Asking Questions of Chinese Women

Village grandma and grandson

In 1986 Alice taught English for a semester at Xiamen University and did research for a project she had brought with her from the States. At home she has served as a college affirmative action officer, as the director of college programs for displaced homemakers and in other aspects of the college’s women’s program.  Alice is an active, vigorous woman in her forties who is concerned with nutrition and physical fitness. She could frequently be seen running along the beach road, enjoying the view while keeping fit.

Alice’s story

The standard of living here seems comparable to what we saw in Venezuela, where there was both more poverty and more wealth. A developing country is a developing country. They bring in ten million dollars worth of equipment which there’s no one to operate, repair or maintain it. Modern computers but no toilets that flush.  But Chinese culture is not so blatantly sexist. The second year I understood what was being said to me on the street, and it was very offensive. Also, Venezuela doesn’t have a long history like China’s, and where we lived was not nearly as beautiful physically as it is here. I love living by the ocean. Probably the only thing I don’t like here is the difficulty of the language.

Conditions for women in China are much better. Most women in Venezuela don’t work outside the home, have little education, and are economically dependent on a man. Venezuela is a Catholic country, and the birthrate is high. You see what having a lot of children does for women with poor nutrition and no education and no job and poor health. Although here women have a tremendous burden of work, having a job makes a world of difference with self-respect.

When I interview a woman for my research I ask how her life is different from her mother’s and grandmother’s. I focus on family background, education, work outside the home. I go into salary, health benefits, and housing. I look at the size of living quarters and indoor or outdoor plumbing. I haven’t started tabulating any of the data yet, so I don’t have any statistics, just general impressions.

One young woman I interviewed felt sexual intercourse was common before marriage. “A lot of people do it, but nobody admits it, nobody talks about it.” She talked about what premarital sex does to women, especially if the relationship doesn’t work out. Not being a virgin is still a big problem. She asked when that was going to change.

“Well, maybe in about twenty years. I think it took about that long in the United States. When I was growing up, everybody did it, nobody talked about it, everyone felt guilty about it, and your life was over if the relationship didn’t work out.”

I asked the young, unmarried women, “How many children will you have?”

They all said, “One.” Some said, “I’m only allowed to have one.”

“Well, if you had a choice, how many would you have?”

Some said, “Well, I just want one, and that’s enough.”

“What happens if it’s a girl?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

I don’t know if they believe it or not, but they’re mouthing all the right words.

The majority of women say that in China it’s better to be a man than a woman, women carry more of the load in the family, and on the job men have more opportunities than women do. Of course some women say there’s no difference. People have told me that the men who do the hiring specify that they want men. In some fields they don’t think it’s fair. To them it’s clear that women can work in an office as well as men and that the work unit should not be able to request men, but there are some fields where women think discrimination is okay.

No one—male and female, educated and uneducated—disagreed with the idea that some work is inappropriate for women, like lifting heavy things. I thought about the fifty-year old peasant women who are watering those trees on campus with the shoulder poles and those huge buckets of water, the women who are carrying around children on their backs. I wondered if the poor working in the fields out in the countryside divided the labor so the women didn’t do the really heavy work.  On the other hand, the issue of non-traditional jobs for women is not the same as in the States where heavy physical labor has been well paid. In China heavy labor doesn’t earn you much more than other labor. So should women be breaking their backs?

Business travel is considered inappropriate for women: it’s not proper to go traveling if you’re a single woman, and if you’re married you should be raising your family. Domestic travel might be okay, but not going abroad and having dealings with foreigners. In fact it is considered an insult to a foreigner to have to deal with a woman.

A great many women believe that there’s equality in China. In some ways that fits the Chinese view of the progress they’ve made since Liberation. They’re pleased to have 35% or 40% women at the university. As an American feminist, I say, “It should be 50%.”

