China's 'Left Over Women'

This essay was written for the subject ‘Education and State Power in China’ as part of a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne.

Discuss China’s state sanctioned “left over woman” discourse in relation to state power, education and women in China.

In 2007 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s “feminist” All-Women’s Federation and state run media launched a campaign intended to stigmatise educated, unmarried women over the age of 27 as “sheng nu”, or “left over” (Hong Fincher 2014). The campaign is an attempt by the government to address the perceived potential threat to Chinese society posed by a new generation of educated women who they fear will choose to delay or wholly reject marriage and motherhood. This essay will locate state sanctioned discourse around so-called left over women within China’s current political and cultural climate, and provide a brief historical overview of the fundamental ways in which the state has used education to shape the lives of Chinese women in order to achieve its aims. The chasm between the CCP’s official commitment to women’s education and gender equality and the actual position of women within Chinese society will be outlined in order to contextualise the left over women campaign and its motivations. Education will be analysed as both formal education received through the school system and informal education received through socio-cultural messages and interactions. This essay will contend that by deliberately constructing the left over woman in order to stigmatise educated, young women and push them back into the domestic sphere, the CCP is undermining its investments in women’s education. In doing so, the party privileges maintenance of the status quo and a desire to avoid responsibility for making real progress towards gender equality over the interests of Chinese women. China’s education system is an important channel utilised by the CCP to send messages about women and the ideal role and purpose they serve in society. Through the education system the government tells women whether or not they deserve an education, and the kind of education they deserve. Gendered education has a long history of centrality to the function of the Chinese state (Schneider 2011). State powers have constructed women’s education as distinct from men’s, and utilised it as a tool through which women have been shaped and mobilised in order to reach the state’s goals. Throughout China’s history women’s education has aimed to produce “virtuous women, wives and mothers” (Bailey 2007), mobilised women as a necessary and valuable source of labour under Chairman Mao, and most recently, aimed to educate women while ensuring that at the culmination of their education they retreat back into the domestic sphere.

During the imperial period children attended co-educational schools until early adolescence, when girls were confined to the home and educated in “wifely skills, such as embroidering, sewing, or making tiny shoes to fit their bound feet” (Hong Fincher 2014). The merits of women’s education were increasingly emphasised towards the end of the 19th century, when the first Chinese schools for girls were established (Bailey 2007). However, women’s education was primarily framed as important in relation to the need for women to provide support to male citizens in their role as “virtuous women, wives and mothers”, rather than as a means to self actualization through direct contributions in the public sphere (Bailey 2007). State education campaigns designed to politicise the private sphere continued well into the first half of the 20th century; the government privileged the teaching of home economics in schools as a way to control and reform society from the domestic space outwards (Schneider 2011). This early regulation and policing of women’s proper attitudes, behaviours and roles within their own homes was justified on the basis that it impacted upon the national interest and was therefore a matter of public concern (Bailey 2007).

The revolutionary intellectual, cultural and political May the Fourth movement of 1919 challenged state sanctioned beliefs around the role of women in society (Wong 1995). The need for women’s education beyond grooming to be wives and mothers within the domestic sphere was emphasised, and momentum slowly gathered around female emancipation. Decades on, under Chairman Mao, the state sanctioned image of the ideal Chinese woman shifted significantly. Mao gave women an “equal” role in society, in that under his rule they were expected to toil in the fields alongside men. Mao pushed to improve female literacy to enable more women to enter the workforce so that they may achieve “liberation through labour” (Hong Fincher 2014), and famously declared “women hold up half the sky” (eds Kau & Leung 1992). Whether such statements were indicative of an interest in women’s rights beyond the desire to mobilise women as a source of labour is questionable. The voices of women are absent from Communist Party history, which highlights a lack of female self-determination and undermines the depth of Mao’s commitment to feminism (Hong Fincher 2014). In this sense, Mao used education as a tool to control, rather than empower, women.

