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Women's Day Stamp
Sexism endures in China. According to AFP: Officially, China proclaims the sexes equal in keeping with Communist principles, and Mao Zedong said that "women hold up half the sky". But conservative attitudes remain deeply ingrained, and women are conspicuous by their rarity in the upper echelons of Chinese politics and the ruling party, dominated by men in black suits. [Source: AFP, July 19, 2014]

China has long been a patriarchal society. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “Despite constitutional provisions, women continue to report that unfair dismissal, sexual harassment, demotions, and wage disparity are significant problems. In addition, some enterprises are reluctant to hire women because of the additional costs of maternity leave. Sexual harassment was an ongoing problem and the first court cases were heard in 2003. Most women earn less than men, and are twice as likely to be illiterate. Violence against women remains a serious problem, and spousal abuse goes largely unreported. The suicide rate among women is three times the global average. Women are subject to pressure and sometimes physical coercion to submit to abortion or sterilization. The trafficking of women for the sex trade is a pervasive problem. A serious human rights problem is female infanticide by families wishing for sons. The imbalance of sex ratios in the country has led to a shortage of women of marriageable age and a dramatic increase in the abduction of women for this purpose. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

China ranked 107th out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2021 Global Gender Gap Report. It did better than Japan, ranked 120th and a little worse than South Korea, ranked 102nd. China ranked 118th out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2017 Global Gender Gap Report. That year it ranked behind Myanmar, Romania and Russia.

According to Associated Press the ending of the One Child Policy in 2016 has brought attention to longstanding discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace that is considered one of the chief disincentives to having additional children, along with high costs and cramped housing. While female representation in the labor force is high, women, especially those with children, are severely underrepresented at the higher levels, holding just 8.4 percent of leadership positions at the central and provincial levels. Among the young party leaders who will take the reins in the coming decades, only 11 percent are women [Source: Associated Press, August 21, 2021]

Good Websites and Sources: Women in China Sources fordham.edu/halsall ; Chinese Government Site on Women, All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) Women of China ; Human Trafficking Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in China gvnet.com ; International Labor Organization ilo.org/public Foot Binding San Francisco Museum sfmuseum.org ; Angelfire angelfire.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia

Early Women's Rights Movement in China

Roseann Lake wrote in Salon.com, Towards the decline of the Qing Dynasty at the end of the 19th century, Chinese women were considered a negative influence on their own children because they were uneducated and superstitious. In an attempt to strengthen the nation, Chinese intellectuals during the first half of the 20th century championed the idea that a stable home space meant a stable nation, and began a movement to train women for their jobs and responsibilities as household managers. The home came to be seen as a small-scale model of the imperial order of society, and its management became central to national concern. As Helen M. Schneider writes in “Keeping the Nation’s House, Domestic Management and the Making of Modern China,” “Managing the domestic space was an important responsibility; a wife who managed well and without complications enabled her husband to attend fully to public “outside” affairs.” [Source: Roseann Lake, Salon.com, March 12, 2012]

Protests and concerted efforts to alter women's place in society began in China's coastal cities in the early years of the twentieth century. By the 1920s formal acceptance of female equality was common among urban intellectuals. Increasing numbers of girls attended schools, and young secondary school and college students approved of marriages based on free choice. Footbinding declined rapidly in the second decade of the century, the object of a nationwide campaign led by intellectuals who associated it with national backwardness. [Source: Library of Congress]

Weipin Tsai wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender”: “The history of female emancipation has had a strong relationship with the history of Chinese modernization since the late nineteenth century. For those engaged in the emancipation struggle, the image of modern woman combined the idea of emancipating the Chinese people from the Qing government with thoughts of liberating women from the extended family and old customs. The hope for a strong China was projected onto the image of the strong female. The growth of feminism in the West contributed to the emergence of Chinese female revolutionaries who represented the ideal form of the Chinese nationalist woman. [Source: Weipin Tsai, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“The New Culture Movement of 1915 was the first major revival of the issue of women's liberation since the late Qing period. Chinese male intellectuals extended the rebellion against Chinese tradition to embrace female emancipation, grounding it at the same time in Western ideas of individualism and liberal values, and this deepened with the May Fourth Movement in 1919. Women were now part of New Youth, and issues of women's rights and women's status in society were raised in the public sphere. The May Fourth Movement also laid the foundation for reform of women's rights in family law, political participation, education, and career during the 1920s and 1930s. For example, in order to improve women's rights in marriage and reduce women's suffering from physical abuse and abandonment, divorce law was reformed in December 1930.

“The Chinese Marxist view of women was formed in the wake of the feminist discourses of the May Fourth Movement. Chinese Marxists made a distinction between nüxing and funü, both terms for women, but with different implications. Funü carried the meaning of kinswomen, and referred to all Chinese women, but particularly country-dwellers. In contrast, the Marxist funü was "the product of revolutionary practice and existed in a future world, after the revolution" . For the Chinese Marxists, nüxing, a neologism from the May Fourth era, belonged to bourgeois ideology.

