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Society & Culture

The Changing Role of Chinese Women

Oct 29, 2014

My grandmother was a prostitute-turned concubine, my mother a frustrated factory worker, and myself a rocket-factory-girl-turned-international-writer. The stories of three generations of women in my family illustrate the changing role of women in contemporary Chinese society.

My grandma’s story – a working girl turned concubine

At birth my grandma was named Yang Huizhen, but for many years she was known as Huang-Yang Shi – meaning the woman who was married to a man surnamed Huang and middle-named, Yang. The very name she was given showed how women had no identity of their own just a few generations ago.

Yang Huizhen suffered war, famine and other terrible hardships during her 83 years of life. Born in 1915 in a town outside Nanjing, on the banks of Yangtze River, she was an orphan at a young age, and then was sold into prostitution. In those days, women were a common commodity. She met my grandfather, a married small time grain dealer, on the job. He took her to Nanjing where they set up a home. In 1949, after the Chinese Communists victory, men were ordered to keep one wife. Grandpa decided to keep my grandma, his concubine, as his wife.

Illiterate, grandma never worked outside the house. And like many women of her generation, she lived her life for others.

My mother’s story – a low factory hand

My mother Huang Yunfang was 12 years old when the People’s Republic of China was established. She was happy to witness a series of progressive policies introduced by the new government: abolishing feudal tradition of foot-binding, concubine-taking, and arranged marriages – as well as granting women the equal rights to education and employment.

Upon completing middle school, my mother was assigned a job at a state-owned military factory. Jobs were assigned by the government in those days. She considered herself very lucky to have obtained an ‘iron rice bowl’ – referring to a job with a state-owned enterprise, as it meant a job for life. The factory was also prestigious. Among other things, it produced inter-continental missiles that were capable of reaching North America.

My mother was a smart woman and better educated than many of her fellow workers, but she never got anywhere professionally. For nearly 30 years, she did one type of job: “acid-pickling”. It involved lifting machine parts into a tank filled with poisonous chemicals. Chairman Mao’s idea of gender equality was to deny the physical differences between men and women.

My mother, despite her frustrations, fared much better than her mother. Financial independence inevitably meant improved position and power at home. She was always the one who controlled the family purse.

My Story – a rocket factory girl turned international writer

I grew up in the residential compound that belonged to the factory my mother worked for all her life. I excelled in school, and had always harbored an ambition of going to university and then becoming a writer and a journalist.

At 16, however, my dream was shattered as mother dragged me out of the school and put me to work at the same factory. The reason was simple: we were poor. My assigned job was to test pressure gauges, simple and repetitive. A mini Communist empire, not only did the factory provide the workers with accommodation, dining halls and hospitals, it also controlled all aspects of our lives, including our hairstyle, our outfits or even our love life – dating wasn’t allowed within three years of entering the factory.

As an escape route, I decided to teach myself English, in the hope of obtaining a job as an interpreter with one of the foreign companies that were slowly setting up shops in Nanjing.

Looking back, learning English effectively changed my life as it has broadened my horizons. What I learnt wasn’t just the ABCs but the whole cultural package.

Of course, my journey from a rocket factory girl to an international writer has been a long and winding one. Having worked at the factory for ten years, I left China for England. Once over there, a childhood dream stirred. I studied journalism. After I returned to China three years later, I started my career by assisting western journalists before becoming a journalist of my own right.

Now, based in Beijing, I work as a writer, social commentator and public speaker. I feel extremely lucky as I was born in the right time – Deng Xiaoping opened China’s door and introduced the economic reforms which have transformed China. Otherwise, I couldn’t possibly have achieved what I’ve achieved.

Set-backs and the Future

Although Deng’s reforms have brought along plenty of opportunities to both men and women, they’ve also caused setbacks in terms of gender equality.

The income gap between men and women has been widening in the past three decades. Prostitution has made a spectacular return and the rich and powerful men once again boast to have ernai – the modern version of concubines. And female graduates have a much harder time in finding employment.

The government has retreated some of its responsibilities to the market. Yet the market doesn’t always treat women kindly.

Despite all the problems, I feel hopeful because Chinese women have started to taken the matters into their own hands. They’ve set up NGOs, fighting for women’s rights in different ways. In recent years, I’ve noticed increased feminist activism. Women have bravely dressed up in bloodied wedding gowns to protest against domestic violence, shaving off their hair, silently voicing their anger against the discrimination in university admission standards, or filing lawsuits against discriminatory employers. Early this year, I marched for a week in central China with a young feminist friend. She walked all the way from Beijing to Guangzhou, in protest against child sex abuse.

There’s still a long way to go before women can truly hold up half of the sky. The good thing is that we are not sitting here, waiting for the miracle to happen. We are putting on a fight.

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