After all, she is a woman

By Yao Minji  |   2011-3-8  |     NEWSPAPER EDITION

The story appears on Page B1 - B2
Mar 8, 2011

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CHINESE women are equal to men under law and enjoy many protections but thousands of years of fixed perceptions still pose a challenge to females. Yao Minji takes a look on International Women's Day. "

After all, she is a woman." When Chinese American Amy Yang first heard those words from a female Chinese colleague, she realized she was in for "culture shock."

That was two years ago when the 36-year-old financial consultant had just arrived in Shanghai (the first time in China) from Los Angeles, taking a position vacated by a woman who left to join her husband in Paris, with no job offers waiting for her there.

Yang, who recently got married, appreciates the personal decision to put family first but still considers it a pity because her predecessor was on the verge of getting a promotion. And Yang was clearly critical.

Abruptly a female colleague responded, "After all, she is a woman, and that move is simply the right and only choice for a woman."

"I wasn't surprised to hear that kind of comment here in China," says Yang, "but I was shocked to hear it from a professional woman, and what's more, five other women agreed without any hesitation that she should sacrifice her own career."

Yang, a "liberated" woman from LA, was experiencing first-hand the gulf in perceptions between herself and her sisters on the Chinese mainland. During the next two years, these sentiments were repeatedly expressed in one form or another by Chinese women around her - colleagues, friends and relatives.

Particularly disturbing (to Yang) were comments that went like this: After all, I am a woman, of course I will take care of the family when the man earns the money ... After all, I am a woman, of course I should make a sacrifice of my own career ... After all, I'm a woman, of course I have to get married ... After all, I'm a woman, of course I don't need to buy a house or car because a man will buy them for me ... After all, I'm a woman, of course they didn't pick me for the job. It's understandable.

"It was a mystery to me how they could say it so naturally, without the idea of gender equality ever crossing their mind," says Yang. "These women didn't seem to think they were at a disadvantage compared with me or that somehow they were being treated in a way that was unequal and unfair.

"But I have to admit that many urban women live rather comfortably, and to some extent women are better protected in Shanghai than in many parts of the United States."

According to Professor Wang Jufen, who heads the Women's Studies Center of Fudan University, the perception gap between Yang and Chinese mainland females is due, if not to a clash, at least a big difference, between modern Western gender ideology and the traditional Chinese social ideology about women's nature and their proper roles in a well-ordered and harmonious society.

For a long time, some Chinese male scholars even tried to explain the role assignment of the two genders through the traditional Chinese ideas of yin and yang.

They claimed that women are yin whereas men are yang, and each shall remain in their assigned areas - women active domestically and men outside of the household - without any encroachment. They argued that overturning the order of yin and yang would cause huge disruption to society.

It was only in recent years that some scholars pointed out that yin and yang, interchangeable as they are, are not directly pointing to women or men. Men at times can also be yin, while women yang, case by case.

In China, there's also a gap between the well developed legal protections (officially at least) for women and the single-child family structure that imposes a lot of stress.

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