“The concept of the "virtuous wife and good mother" was also central to the process of Chinese modernization, just as it became prevalent in other East Asian countries from the late nineteenth century on. The modern woman's most important role was to be the mother of citizens. This idea of good mother and virtuous wife then became one of the main themes during the New Life Movement, which was initiated by Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong Mei-ling in 1934. Based on Christian ideals, as well as traditional family values, Soong Mei-ling urged women to re-recognize the importance of family and of their new role for the whole society. Home economics was the subject for modern women to study. Soong Mei-ling thought educated women should teach their female neighbors how to write, how to read, and how to educate children. Women's involvement in the war effort during the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945 helped consolidate the changes won in previous decades, and the women's movement entered a new chapter after 1949.

Women's Rights in China Since the Communist Takeover in 1949

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Chinese girls in the 19th century
China is often held up as a model for women in Asia. Women made great strides in the early decades of Communist rule, and the government has taken pains to portray women as equal to men, starting with Chairman Mao’s declaration that women “hold up half the sky.”[Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Michael Forsythe, New York Times, February 20, 2015 /^]

After the Communists came to power party leaders condemned the oppression and subordination of women as one more aspect of the traditional society they were intent on changing but they did not accord feminist issues very high priority. In the villages, party members were interested in winning the loyalty and cooperation of poor and lower-middle-class male peasants, who could be expected to resist public criticism of their treatment of their wives and daughters. Many party members were poor and lower-middle-class peasants from the interior, and their attitudes toward women reflected their background. The party saw the liberation of women as depending, in a standard Marxist way, on their participation in the labor force outside the household. [Source: Library of Congress]

The position of women in contemporary society has changed from the past, and public verbal assent to propositions about the equality of the sexes and of sons and daughters seems universal. Women attend schools and universities, serve in the People's Liberation Army, and join the party. Almost all urban women and the majority of rural women work outside the home. But women remain disadvantaged in many ways, economic and social, and there seems no prospect for substantive change.

The greatest change in women's status has been their movement into the paid labor force. The jobs they held in the 1980s, though, were generally lower paying and less desirable than those of men. Industries staffed largely by women, such as the textiles industry, paid lower wages than those staffed by men, such as the steel or mining industries. Women were disproportionately represented in collective enterprises, which paid lower wages and offered fewer benefits than state-owned industries. In the countryside, the work of males was consistently better rewarded than that of women, and most skilled and desirable jobs, such as driving trucks or repairing machines, were held by men. In addition, Chinese women suffered the familiar double burden of full-time wage work and most of the household chores as well.

In the countryside, a disproportionate number of girls drop out of primary school because parents do not see the point of educating a daughter who will marry and leave the family and because they need her labor in the home. There are fewer female students in key rural and urban secondary schools and universities.

Gender Inequality in Modern China

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Report, China" put in a "particularly poor performance on the Health and Survival Index due to its lopsided sex ratio. (Chinese officials have attributed the imbalance to “traditional preference for sons, the practice of arranging for sons to take care of elderly parents, and illegal sex-selective abortions.”) [Source: Yiqin Fu, Tea Leaf Nation, Foreign Policy, February 20, 2015]

According to Human Rights Watch: “By some key measures, the problem is getting worse: a smaller proportion of women are working. Only 63 percent of the female labor force worked in 2017, down from 65.5 percent ten years earlier. The gender gap in labor force participation has also grown. While the women’s labor force participation rate was 83 percent in 2007, it had dropped to 81 percent of the male rate by 2017. The pay gap in urban areas has also increased. [Source: Human Rights Watch, April 23, 2018]

China's place in the World Economic Forum (WEF) gender parity ranking fell from 57th place in 2008 to 100th place out of the 144 countries in 2017. Teng Jing Xuan wrote in Caixin: “A major driver of the growing gender gap has been a widening disparity between men’s and women’s economic participation. While nearly 70 percent of countries have narrowed the economic gender gap in the past 10 years, China’s gap actually widened over the same period, a WEF spokesperson told Caixin. China’s economic participation score has been falling steadily since a high of 0.696 in 2009, WEF figures show. This year it is 0.653. A figure of 1.0 means perfect equality, while zero means complete inequality. “This is a worrying sign as it means China’s talent pipeline isn’t being optimized, which will have an impact on future economic competitiveness, particularly when China does have high levels of women’s education,” the spokesperson said. [Source: Teng Jing Xuan, Caixin, December 19, 2018]

Ying Zhu wrote in China File, “Years of accelerating economic growth had brought unprecedented social and geographic mobility, as well as pressure on men to strive to succeed and follow the trail of power and money, leaving behind their women.. Economic growth has exacerbated the gender gap, often reviving cultural traditions that can reduce women to sub-human status. Women are still supposed to obey their fathers when young, their husbands upon marrying, and their sons when their husbands die. All too often, the defiant are punished with a beating. The choices for unattached women are stark: they either become “leftover women,” stigmatized for remaining unmarried at thirty or older; join the army of kept women under the thumbs of wealthy businessmen and ranking party officials; or are held captive by rural bachelors in desperate need of brides, as men greatly outnumber women in contemporary China.” [Source: Ying Zhu, China File, February 11, 2013]

