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Although they perform much of the factory work and dominate traditional open markets, women in China are very poorly represented in management both in state-owned companies and privately-owned ones. A handful of women have had success as entrepreneurs. The 2001 Forbes list of the 100 richest Chinese listed seven women.

Some progress is being made. The percentage of the female work in managerial position increased from 2.9 percent n 1990 to 6.1 percent in 2000. The percentage of the women employed in professional or technical jobs increased from 17.4 percent n 1990 to 22.8 percent in 2000, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China.

Some women hold high positions. China’s $1 trillion in foreign reserves are overseen by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), which is headed by a 46-year-old woman named Hu Xiaoloan (2005).

See 1) Lenovo, Technology Industries, Industries; 2) Women in Government, Government, 3) Rich, Society , Rich and Poor

Success for Some Hard-Working Women

“And yet there are many stories of individual success, built on hard work — and some luck,” Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times. “Shi Zaihong’s is one. Born into a poor rural family in the central province of Anhui, Ms. Shi, now 41, came to Beijing to work as a nanny in 1987. She earned 40 renminbi a month. Today, she works 10 cleaning and child-minding jobs, earning 7,000 renminbi a month. With her husband, who runs a small business putting up advertisements, she bought an apartment just outside Beijing for 500,000 renminbi — an astonishing achievement for a migrant worker with just five years’ education.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, November 25 2010]

Ms. Shi’s eyes shine as she talks about her steady accumulation of wealth, far outstripping what her mother was able to save in farming. “I have taken advantage of every opportunity that I had, and I have always worked hard,” she said. “Things are good. Very good.” The mother of a 16-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, she can now apply for her children to legally join her because buying property confers this right, she said. The children have always lived in her mountain village of 300, with her parents. “Having to leave your children behind is the hardest thing about being a migrant,” she said.

Liu Yan, 42, comes from quite a different background. The daughter of an actor and an opera singer from Sichuan Province in the southwest, she worked at China’s first private tour operator and is now a successful business consultant. Sophisticated and well connected, she specializes in putting people together to make a project “go.” She is divorced, with a 10-year-old daughter. “I’ve been quite free and straightforward all my life,” she said. But “my family often calls me stupid for it. It’s not really the way you’re supposed to act here.” The upshot is that she feels her prospects of remarriage are dim.

Dong Mingzhu, Successful, Tough and Child-Loving Chinese Businesswoman

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Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times: “Dong Mingzhu is known as one of the toughest businesswomen in China, admired and feared for a steely resolve that once helped her sell air-conditioners in frigid weather. So her offer to baby-sit for a visitor to Gree Electric’s headquarters in the southern city of Zhuhai came as a surprise....Did the visitor have children? How many? How old?...”Why didn’t you bring them?” Ms. Dong demanded. “Next time, bring them! Carry them on your back! I’ll look after them for you while you work! It’ll be fun.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, January 26, 2011]

“Stories swirl around Ms. Dong, 56, the president of Gree, one of the leading makers of air-conditioners in the world: That she ensured its success in the difficult year of 1994 by selling air-conditioners in a cold spring, at full price, when competitors were cutting prices by 20 percent. That she fell out with her brother after she refused to give him a Gree franchise. That she once sent her 12-year-old son to the airport alone by bus because she was busy.”

Gree had income in the first three quarters of 2010 of 44.3 billion renminbi, or $6.7 billion, and net profit of 2.9 billion renminbi. Ms. Dong says she expects full-year income at her company, which is listed on the Shenzhen stock market, of 60 billion renminbi, with demand rising again in main markets in China, the Middle East, Brazil, Africa and Southeast Asia.

As of 2010, Gee’s six plants worldwide — three in China and three overseas, in Brazil, Pakistan and Vietnam — have a production capacity of 34 million air conditioners a year. Two more factories in China broke ground in 2009, bringing the total to eight. Gree now hopes to open a factory in the United States. Gree has 300 testing facilities for air-conditioners. One snow-filled room simulates minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 Fahrenheit) and can heat up to 60 degrees to mimic the booming Middle East market. In another room, water poured from the ceiling to simulate a typhoon. This room can also create winds of up to 126 kilometers, or 78 miles, per hour.

Gree pays workers an average 3,300 renminbi a month, well above the industry norm. Housing and other benefits are also better. Employees may take 24 weeks of paid maternity leave, more than the three months stipulated by law. In the airy factory with high ceilings, paintings and calligraphy by workers hung on a wall near a rest area of blue chairs arranged around an orange floor. Air-conditioners trundled past on a long belt. Outside on a lawn, a flock of pigeons cooed by a lake.

