Half the sky

“The successive movement of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) is called the Way. What issues from it is good, and that which brings it to completion is the individual nature. The man of humanity recognizes it and calls it humanity; the wise man recognizes it and calls it wisdom. The people use it daily and are not aware of it, for the Way of the gentleman is but rarely recognized.”

– “The Book of Changes”

Woman power is a rising global force increasingly spurring world development and economic growth. This is exemplified by Janet Yellen, who will become the next chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank. She is characterized by many experts as the most powerful person in the world. Manpower has been the dominant defining force for 5,000 years of recorded history in Eurasia and for some two centuries in the United States. Constant warfare, extreme gaps in the economic welfare of segments of humanity, pollution and poverty are the undeniable evidence that management of our planet is now out of balance and urgently needs to be recentered. It is past time for women, in Mao Zedong’s celebrated summons, to claim “half the sky.”

Neuroscience shows that women see the world through a different lens and in turn do things differently – not necessarily better, but differently. This is reflected in the kinds of businesses women entrepreneurs are focusing on, whether it’s in China, India, the Middle East or Africa, not just in the Western world. In this respect, the women of China have made more strides forward in the past century than women in any other country.

When my missionary grandmother founded one of the first schools for girls in the interior of China in 1892, subordination, obedience and deference to men was the lot of most women regardless of their place in society. Educating females was a revolutionary idea in old China. The sages stressed the danger of educating women or letting them go freely about lest they gain the upper hand. Women, they contended, were necessary only for the proliferation of the species, but otherwise inferior. Two of their old sayings are revealing of the attitudes at that time. “At the bottom of every trouble there is a woman” and “If women take to learning, what will men do?”

Marriages in China were seen as having nothing to do with love. The mere idea of a woman choosing her own mate was anathema to the traditional Chinese way of life. Marriage was a contract of two families for the benefit of both and the children were there to add continuity to the power of the family and tend its ancestors’ graves. In officialdom as in families, young women were used as pawns. The welfare and reputation of the state and family superseded the feelings of individuals. At the core of this belief was the Confucian concept of filial piety. Like the emperor in his palace, the father in his home was the ultimate authority.

Beggars, servants and peasant girls often lived more freely than upper-class women, who had to have their feet broken and bound at age 10. Married women could be divorced if they dared venture alone on the streets. Without her husband, a woman had to ride a mule with an escort or travel in a curtained sedan chair carried on the shoulders of two bearers, who reported her every movement to their master. If she was accompanied by her husband, she was obliged to walk three paces behind.

The status of women in China has taken a total turn in the last half-century. Women have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sports and science. Although gender roles in these fields are changing rapidly in China, women’s participation in politics lags far behind most other countries. Even Chinese men who profess to be liberal seem to have deep-rooted biases when it comes to governing, perhaps because of their ancient Confucian-based value system, which holds men to be superior leaders. There are only a few female members in political roles and none in the ruling Standing Committee of the Communist Party. The Politburo, which selects the Standing Committee, is chosen by and composed of men.

While China lacks an organized women’s liberation movement, the country has many of the top self-made female entrepreneurs in the world. Eleven of the top 20 wealthiest women are Chinese. Many of these remarkable professionals come from the generation that experienced the Cultural Revolution. They were toughened by poverty and hardships. In the 1980s, when the country’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, uttered his famous quote – “To get rich is glorious” – while guiding China on the path of free market economic development, the women of China were ready. They seized the opportunity. The leading example of this is Zhang Xin, a female real estate mogul who today is richer than Donald Trump or Oprah. Zhang Xin, 47, grew up in poverty and at the age of 14 worked in a toy factory. In 1995, she formed SOHO China and became China’s largest real estate developer with prime developments in Beijing and Shanghai. Now, according to Forbes, she is the seventh richest self-made woman in the world, worth $3.6 billion. Her rags-to-riches story mirrors that of China’s rapid transition and the fulfillment of the Chinese Dream that is now being pitched by President Xi Jinping.

While Zhang’s story is incredible in any country, it is not so unique in China. Of Forbes’ 2013 list of 24 female billionaires, six are from China. In my grandmother’s time, it was only in science fiction that space travel was mentioned. But China now has two female astronauts. In June 2013, Wang Yaping joined two male colleagues on the Shenzhou X missions. From the Tiangong 1 orbital module, she delivered a live lecture of aerospace science, making her China’s first ever “teacher in space” to more than 60 million Chinese students.

Not to be outdone is China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan, who has become an international fashion icon with her chic sense. Peng’s high profile standing at the side of her husband defies a tradition among Chinese top leaders who, with the exception of Nationalist China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, have always been reluctant to parade their wives in public. But now, as President Xi deals with affairs of state, his wife is also making waves at home and abroad. In May, Forbes ranked Peng as 54th on its 2013 list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. In August, she made Vanity Fair’s 2013 International Best Dressed list. She also holds a position at the United Nations World Health Organization as a goodwill ambassador in campaigns to eliminate tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

Peng’s popularity has helped to further China’s soft power and its international image. She stands in stark contrast to Mme. Mao Zedong who became one of modern China’s greatest political pariahs. Jiang Qing, a former actress, was the leader of the Cultural Revolution Group later known as The Gang of Four. When the group launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, she banned the classics and began to promote “revolutionary model operas,” restrictive and highly stylized socialist-realistic productions purged of all “questionable” content. When The Gang of Four fell in 1976, Jiang Qing was blamed for all the chaos and crimes committed during the “10 disastrous years.” She was sentenced to death at a trial and hanged herself in a prison hospital in 1991 where she had been confined, suffering from cancer.

This is the first of two parts. The second will appear in next month’s WAG.

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