“The contempt for women that I have witnessed in China in recent years is alarming. While passing through Shenzhen several years ago, an old male acquaintance who is now a ranking party official hosted a banquet in my honor at a private villa. The rest of the invitees were all local party officials and all male. Halfway through the banquet, a few young girls were ushered in. Several men promptly disappeared into the adjacent room. There were sounds of struggle and muffled screams. I told my acquaintance that whatever was going on in the next room had to stop immediately. While complying, he seemed surprised at my strong reaction. “My guys are just having a little fun,” he said, “and they pay these women well.” The irony was not lost that this was supposed to be a banquet in honor of a woman.”

Forms of Discrimination Against Women in China

Helen Gao wrote in the New York Times: A 2012 study found that 70 percent of brides or their families contributed to the purchase of a home, yet a woman’s name appeared on only 30 percent of the deeds. The arrangement bears enormous economic consequences when couples divorce. The Supreme Court interpreted China’s Marriage Law in 2011 to allow the holder of the title to keep property upon divorce. [Source: Helen Gao, New York Times, October 13, 2016]

While many mothers, like my own, managed to juggle their domestic duties and professional tasks with remarkable grace, the demands on women without significant spousal support or social policy protection create an impossible balancing act.” In China these ideas “ are so new to China that the public still has little expectation of positive change. My suggestion to my female friends that fathers should take half of the child rearing and housework responsibilities is often met with a surprised look or a smile of disbelief.

“A few days ago, a female acquaintance who works in a state publishing house told me, matter-of-factly, that she had rejected a well-qualified female job applicant for an editor position because the woman, being single at 36, clearly “has severe personality flaws” or “psychological issues.” Disparaging comments and stereotypical portrayals of women continue to fill cultural productions from children’s books to television dramas. In this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations, a comedy skit on one of the country’s most-watched television programs sponsored by the state compared an unmarried woman to a secondhand cotton jacket, while another showed, without irony, a female official teaching a subordinate how to ingratiate herself to her male boss.

“In 2013, a 23-year-old female college graduate from Beijing filed a lawsuit against a tutoring firm for turning down her job application. The company rejected her, she explained to the news media, because it said that the post of executive assistant required a man, someone who could carry out physical tasks such as refilling the bottle on a water dispenser. When the case was settled, with the tutoring company paying the woman $4,500, it was hailed as the country’s first gender discrimination lawsuit. “Finally someone is standing up to protest,” said the woman’s lawyer.

In the early 2000s, women are more likely to get lower-level jobs and be unemployed than men. The unemployment rate for women in 2000 was 13 percent compared to 6.4 for men. Sometimes highly-educated women were prevented from working by their husbands. One physician told a hotline worker her husband "won't let me go out. I'm ready to kill myself. I feel like a high-class prisoner." The incomes of working women have increased by a large margin but the gap with men has increased by an even larger margin. According to a survey by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), women made 62.7 percent of what men made in 2000. The gap between rural women and men is even greater. Rural women make 40.2 percent of what men made the same year. [Source: Newsweek]

In many places young single women are not allowed to live in their own apartments there are expected to live in dormitories with other young single women. After the one-child policy was first adopted the menstrual cycles of women were monitored to make sure they weren’t pregnant. According to Chinese law pregnant women are exempt from arrest or fines. Some purposely engage in criminal activity.

Traditional Views of Women Endure in Modern China

According to a survey by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), one third of all male and female respondents feel that men are inherently more able than women. One third of respondents (with women responding more affirmatively than men) agreed with the saying "A promising career is no better than a good husband.” More than half answered that a woman’s place is in the home. Studies have also shown that women do 85 percent of all the housework.

Reporting from Beijing, Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times, “Fresh out of college, Angela Li was proud of her job as a teller at the state-owned China Everbright Bank — maybe it wasn’t exciting, but it had prospects. After a year and a half she applied for a promotion, along with a male colleague who had joined with her. He got it. She did not. “Our boss came to talk to me afterwards,” said Ms. Li, a 25-year-old with scraped-back hair and a quiet gaze. “He said, ‘It’s good that you girls take your work seriously. But you should be focusing on finding a boyfriend, getting married, having a kid.’ ” Ms. Li quit. “I could compete in terms of ability, but not in terms of gender,” she said. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Michael Forsythe, New York Times, February 20, 2015 /^]

“Indeed, powerful cultural assumptions that women should marry young and focus on the ily after a child is born account for some of the disparity. Women in the boardroom is hardly even an issue. “This issue is of interest only to a minority of females,” said Oliver M. Rui, a professor of finance and accounting at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, “and they’re not taken seriously in China.” /^\