Career of Dong Mingzhu

“The youngest of seven children from a working-class family, Ms. Dong, unlike many of the women who pepper China’s rich lists, did not inherit wealth and had no man beside her and no political connections,” Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times. “As a child she dreamed of becoming a soldier. Before her husband’s early death, which she does not talk about, she was a technician in a chemistry laboratory in Nanjing. As a young widow, she seized the chance in 1990, when she was 36, to leave her son with her mother in the central city of Nanjing and travel to the more economically developed south, where her rise began.” “I don’t see myself as especially brave,” she said. “I just thought I’d like to do it.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, January 26, 2011]

Dong is a rarity in China: a self-made woman at the top in a country where, in her words, “men are in charge, politically.” “For four years, she worked as an air-conditioner saleswoman, traveling widely. Sent to a poor province, Anhui, she produced one-eighth of Gree’s annual sales, catching the attention of Zhu Jianghong, Gree’s first general manager, now chairman of the board. Mr. Zhu nurtured her talent. Promotions came quickly. By 1994, she was head of sales. By 1996, she was deputy president, and by 2001, president.”

“Ms. Dong’s close working relationship with Mr. Zhu, a talent spotter, is undoubtedly a factor in her success. Yet her own innovations also played a major role. She attacked the practice — common in China — of retailers not paying for merchandise upfront, often forcing a company to take on bank debt. Instead, she enticed customers with six years of free servicing. “We broke that abnormal game principle,” she said, proudly, adding: “When you make promises, you need to follow through. You must offer good service. And quality. And then trust follows naturally.”

“Dong is a fan of romantic novels like “Jane Eyre” and “Gone with the Wind.” She is defensive about accusations that she neglected her son, now 27, of whom she is very protective. “People say I neglected him for my career,” she said. “What they don’t know is that when he was small, I carried him everywhere. He was with me sometimes 24 hours a day in those early years.” “Having children is an additional hardship that women have and men don’t,” she said, adding: “Not everyone has the chance to experience this hardship. I was very happy.”

“Dong is not a member of the ruling Communist Party, but she does belong to the China National Democratic Construction Association, one of eight nominally independent political parties. A two-time delegate to the National People’s Congress, she holds senior positions in a dozen industry, women’s and charity organizations and has taught university business classes.”

On why she never remarried, Dong told the New York Times, “I never found the right man. If I had looked for a man with that purpose in mind, I wouldn’t be happy. It wouldn’t have any meaning.” Then she added: “I’m very independent. I don’t like to be restricted. And when you’re married you have responsibilities toward another person.”

Dong Mingzhu on Business and Women

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To most Chinese, she is known primarily for her determination. “Where sister Dong walks, no grass grows” and “When she chews you up, she doesn’t even spit out the bones” are two judgments by male competitors, widely quoted in the Chinese media. A 2006 autobiography is titled “Regretless Pursuit”. “She’s pretty representative of the type of woman who succeeds in the business world in China,” Feng Yuan, the head of Shantou University’s Center for Women’s Studies, told the New York Times. “Feminism hasn’t really spread very far, so they have no way of being a success other than copying men.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, January 26, 2011]

Sitting at a glass-topped table fashioned from an amethyst-lined geode from Brazil, where Gree opened a factory in 2001, Ms. Dong exuded toughness and charm as she sipped a glass of hot water. Dressed plainly, in a yellow T-shirt, black trousers and a pearly white jacket, she could have been mistaken for a factory worker, except, perhaps, for her challenging gaze and commanding voice. “I never give up,” she said, explaining her success. “I am willing to accept responsibility and meet a challenge. And I never compromise.” She rarely takes a holiday. “I’ll rest when I retire,” she said.

Zhang Tingwei, a business writer and author of the 2007 book “Dong Mingzhu, Marketing Queen,” says Ms. Dong had a “win-win” approach, still somewhat unusual in China. “She gives the same attention to your profit as to hers, and may refuse to collaborate if both parties aren’t benefiting,” he writes. Her understanding of sales is considered a major factor in Gree’s success.

Dong’s attitude toward female success is simple: Women need to compete head-on with men. “You must be a thinker. Be decisive, have good judgment, organizational ability. Most importantly, you have to be able to take control,” she said. “What kind of victory is it where you are given privileges, or where you play on your gender?” Some feminists in China say defining success by traditionally masculine attributes merely mirrors China’s lack of alternative social models.