With encouragement and role models I think Chinese women students would change quickly, but of course the majority of the teachers are men, and so the system just perpetuates itself. I have about only 20% female students in my classes. In my second year classes I shouldn’t have that kind of distribution. They’re law, business, and history majors, the kind of majors where—at least in the United States—there are a lot of women.

When I ask my interviewees how their legal rights might be different from those their grandmothers and mothers had, they don’t understand. I also ask about political participation. They don’t know what I’m talking about. Legal rights and political participation as we understand them are concepts outside their culture. I ask whether their grandmothers and their mothers had arranged marriages, how many children each of them had, and how it was decided how many children they would have. Then I ask them whether it’s preferable to be a man or a woman in modern China and whether women on the whole work harder or men do.

There’s a lot of similarity in responses, especially among the women teaching in the university. Housing, salary, health benefits are standardized according to what job you have. The young teachers I interviewed getting around 70¥ [$23.33] a month, and they all have health benefits. The housing basically depends on whether they’re single, in which case they’re living with two or three others in a dormitory room, or whether they are married and have a family, in which case they probably have two rooms and a kitchen. Most of them have one child, some have two children. Sometimes they have a parent living with them. A couple of women don’t live with their husbands because the state has shipped their husbands off to jobs at another location.

When I asked how their lives were different from their mothers’ and grandmothers’ the university women talked mostly about education and employment. Typically, the grandmother was illiterate, the mother may have some education, and the daughter is highly educated. I’ve interviewed some of the women who were the cadre-peasant-worker types, and they came into the university through the Cultural Revolution. Even though they’re teaching in the university, they don’t have the formal educational background that the others do. I met two doctors with a middle-school education, but they must have gotten some training after school. One woman worked with her father, who may not have had any formal medical training.

Up at the retired workers’ activity center, I interviewed women who seemed to be in their sixties who were not university educated. They told me that the difference between life before and after Liberation was the difference between starvation and having enough. They’re strong supporters of the Communist Party. One woman burst into tears when she was talking about her mother, who starved to death when she was living up north with her mother-in-law. Even though the husband was sent down here on a job and the wife and daughter could have come with him, it was considered her duty to take care of her mother-in-law, who made her work like a slave. My interviewee talked about how much her mother had hated her mother-in-law.

Another woman was a strong advocate of the party because after her husband died the party found her a job.  She worked for years as a street sweeper. She didn’t make much money, and she had to work hard, but she had an income. She has a pension now, which she appreciates very much. At the time of the interview, she was fighting with her sons, so she’s happy she doesn’t have to live with them. The only criticism she had of the Communist Party [as moral educator] was that it should teach the children to be more respectful of their parents.

I also asked a question about domestic violence, but I think the results probably aren’t reliable, because the question is really hard to interpret. We have a hard time in the United States deciding when a parent is spanking a child and when a parent is beating a child. Making the distinction clear to someone of a different culture who speaks a different language is very difficult. A lot of people have told me that domestic violence exists here, but it’s not common. These people think it’s more likely to occur among the uneducated than the educated people, particularly if the woman isn’t working outside the home. For example, out in the countryside an abused woman might not have the option to leave. The women I interviewed said, “I have a job, I have an income, I have health benefits. If I could show that I was being abused, I think I could even get a divorce. I don’t have to put up with that.”

I have to laugh when what I think are simple questions get confusing and convoluted answers. I asked a woman how old she was. She’s really 36, but usually she says she’s 38 because you have more prestige if you’re older. The day she was born she was one year old [because Chinese often add a year for gestation]. The birthday is also linked to the calendar year in her province. Because she’s so close to the end of the year, the moment the new year hits she gains another year. So when she was two months old, she was two years old.

I interviewed one woman in an apartment with three rooms and a kitchen. It seemed spacious until I realized nine people were living there. I have now done thirty-five interviews, and she was the only woman I talked to who was concerned about the repercussions of talking to me. “If there is another Cultural Revolution, what I say may come back to haunt me.”  In fact, many people did get into trouble for talking to Westerners during the Cultural Revolution, but her children, who weren’t old enough to remember, were not at all patient with their mother’s reticence. They were needling her for not saying more.