“Others say traditional attitudes are just part of the problem. “The real problem is far bigger than any individual and has to do with things like the law and resource allocation,” said Lu Xiaoquan, a gender rights lawyer at Beijing Zhongze Law Firm. China’s Constitution says that women should enjoy the same rights as men, and labor law bans gender discrimination, but those laws are vague and nearly unenforceable, Mr. Lu says. “Chinese law doesn’t define gender discrimination, so how do you even argue a case?” he asked. “It’s very, very difficult to get one into court.” /^\

Discrimination Against Women in Job Ads in China

According to Human Rights Watch: “Discrimination in hiring is one important reason for the gender gap, a phenomenon on clear public display in employment recruiting advertisements, as detailed in this report. Government and private sector job ads often specify a requirement or preference for men, which affects both who applies and ultimately who gets hired. While such discriminatory practices are rife in common low-paying jobs such as security guard, there are also widespread in ads for high-paying and prestigious positions. [Source: Human Rights Watch, April 23, 2018]

“A message posted on Alibaba’s official Weibo account on in March 2013.and still there as of February 2018 read: March 8, recruitment notice season 1: the call from goddesses: They are the goddesses in Alibaba employees’ heart — smart and competent at work and charming and alluring in life. They are independent but not proud, sensitive but not melodramatic. They want to be your coworkers. Do you want to be theirs?

In recent national civil service job lists, 13 percent (2017) and 19 percent (2018) of the job postings specified “men only,” “men preferred,” or “suitable for men.” (Significantly, none specified “women only,” “women preferred,” or “suitable for women” in the 2017 list and one specified a preference for woman in the 2018 list.) Fifty-five percent of the jobs the Ministry of Public Security advertised in 2017 specified “men only.” For instance, a posting for a job at the ministry’s news department read, “need to work overtime frequently, high intensity work, only men need apply.” When women are not categorically excluded, many job ads require female applicants to be married with children. In May 2017, a recruiter posted a job ad on her social media account and noted, “[Applicants must be] women married with children or men.” These job ads reflect traditional and deeply discriminatory views: that women are less physically, intellectually, and psychologically capable than men; that women are their families’ primary sources of child care and thus unable to be fully committed to their jobs or will eventually leave full-time paid employment to have a family; and that accommodating maternity leave is unacceptably inconvenient or costly for the company or agency.

Some job postings require women to have certain physical attributes — with respect to height, weight, voice, or facial appearance — that are completely irrelevant to the execution of job duties. For example, a job ad for train conductors in Hebei province required female applicants to be between “162 centimeters to 173 centimeters” tall, have a bodyweight “below 65 kilograms,” and have “normal facial features, no tattoos, no obvious scars on face, neck or arms, good skin tone, no incurable skin conditions.”

Some job postings use the physical attributes of women — often with photos of the company’s current employees — to attract male applicants. In recent years China’s biggest technology companies, such as Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba, have repeatedly published recruitment ads boasting that there are “beautiful girls” or “goddesses” working for the companies. A Tencent male employee is featured stating this is the primary reason he joined Tencent and a Baidu male employee saying it is one reason why he is “so happy every day” at work. Alibaba’s recruitment social media account posted at midnight a series of photos of several young female employees and described them as “late night benefits.”

Chinese Scholar: Women’s Only Ambition: “To Love and to Give Birth to Babies”

In January 2015, Ruan Fan wrote in the China Daily, “Chinese scholar Zhou Guoping, known for his studies and translated works of Nietzsche, tactfully apologized for his microblog post after backlash by Chinese women labeling him a hopeless chauvinist. “I admit that I am a straight man, but I’m not a helpless chauvinist,” he said. A week earlier, his post saying “women have but one ambition”, and that “to love and to give birth to babies is the most important thing in their lives” was criticized by thousands of angry netizens. Adding fuel to the flames are his other claims, such as, “no matter how talented, how accomplished a woman is, if she cannot be a gentle lover, wife or mother, I would think less of her in terms of beauty.” [Source: Ruan Fan, China Daily, January 27, 2015 ^*^]

“Zhou said he did not create this post to intentionally irritate the public. Actually, the claims were excerpts from his article, “Contemporary: Misunderstandings of Feminine Charm,” that published in the magazine Chinese Women in 1991. Hou Hongbin, senior editor at the Southern Urban Daily, said: “Suppressing women by belittling them is quite common, yet a more effective way to achieve this end is by praising female loyalty, chasteness, endurance and sacrifice to the family, and to deem submissiveness as their virtue.” ^*^

In 2016, Qian Jianghua wrote in Sixth Tone: “A leading Confucian academic’s defense of polygamy and arranged marriage continues to stoke tensions, months after he made the comments in 2015 in an article titled “Only Confucianism can settle modern women.”The comments by scholar Jiang Qing thrust traditional Confucianism onto China’s modern stage, pitting conservatives defending patriarchal traditions against feminists who call such practices archaic and misogynistic. The debate comes at a time when the Communist Party is trying to rebrand itself as part of Confucius’ legacy, reversing decades of hostility and neglect that saw angry mobs destroy the sage’s temples. [Source: Qian Jianghua, Sixth Tone, April 22, 2016]

“Jiang is one of the leaders of a Confucian revival in Chinese mainland. His article in August 2015 angered many by extolling the merits of polygamy. He claimed that while polygamy didn’t originate from Confucian principles, in traditional Chinese culture, concubines enjoyed protection and stability. “In Islamic societies that practice polygamy, there is less family breakdown,” claimed Jiang, who added, “Relationships between husband and wife are better than in the West.” Three months after Jiang made his remarks, fellow Confucian conservative Qi Yihu joined the fray when he said that “polygamy, like democracy, is not the best system, but rather the least bad.” Both Qi and Jiang see an increase in divorce as a problem.