While the structure and purpose of women’s education in China has altered significantly since the Mao years, the use of education as a means through which somehow innately deficient women can be reformed both precedes and outlives the former leader. As far back as 1892 women’s backwardness was blamed for the country’s failings, with education offered as a potential remedy (Bailey 2007). Reinforcing the state’s perception of women as a problem to be solved, early women’s education tended to be primarily regulatory. Girls and women were likened to “unharnessed fillies” in need of tight restraints and controls for the maintenance of social order (Bailey 2007). This mentality highlights the still present conflict between the government’s desire to promote female education and the fear that doing so too wholeheartedly may have “unpredictable consequences” (Bailey 2007).

Like most ruling governments, the CCP maintains a rhetorical commitment to its own version of gender equality (Otis 2012). In the 1950s the party introduced measures and policies to engage women as workers, end the harmful practice of foot binding, and boost female literacy (Otis 2012). These policies paved the way for recent improvements in women’s access to education and educational attainment rates (Otis 2012). In 2009 women accounted for 48.6% of tertiary graduates, 48.2% of enrolled graduate students and 34.7% of all post-graduate students (Catalyst 2012). While such figures are encouraging, there is a chasm between the government’s rhetorical commitments to gender equality and the promotion of women’s education, and both overt and covert structures that discriminate against women in the education system and society at large. The lucky women who manage to subvert these structures and gain access to high-level education are then encouraged to retreat back into the domestic sphere, rather than pursue opportunities to apply their education in the professional and public spheres. It has been suggested that while a disconnect between rosy propaganda and the reality of women’s position in society has existed throughout China’s history, the CCP’s recent realignment with highly patriarchal Confucian ideologies and the restructure of the economy around a “pure profit motive” (Karl et. al 2015) have converged to create a situation in which women are now actively discouraged from cultivating professional ambitions (Karl et. al 2015). Although clearly problematic, Mao era propaganda at least encouraged women to think of themselves as capable of contributing to the betterment of society beyond the use of their wombs for reproductive purposes. The salience of the left over woman discourse in contemporary China reveals a very different message about the ideal role and worth of women in society that is currently being disseminated by the government.

Women face disadvantage and discrimination within Chinese society in the areas of education, employment, marriage rights, and home ownership, experience disproportionate rates of violence, and are harshly targeted when they attempt to express even mildly dissident opinions in the public sphere. The left over women discourse does not exist in isolation; China’s highly patriarchal culture has provided an ideal platform for the discriminatory and sensationalist campaign. The following outline of key areas in which women experience inequality and injustice in Chinese society is an attempt to contextualise the left over women discourse.

Data from 2011 to 2015 indicates that female participation in China’s labour force is 64%, compared to 78% for men (World Bank 2016). The end of government assigned jobs and the reduction of state owned enterprises has been accompanied by a rise in openly sexist hiring policies (Karl et. al 2015). It is common for employment websites to exclude female applicants with no explanation, or request only attractive women with specific physical characteristics, such as a “pretty” face or minimum height (Karl et. al 2015). Men are rarely subject to the same level of discrimination based on physical characteristics that have no bearing on their ability to fulfil the requirements of a position. Women who gain employment can expect to earn around 40% less than their male counterparts; the wage gap has grown steadily in recent years (Karl et. al 2015). Another source of inequality in employment is the disparity in the legal retirement age, which since the 1950s has been between 50 and 55 years of age for women, as compared to 60 years of age for men (Chung 2015). This law effectively gives Chinese men an extra five to ten years of income to retire with.

