Jan Cao and Xueting Liu

In an American Classroom, Awakening to the Reality of Chinese Gender Discrimination

(Via Bigstockphoto)

This is part of a Tea Leaf Nation series covering gender issues in today’s China.

Gender has recently been in China’s social media spotlight. On March 13, a university professor named He Guangshun wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular micro-blogging platform:

This morning, I was talking about something important during my class: It’s really too cruel to require female students to attend class at 8:30 in the morning. They should have ample time to primp. It’s best to have female students start with the 10:00 class, [then] they can spend from 7:00 to 9:00 putting on their makeup, eating breakfast, then doing the appropriate post-breakfast touch-ups. Then, they can elegantly enter the class room. Their beauty will excite and encourage the male students, giving them the motivation to [work hard].

A discussion, not surprisingly, ensued. Some argued that women are not even conscious of verbal assult and gender-based inequality, using the professor’s words as an example. Xueting Liu, who goes by the handle “Pale Leopard,” was one such user. Below is a summary of Lu’s thoughts, compiled and translated in concert with regular TLN contributor Jan Cao.


This happened when I studied briefly in a university on the East Coast, at the age of 24.

It was spring. Two university professors from a Chinese university’s visual art department were visiting the States. One was the chair of the department and the other was a senior professor. Two female staff accompanied them on the trip. One was a young administrator and lecturer, the other had just got her master’s degree and worked at the university’s international outreach office. The two professors came to a workshop at my university. The young female staff from the international office sat next to me.

Before the meeting began, the workshop moderator gave a brief introduction, and let the four visitors introduce themselves. The chair introduced himself, the senior professor, and the lecturer. That was all. He was the “chief” among them, and therefore spoke first. In his remarks, he ignored the young female staff member sitting next to me.

The workshop ended around dinner time, and we sat around the seminar room, having an informal discussion. The chair got excited when answering a question about “Yang Ban Xi” (Chinese revolutionary opera), and he told the lecturer, “Xiao Wang, show them the move!” Xiao Wang was a dancer. She had received her masters’ from the university’s school of dance before starting to teach in the same department.

She declined: I can’t dance while everyone’s eating. The chair insisted: “Why so shy? Just be pleasant and do it.”

Then she stood up, stood in the middle of room, and we stopped eating. She tried her best to perform what the chair had asked her to do.

Then the chair said, “Xiao Wang, your jeans are too tight. With them on, your move isn’t lovely enough. The audience can’t see what I meant.” He shook his head in regret and said, “why are you wearing jeans today?”

I thought I was dreaming. Things like this had happened more than I could possibly remember. However, only then did I finally see how ridiculous that was, in this red brick campus on the East Coast of the United States. When these people and their relationships were uprooted and replanted in this small seminar room, I suddenly realized how unfairly I had been treated back in China.

Let me give you some other examples.

When I was in college, a professor’s graduate students were mostly female. Once in a thesis defense, the professor invited a well-known expert of that field. At such a formal and serious event, the expert complimented the professor as if the female students were the professor’s personal property: “Professor Z’s students are all hotties! How did you manage to do this?”

Another example: once, at an academic conference, a professor criticized a female student with a frown: “Your dress is too slutty.”

In another case, I went to a conference and was invited to dinner by the county government, where most residents are of a minority group. A male student asked the female students to make a toast and to drink with the local government officials. The officials got drunk and wanted to dance with the female students. I declined. The second day, a male student [senior male student] criticized me for not respecting the culture of a minority group. I told him that he was insulting women as well as minorities. He got upset and asked, “Havent’ you had a boyfriend?” implying that, no longer a virgin, I should be open to bodily contact.

“When these people and their relationships were uprooted and replanted in this small seminar room, I suddenly realized how unfairly I had been treated back in China.” (via hchao217/Flickr)

A female graduate student’s look and outfit have nothing to do with her research. Whether she choose to entertain the local government official has nothing to do with whether or not she has a boyfriend. These male scholars have no reason to discuss or even judge a woman’s body and private relationships in a seminar, a conference or any other professional occasion. This language of violence and discrimination is not a result of the victim’s own behavior; however, in Chinese patriarchal society, a woman’s “purity” is often used as a moral weapon against a women’s right to her own body.

An anthropologist I respect once said that gender might be the most fundamental and unshakable category among Chinese ideologies and power relationships. The other categories — such as those of master and servant, mankind and nature, city and the countryside, major ethnic groups and minority groups — is often a reproduction of gender-based power relations.

I think this argument makes sense. The Chinese gender relationship is oppressively hierarchical, and it reproduces itself in all the other similar dichotomies. For example, in terms of ethnic relations, the minorities are essentialized as the “singing and dancing” beautiful people who are less educated, more “natural,” and exist to be gazed upon. The stereotypical understanding of their existence always suggests a danger of “the other.” Or take the example of city and the countryside. The country is seen as outdated, ignorant, useless, and passive. The countryside becomes the object of pure aesthetic appreciation for nostalgic intellectuals. Therefore, it must be kept “as it is”– it is deprived of its opportunity of development with sentimentality and essentialized to “pure beauty.” The countryside is maternal, fertile, ancient, the most unenlightened yet most civilized. The countryside is fundamentally the woman.

