeable women without a modern sense of civilisation. 

With the rapid growth of the economy (above 8% every year) and the improvement in standards of living with every generation in the big cities in the last ten years, two incomes are no longer essential to the rising middle class urban family. In the case of Zhaozhao, the family could live comfortably on her husband's income, but none had ever thought that Zhaozhao was willingly stepping forward into a developed idea of family, which could better educate children with a mother's skill. 

A proud mum of a seven year old son, Zhaozhao now works in one of the biggest law firms in Beijing. She has been the one to liberate her mind with her women's rights and had made her life choice between formatted society and her personal needs. 

If education is the key for women to open a professional door, then capability could be a bridge between traditional chains and freedom. Unfortunately, in today's China, with more than half the population having been educated less than ten years, most women in the countryside hardly have a chance to have either education or capability training. Millions of teenage girls have moved into the cities and taken over low labour and service work from urban people in the last twenty years; they are stuck between dreams and facts, a strange city with a better life and a familiar rural home. 

Xiao Shenshen, a Chinese with a postgraduate degree from Holloway University of London told me a story when I asked for her help with some research for this article: "a nanny in my grandfather's house called Xiao Li, who is going to be 23 years old after this coming Chinese New Year, and who comes from Henan, which is one of poorest provinces in China, is getting used to the high maintenance style of life after a few years in Beijing, but has not had any professional education to build her life. Neither is she able to go back home to live, following her mother's poor life, nor is she able to go out to find a job without any educational background. She is worrying about how and where she could have a family with an educated man for her children to live in the rapidly changing city. It is so difficult for her to improve her future as a nanny, and neither can she read nor write. In fact she could not understand the advantage of education and training at all. Xiao Li is struggling between waking up and ignorance; between traditional woman and modern liberal women." 

If you want to be able to understand today's Chinese women, I think, no matter from what perspective, you have to work from one premise, which is that in the past four social phenomena, which are accepted all over the world, have never really been accepted or put into practice there: religious beliefs, freedom of the press, the legal system and sex education. 

In the last 3000 years, the Chinese regarded their emperors and leaders as their gods, whose every word could mean the difference between life and death. In the early twentieth century, China was plunged into chaos as the feudal system came to an end, and in all this bloodshed, the role of saviour was taken over by the warlords. They all understood that the Chinese could not do without their gods, as props to their spirits. In the eyes of most Chinese people, the emperors and party committees were the legal system, and the judicial system was just a fiction from western films. Most modern Chinese only know of the police, not of lawyers or judges. 

The only information ordinary Chinese can obtain from the public media: radio, television and newspapers, are the orders of those emperors and political parties. If you were born blind, no matter how others describe the beauty of colours to you, you still have no way to imagine the difference between yellow and blue. For people who had lived all their lives in China without any chance to travel anywhere, it was impossible to imagine the right to freedom to read, watch and listen to what they like, and to communicate with the rest of the world. The drab, drained information they can get has numbed the natural desires of most Chinese for information. 

Sex, which is regarded by the rest of the world as a basic part of human nature, was a defining characteristic of hooligans or delinquent behaviour in China until the 1990s, and sexual education in schools only started in 2002. Touching or hugging someone of the opposite sex could lead to criticism or even imprisonment. Even at home, pillow talk between couples could be used as proof for one of them to inform against the other after a quarrel, which could result in imprisonment or dismissal from their jobs. 

Apart from these four issues, from 1912 to the 1980s, the Chinese education system never had a chance to improve, or to build itself up to international standards, because of the domination of the warlords, the anti-Japanese War, the Second World War, the Civil War, the Korean War and endless political movements including the Cultural Revolution. Therefore, very few Chinese really understand the difference between democracy and the governing system, freedom and law, human rights and personal behaviour, even human beings and animals. 

Lower body writings were criticised as sexual hooliganism, erotic literature 'watered' educated people's minds generation after generation. Sex is a sign of the growing sexual curiosity of China's middle class; the sexes were segregated, overt sexuality in dress or behaviour was frowned on and kissing in public could bring condemnation. This is why western sexual relationships, the naked human body and sex CDs and DVDs flooded into China with cheap western culture and fast food such as McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken as a very first 'study and improvement' when China's door opened in the 1980s. But sexual education and the social help system was set up almost twenty years behind. 

What is the price for this imbalanced sexual development, or say, sexual freedom? Thousands of babies were born without families and a warm welcome into the human world, before the year 2000 most of them became orphans, and nearly one hundred thousand baby girls have been adopted by over 58,000 western families across 27 countries since 1993; as a report from the UN in 2002 stated, the number of Chinese women committing suicide was the most in the world; family rows increased between generations; the public judgement became lost in the confusion between good standards of Chinese society. 

China's geographical area is 42 times the size of the entire British Isles. Its 5000 years of history have nourished wealth like that of modern Europe and poverty as severe as that of the Sahara Desert; there are 56 ethnic groups in China with totally different histories, languages and cultures. About 1.4 billion people are making things, trading, and loving too, in hundreds of accents in different languages. Therefore, in unified China, with the same political thoughts, beliefs and voices, not only the gap between rural and urban living standards in today's China is more than 500 years, but also policy carried out by local officials with their understanding and knowledge at completely different levels. 

The one-child policy was first pointed out by a former vice-Prime Minster Chen Muhua in the late 1970s and became a very strong task from 1981. Millions of women were forced to abort their pregnancies and to use contraception. Thousands of citizens lost their jobs; farmers and peasants lost their houses and land in the countryside; baby girls were thrown out as valueless objects in the streets or luckily became orphans. Even so, you still could meet young Chinese with her/his brothers and sisters in their twenties. Because the single-child policy has been carried out in cities clearly and firmly, but didn't work very well in the suburbs and the countryside. This policy even became a part of business and corruption, people could 'buy' 'birth control tickets' from local officials. 

Compared to India, in which 54% of the population are below twenty-five years old, the single-child policy did reduce the Chinese population by almost more than 35% in the last twenty five years, though the population is still nearly 1.3 billion today. What is the price paid for this policy except that which I have mentioned above? Not just as everybody knows, the imbalance between the sexes which is around 114 males to 100 females, or even 14:3 in some small towns, but also the quality of the Chinese population, which is an urgent problem because women, who move to the city from the countryside with a very poor education background, as wives and mothers could infect the children's education and marriage stability; millions of women, whose health has been damaged by the simple birth control operations and those low-grade items, could suffer more with painful faces in their old ages when China stands up as a super economic power in the world. 

It is not necessary to say that the developed West has taken more than two hundred years to walk to today's democracy and freedom from religious controls. How much could we expect of liberal knowledge and thoughts in today's China, which opened to the world only twenty yeas ago after three thousand years of recorded history and five thousand years of civilization, while most of its people still believe McDonald's is the best western food? 

Happy faces need good food, rest and spirit, and this is exactly the same for Chinese women's faces. 


Xinran is a Columnist of The Guardian, author of The Good Women of China and Sky Burial. She is also the founder of The Mothers' Bridge of Love . Shen-Shen Xiao is Xinran's research assistant.