China has a strong history of student activism, which notably includes the 1919 May Fourth Movement and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. In contemporary China rigorous military training – a “state sanctioned education in nationalism and obedience” (Karl et. al 2015) – and a punishing and “numbing” high school education system converge to covertly stymy the potential for a culture of activism to develop (Fish 2015). Perhaps Chinese students are too busy studying to orchestrate mass protest; it is also likely that their political apathy is at least in part due to an increasingly materialistic global and national society that tends to value the pursuit of money over social progress (Fish 2015). There is particular resistance to and suspicion of feminist activism in China due to perceptions of feminism as a Western-oriented discipline with little relevance to China’s history and conditions (Schaffer & Xianlin 2007). A Chinese specific brand of women’s rights known as “nu xing zhuyi”, which translates to “women’s genderism”, has developed (Schaffer & Xianlin 2007). This “smiley Chinese feminism” has been described as less aggressive than Western feminism in its pursuit of harmony between the sexes, rather than the more contentious women’s rights (Schaffer & Xianlin 2007). In the aftermath of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, a number of small, grassroots women’s rights NGOs were established and began providing support in the areas of legal aid, reduction of domestic violence, and protection and rights for sex workers (Karl et. al 2015). The government is generally suspicious of NGOs and tends to maintain a level of surveillance around their activities (Human Rights Watch 2015). Government operated organisations such as the All China Women’s Federation and a number of effectively state run “NGOs” are an attempt by the government to stymy the operations of genuine independent right’s groups (Human Rights Watch 2015).

In order to avoid government crackdowns, since the early 2010s many women’s rights organisations and other social justice groups have attempted to depoliticise their agendas and raise awareness through primarily artistic actions (Karl et. al 2015). By staging performative, creative and symbolic actions in public places these women are challenging social norms in a playful – rather than traditionally political – way (Karl et. al 2015). Their actions have included occupying men’s toilets in order to draw attention to the shortage of female public toilet facilities, and walking the streets in blood spattered wedding dresses in order to raise awareness around the prevalence of domestic violence within marriage in China (Karl et. al 2015). The state has not been amused; last year, on the eve of International Women’s Day, five female activists who were planning to stage a non-violent protest against sexual harassment on public transport were detained on the grounds of “picking quarrels and creating a disturbance” (Karl et. al 2015). The women’s detention incited condemnation from the international community and they were released after a month (Karl et. al 2015). What these women and others like them want is effectively the same as the CCP’s official aims around the status of women in Chinese society – that they should be equal to men. It is telling that the government is working so hard to eradicate their voices (Karl et. al 2015).

Married women in China are disadvantaged in the area of property rights, are more likely than their non-married counterparts to experience violence (Xu et. al), and are generally expected to perform the majority of domestic duties, regardless of whether they also work outside of the home (Karl et. al 2015). Historically, women’s rights were defined around the family unit, with the need for women to marry and reproduce privileged above individual rights (Mann 2011). The unequal rights and entitlements of men and women within marriage are one factor that may make marriage an increasingly unappealing option for women; particularly educated women who are likely to have greater awareness of their rights and be better positioned to support themselves financially. Within marriage in China major assets are typically registered under the man’s name. He maintains the majority of rights in the event of separation regardless of whether husband and wife contribute equally to the purchase of these assets (Hong Fincher 2014). This means that women who wish to divorce their husbands may be deterred by the extreme economic hardship they are likely to endure. Violence against women is widespread in China and predominantly occurs within marriage; it is estimated that between half and a quarter of Chinese men have physically abused their partners (Hong Fincher 2014). Until March of this year, China had no specific laws that prevented or punished domestic violence and marital rape was not considered a crime (Karl et. al 2015). While the new law is a significant step towards protecting victims, effective implementation will be the real challenge. Currently, police are often more concerned with staying out of domestic affairs than protecting victims of violence within marriage, which is an obvious deterrent for vulnerable women considering alerting the authorities to their situation (Hong Fincher 2014). These factors compound to create a situation in which many victims of domestic violence are reluctant to seek help because they are completely financially dependent on their husbands and do not trust law enforcement officials to privilege their safety over a desire to uphold social norms. In 2011 American woman Kim Lee flouted the widespread silence around domestic violence that exists within China by uploading photos of injuries inflicted by her then husband, high profile English teacher Li Yang, to the popular micro blogging website Sina Weibo (Hong Fincher 2014). Lee’s case made legal history when she was granted a divorce, full custody of the pair’s children, ongoing child support, and nearly two million dollars – arguably a small sum considering her ex-husband’s immense wealth – in compensation for the abuse she suffered (Osnos 2016). However, Lee’s initial reports of abuse to officials were met with repeated interrogations, the denial of access to lawyers, and orders from government authorities to stop posting on her Weibo account (Karl et. al 2015). Reflective of the government’s limited commitment to addressing gender inequalities are the lack of public education campaigns around reducing violence against women (Asia Foundation, 2016). Despite improvements in women’s access to education and educational attainment levels, women remain disadvantaged by China’s education system. As of 2015 58.7% of adult women had received secondary school education, compared to 71.9% of their male counterparts (United Nations Development Program 2015). To counteract an increase in the number of women attending universities and resulting gender imbalances in certain fields, since the mid 2000s some Chinese institutions have begun explicitly setting higher entrance standards for female students (Tatlow 2012; Karl et. al 2015). A project leader from the NGO Media Monitor for Women Network explained this practice as a result of the fact that within China “male graduates are more employable than female graduates” (Zhen & Lowe 2016). Open discrimination against women in the education system leads into a culture in which the sexual exploitation of female students is common practice (Fish 2015). For example, in 2009 a 70-year-old professor accepted sexual favours from a student in return for admission into a prestigious PhD program (Fish 2015). Sexual exploitation in the education system is not a distinctly Chinese feature, yet incidents of corruption, harassment and violence involving students are particularly widespread (Fish 2015).

