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UPDATED: June 13, 2014 NO. 25 JUNE 19, 2014
Who Says We're Second-Class?
By Li Wanyu

JOB OPPORTUNITIES: Special job fairs solely for female college graduates are organized in China every year (XINHUA)

As more and more Westerners come to China, communication and interactions between the Middle Kingdom and the West are increasing. A student of Western culture and literature, I am provided greater opportunities to engage in these interactions, which have offered me a better understanding of Western perceptions of China and the Chinese people. At times, these perceptions provide new ways to look at and think about things we take for granted. Yet some Western oversimplifications or inaccurate portrayals of China persist, particularly when it comes to women.

Since the rise of the mid-20th century feminist movement in the United States, women's issues have been an important focus for both academics and social critics. Though the winds of the feminist movement did not blow their seeds across the Atlantic to China, Chinese women also began to bloom: At about the same time, a "women's franchise" movement took place in China, spurred by Chairman Mao's affirmation that "Women hold up half the sky." Yet in the 21st century—in the view of China's Western expatriates—Chinese women are lagging behind their American or European counterparts in terms of social rights and status. To unfamiliar eyes, it seems many intelligent and capable Chinese women are often limited to certain jobs and lower social positions, not making the best use of their talents and thus not deviating from their "traditional roles." The conclusion outside the Middle Kingdom, then, is that Chinese women are merely second-class citizens.

So it's only natural, as women growing up in 21st-century China, that we ask ourselves: Are we treated as secondary citizens?

It is not a question that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." No one will deny that there are certain barriers for women in society, barriers found in any country in the modern world. Furthermore, it's not the more obvious obstacles that are the real problems for Chinese women. If we receive unfair treatment, it is done in a more subtle and subliminal way. For instance, Chinese men will never say they dislike intelligent women—they just marry the educated and beautiful ones. Parents never stop sending their daughters to universities—they just urge them to find a husband afterward. And medical schools won't stop awarding doctorate degrees to women—they'll just joke that female doctors are considered a "third gender." No one ever says "no" to us; it is simply implied.

But to say that Chinese women do not have a choice is not fair. More accurately, it is a matter of historically being conditioned to follow the path down which others are quietly pointing us. In contemporary China, we're diverging, choosing the roads less traveled.

Recruitment ads in China would once explicitly state that only men were wanted for hire. From time to time, news would surface about a company that refused to employ married or unmarried women, rattling off various dubious excuses. As the number of Chinese women in higher education begins to outpace the percentage of men, few companies are still willing to shut out talented women to safeguard their internal patriarchal hierarchies or short-term interests. Despite past discrimination, today we find Chinese women working in a range of different fields.

When we take into consideration a Chinese woman's standing in her family, too, it is apparent that mothers or wives are anything but "secondary." According to the result of the third survey on Chinese women's social status, by the All-China Women's Federation and the National Bureau of Statistics in 2011, 85.2 percent of women reported being moderately or very satisfied with their family status. When it came to making decisions regarding domestic operation and management, 72.6 percent reported being involved, and almost as many—74.4 percent—participated in choosing a home. Nearly three quarters of women reported playing a role in decision-making on domestic investments or loans as well. Confine a woman to washing clothes and dishes, and she is repressed; watch her act as the decision-maker for the family, and she is respected (perhaps even more so in a family-oriented society like China's). In this sense, acting as "master," Chinese women are anything but subservient, secondary citizens.

How accurate, then, are outside claims that Chinese women are constantly repressed or subjected to bias? Passing insults like the "third gender" joke and negative female tropes have arisen with the help of the (worldwide) Internet. Much of the time, we also adopt unfavorable impressions from others' stories or the media. To what extent are these reflective of our own society? For example, though we often hear about male prejudice in the job market, the 2011 survey found that only one in 10 job-hunting women have encountered sexual discrimination. Perhaps more importantly, to what extent are these dissections of Chinese women distractions from the more pressing crisis for Chinese men?

Near the end of the 20th century, an alleged "boys' crisis" found wide attention amongst Western critics and scholars. It was believed that then-modern social and economic development, and especially the education system, repressed "masculine nature." The collapse of traditional masculinity in the modern global economy was explored by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Susan Faludi in 1999's Stiffed; best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert also mourned the loss of masculinity in Americans, writing of the "last American man" in the Appalachian Mountains. Now Chinese men are being put in a similar spot. Their crisis may even be deeper given the exam-oriented educational system in China. Female students often surpass their male counterparts in many universities, especially in majors like sociology or the humanities. Amongst science majors, too, the percentage of female students is increasing. Men feel more pressure to maintain an air of traditional masculinity while adapting to new social realities (like a rise in demand for service- and communication-based skills). It seems that Chinese men are facing a dilemma, and perhaps choose to scapegoat successful women rather than deal with the issues at hand.

Of course, the problems still faced by Chinese women cannot be downplayed. In some parts of China, the ongoing fight for women's rights is crucial. And as with any other issue in as big a country as ours, the discussion of women's social status and options is more complicated. It is indelibly intertwined with Chinese history, Chinese family values, and the modern development of China. (The latter, especially, when it comes to rates of urbanization.) More and more women work in urban areas. Chinese women in particular are migrating outside the border, influenced by Western individualism. The traditional Chinese family structure has been shaken as a side effect of one-child policy, skewing the ratio of women to men. These changes have already and will continue to lead to a profound sea change in Chinese women's (and men's) perceptions of themselves.

But perhaps these changes will positively impact the Western view of Chinese women as well. We—the so-called second-class citizens, half the sky—are finally speaking to the world with one voice: "We are equals."

The author is a graduate student at Tianjin Foreign Studies University

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