Ms. Dong is proud of Gree’s supportive employment policies but remains critical of Chinese women. “Chinese women are still very traditional. Chairman Mao wanted women to hold up half the sky, but few women have changed. Most still just want to be “endearing little birds,” she said, quoting a Chinese proverb.

Story of Du Lala’s Promotion

One of the best-selling books in China in 2009 was “The Story of Du Lala’s Promotion” by Li Ke, about a young woman who achieves success in the male-dominated Chinese corporate world. The book was widely embraced by women in China as a how-to manual for getting ahead in the business world. Li Ke is a pseudonym.

One enthusiastic reader of “Du Lala’s Promotion” told AFP, “It gave me guidance and ideas. I learned a lot from this book — about how to communicate, how to survive in an office, how to ask for a pay raise and how office love affairs are taboo.” Another, am employee of a foreign firm in Beijing, said, “I don’t feel alone any more. There are thousand of Du Lalas who try to make it on their own live better lives, like me. It’s a very practical book for active young women.”

Shengnu Ladies: Chinese Women Too Successful to Get Married

Roseann Lake wrote in, “Barring the odd empress, China is historically not a very glorious place to be a woman. From foot-binding to female infanticides, Chinese women have suffered their share of gender-specific hardships. Today, these women are 650 million strong. They represent the world’s largest female population, the highest percentage of self-made female billionaires, and with 63 percent of GMAT takers in China being female, they’re attaining MBAs with a ferocity that’s making the boys blush. And yet, no matter how ambitious or accomplished, they remain bound. Not by their feet, but by something that can be just as inhibiting — marriage. [Source: Roseann Lake,, March 12, 2012]

In China, there’s a deep-seated tradition of marriage hypergamy which mandates that a woman must marry up. This generally works out, as it allows the Chinese man to feel superior, and the woman to jump a social class or two, but it gets messy for highly accomplished females. Their educations and salaries make them hard to compete with, and so their Chinese male counterparts shy away in favor of younger, more “manageable” beauties.

“As these women age, their marriageability plummets, and they acquire a snazzy new name: “shengnu.” Used to describe an unmarried woman ever so precariously teetering near the age of 30, this word literally means “leftover woman.” The prefix “sheng” is the same as in the word “shengcai” or “leftover food.” Loosely translated, it implies that single women of a certain age in China are the stuff of doggy bags, Tupperware and garbage disposals.

“In 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Education listed “shengnu” as one of the 171 new words of the year. The Communist Party sponsored All China Women’s Federation, China’s most influential women’s organization, published the results of a survey that breaks women down into different categories of “leftover.” Beginning at 25, it details how women must “fight” and “hunt” for a partner, so as not to wind up alone. By 28, it implies the heat is really on, telling women “they must triumph.” Between 31 and 35, these women are called “advanced leftovers,” and by 35, a single woman is the “ultimate” leftover. This woman has met great professional success, but like the Monkey King — to whom she is compared — she is flawed in thinking that she is higher than the mandate of heaven, which we can only assume is marriage.

“The “All the Single Ladies” crisis is also described by Kate Bolick in an Atlantic article entitled. “All the Leftover Ladies.”

Pressures on Shengnu Ladies

Roseann Lake wrote in, Lynette (her English name) is turning 30 in two months, and all her parents wanted this Chinese New Year was for her to announce that she was getting married. A successful television producer in Beijing, she returned home for the holidays with plenty of gifts — but with no romantic prospects on the horizon, she was subject to endless needling from family and neighbors. [Source: Roseann Lake,, March 12, 2012]

“One of my neighbors heard that I worked in television, and offered to set me up on a blind date with someone compatible,” she said. “I learned that he was a network administrator, and that he made 3,000 RMB ($476) a month. My neighbor considered this to be a good salary, because she thought I worked in a TV factory. Little did she know, as a producer, I pay my entry-level directors more than that. But I still went on the date. The man was very uncomfortable. It was supposed to be for dinner, but we just ended up having soybean milk, because I think he knew nothing could come of it.”

“The holiday blitzkrieg around Lynette, the TV producer, also included another neighbor who offered to set her up with a man who had “excellent conditions,” meaning he earned a good salary and owned a home in the astronomically priced real estate market of Beijing, what most Chinese — parents, especially — see as a very coveted asset to marriage. “We went on two dinner dates. After the second date, he brought me back to his apartment to show me how close it was to the local kindergarten.”