In China, oppression in the realm of gender and sexuality is the most taken for granted among all forms of oppression. Sexism is not seen as discrimination, rather as protection, appreciation, and significant “differentiation.” Therefore, resisting sexual discrimination and harassment — such as men’s constant objectification of women’s body in the public sphere – is seen as a shameless reaction.

Direct sexual discrimination is so profound and extensive that many women are not even aware of it. Some female members of our society are delighted that they are treated with gender-biased appreciation in professional or academic realms. Others are thrilled to be offered opportunities that are taken for granted by men, but seen as a privilege for women. Our sensibility towards discrimination in the realm of gender and sexuality is weaker than that in other realms, such as discrimination based on urban/rural disparities, geographic and ethic differences, and religious beliefs.

What happened in the workshop upsets me because of the layers of sexual discrimination and oppression that happened in a few hours among the two men and two women. I remember the chair’s condescension and the senior professor’s adulation. I also remember that, when the mediator invited the four of them to sit around the table, the senior professor said (for the chair, probably) “don’t worry, let her sit at the back.” Then she came and sat next to me. Personally, what’s especially important for me about that incident is not the awakening bell of sexual oppression (of which I was not completely unconscious of), but the understanding of the way in which gender dynamics function. The latter made me realize that there is an affinity between me and the two other women in that room. We were, in fact, sisters.

Let me explain in another way. When the chair forced Xiao Wang to dance, she declined with a coquettish smile. She danced anyway. I used to not like women who speak a very soft and sweet voice in public spheres, believing that their almost flirtatious manner is a “sexual advantage.” But that day, I realized that Xiao Wang’s coquettish way of acting is actually her defense. In a hierarchical system of power and oppression, in which gender, social status and age are all internalized, she had to resist with her sexual advantage. Such sexualized power relationship is, in fact, a very complicated one in everyday practice.

In our society, social mobility is a kind of luck, and choice is a kind of privilege. Not everyone can say “I quit” when they are treated unfairly. Social structure, economic standing, education, and ethnic ideologies have all promised certain members of our society more options and higher mobility. If the others cannot reject oppression and have to act out their gender advantage, if they are so used to unfairness that change is no longer an option, if being less advantaged is the only choice, and if feminine beauty and obedience create the only space to act and react, what should they do?

After that workshop, I decided that I would never say “let them eat cake.”

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Jan Cao and Xueting Liu

Jan Cao is a senior and comparative literature concentrator at Brown. She loves watching Japanese TV dramas and cooking. Xueting Liu is a Ph.D Student working on the anthropology of knowledge at the University of Chicago. She tries to reflect on her life and the faces and lives she encountered in China with a fresh intellectual distance.
  • http://www.kalanstar.com/ KopyKatKiller

    Great article. I love the leading example where you talked about Chinese exporting their backwardness to the American East coast. Though it must be a shock to realise it sitting there in the US, if you had stayed in China you’d be as backward as that professor most likley. In any ulturer that discriminates against women, most women carry on the descrimination as fervently as the men and the proimary teachers of this sort of “culture” are of course, mothers.

  • yo

    how do americans think about the fact the communism has made china the least sexist country in Asia?

    • http://twitter.com/SecretCoquette Lenin P. Donna

      Great article, thank you. To the above comment: I am an American who has lived in three Asian countries: Mongolia, Thailand, and China (Chengdu). It was a lot harder by far to be a woman in China, even compared to when I lived in the Muslim region of Mongolia. There is sexism in all countries for sure, but in China I often felt an outright disrespect for women that wasn’t apparent elsewhere. Anyway, I feel the experience of sexism is pretty subjective and we can’t ever say was is the least or most sexist country. I encourage you to not only travel, but live in several other countries to broaden your perspective. Thanks for reading.

  • Peter Davies

    Excellent piece. When I first came to China to work as a “polisher” at an English language paper in Shenzhen the managing editor introduced me to a female reporter who he described as “an excellent reporter and she is also very beautiful.” Coming from politically correct Boulder, Colorado I was a bit taken aback, but the woman just smiled and we shook hands.
    Several months later the paper was sponsoring a concert and all the staff was expected to go. I dropped into the office beforehand and saw the same reporter dressed in a red qi pao, like something out the World of Suzi Wong, wearing high heels and with a red and yellow banner across her chest promoting the event.
    “Wow, J—-,” I said. “What’s up with the outfit?”
    She was pissed off — not at me, but at the system that told her to dress like that to hand out roses to VIPS coming to the concert.
    “I did not go to university to dress like a bar girl and pass out flowers!”

  • Foreign Devil

    Out of all the Asian countries. . China probably treats women the best or the most equal. Better than India or Japan or Philippines for example. Of course they still have a long way to go. However some of the richest entrepreneurs in China are women.

