Opinion / The Nation and the World

Advocating for gender equality in Chinese society

When I was five, I remember a relative in my grandma’s house telling five-year-old me jokingly that, “in the past, a woman’s best virtue was to be ignorant. That’s because girls were meant to be at home, to be obedient.” That was the first time I heard this message, a message that continued throughout the five thousand years of Chinese history, binding countless women to their household chores and away from an independent life.

I always knew women in ancient China faced oppression from the patriarchal society. Still, it wasn’t until I was older that I realized some of these feudal beliefs continued to influence Chinese women today. I remember the feeling of anger boiling in my heart when my elementary teacher said girls would not be as good as boys in math when we got to high school. She said it in front of the whole class, in a matter-of-fact manner, as if what she had said was an obvious fact everybody knew to be true. 

The statement immediately made me mad because this wasn’t what I had been taught growing up; I had been encouraged to pursue what I wished and try my best in what I loved. “But why would you say that? How would you be so sure?” I blurted out. “Well, you know, girls just aren’t as logical as boys. Girls have a delicate heart. I’ve taught for twenty years, and that’s what I see.” She looked down at the class, tapped her chalk on the board, and continued with the class as if she had said nothing significant. That was the first time I felt the gender stereotypes imposed on girls, and although it wasn’t declared, the teacher was implying that girls were better off pursuing something “easier.”

Stereotypes in Chinese society that women are less competent than men continue throughout life. According to Human right Watch, in recent national civil service job lists, 13% (2017) and 19% (2018) of the job postings specified “men only,” “men preferred,” or “suitable for men.”

Because of this pattern, I longed to learn about stories of respectful female figures in China. My parents had never taught me to be the passive, obedient woman appreciated by traditional Chinese culture. “Speak up if you are treated unequally, don’t be afraid. We want you to be bold, educated, and outspoken.”

I loved the stories my mom told me about heroic women figures in Chinese history. I cherish the stories of Li Qingzhao (pictured at the right), the female poet from the Song dynasty, who used her pen as a weapon and wrote against the invader of the Song dynasty, or the story of Wuzetian, the first female emperor in Chinese history, who ruled with great righteousness and built a solid foundation for the Tang dynasty’s future. Under the influence of these stories, I realized that the cultural message that restricted women like a shackle was there, but I could speak up and fight against it. 

What can I do to advocate for gender equality in China?

There is so much discrimination against women in our society today, and I want to speak up, to do something to help. After telling my parents about my ideas, they advised me to start writing on social media platforms. 

I first chose to write about a recent government-funded television drama that portrayed female doctors and volunteers during the pandemic as less active than their male colleagues. One scene even shows an official saying, “Will a female comrade step up too?” The camera then shows the female workers saying, “Oh no, not me. I have a family to take care of.” This scene once again reinforced the idea that women were meant to be at home instead of in the workplace. But after doing some research on my own, I found that this was not the case in the actual pandemic at all, which was why the TV drama raised controversy.

Learning these facts, I wrote an article of my own on my WeChat blog account, where I included statistics on women’s contributions to the pandemic, proving the importance of the female workforce in society. My first article was met by support and encouragement from my friends and family, and many told me how they were not aware of these implicit, misogynistic messages in TV shows.

I continued to explore period poverty, gender-selective abortions in rural areas, and misogyny in China. Writing about these topics not only made me feel more confident in myself, but I also enjoyed the feedback from readers telling me how they were previously unaware of these issues. 

With the support of my family, I know the importance of not letting outdated, discriminatory cultural messages stop me from expressing myself. I will continue to express myself by writing about gender equality issues such as domestic violence in China as well as discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace, and in the future I hope to inspire more through my articles. I want to counter the old Chinese saying. I believe a woman’s best virtue can be so much more than merely obedience. 

Image: Li Qingzhao, Chinese poet of the Song dynasty. Image source: Chinese Social Sciences Today.

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