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.
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.”