“Lynette laughs about these blind dates because she knows most of her single friends are being shuffled through the same motions, but admits that both instances were terribly awkward. In the first, her superior education and job made the man disinterested in her. And in the second, the meeting was so pragmatically marriage-minded, that a bit of chemistry — something she is looking for — seemed completely out of the question.

Shengnu Lady Phenomena and the Communist Party

The fact that the Chinese Communist Party conducted a survey on the difficulty successful 30-something women have finding a marriage partner shows that it views the issue with some alarm. Roseann Lake wrote in, “Here we have a government that is feeling the aftershocks of one of its most onerous policies. Since statistically, men will already be hard-pressed to find a wife, might the Chinese government have a vested interest in ensuring that a maximum of its female citizens are married off? And, as Leta Hong Fincher suggests in Ms. Magazine, might the government, in a gentle swipe at eugenics, be particularly keen to pressure the country’s best and brightest females to get married and produce babies that could be especially enriching to the nation’s gene pool? [Source: Roseann Lake,, March 12, 2012]

This historical precedent for marriage makes it easier to see why the “shengnu,” a woman who is very much involved in the “outside” space, might encounter challenges when it comes to marriage. It also provides insight into how the Chinese government has used marriage as a political tool in the past, making it plausible that it may still be doing so with its slanderous classifications of single women.

“But truth be told, a government campaign does little to shake the confidence of a single Chinese woman. Far more perturbing is the flak a “shengnu” gets from society. People talk. The neighbors inquire. “Xiao Hong is 29 and still unmarried.” Her prime childbearing years are coming to a close. After 30 nobody will want her. She’d better speed things up,” they’ll say. Parents feel social intimidation and start pressuring their daughters. They set them up on endless blind dates. They go on about how much they’d like to have grandchildren. They threaten disinheritance.

Social Forces Behind the Shengnu Lady Phenomena

Roseann Lake wrote in, “Surely, this is not a phenomenon unique to China, but the country’s cultural conviction that everyone should be married certainly doesn’t help. Critics say that shengnu are single because their standards are too high. While it is no secret that some women in China use marriage as a means to acquire wealth, shengnu are generally educated, well-to-do females who support themselves and have less of a need than their mothers and grandmothers did to enter a marriage for economic reasons. This allows them to be selective, and they are. Most of them disagree with the idea of marriage just for the sake of it, even if it means facing ultimatums from their parents and endless reminders that nobody will want them after 30. Where are the 30 million surplus men? In the countryside, tending to their parents and their farms. [Source: Roseann Lake,, March 12, 2012]

Because in Chinese society, it’s expected women will marry up, that’s exactly what most women in rural areas do. They migrate to bigger cities, find better jobs, marry men in higher classes, and in some cases, even end up providing more money for their parents than the males who remain on the farms taking care of them. In a fascinating piece for the Pulitzer Center, journalists Sushma Subramanian and Deborah Jian Lee report that these women are known as “golden turtles” for the wealth they are able to provide for their families by migrating and marrying up. Their “success” has given pause to China’s traditional preference for sons, all while leaving thousands of men behind in perpetual bachelorhood. These men, also known as “guan gun” or “bare branches,” are at the rock bottom of the marriage chain, and although equally strapped for an available pool of partners to choose from, are not very compatible with the average shengnu, socially, intellectually or geographically.

“Shengnu tend to congregate in China’s largest cities, where the big jobs are. The sixth national census reveals that there are now more unmarried women than men in Shanghai. Things are not much better in Beijing, where in 2008, according to Baike reports, there were already over half a million shengnu. The numbers in other Chinese first-tier cities show a similar trend.

“Making matters worse, according to a survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation — again, the organization founded to further women’s rights — out of 30,000 men, more than 90 percent said women should marry before 27 to avoid becoming unwanted. This stems partly from beliefs about the prime years for bearing children, but mainly, from the value that Chinese men place on youth and looks. While they’re hardly the only men in the world to do this, they are rather unforgiving. A 35-year-old Chinese male CFO is much more likely to go for a 19-year-old head-turner than a fellow female executive. Because he can. He is successful, and therefore has his pick of the lot. But by the same logic that makes a divorced man in China “broken in,” but a divorced woman in China, “sloppy seconds,” his female professional equivalent is likely to remain single.

Image Sources: 1)Landsberger Posters ; 2, 4) Cgstock ; 3, 5) China Labor Watch ; Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2012

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