Wider Car Parking Spaces for Women: A Sign of Sexism in China

The Dashijiedaduhui – or "World Metropolis" shopping mall in the northeastern city Dalian has reserved spaces for women that are 30 centimeters wider than normal spaces because women "have a few issues with parking". AFP reported: “The parking spaces outside a Chinese shopping mall are distinctive: marked out in pink, signposted "Respectfully reserved for women", and around 30 centimeters wider than normal. The mall has little to distinguish itself from thousands of other retail complexes that have sprouted across the country. It boasts chain clothing stores, fast food franchises, glass lifts, a cinema and the inevitable Starbucks, a favourite hang-out of China's new middle class. Unusually, though, the 10 spaces outside the main entrance were provided after women had trouble parking in the standard basement slots, managers said. "I think this is very convenient," said user Yong Mei. "Other parking spaces are too narrow." "It's not gender biased," she told AFP. "It's just that women have a few issues with vision when parking." [Source: AFP, July 19, 2014]

“But outraged commentators on Chinese social media accused the mall managers of sexism and cliched thinking. "This is supposed to respect women, but actually it's an insult," said one. The mall managers deny the allegation. "We just wanted to make things easier for women, who make up most of our customers," said Yang Hongjun, a woman herself. "It's not an insult to women at all," she added. "If their parking spaces are larger, it's only for practical reasons. It doesn't mean that women drive less well than men."

“One online poster on the Dalian car park said: "The two most dangerous things in the world are men who cook and women who drive." Manufacturers' advertisements in the world's biggest auto market are invariably aimed at male buyers, and a man at the mall, Wu Zhicun, said: "Women don't really know how to park a car." "The few times I've come close to crashing was basically with women driving the other car," he added. "I've noticed they're a bit rough at the wheel, they only look forwards, too often they ignore their mirrors." The parking initiative is not unprecedented – other countries have similar female-dedicated spaces, including South Korea and various European nations.

“The latest Chinese controversy echoes a series of microblog posts Beijing police made last year advising women on driving techniques – including not wearing high heels, releasing the handbrake before setting off, and not panicking if they suddenly realise they're going the wrong way. "Some women drivers lack a sense of direction, and while driving a car, they often hesitate and are indecisive about which road they should take," reads one of the entries on the police department's verified microblog. Another featured a cartoon depicting a confrontation between a police officer and a woman driving a vehicle shaped like a large red high-heel shoe.

According to a World Health Organization estimate in March 2013, globally males are more likely to be involved in accidents than females, and 77 percent of all road traffic deaths occur among men. Even so, for some posters the Dalian parking places amounted to discrimination against male drivers. "It's always women who enjoy privileges!" complained one. "Men have become the weaker sex."

Left Over Women (Unmarried Over Age 27) in China

Unmarried females in China are often stigmatised as "sheng nu" or leftover women. By government definition, a "leftover woman" refers to any unmarried female above the age of 27. There status has long been a topic of concern in a society that prioritises marriage and motherhood for women, especially in recent decades as the status of women has risen, views about marriage and women have changed and women insist they don’t want to get married and possibly let their careers go down the drain if they marry in their twenties.

Because China’s population is so large there has to tens of millions of unmarried women over 27 out there. The National Bureau of Statistics of the People's Republic of China (NBS) and state census figures reported approximately 1 in 5 women between the age of 25-29 remain unmarried. By comparison the figure for men is about 1 in 3. The 2010 Chinese National Marriage Survey reported that 9 out of 10 men believe that women should be married before they are 27 years old. About 7.4 percent of Chinese women between 30 and 34 are unmarried and 4.6 percent between the ages 35–39 are. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the BBC: “China's ruling Communist Party tries to urge single women to marry, to offset a huge gender imbalance caused by the recently ended one-child policy. But according to Leta Hong Fincher, author of "Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China", single Chinese women are at "a real turning point" and many are beginning to embrace a single lifestyle and push back the stigma. She told the BBC: "These are young women with strength and confidence, who are being specifically targeted by the state's deliberate campaign to pressure [them] into marrying. “Chinese women today are more educated than ever before and they are increasingly resisting marriage."