Due to the structure of the hukou system, rural students are disadvantaged in China’s education system; rural women fare worst of all (Fish 2015). Analysing data on incoming freshmen in four tier one colleges, Xiaobing et. al (2013) find that poor, minority and rural female students remain systematically under-represented, while rich, han, urban, male students dominate tertiary institutions. Rural women are the most under-represented group in the study, which reinforces existing research that shows that parents in rural areas tend to undervalue the education of their daughters, and that girls who grow up in rural China remain disadvantaged in education (Xiaobing et. al 2013). The voices of these rural women, or even the voices of advocates speaking on their behalf, are largely absent from the public sphere (Schaffer & Xianlin 2007). A lack of educational opportunities inhibits rural women’s potential to excel professionally. Many rural women are now migrating to urban centres to gain access to employment opportunities, commonly in factories or as waitresses (Fish 2015). This trend can empower rural women who gain a level of autonomy and independence by leaving home, but also puts women at risk of exploitation (sexual and otherwise) and violence, particularly from employers upon whom they are dependent for their livelihoods (Fish 2015). Rural women living in urban centres are often formally and informally excluded from gaining proper urban citizenship and unaware of their employment rights, meaning employers are largely free to demand long hours for inadequate salaries (Otis 2012). Within China’s major cities, rural women are commonly dismissed as uneducated, unhygienic, uncivilised and “low quality”, as compared to cosmopolitan, educated and refined urban women (Otis 2012). Rather than reject these stereotypes, rural women often aspire to appear convincingly urban, which results in a power dynamic in which rural women are made more vulnerable by their need to gain the approval of urban employers and customers (Otis 2012). Away from family and friends, women who become the victims of exploitation often lack the support structures required to manage debilitating situations. Media representations of rural women as “exotic and erotic” (Otis 2012) and the common assumption that workers at karaoke bars, restaurants and beauty salons will also trade in sexual favours makes women extremely vulnerable to sexual harassment (Otis 2012). Perhaps in part because they are already highly vulnerable through their employment in menial jobs, many rural women are taking up sex work as a way to increase their income (Fish 2015). Meanwhile, women left behind in rural areas are also at an increased risk of violence due to an overabundance of single men – or “bare branches” – who may begin to view women as a commodity and commit acts of aggression and violence (Fish 2015). Historically, societies with a surplus of men have tended to be unstable, violent and lawless (Fish 2015). China’s education system unfairly privileges rich, han, urban, males (Xiaobing et. al 2013); however, more Chinese women are gaining access to education and studying for longer, which has social ramifications. It has been argued that education changes women’s attitudes and expectations around careers, marriage and motherhood. As women gain access to education and employment, they are presented with alternative life style choices that compete with family and domestic life (Kim Choe, Westley and Retherford 2002). As women’s education, participation in the workforce and financial autonomy improve, gender roles that privilege women primarily as wives and mothers are often increasingly questioned within societies (Kim Choe, Westley and Retherford 2002). As a result, women may come to value their careers over marriage and motherhood. The persistence of certain social expectations, such as the belief that women should give up their careers after having children, can contribute to the rejection of traditional pathways. For example, low marriage rates among well educated, career oriented East Asian women have been explained by the suggestion that this group have the most to lose in marriage (The Economist 2011). Understandably, these women are reluctant to relinquish the careers they have worked hard to build to stay at home doing dishes and changing diapers.

