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A few months ago, I saw a Chinese article about what makes a good woman. In short, it says that most of the Chinese men wanted a traditional type of Chinese women as their wife.

A GOOD WOMAN SHOULD BE

“Never open to other people, never open to other man, never go out.

Should give son to the family

Never be angry, always soft and smiling to the man

Never does house work wrong, never burn food”

Over 90% of the Chinese men sadly admitted that they had never met such a woman in their life. Perhaps such a women simply does not exist in the real world.

My first reaction towards it was “Seriously? Are we really living in the 21st century or is it the dark-ages all over again?”

But then, most of my Chinese male friends wish that modern Chinese women can turn back to being traditional again. A common belief is that good Chinese women are not expected to be dominant in the family and capable of everything. Being able to navigate flexibly between appearing strong and weak is thought to be the key of feminine radiance and attraction – not a women who overtakes a man’s capabilites.

In the patriarchal Chinese society, the traditional ideology was that a good woman should follow the “three submissions and four virtues.” The three submissions were that a woman was expected to loyally submit first to her father as his daughter, then to her husband as his wife and to her adult son (the family heir on the death of her husband). The four virtues were women’s virtue (fu de), women’s speech (fu yan), women’s appearance (fu rong) and women’s work (fu gong).

For centuries, the family household in Chinese society was separated between the inner (nei) quarters for the women and the outer (wai) quarters for the men. Outside affairs were not to be discussed in the women’s quarters and inside affairs were not to be spoken of outside the inner quarters.

Therefore, most people believe in the stereotype of good Chinese women, those who are soft, demure, reserved, shy, alluring, and near ethereal-like creatures. But in reality, lots of modern Chinese women are really strong-willed and some men find out that sweet looking Chinese women can even be dragon ladies.

Many Chinese women today enjoy new personal freedoms that were previously, up until very recently, denied to them. Historically in China only the number of a man’s sons would be used to refer to the size of his family. When a woman married, she was expected to leave her family to live with her husband in his hometown, where the wife was subordinate to the whims of her mother-in-law.

Huge change happened following the advent of the 1979 single-child policy. This policy  led to a shortage of prospective daughters-in-law (with parents favoring sons in the womb) and has also produced a generation of doted-upon only-children, many of whom happen to be girls. As a family’s only child, girls are pampered and spoiled in the same way as the boys, especially in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Deprived of sons, parents and grandparents heaped their high expectations on daughters and grand-daughters. The ambitions of Chinese women remain curtailed by family though. It is them, more than men, that are expected to care for aging parents — an entrenched cultural bias.

In China, “the ethos of the last 30 years is that to get rich is glorious, that instinct is surprisingly gender neutral.”

Born as a Shanghai woman, I never experienced gender inequality in my life or know anyone who had a bad family experience just because she is a girl. Being a Shanghai girl, we were the only beloved ones and people expected us to be better than our parents. Since a very young age I never ever hid my desire of wanting to excel in school and getting rich in life. Therefore I worked extremely hard and tried my best to have a great career.

To understand what happened with the good Chinese woman, consider these numbers:

  • The number of Chinese women in senior management positions has recently doubled, with 51% of those jobs held by females, in this China stands alone in Asia.
  • Some 550 publicly-traded companies or about 21% have women on their boards. Shenzhen based Ceetop Inc. and China Teletech Holding Inc. are two of the four companies in the world with all-female boards.
  • Half of the world’s self-made female billionaires are Chinese.

This big change has also happened in rural areas. Chang’s book Factory Girls(2008) explores the lives of the factory girls who had migrated from their villages to operate the assembly lines that produce the clothes we wear, the computer parts we need, the shoes, hats, handbags, games, and gadgets that make the Western world go round. They work up to 13 hours a day, live in cold, dirty, overcrowded dormitories and eat poor food. They have no free time, health insurance, holidays or pension provision beyond the paltry state minimum. Five years ago their average wage was between 500 and 800 yuan a month. Today, a shortage of labor means that young women in their 20s, the elite of the migrant workforce, can earn five times as much, or more.

They return to their villages at New Year bearing gifts: anoraks; trainers; sweets; and toys for the children; pretty jackets for their mothers. They also inject unprecedented sums of money into the rural economy. Young unmarried women now subsidize their parents, pay for the education of younger brothers and sisters, distribute handouts to elderly relatives, and command growing respect from the village as well as from their families. Some go back home to settle, bringing capital and putting up glass and stone two storey houses in the country. Factory girls may look victimized to outsiders who take them to be helpless, ill-paid and insecure, easy prey to sexual and financial exploitation, stuck on the lowest and most vulnerable level of society. But that’s not how these woman see themselves. In their own eyes they are proud, resourceful, energetic risk-takers at the cutting edge of a social revolution.

In Evan Osnos’s book Age of Ambition, he noted a large number of ground-breaking women in 21st century China. One real human story tells of Gong Haiyan, born small and sickly in a rural village, her leg and face later crushed in a tractor accident. Despite all that, Gong couldn’t repress her entrepreneurial gene. As a child, she bought and resold ice pops to villagers, mapping out a route of likely buyers and noting, “Whatever you do, you have to be strategic.”

Her mother was so dedicated to her daughter’s education after the tractor accident that she carried her up and down the stairs to classes. Gong later worked on a Panasonic assembly-line before returning to school and excelling in college. Considered ugly and unable to find a mate, she launched an online dating service, thereby breaking into the male-dominated high-tech world. By 2010, she was known as China’s number one matchmaker. She took her company public on NASDAQ and ended the day worth $77 million, shared with… yes, she found one – her husband.

Another one is SOHO China CEO Zhang Xin, the real estate developer who is transforming Beijing’s skyline. Zhang spent her teenage years on a Hong Kong assembly line but eventually made her way to the New York and prominent UK universities, then onto Goldman Sachs.

New job opportunities, better access to education and more equal positions in family life are creating a modern Chinese woman. Like China’s men in this age of self-creation, these Chinese women defied a history that told them never to try. The once “yellowed pearls” are now shining like diamonds!

Writing this article, I felt that perhaps most Chinese men are not yet ready for the modern Chinese woman – the first female generation of the single-child policy. The change is not just in the culture, dress codes, money and social aspirations of the younger Chinese women, it is in their mindset. For the first time in Chinese history women put themselves first, not their man or their relationship. They are now living the sort of lives that men have done for centuries. Who can blame them.

Women have changed. Men now need to as well.

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