Report from China: A Mirror of the Imperial Past

When I was small I enjoyed the crazy, strange, and rather disturbing mirrors found in “fun houses” at carnivals and theme parks. One image shining back at me was sometimes short and fat and other images made me look like a curly French fry. This same “fun house mirror” effect is occurring in modern China. The images of the past appear to still exist in China, but they simply take on different forms. Although there is new technology, the opening up of China economically, and other factors, the inequality of men and women, unfortunately still exists. To understand the present, a survey of the past must be taken, thereby preparing for a suitable solution to these deep rooted problems.
I spent the summer in Beijing China studying Chinese politics, culture and language. I also toured six other cities and had many opportunities to interact personally with the Chinese people. On one of our first excursions we went to see the renowned Forbidden City, a large city within Beijing where the Emperor and his court previously resided. I couldn’t help but note how almost every building I came across were tiny homes (usually one or two rooms) for the Emperors concubines. An innumerable amount of money and resources squeezed from the peasantry were sent to support the Emperors lifestyle of demeaning women (who of course were not given the choice of becoming a concubine). I verbalized my disgust and to my utmost shock one of my classmates disagreed with me, saying many noble men in the Bible practiced concubinage. His logic was based on his notion that modern churches don’t see men and women as equal. Although many see the emperors and dynastic periods as “barbaric,” there are those who still believe in essentially the same tenets. My next experience led me to historic alleyways of Beijing, called the “hu tong,” where a native tour guide took us to a beautifully painted door. He explained that inside these walls women of the past would come to become like little blossoms. Upon further clarification he explained this meant foot-binding. The feet would become small and round, resembling a blossom or flower and the men enjoyed caressing them. Disgusted, I asked if this still occurred today, and he laughed and said of course not.

Within many of the neighborhoods in China there are sections called courtyards, where the middle to upper class would enjoy their luxurious life. The courtyard was set up so that the boys and sons lived in the front, the mother and father in the middle, and in the very back the girls would reside. The daughters were only allowed to move up to a new level to wish their father and mother good morning. They were not ever to leave the home. According to my Chinese professor, these girls were not allowed to show their teeth when they smiled, their feet when they walked and their name when asked. Girls were not given names. They were nameless until married.  They were literally invisible. I asked my Professor if things have changed. She explained that she was able to teach because of the great progress of China. According to her version of history, freedom for women was gained under Mao’s era, but then digressed because of the opening up of China to the world. I believe, according to my observations, that in reality the problems were not taken care of and many still exist, although in different forms, in modern China.

Beijing is a modern city and one cannot help but see the prosperity. One may also note small, cute, colorful Volkswagen bugs speeding up and down the roadways. At first glance, it seems like happy women driving these cars, but in reality they are partaking of a tradition that has lasted dynasties. These women are called “little secrets.” Men, usually with money and power, desire more than one wife but because the law outlaws polygamy or concubines, they have secret affairs. But different from most western affairs, these Chinese men support their women with apartments, money, and in many cases small, colorful Volkswagen beetles. Other men will have “little secrets” in Taiwan, other parts of China, or in other countries. This modern phenomenon incidentally is identified with the exact same characters which mean “second wife.” Now, who said concubinage has ceased in China?

One of the most poignant experiences I had in China was meeting Yuan Yuan and her friend. These two girls are migrants from the agricultural Hebei province. They have beaming smiles, but behind their eyes there is pain. They were so excited to meet me and came to my dorm to take pictures with me. They explained they had never talked to a foreigner, and when taking the pictures I discovered they didn’t own a camera. They had never used a computer and upon further discussion I learned they both dropped out of school at age 14 to work in the factories. They longed to learn and have a real education. I also learned that one was married, despite the fact that she appeared to be 14 years old. She was in an arraigned marriage (supposedly married at age 21) and her husband lived in another city working. The other, upon further conversations and meetings, was stuck in an undesirable arraigned engagement. Despite the fact that they both lived in the same city, her and her fiancé never dated and she had no love for him. I was saddened by this experience. I felt that for the first time, I was experiencing thereal China; the rural, the uneducated, the peasant women who longed for more.