Statistically China is not experiencing the pronounced turn from marriage that is occurring in neighbouring countries such as Korea and Japan, but data can be slow to reflect changing ideas and beliefs on the ground. Some specialists have predicted that if women’s education continues to expand rapidly, a “marriage revolution” – widespread deferral or rejection of nuptials – is imminent (Hong Fincher 2014). As well as marrying later or not at all, highly educated women tend to have fewer children. The left over women campaign is a pre-emptive attempt by the CCP to address the potential threat posed by educated women who may choose to delay or wholly reject marriage and motherhood. The term “sheng nu” denotes an unmarried woman over the age of 27 and has been popularised by the government’s supposedly pro-women All-Women’s Federation (Hong Fincher 2014). Articles with titles such as “Overcoming the Big Four Emotional Blocks: Leftover Women Can Break out of Being Single”, “Eight Simple Moves to Escape the Leftover Women Trap” and “Do Leftover Women Really Deserve Our Sympathy?” have been published on official government websites with the aim of publicly shaming educated young women into lowering their standards and putting their careers to the side in order to marry before it is too late (Steinfeld 2015). One article encouraged girls of “average or ugly appearance” to forget focusing on their education as a way to increase personal capitol, because “by the time they get their MA or PhD they are already old – like yellowed pearls” (Magistad 2013). In some areas local governments are even acting as matchmaking organisations by running state sanctioned mixers where educated young women can meet suitable husbands (Hong Fincher in Magistad 2013). The campaign plays on deeply entrenched beliefs around filial piety, family obligations and cultural norms to shame unmarried women, and has resulted in “incredible angst, personal torture and societal pressures” (Hong Fincher 2014). There is an obvious tension between the government’s investments and advancements in women’s education and their attempts to push women who do become educated back into the domestic sphere.

Various explanations of the motivations behind the left over women campaign have been suggested. As a result of the now historical one child policy and the prominence of sex selective abortions, China has a sex ratio imbalance that peaked at 121:100 in 2008; just one year after the government launched the left over women campaign (Hong Fincher 2014). In order to keep the already low birth rate stable it is in the government’s interest to encourage women to (marry and) reproduce. The left over women campaign’s specific focus on predominantly urban, highly educated women can be explained by the CCP’s preoccupation with improving the “quality” of the population (Hong Fincher in Magistad 2013); the term “eugenics” was previously written into official population planning policy (Magistad 2013). The left over women campaign can be partially explained as a result of the government’s desire to produce highly educated, “quality” women who will then retreat back into the domestic sphere in order to reproduce the country’s elites (Karl et. al 2015).

