After Confucianism made the inequality between the sexes fundamental to political philosophy in China for 2,000 years, it’s not surprising that women — a desirable minority with a real professional track record — are still being marginalized.
Among the shocking examples of this are the “Matchmaking Parties,” which have become increasingly popular for China’s super-rich. A bevy of attractive, accomplished, educated women who, like Marilyn Monroe in the classic musical, want to marry a millionaire, are selected to parade their sexy body measurements, IQs and cooking skills before eligible bachelors. One such party in Wuhan even demanded that candidates prove their virginity. Restorative hymen surgery, to “re-flower” women, has boomed in recent years along with breast enlargements.
This arrangement, in which marriage is more like a business deal with riches and resources exchanged for beauty and sex, is almost as old as Adam and Eve. In China, it dates from the emperors choosing their virgin concubines.
Attaching huge importance to female virginity is not uniquely a Chinese phenomenon. However, few cultures were as rigid about it as the ancient Chinese. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), prevailing Confucian opinion held that if any part of a girl, including her hands and arms had been touched by a male who wasn’t a blood relative prior to her marriage, she could not be considered a virgin.
Wang Xingjuan, a women’s rights pioneer who founded The Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing, argues that a great many women now see sex before marriage as almost routine, ignoring the social pressure to remain “pure.”
However, according to Wang, “Women still attach themselves to men as they did in ancient times. Why would so many women receive breast implants, use weight loss medication and undergo cosmetic surgery, if not just to cater to men?”
“Love, meanwhile, is abandoned,” says professor Shang Zhongsheng from Wuhan University. “These parties degrade women by turning them into commodities for rich men.”
Chinese society seems to be opening up to at least to the idea of discussing sex and sexuality as well as gender equality. However, when it comes to specific issues, both sexes find it a struggle to change ingrained social attitudes — particularly among men.
Young men may talk about premarital sex and the importance of having sexual experience before marriage, but the tune changes when it comes to women doing the same. Misogynistic remarks such as “Would you drink from a used glass?” are common on the discussion boards attached to such surveys. Chinese men all hope to be their wives’ first and last sexual partners.
On the surface, relations between men and women appear to be and are widely described as fair and equal. After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, a new wave of reforms saw women enter the workplace, obtain the right to divorce and gain access to birth control. A 2011 Newsweek survey placed China 23rd on a global list of the “best places to be woman.”
But historically, the average woman did not work outside the home and was expected to submit to an arranged marriage in her teens. Some 2,000 years of traditional practice continues to affect the subconscious of both modern Chinese women and men. Discrimination in China is often unconsciously driven by deeply-rooted prejudices and thus goes as unnoticed by its victims as by its perpetrators.
While China’s constitution enshrined gender equality into law as early as in 1951, its ideals have never been properly enforced, which is why it is difficult for female victims of domestic violence to obtain justice, as both police and the judiciary tend to turn a blind eye to so-called “family matters.”
Huang Weiwei, a prominent female lawyer, told NewsChina Magazine that in 2012 she sent 57 formal letters of complaint on behalf of clients, all of which were related to gender discrimination by a job-hunting website. According to her, only one third of relevant departments responded and only one employer was fined for violating China’s gender discrimination law.
“This is because China still has not yet explicitly defined what gender discrimination is in law,” says Ding Juan, a female researcher at the All-China Women’s Federation. “Gender discrimination in China remains merely a moral, rather than a legal concept.”
Some Chinese claim that China’s increasing prosperity is leading some women to surrender their hard-won position in Chinese society to be relegated to their traditional role as property.
To paraphrase the old Virginia Slims cigarette ad, Chinese women have come a long way — but they still have a long way to go.