Gender Roles in China – How Women are Faring

Historical Roles of Women Compared to Men

In China, men have historically been the core of the family, and it can be argued that they still are today. Whether it was a Shang or Zhou dynasty king, they only made sacrifices for their patrilineal ancestors i.e. the father of their fathers, the fathers of those fathers, and so on. In fact, women only really enter the ancient Chinese historical record if they caused the men problems. In the time of Confucius, women’s roles were only regarded as kinship roles – daughter, sister, wife, daughter-in-law, mother, mother-in-law, and widow. In the centuries following Confucius, writers commonly spoke of women in the context of yin and yang. While men were yang, women were yin – yin representing soft, receptive, yielding, passive, and tranquil. A Confucian classic, Book of Rites, was followed closely for a long time and stressed segregation within the home. Women were meant to be in the inner section of the home and “not take part in public affairs”, while men were meant to be in the outer portion of the home.

Continuing to Han times, The Biographies of Exemplary Women included cautionary tales on scheming, jealous, and manipulative women bring destruction around their homes and families. The state of women particularly declined in the Song period. In this period, women were were pressured not to re-marry when widowed and this period is when foot-binding became common. At the time, foot-binding was seen as a way for Chinese women to beautify themselves and was also associated with the “pleasure quarters”. In addition to being focused on beauty and pleasure instead of the woman’s potential and skills, it also made women less mobile, further contributing to the lesser status in society than men. Essays and entire books have been written about the history of women suppression in China, but I will move on to discuss the current status of the status of women in Chinese society.

Roles of Women Compared to Men in Present Day

Since the historical times aforementioned, women have made some progress in China, but are nowhere near equal to men. Private businesses in China have helped with the movement towards equality. While there is still “outright hiring discrimination” based on gender (according to one survey conducted in 2015 by the state-run All-China Women’s Federation, 87% of women university graduates experience this discrimination when job seeking), the most gains are being made in the private business sector, particularly technology companies, where women have more direct control over policies. In these private companies, the growth of revenue far exceeds the growth of state-owned companies – giving them a louder voice against the patriarchal culture of China. This is important since a woman has never been president, nor held a seat in the elite Politburo Standing Committee.

However, setbacks still exist. At Zhenjiang’s College in Southern China, a new course launched in March 2018 that teaches women how to dress, pour tea, and sit as women should, i.e. sitting only on the front two thirds of the chair, with the belly in, shoulders relaxed, and legs together. To emphasize the censorship of China, The Washington Post was the first foreign media outlet granted access to Zhenjiang’s campus and could only interview students if the teachers were present to listen in. This course was launched shortly after President Xi abolished term limits to China’s presidency and exists in the name of his “new era”. Since the start of President Xi’s presidency, the World Economic Forum has dropped China’s global gender gap index significantly, from 69 in 2013 to 100 in 2017, out of 144 countries. Clearly, the current presidency is not boding well for women’s equality in China.

Finally, Chinese women have been inspired by the #MeToo movement in the United States, but have found difficulty in organizing their own far reaching #MeToo movement, as they are going up against the ruling of the Communist party in addition to the traditional patriarchal culture of China. Government censors have been blocking phrases such as “anti-sexual harassment” on social media and petitions calling for better protections for women. It’s also difficult for women to speak out because of the culture of “respecting the hierarchy”, according to Professor of Psychology and Vice President of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Fanny M.C. Cheung. Despite these obstacles and the fact that the movement is pretty limited to educated, urban women, the movement is still present. As one female Chinese journalist, Sophia Huang Xueqin stated, “we’re not brave enough to stand as one individual. But together, we can be strong.”


New York Times – ‘Me Too’ Chinese Women Say. Not So Fast, Say the Censors. (link in picture below)