While walking down the streets of Beijing and other cities, I noticed a strange fashion that also made an interesting gender statement. Supposedly because of the hot weather, the men’s shirts are worn half way off or they don’t wear one at all. These aren’t just construction workers; they are white-collared, old and young men. At nights the men gather round out on the streets to gamble, smoke, and drink. Frequently men just wear boxer shorts or at best, pajamas. I truly hope this type of lifestyle is a small minority, but it appeared very prevalent. The women, on the other hand, wore beautiful dresses and heels every day. Even as I climbed the Great Wall, I saw women wearing high heels. They seemed conservative and reserved in public. My classmates and I discussed this dichotomy of styles that seemed so apparently divided on gender lines. We came to the conclusion that there was a double standard of modesty and underneath the appearances, perhaps a double standard of chastity as well.

I was very interested in hearing about the One Child Policy from the everyday people and I fortunately had some very valuable conversations. I sat down to rest in front of the Forbidden City and after 45 minutes of random people taking pictures with me, a woman approached me who spoke fairly good English. She sat by me and said she was a famous and renowned pharmacist in China, traveling across the country speaking at universities and clinics. She asked me what I felt was the worst Chinese government policy. After hearing my reply (which was the One Child Policy), she agreed with me, explaining that she knew firsthand the devastation of the policy in the rural areas, the skewed birth rate, and the unfair control of women. But she quickly followed up with, “Although I personally oppose this policy, I support it for the sake of the population of China.” Justification: the population in China is too large. She forfeited her individual rights for the sake of her community, and thereby followed the “large-population myth” that prevails in China.

The next experience was with my U.S.-China relations teacher; a native academic that speaks fluent English and is also a member of the Communist party. He said that the government is trying to fix the gender imbalance but doesn’t know how, and he admitted it wasn’t much of a priority. My favorite experience was with one of our tour guides. His wife is the editor of the Family Planning Journal of China. His wife travels China meeting with women and families advocating the One Child Policy. I told him I have done research about the One Child Policy and its effects. He announced that the One Child Policy was perfect, had no flaws, and was the best for all of China. I boldly, yet kindly reminded him of the gender imbalance. He went silent and admitted that this was a problem. I asked what kind of program his wife teaches to prevent this problem. He said there isn’t one; she doesn’t even address the issue. He explained that the problem will naturally dissipate as people move to the urban areas. I sat gawking. So apparently the only policy the Chinese government can think of to turn the tide of this vicious and evil practice is migration to urban areas. I almost laughed out loud. In all honesty, everywhere I went in the big cities, I saw little boys. Girls, even in urban areas, were far and in-between. We visited the city Datong and our tour guide explained that the gender imbalance was one of the worst in China, arraigned marriages were prevalent, and patriarchy ruled the homes and society.

Whenever I hear people say that China is getting much better on gender equality, I tend to be a jaded idealist, knowing they have been fed some misinformation from the media or elsewhere. Being there, seeing the situation and talking with the people is quite a different experience than watching CNN. A great change is required at both levels – the PRC needs to take the problems seriously, and a grass roots campaign needs to spread like wild fire to help change the attitude of those like the pharmacist.  Although women in China are now given names at birth, I learned on my mission in Taiwan that when they open the door of their homes to a stranger, they announce no one is home. Modern China’s situation of women is truly still a distorted mirror of their imperial past.

—by JFB

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4 thoughts on “Report from China: A Mirror of the Imperial Past

  1. GoodReason says:

    Boy, you certainly make a convincing case that the imperial past is still alive and well in male-female relations in modern China! That is really discouraging . . . Thanks for all of our great insights here!

  2. Jules says:

    There are some positive things happening in China, I just ran out of room on the blog. For example, women are now able to go to school, and even encouraged to attend college. Of course this doesn’t apply to all women in China, but at least in the urban areas. They are also able to work outside the home, although I feel the positions they “fit” are still secretarial and teacher (not high level positions). But things, I hope, are moving in a progressive manner. And of course I believe in China and the women there.

  3. peaces says:

    Kind of makes you want to go right over there and launch a counter revolution on the one child policy. Somehow it doesn’t seem like outright explaining why the policy is evil will be enough. It seems they have been so inculcated from birth to love and respect their country before all else and believe all they are told by their government. Do you have any ideas on how to begin the change? Would it be more beneficial to start with the men or women? or maybe just go straight for the government?

    • GoodReason says:

      Just this week there was another loosening of the one-child policy: it used to be that only couples where both parents were only children could have two children. Now couples where at least one parent is an only child can have two children . . .

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