Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:40 AM CST – China

Special Report

Gender Equality

Tradition on Trial

After Confucianism made the maintenance of inequality between the sexes fundamental to political philosophy in China for two millennia, it is unsurprising that even modern Chinese women struggle to recognize just how marginalized they have remained

A man beats his wife in the street, Zhejiang Province, 2011 Photo by CFP

Ai Xiaoming is a passionate advocate for women’s rights Photo by CFP

Half-naked, Ai Xiaoming stands defiant, her left hand resting on her hip and her right hand holding an open pair of scissors gesturing towards her bare breasts. Scrawled across them are two lines of Chinese calligraphy reading: “Open minded? Come to me, but leave Ye Haiyan alone.”

Ai photographed herself in this unapologetically provocative pose as part of a campaign to support feminist activist Ye Haiyan, who has become a standard-bearer for the backlash against the abuse of underage girls by several Chinese headmasters or officials. As one of Ye’s peers, Ai told our reporter that she was so outraged by the recent spate of child sex scandals that she felt she had to do something drastic to call attention to the issue.

A Chinese literature professor from Guangzhou’s Zhongshan University, Ai Xiaoming is already well-known as a passionate campaigner against domestic violence. In 2003, her Chinese-language adaptation of The Vagina Monologues became a sensation, kicking off a round of debate concerning gender equality. Adapted from American feminist Eve Ensler’s Obie Award-winning masterpiece of the name, The Vagina Monologues encourages women to appreciate their sexuality, and shed any shame about their bodies or desires. In April 2013, Song Fengsu, another professor of Zhongshan University who worked on Ai’s 2003 production re-staged The Vagina Monologues in a much grittier vein, focusing more squarely on domestic violence, abstinence and sexual harassment. 

Now, Chinese society seems to be opening up to at least the idea of openly discussing sex and sexuality as well as gender equality. However, when it comes to specific issues, gender rights activists of both sexes find it a struggle to change ingrained social attitudes – particularly among men.

Virgin Complex

Although many simplistically associate taboos around sex with China’s assumed inherent conservatism, very few recognize the relationship between prudishness and gender politics in China. Sexologists and feminists have warned that a rising tide of sexual harassment cases is a direct result of both entrenched social gender inequality and general ignorance when it comes to appropriate sexual behavior.

“If I were you, I would take my daughter somewhere secret and quietly cure her disease, rather than ask the government for compensation,” remarked a deputy mayor of Ruicang, Jiangxi Province, to the mother of a pupil who contracted a sexually transmitted infection after being coerced into sex by a teacher.

While the deputy mayor’s insensitivity sparked a public backlash, it was shame that led this particular teacher’s victims – six young girls – to conceal his crimes. Unfortunately, these kind of cases are now being widely reported, and scarcely a week goes by without a child sex scandal breaking somewhere in China.

In May 2013, an elementary school principal in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, was exposed as having raped students on multiple occasions. According to media reports, the principal threatened his victims, declaring that they would remain “on the shelf for life” if they ever disclosed their experiences. Victims, their families and the perpetrators of sexual violence against women and minors more often than not initiate a cover-up in an attempt to save face, which inevitably leads to further crimes.

Attaching huge importance to female virginity is by no means a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. However, few cultures were as rigid about the cult of virginity as in China. In the Song Dynasty (AD960-1279), prevailing Confucian opinion held that if any part of a girl, including her hands and arms, had been touched by a male who wasn’t a blood relative prior to her marriage, she could not be considered a virgin. Traditional Chinese medicine even claimed that all females carry a “virgin mark” on their arm which immediately disappears after their first sexual experience – a patently groundless claim which nonetheless has retained believers until the present day. Restorative hymen surgery, an attempt to “re-flower” women, has boomed in recent years.

Even today, when young men talk about the commonplace activity of premarital sex and the importance of having sexual experience prior to marriage, the tune suddenly changes when the same values are applied to women. An online survey conducted in 2010 by web portal showed that nearly 90 percent of males would prefer that their future partner or wife was a virgin. Misogynistic remarks such as “would you drink from a used glass?” are common on the discussion boards attached to such surveys.