  • Truth

    Jan Cao and Xueting Liu: Thank you for your contribution. I have lived in Shanghai for 4 years, and this subject matter increasingly becomes expected and tolerated in Chinese society. Im very curious about which city you were in when you experienced the situation you write about. Id guess Beijing, only because of the presence of government officials, while if it were in Shanghai, it would most likely be business associates. Regardless, I honestly feel that the details simply designate the location, while the scenario designates the homogeneity of gender-discriminatory practices.

    I work at a Chinese company (which I wont mention) and have seen different situations, yet still reflect the same deeply rooted ideological perception of gender in China that you are discussing. I hope to contribute to your analysis by sharing different, yet, similar experiences. Here are two distinct examples of related scenarios I’ve experienced that will hopefully contribute to your analysis.

    1. My department is 75%ish female. Not that they are unqualified or lack the ability to become qualified, but their general role as “Project Manager” is simply designated and restricted as a superficial liaison between the client and my manager. They suffer from encouragement and development as they do nothing more than forward their ‘business’ matters directly to my manager to be resolved. However, their most important job responsibility is to accompany my department head for the standard “wine and dine” and business trips. Conversely from what western corporate culture has taught us, the youngest and prettiest girls are designated to the largest and most important accounts. The best example for illustrating the juxtaposition, and subsequent execution of this scenario is as followed: I am the only American in the company I work at, yet all American accounts are closely restricted to my department heads and the youngest/cutest of project managers. Gone is the notion that an American employee could bring more value in managing an American account. Instead, and what has become a common sight inside my office, is what you see are Chinese women that have been essentially required to keep ‘business professional/cute” outfits and standard makeups at their desk. Then, when needed, a women who never wears makeup on a normal basis to work or dresses in a sophisticated, yet demure way, will be instructed around 4:30pm that they are to attend a dinner, and should prepare herself. Of course, it is no sacrifice to store the makeup and outfits in their office (hanging in their desk locker) because they never would wear that makeup or put on that outfit in any situation in their personal life, but for work, its an aspect of their job responsibility.

    2. After my company hired me, they directly made the intention of hiring one more foreigner woman direct and clear. Several applicants came in for interviews, and were summarily dismissed for the most superficial of reasons (too old, fat, unattractive). I had a classmate of mine that, regardless of being young and attractive, was actually quite qualified for her role. After a 5 minute skype interview, she was offered a ticket to come to China and start working. Before her arrival, I was the ‘mascot’ of the company, but as soon as she arrived, gone where my requirements to fulfill those stereotyped rolls I had come to enjoy (because I love attention). Yet, all of what had happened never put her into the denigrated roll you speak of until one day her and I were on the way to a dinner with our VP. Id had been speaking about staying in shape and exercising, and my superiors (in sync with Chinese culture) supported taking care of your body. But then, they turned to my female friend and said, without blinking an eye, “we are glad you are thin and in good shape, we hate it when young women get fat, and you should stay thin.” Instantly, she and I looked at each other, wordlessly communicating the inappropriateness of their comments, yet exercising cultural sensitivity, patience, and silence. Something that could easily provide that foundation for a sexual harassment lawsuit in American, had been said in such a tactless manner that it could only reflect its appropriateness and acceptance in Chinese culture (side note, a female manager was in the car with us and noddingly agreed with her boss’ ‘appropriate’ comment).

    If it hasnt been clear thus far, I am a male. My mother always taught me to hold the mutual respect for our gender counterparts in the highest regard as they fulfill the completion from self to….to something greater. Shockingly, I truly learned this from Chinese culture, as illustrated by the concept of Ying and Yang, that strength and weaknesses are balanced by a reciprocal.. 3 months ago I married my Chinese wife. My most favorite quality that she has most effortlessly mastered is her independence, individuality and, most importantly, her tenacity to define herself in her own terms. Something I immediately recognized, respected, and humbled by. As something that most westerners would categorize as fundamental in any self-respecting woman, for me, had become a luxury of the west that I should not expect from a new and different culture. Yet, here, in China, where everything you see perpetuates the opposite, is a woman that rejects the ‘norms’ of her own culture. It was in that strength, despite the relentless influences, was a woman that refused to accept it, and was that which humbled me, earned my respect, and won my heart.

    For me, the aspects you address in your article preface a deeper influence in Chinese culture: marriage in China, and its gritty truth, especially in the developed cities in China.

    Id love to hear more from you guys. If you have blogs or whatever I can subscribe/contribute to, please contact me at b.shower.shanghai@gmail.com .Thank you.

  • Tarun Johri

    Excellent and an enlightening read. Thank You.

  • Audrey

    Interesting article, but you neglect to specify the gender of the professors when introducing these two individuals in your first anecdote. By assuming that your audience will automatically think these professors are male, you fall prey to a subconscious sexism similar to the kind you are criticizing. Later, when you mention an anthropologist who you admire, I wondered, “Am I supposed to assume the anthropologist is male?” As a female graduate student hoping to become a professor one day, I was frustrated and disappointed.