I said, “You know, she’s been through something that you haven’t been through. You have to respect that.”

One of her sons worked for the security police. When my interpreter translated the comments he was making to his mother, I turned to him and said, “You tell me how it was.”  He did give me some information, but nothing of much value. The daughter was more interesting. She had been sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, had married a peasant, and the two of them had managed to get back into the city. I haven’t met anyone else who has been able to do that.

There was an article in China Daily about the exploitation of the young girls in the factories that are starting up with the new free enterprise system. The journalist estimated that around 7% of the girls aged 7-12 are not attending school. They think there’s a lot of pressure to use these girls as labor in the factories. When I was up in Long Ai interviewing, we stumbled into a candy factory filled with young girls hand-wrapping individual pieces of candy. I’ve heard about this in the countryside, too. Now that the peasants can raise produce for the free market, people keep girls home from school so they can contribute to the income-producing venture.

The biggest limitation of my research is that it’s so centered in Xiamen. It has some diversity because some of the students are from other parts of the country, but getting a true cross-section of the population is certainly not possible while staying in one spot. Xiamen is unique in having the combination of a big university and a special economic zone. But I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, which is to learn a whole lot more about women in China, even if it’s one small segment of university women.

When I went to the women’s federations, I enjoyed talking to the staff because their work is similar to what I do in the States. At first I sat through the speeches they read to me, and I was only fed the official line. Later they came to my room, and I had a lot of questions for them—what do you do, what’s your biggest problem, how do you do that, how do you cope with this kind of situation. I asked all the really sticky ones.

They have basically the same objective as I do, trying to bring about equality for men and women by providing additional services for women. They talk to employers who’ve been reported to be engaging in discriminatory policies. They provide personal counseling and advice, they put on workshops and distribute information. They’re active in daycare. Right now legal right is a hot item in Chinese life. So they might do a workshop to tell women what their rights are or set up a training class so that women can acquire additional skills or help a woman find daycare or get along with her husband. The women’s federations reflect the incredible bias in this country toward reconciling a married couple, and they make it clear that divorce is bad for everybody. The federations have lots of staff, and they work closely with the woman in charge of population control, which is seen as a women’s issue.

At the moment I’m waiting for a translation of the 1950 and 1980 marriage laws, which cover a lot more than just marriage. It’s a real hindrance not knowing the law. When was talking to the federation I said, “I’ve found that some say university departments will call up and request applications for employees saying, ‘We want someone, but we don’t want a woman.’  What do you do when something like that happens?”

They said, “Of course that is not supposed to happen, and we will immediately go down and work with the employer. If we do not get a satisfactory resolution, we report him to the labor department. The labor department has the authority to bring about sanctions.”

One of the federation women said that if a work unit is discriminating because some job is not appropriate for a woman, then you can suggest some reassignment. “Can you assign the heavy work to an existing male employee and give some other work to the new worker so that you can hire a woman?”

Usually, if I hammer away at them too long with questions about what I consider inconsistencies in their thinking, they will start to retreat to their memorized statement. I can always tell if I’ve gone too far when I get a statement like, “I’m sure with China’s future development these problems will be resolved.” But there are times when they agree with me, especially if I can give them an example of a problem I’m dealing with. Then their guard is down and it’s more of a sharing, and it’s not an I-point-my-finger-at-you thing.

Talking with the women from the federations made me realize how much I have missed my colleagues’ companionship and my work in the States. As much as I’ve enjoyed what I’m doing here, in the States I’m part of a network, I have people that I meet with on a regular basis to share my values, my goals and my work.

Response from a Filipino of Chinese extraction:

Thank you so much.  I found it interesting, and it made me ask myself who I would be today if my Dad hadn’t left China, where he was born. What if I’d been born there? What would my way of thinking be today? Hmmm….