One Chinese woman said in a SK-II cosmetics video: “"In Chinese culture, respecting your parents is the most important quality. And not getting married is like the biggest sign of disrespect," shared one woman, who later broke down in tears. Another woman said: "Maybe I am being selfish. People think that in Chinese society, an unmarried woman is incomplete' “The tough stances of the parents were also featured prominently. "We always thought our daughter had a great personality. But she's just average-looking, not too pretty. That's why she's leftover," said one mother, who sat next to her daughter who tried to fight back tears.

Can the single women of China see real happy endings — where society will truly accept their choices? "At the moment, that is only a fantasy," says Ms Hong Fincher, adding that the "incredible angst, personal torture and societal pressures" depicted in the advert are still prevalent. "Marriage in China is extremely patriarchal and women need to see that being single is something to be celebrated, not to be ashamed of," she says. "But I believe that this trend of women who choose to be single and independent is going to increase and this is the beginning."

Women's Rights and Feminism in China

Feminist issues include discrimination in the work place, domestic violence, lack of education opportunities for rural girls and women kidnapping. The government promotes equality of the sexes but these ideas fail to reach very deep into the countryside. Grassroots organizations are helping rural women with literacy training, micro-loans, advise on becoming more politically active, hotlines for those with abusive husbands and those contemplating suicide, and help escaping schemes that abduct and enslave women..

In January 2015, Ruan Fan wrote in the China Daily, “Changes are really taking place, in thinking and in the actions of the Chinese women. Domestic violence, once thought to be a skeleton hidden in the closet and sidelined as a private matter, for example, has been brought out into the open bit by bit by women in the last decade. More and more victims of sexual assault, especially those on campus, are coming out of hiding and efforts are being made to end such crimes. The Chinese Department of Building and Housing, for example, has vowed in response to build on a 1.5:1 pro-rata basis respectively, for female and male toilets, in buildings since November 2014. The first national anti-domestic violence law was drafted and issued for public outreach on November 25, 2014, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.[Source: Ruan Fan, China Daily, January 27, 2015 ^*^]

In March 2010, the Women’s Law Studies and Legal Aid Center, which had won praise for its 15-year battle against domestic abuse and workplace discrimination, lost its sponsorship from Peking University because, it organizers think, its receives overseas funding and took a controversial “black jail” case.

Self-Combed Women of Southern China

The Self-combed women of Guangdong Province are the last survivors of an ancient Chinese custom in which girls took a lifelong vow of chastity in return for independence. Reporting from Shatou village in Guangdong, Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, The custom stretches back to the early 19th century in parts of southern Guangdong province. Women here could vow to remain a "self-combed woman", or zishunü, leaving their parents' home to work without marrying.” "If I hadn't become a 'self-combed woman', the landlord would have forced me into marriage," a self-combed woman named Liang Jieyun told The Guardian. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, July 3, 2014 ==]

“Pretty girls were often forcibly taken as wives or concubines; it happened to two of her friends. They killed themselves. Becoming a zishunü gave women an unusual degree of independence in a world that allowed them little education, voice or freedom. But it came at a heavy price. They toiled in factories or other people's homes to support their families. Women who broke their pledge of celibacy were supposed to kill themselves, though” by the mid 20th century “such expectations had largely disappeared. The words recited with the eight strokes of the comb hint at the uneven path ahead: "First comb for luck, second for longevity, third for contentment, fourth for safety. Fifth for freedom …" ==

“The custom was one form of "marriage resistance" in the Pearl river delta. Others included "delayed marriage": wives would not move to their husband's home or have sex with him for the first few years. It may have emerged because Shunde was a silk production centre, giving women opportunities in the factories. The area also placed a heavy emphasis on female chastity, said Ye Ziling, who has interviewed many survivors, possibly helping to ensure the women's vows were respected. ==

“While they chose to become self-combed, even running away to do so when their parents disapproved, most came from poor households. "Often, their families couldn't offer good dowries. Their status would be even lower than an ordinary girl's in their new family," said Ye. "They were also the eldest daughters and might already be the main labourer. Their siblings had not grown up to replace them and, if they married, the main income source was gone." Others became self-combed because factories refused to hire those they feared might marry and give birth. ==

"Women were afraid of marrying a bad man," said Liang, adding that local men gambled and smoked opium. "If you got married, you had to give birth to children and raise them and work very hard for the family." Women who married joined their husband's family, at the bottom of the hierarchy. "All their labour went to the in-laws and became their duty. The in-law family would never be grateful; it was what was supposed to be done. Their status was very low," said Ye. ==

“In contrast, self-combed women could enjoy the gratitude of brothers and take pride in their contribution. Because of their long working hours, factory workers often slept by their machines. In Zhaoqing, another town in the Pearl river delta, they lived as a community. Some are thought to have formed romantic or sexual relationships.

“When the Wall Street Crash led to the collapse of the silk industry, many went to Singapore as servants. Huang spent decades there, sending money home to her brother and nephew. "We never thought about ourselves. We never did anything for ourselves," she said. While some see the custom as a daring challenge to strict Confucian patriarchy, others think it more complex. "Superficially, it looks very different to what we thought about traditional Chinese women. People tend to think it was a phenomenon of rebellion," said Ye. "It's true that women did choose to be zishunü. But almost all of them emphasised the relationship with their natural family and very traditional values such as filial piety."