“I know it is not fair to females, since they cannot judge a man’s chastity,” said Xu Chao, a 35-year-old man in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. “But I would still feel a bit upset if my future wife were not a virgin. [Chinese] men all hope to be their wives’ first and last sexual partners.”

“It is not just a problem of retaining a hymen,” said Du Kai, a 23-year-old man in Xiamen, Fujian Province. “I believe a virgin will be more loyal to her husband than a non-virgin.”

“As opposed to Western thought which values freedom, Confucianism values abstinence. In other words, Western thought encourages one to do whatever one likes responsibly. Confucianism tells people to look before they leap,” said Ding Juan, a female issues researcher from the All-China Women’s Federation. “The problem is we adopted double standards over chastity – historically, a [Chinese] man could keep several wives, but a woman could have only one man in all her life, even if she found herself widowed at a young age.”

Wang Xingjuan, another female rights researcher who founded the renowned Beijing Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center, is more open-minded. She argues that a great many women now see sex before marriage as almost routine, ignoring the social pressure to remain “pure.”

What worries Wang is that the mainstream society still advocates chastity, and the idealized image of the doting, dutiful wife is ubiquitous in advertising, film, TV and literature. One example cited is the praise afforded to women who leap to their death from buildings when being pursued by a rapist – the implication being that suicide is a preferable to submitting to sexual abuse.

“It is disappointing that they do not tell people that life is more valuable than chastity,” Wang told our reporter. “You can resist or report a rape. Even if you ultimately fail, you should never have to buy your good name with your life.” 

While China’s constitution enshrined gender equality into law as early as in 1951, its ideals have never been properly enforced. Wang Xingjuan believes this is why it is difficult even for female victims of domestic violence to obtain justice, as both the police and the judiciary tend to turn a blind eye to so-called “family matters.”

“[Chinese] women can be quite contradictory when protecting their rights - many try to prevent the police from arresting abusive husbands, since traditional culture requires obedience of the ‘virtuous’ wife, while having nothing to say on the subject of a violent husband,” said Fang Gang, a sex and gender professor from Beijing Forestry University.

Dependent Women

However, while domestic violence may not affect every woman in China, some claim that China’s increasing prosperity is leading women to surrender their hard-won position in Chinese society en masse and instead be relegated to their traditional role – property.

Historically, the average Chinese woman did not work outside the home, was expected to submit to an arranged marriage in her teens, and was kept out of education, commerce and politics by legal statute. While these values were vigorously opposed by the revolutionary political movements of the 20th century, the heteronormative gender roles which cast the woman as homemaker and the man as provider never really disappeared, and, in recent years, seem to have become even more entrenched.

Reality show “contestant” Ma Nuo, despite later being revealed to be a plant reading a script, touched a nerve when she baldly declared: “I would rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle” on a popular dating show in 2010. More recently, a survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation in June showed that nearly 70 percent of female college graduates agreed that “to marry a good man is better than to find a good job.”

Some men are even lashing out at what they see as a female double standard – demanding equality while also demanding that their boyfriends and husbands provide for them financially. “How ridiculous that [some] girls clamor for gender equality while requiring men to pay their bills,” said Li Xunji, a 25-year-old man from Heilongjiang Province, adding that he wouldn’t consider dating anyone who sees home ownership as a deal-breaker in a relationship. “Why give up the homes I paid for?” he continued. “It is like [women] wanting to sell themselves in exchange for a house.”

This is what Ding Juan calls “a generalization of gender inequality,” meaning that, in a society which locks men into stereotypical gender roles alongside women, prejudice cuts both ways. “Both genders should have the right to determine the nature of their marriage, not only the women,” she said.

