More Freedom for Chinese Females?


NANJING — Nowadays Chinese females seem to have more freedom and rights, but the fact is that Chinese females are still forced to meet many societal requirements that serve to stereotype women. Such a situation is especially pronounced in the realm of demands on body image and marriage age.

During the Chinese New Culture Movement in the 1910’s and 1920’s, radical feminist ideas, such as the abolition of foot binding and arranged marriages and the promotion of female suffrage and educational rights, were popularized. Chinese feminism came into being and females’ social status in China began to change. Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women, which describes the heroine’s gradually changing ideas of family and marriage, is one demonstration of the awakening of feminism in China at that time. Today, Chinese females seem to enjoy more freedom and equality than in other countries with a tradition of Confucian culture such as Japan and South Korea, at least according to the Global Gender Gap Index, which is an indicator of the differences between males and females in economic participation and opportunity, political health, political empowerment. However, objective indexes often fail to take subjective variables, such as forms of social discipline which delineate the ways in which woman should behave, into consideration. One example of the role of such social discipline is the intolerance for female smokers in mainland China.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault mentions an example of soldiers who were required to have “a lively, alerted manner, an erected head, a taut stomach, broad shoulders, long arms, strong fingers, a small belly, thick thighs, slender legs and dry feet, because a man of such a figure could not fail to be agile and strong”. Such physical requirements served to extend the power of the state onto the bodies of its subjects. In like manner, modern Chinese females are required to have a tame and elegant manner, a slim but healthy figure, oval face and big eyes. It is felt that a woman of such figure cannot fail to be a good wife and kind mother. Like Foucault’s “air of the soldier”, such societal requirements for females create the expectation that women will possess a certain “air of a female”, which serves to constrain them from the very moment when they are born, turning being female into a lifelong “profession”. Such an “air of a female” is not inborn, but rather is a product of training. When females are children, they are supposed to play with dolls rather than basketballs. When they go to school, they are supposed to be good at humanities rather than science. When they grow up, they are expected to stay at home rather than have jobs. All those expectations become unconscious training that disciplines females.

Most of the activities of Chinese females are controlled through the fact that their marriages are controlled by societal expectations. Their development is thwarted by the de facto requirement to get married, preferably at a young age. Although arranged marriages are rare in China today, most females still do not enjoy the full benefits of a “free marriage”, since they are still passive participants in marriage rather than active ones. The average marriage age for Chinese females in 2010 was around 23, which is far younger than that in the United States, Japan or South Korea. Marriage divides females’ lives into two parts. Before they get married, everything they are required to do is related to preparing for marriage, such as having a good education, cultivating a charming and healthy figure and learning to be gentle. After marriage, they are no longer considered as individuals but as wives and mothers who rely on their husbands. Their activities are controlled and restricted by the strict timetable laid out by family and society for their marriages. If females refuse to live up to expectations by following the de facto societal and cultural requirements, they will begin to feel mounting pressure to conform coming from all sides.

The emergence of the term “sheng nü” (剩女) in China can be seen as a result of the expectations to stick to such marriage schedule. This commonly used derogatory term, which translates roughly as “left-over woman” is used to disparage any women who remains unmarried beyond the age of 26 or 27. “Sheng nü” women are also called 3S ladies. The 3 S’s stand for “single”, “stuck” and “seventies”, as in one who is single, stuck and born in the nineteen seventies. Both terms have negative connotations, and females who fall into the category of “sheng nü” usually have to confront great social pressure. In an article exploring cross-cultural variations in marriage age, Ruth B. Dixon explains that “social and economic penalties of non-marriage are stronger in non-Western societies than in the West, and stronger for women than for men”.  In China, women don’t just fact social penalties for not marrying, but also for marrying at an “older” age.

Although it may seem that the social status of Chinese females has improved and that they enjoy more freedom than in the past, the reality is that social discipline which places pressure on women to marry early and promotes such things as “the air of a female” still constrains females and impedes their development.