The structure of China’s economy may be one motivating factor behind the government’s attempts to shame educated women into foregoing career ambitions in order to perform unpaid domestic labour, some of which is minimised by social welfare – such as government subsidies for aged care – in other states (Karl et. al 2015). In this sense, the left over woman is a construct created by the Chinese government that allows them to promote women’s education and rhetorically support gender equality while avoiding responsibility for the kind of changes that are required for real social progress to be achieved. The government’s vested interest in ensuring that women are manipulated into maintaining the status quo partially explain policies that make it difficult for married women who experience domestic violence to divorce their husbands, or retain legal rights over even a portion of a family home they may have paid for.

The left over women campaign is a formal, state sanctioned manifestation of a more general pressure placed on young women in China to value and invest in their education, only to be denied opportunities to apply this education, because they are coerced into fulfilling conservative gender roles in the domestic sphere. This creates a tension between young Chinese women’s increased knowledge and ambition – gained through improvements in education – and societal and family pressure to marry and settle down (Karl et. al 2015). With greater exposure to global ideas and information, young Chinese woman may feel caught between a new image of the cosmopolitan, independent career woman and China’s idealised virtuous woman, wife and mother.

The left over woman campaign has attracted international attention and critique. Earlier this year Japanese based global skincare brand SK-11 launched a “change destiny” campaign, which included a five-minute YouTube film about “strong and independent women who have chosen to pursue their dreams instead of being pressured to marry for the sake of it” (SK-11: Marriage Market Takeover 2016). The emotive film features interviews with a number of China’s “left over women” and their parents, and highlights the social stigma and resulting trauma of the immense pressure these women face. Viewers follow parents to the Shanghai Marriage Market where they swap statistics and as one left over woman bluntly puts it, make plans to “sell their daughters” (SK-11: Marriage Market Takeover 2016). The film culminates when the daughters stage a take over of the market and display photographs of themselves with messages to their parents such as “I have a great career. There is another term called ‘power woman’” and “I’m happy being alone”; the parents respond with understanding, tears and the realisation that “Left over women are outstanding. Left over men need to try harder!” (SK-11: Marriage Market Takeover 2016). SK-11’s commodification of the empowerment of China’s left over women in order to sell beauty products is problematic, yet their campaign highlights the extent to which globalisation is opening up new sites for exchanges and social critique between China and the rest of the world. While the CCP continues to manipulate and control Chinese women’s lives, new opportunities for cross-cultural inquiry and activism are opening up for so-called left over women; armed with new information and ideas, these women are increasingly likely to fight back (Schaffer & Xianlin 2007).

The left over women campaign has been successful in that social discourse around overeducated, unmarried women is reasonably wide reaching and salient; there are books, newspaper articles and many Chinese soap opera television shows that deal with this subject matter. As evidenced by SK-11’s recent advertising campaign, the left over women campaign has also attracted criticism and outrage from people both within and outside of China who reject the state’s creation and subsequent marginalisation of educated young women. The CCP’s attempts to maintain the social status quo through the left over women campaign, coupled with harsh crackdowns on non-violent feminist activism, have the potential to create greater dissent amongst educated, young women and their allies (Karl et. al 2015). Left over women are likely to feel isolated and marginalised by their own government. As the government becomes harsher and more outlandish in its actions, even politically disengaged citizens may feel compelled to align themselves with marginalised groups such as left over women (Karl et. al 2015). In this sense, the CCP’s attempts to encourage left over women to prioritise marriage and children over careers and social progress may have the reverse effect of galvanising women’s rights movements and the rejection of traditional pathways within China.

By providing a contextual analysis of the left over women campaign, this essay has attempted to highlight the tension between the CCP’s official – and to an extent actual – commitment to improving women’s access to education and educational attainment and the ways in which prevalent structures and attitudes maintained and promoted by the government pressure women who do become educated back into the domestic sphere. The deliberate construction and stigmatisation of the left over woman by the CCP reveals the hypocrisy and perversion of their commitment to gender equality and women’s education. The CCP privileges maintenance of the status quo and a desire to avoid responsibility for making real progress towards gender equality over the interests of China’s so-called left over women. It seems increasingly unlikely that China’s educated, young women will obediently and quietly retreat back into the domestic sphere.

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