However, Wang Xingjuan argues that “an internalization of gender inequality” has intensified discrimination against women by women. Social pressure essentially forces women into domestic servitude without them even realizing it. “Women still attach themselves to men as they did in ancient times,” said Wang. “Why would so many women receive breast implants, use weight loss medication and undergo cosmetic surgery, if not just to cater to men?”

“Matchmaking parties” for China’s super-rich, during which a bevy of attractive, accomplished girls parade before an eligible bachelor, with candidates filtered out according to body mass, IQ and cooking skills. One such party in Wuhan even demanded that candidates prove their virginity.

“[Marriage] is more like a business deal which exchanges cash for beauty,” commented Professor Shang Zhongsheng from Wuhan University. “Love, meanwhile, is abandoned. These parties degrade women by turning them into commodities for rich men.”

Yet, the alarmingly high sign-up numbers for these parties, with over 200,000 young women signing up within one year, indicate that women are continuing to embrace this trend. “The core of gender equality is independence, but few women have realized this,” said Wang Xingjuan.

Still a Man’s World

Wang Xingjuan told our reporter that she does not support militant feminism, or any movement which might entrench division between the sexes. “My ideal society would have men and women working and living in harmony without any discrimination,” she said. “Roles would be defined by circumstances rather than the stereotype of “him outdoors, her indoors.”

Chairman Mao Zedong encouraged women to enter the workplace and even the military, famously declaring that women “hold up half the sky.” Before the Communist Party of China (CPC) rose to power, many women held influential positions within its ranks, though rarely did they compete with the Party’s paramount leaders.

Once the political battle for China was won, however, the focus on the liberation of women subtly shifted towards a more general, vague policy of equality which did little to challenge preexisting gender roles. While women continued to work, they were also expected to bear and raise children, and, in the home at least, many continued to defer to their husbands and sons in all matters. In the workplace, while the presence of women was the norm, misogyny endured. A survey by the women’s commission under the democratic Jiu San Society in 2012 found that more than half of respondents believed that men were “more suited to technical and management jobs” while women made better “office clerks, secretaries and service staff.”

In 2010, the China University of Political Science and Law published its survey of workplace discrimination, claiming that nearly 70 percent of Chinese companies and government departments discriminated against women, with employers believing that age, marital status and whether or not a woman had children would ultimately determine a woman’s success in her career.

“It is not fair to place all the blame for money worship in marriage on women, since women don’t have a fair shot at a successful career,” said Shi Qing, a 33-year-old woman in Hangzhou who admits marrying into money. “Many women, for example, have to quit their jobs or abandon a chance of promotion when they have a baby. Given that their employment is not secure, why can we not turn to our husbands?” she continued. “Why can we not secure insurance in the eventuality that both [employer and husband] abandon us?”

“It is a sign that women suffer more than men when so many women would rather give up their rights in exchange for material benefits,” said Ding Juan.


An attempt in 2012 by 22-year-old graduate Cao Ju from Shanxi Province to bring gender discrimination charges against a potential employer, shows just how difficult it is for the Chinese authorities even to acknowledge that discrimination exists in the workplace.

According to Cao’s lawyer Huang Yizhi, China issued a promotion law in 2008 which forbids gender discrimination, but Cao was the first to attempt to cite this law in court. Even so, her claim was initially thrown out. In Huang’s experience, women “usually give up in the interests of money and time.” When Huang attempted to plead Cao’s case, the court responded by asking “Do we even have such a law?”

Although Huang was able to convince the court to hear Cao’s case, no verdict has been forthcoming. “Why do you insist on appealing?” the court asked Cao when she appeared before them.

Huang Weiwei, a Shenzhen lawyer said that in 2012, she sent 57 formal letters of complaint on behalf of clients, all of which were related to gender discrimination by a job-hunting website. According to her, only one third of the releveant department responded, and only one employer was fined for violating China’s gender discrimination law.

“This is because China still has not yet explicitly defined what gender discrimination is in law,” said Ding Juan. “’Gender discrimination’ in China remains merely a moral, rather than a legal concept.”


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