19th Century Chinese All-Women Societies That Vow Never to Marry

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: The reality of the evils of the Chinese system of marriages is evidenced by the extreme expedients to which unmarried girls sometimes resort, to avoid matrimony. Chinese newspapers not infrequently contain references to organized societies of young maidens, who solemnly vow never to wed. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

The following paragraphs are translated from a Chinese newspaper called the Shih Pao: “There is a prevailing custom in a district called Shun-tê in the Canton province, among female society to form different kinds of sisterhoods such as “All pure” sisterhoods, “Never-to-be-married” sisterhoods, etc. Each sisterhood consists of about ten young maidens who swear vows to heaven never to get married, as they regard marriages as something horrid, believing that their married lives would be miserable and unholy; and their parents fail to prevail upon them to yield.

“A sad case has just happened: a band of young maidens ended their existence in this world by drowning themselves in the Dragon River because one of them was forced by her parents to be married. She was engaged in her childhood before she joined this sisterhood. When her parents had made all the necessary arrangements for her marriage she reported the affair to the other members of her sisterhood who at once agreed to die for her cause, if she remained constant to her sworn vows to be single and virtuous. Should she violate the laws of the sisterhood and yield to her parents, her life was to be made most unpleasant by the other members and she was to be taunted as a worthless being. She consulted with them as to the best mode of escaping this marriage, and they all agreed to die with her, if she could plan to run away from her parents on the night of the marriage.

“As there were many friends to watch her movements, it was almost impossible for her to escape, so she attempted her life by swallowing a gold ring, but any serious consequence that might have resulted was prevented by the administration of a powerful emetic. She was finally taken by force and made over to the male side, to her great grief. According to the usual custom she was allowed to return to her parents. During all this time she was planning a way to escape to her sisters. By bribing the female servants she was taken one night to her sisters under the cover of darkness. The sisters at once joined with her in terminating their lives by jumping into the Dragon River with its swift currents, which rapidly carried them off.

Last of the Self-Combed Women

Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Her mother carefully undid Liang Jieyun's plaits, combed out the strands and pinned them into a bun. When her friends put up their hair, they wore the red clothing of brides. But as Liang left her girlhood behind and stepped across the family threshold, she was embarking on a lifelong commitment to remain single. At 85, Liang is a rare” surviving self-combed woman. “Liang is tiny – perhaps 142cm (4ft 8in) – and fine-boned. She sits on a bench, swinging feet in black galoshes, beside Huang Li-e, a 90-year-old with a mischievous smile and an aptitude for teasing. They have never had husbands, children – or second thoughts. "No regrets," they say in unison. "A lot of men chased after me," Liang added, with a shooing motion: "I told them to go away." [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, July 3, 2014 ==]

“Shatou village, Shunde, was once a centre of this practice. Down an alleyway, tucked behind the high modern white-tiled homes, lies a two-storey grey building with an elegant courtyard before it. In front of its gate, mulberry trees sprawl inside a red-brick wall. The Hall of Ice and Jade – named after the saying "as pure as jade, as unsullied as ice" – was built to shelter these women in old age, although it is now a museum. ==

“The practice began to die out as the clan system disintegrated amid the turmoil of the 30s and 40s. The marriage law passed by the new Communist state in 1950 rang its final death knell by raising the minimum marital age, banning polygamy and forced or arranged matches, and granting women equality. Some of Liang's peers married, but most of those who had taken the vow continued to live by it, sending home half their income or more. One sent 80 percent of her earnings every month, said Ye. ==

“Decades later, some could recall each word of their letters from home: proof of a rare indulgence on the part of workers who otherwise scraped by. Illiterate, they paid other people to reread the letters until they knew them by heart. With no pensions, some adopted daughters to look after them in their old age. Others sent home a portion of their wages to construct the red-tiled pillars and aqua arches of the Hall of Ice and Jade. It still holds the memorial tablets of the dead. Having left their families, their names could not stand alongside those of their parents. ==

“But the last resident moved out years ago. Now Shatou's 10 remainingzishunü live with nephews and nieces or in care homes, with government allowances. Some of the 12 children Liang raised for employers come to visit her. She feels no envy for today's women and their unimaginable choices. "It's still hard to find a good man," said Liang. If a man is poor, his wife will have to struggle; if a man is rich, he may take a mistress, she said. She leant forward. "Good for you," she added. "You have an education, and you've travelled." ==

Hillary Clinton’s Beijing Speech: a Watershed Moment for Women’s Rights

Feminism in China was given a boost when the International Conference on Women was held in Beijing in 1995. Some 40,000 women showed up for the event, but Western diplomats estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 delegates, including Jane Fonda and Sally Field, were not allowed to attend. The conference exposed the fact that many antiquated ideas about women persist. Taxi drivers were warned not to pick up naked foreign women who might try to get them to reveal state secrets; some security guards were given bug spray for protection against insect-borne AIDS carried by lesbians; and women attending the conference were offered a special herbal medicine that reportedly shrunk their vaginal walls and made sex better.

In 1995, Hillary Clinton gave a groundbreaking speech on issues facing women and girls at the Beijing women’s conference, where she famously stated, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” [Source: Erin Delmore, MSNBC, February 1, 2013]

Ying Zhu wrote in China File, “To the dismay of the White House, which was wary of offending the Chinese Communist Party leadership, Clinton catalogued a litany of abuses that afflicted women around the world and sharply criticized China for limiting free and open discussion of women’s issues. Her talk and the ensuing discussions served as an inspiration for new ideas and perspectives on gender equality.”[Source: Ying Zhu, China File, February 11, 2013]

Recalling the event, Melanne Verveer, then the U.S. State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, told MSNBC: “Well, it was difficult getting to Beijing. There was a lot of controversy about whether she should go to that women’s conference. But the world was gathering in that place. And when she finally did make her way there, there weren’t too many people who knew what she was going to say. And that was a very big debate....Was she just going to throw out a softball? Was she going to not upset her hosts? Was she going to really move the ball down the field? Just what was she going to do? -

“And when she stood up for all the world to hear and said, it is time to end the silence. Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. And that meant that women’s rights weren’t some subset of human rights, weren’t marginal to human rights, weren’t some separate category, but human rights and everything that that entailed for access to education, to economic participation, political participation, be free from violence. -

“And I think when she came out of that setting, no matter where one stood on the political spectrum, right or left, the unanimous conclusion was that it was probably her most historic moment…She was such an extraordinary voice for the United States and all of the values that we held true. And you remember so well the thunderous positive reaction she got in that hall. And she went through a litany of violations of women’s rights and said that each of those was, indeed, a violation of human rights...And it was like the beginning of a movement. It sparked so much, to this day, whenever people meet her or me or so many others, they say I’m so and so and I was in Beijing.” -

Chinese Feminists and Feminist Groups in China

Yiqin Fu wrote in Tea Leaf Nation: “NGOs such as Women’s Media Monitor Watch have gained a sizable following online, recently engaging issues like gender discrimination in college admissions in an October 2014 report.” In November 2013, students at Beijing Foreign Studies University were forced to defend themselves when, to promote a campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, they posted photos of themselves holding up messages such as, “My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom.” [Source: Yiqin Fu, Tea Leaf Nation, Foreign Policy, February 20, 2015 ]

“We have to fight for our own rights,” Xiao Meili, a 25-year-old feminist told the China Daily. She once wore a wedding dress tainted with blood to call attention to violence between lovers and couples, and took nude photos of herself to urge anti-domestic violence laws. She shaved her head to protest against higher university admission scores for female students. She also participated in an “occupy men’s rooms” activity with her friends to lobby for more public toilets for women. In 2013, Xiao, together with her friends at K2ome, a Beijng-based feminist drama association, took a hike from Beijing to Guangzhou to promulgate feminist ideas. They traveled to over 20 cities or counties, held more than 10 lectures and wrote to local governments to apply for disclosure of measures taken on the prevention of sexual assaults and similar crimes.

On Xiao Meili’s 2,000-km walk from Beijing to Guangzhou to raise awareness of sexual abuse, Emily Rauhala wrote in Time: A hundred days. That's how long it took Xiao Meili to walk from Beijing, in the arid north, to the humid, central city of Changsha. Since September, the 24-year-old has been trekking south and west across the Chinese heartland, along rumbling highways, around construction sites, down dusty streets. She stops along the way to send letters to local officials. Her plea: China must change the way it handles sex abuse. A 2,000-km walk from Beijing to Guangzhou is not a bad way to capture attention. The sight of a young, female backpacker is relatively rare on China's freeways, so people stop to ask questions and offer rides (which she declines). "They ask, 'Why would you travel on foot? It would be so much easier to drive!'" she says. "Some say, 'You're crazy,' but many express support." [Source: Emily Rauhala, Time, January 24, 2014 ~|~]

Jane Li wrote in Quartz: Xiong Jing, a Chinese feminist activist, believes the public is starting to pay more attention to, and more frequently call out everyday sexism. “Although many organizations focusing on women’s rights were forced to shut down since 2015, there is a growing awareness of the Chinese public, especially among well-educated women,” of gender equality issues, she told Quartz. While many “feel they have little power to change the situation,” they are more willing to “engage in debates on gender issues, which have become an important part of public discourse in China,” she said. In 2020 “activists decried moves by state-owned media to use women as propaganda tools in efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic; there was also an online uproar when a state-run TV program downplayed their contribution to the fight against the virus. In December 2020, pop singer Tan Weiwei railed against domestic violence and victim blaming in her latest single — a rare occasion of a mainstream celebrity addressing an otherwise taboo topic.[Source: Jane Li, Quartz, January 23, 2021

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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