Part IV What (Chinese) Women Want
If you are curious about the Chinese flavor of romance, you will soon feel disappointed because being romantic—the way Hollywood portrays—is not part of the ethos in Chinese tradition. Customarily, Chinese women do not abide by the idea of romance, like a casual kiss for hello or goodbye to the loved ones, in literature or reality. However, considering how fast things change in China, stay tuned.
Nevertheless, many nuances of Chinese women are particularly revelatory and noteworthy. Here are my experiential observations about the transformation of ‘What Chinese Women Want’ just over the past 50 some years.
What women want used to be what men desired
When I was about 4-5 years old in the early 1960s, my eyes started to see the world a little inquisitively. My aunt’s family (on my father’s side) lived in a small and poor village in Hebei province, about 700 miles southwest of Shenyang, the city where our family lived. She had six children, all girls, and her husband died shortly after she gave birth to her last child. She often came to stay with our family for a month at a time. And every one of her six daughters came to our home in turn with my aunt to help our family since both of my parents were working. But, more importantly, they could have food to eat by staying with us, which was almost impossible for a single, and crippled woman, raising six daughters in a poverty-stricken village.
The vivid image of my aunt was, and still is, the way she waddled, like a penguin, except slower. She would cling to anything her hand could reach when she walked, such as a chair, a table, or just the bare wall. Then I noticed her shoes, which looked like small paper boats about four inches long, with a sharp point in the front. No one talked about how it happened because it was quite common for women to be like that in those days.
I later learned, after reading about this custom in some books, this was a deep-rooted Chinese tradition. Starting from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the cruel and wicked custom of foot binding was famed “three-inches lotus” (三寸金莲 in Chinese). When a girl was 5-6 years old, usually the grandma would use long wrapping cloths to bind both her little feet all day, every day, into that shape and size. It’s like a boxer tightly wrapping his fists before entering the ring. Only for those girls, the wrapping cloths were on their feet their entire lives.
The purpose was to please men in some peculiar and erotic way. At first, only the girls to be serving in the palace would bind their feet. Over time, the idea spread to upper-class citizens, then to ordinary people–if they wanted to see their daughters be married into wealthier families. This slowly became the norm for Chinese women during that time. Don’t ask me how my aunt felt about it, as it was unbearable for me to see it then and even to think of it now.
One may wonder what else those tiny-feet women could do with their lives other than being restricted to the things in bedrooms and kitchens. That was exactly the point, as serving men and doing household chores were all that men (and society) expected of women to do during that time. Consequently, that had become what women wanted as well. This tradition had lasted for a thousand years in China, all the way into my childhood, just about 50 years from today. Fortunately, my aunt did not force her six daughters to bind their feet. In fact, finally, that was the end of a humiliating chapter for millions of Chinese women in the whole country.
‘Women hold half the sky’
Fast forwarding to the early 1970s: my teenage years. In my mind, girls and boys were equal in about every way, thanks to one of the most popular quotes from Chairman Mao, “Women can hold half the sky.” That did a remarkable job of encouraging women to come out and play an equal role in the productive workforce with men in the farming fields or on the factory floors. In schools, girls and boys sat side-by-side, but we hardly had any eye contact—that was the purpose of the arrangement by the teachers. During those years, boys and girls viewed each other completely as equals, an idea constantly instilled in our young heads. Under these circumstances, no girl or boy would express fondness towards one another. Or no one would know how—not a common scene in the animal kingdom on this planet.
Women knew what they wanted, and how to get it
Then, in the late 1970s, I entered college in the beautiful coastal city of Dalian, China. Forty-eight classmates sat together for every class, and we lived in the same building, with some of us housed in the same dorm rooms all four years. At that time, ‘dating’ was never a word in our vocabulary; although, I’m sure we were all thinking about the same thing, as all boys and girls do at that age. Yet, somehow, girls always knew how to kick things off. One of the most common ways was for a girl to ask a boy to practice English together a few times a week, in a private and quiet corner. I was in that situation myself, but I did not quite get the signal correctly until it was too late.
Overall, as a result of these tactics, seven couples formed out of our 48 classmates (from only 11 girls!)—a success rate second only to Hollywood scenes, like when two people are stranded on a deserted island as castaways. Some would wonder if they ever dated others at all ever since. But, would that matter? Things often would work out as planned, especially since the girls knew all along what they wanted in boys, and most importantly, they knew how to get it. It may be a matter of opinion looking at it now. But back then, that seemed to be the way relationships worked in 1980’s China.
China is remarkably different now, so are the Chinese women
Then, after the year 2000, everything became as different as day and night. There are changes the whole world can see, like skyscrapers rising over the paddy fields all over the country. And there are even more dramatic changes that people can’t easily see, like the transformation of the Chinese women. Millennials started to become a trendy word in the media as well as a recognizable force in society both in the U.S. and China. They are often labeled as a generation far different from their parents. This is especially true for the Chinese. First, the ‘one-child policy’, officially written into the constitution in China in 1978, had been in effect all the way until 2016. That means all the millennials in China are ‘only child’. Secondly, the rapid economic development has fostered increasing socioeconomic inequality (income gap), an unwanted byproduct of the prosperity.
Plus, the open-door policy started to take effect in the 1980’s, giving Chinese people the green light to taste western culture for the first time in history. The American pop culture and individuality, like adding fuel to the fire–symbolized by Rambo, Michael Jackson, Madonna among others–accelerated the change in how Chinese millennials view the world, and themselves. These dynamics have completely re-written the chapter on What Women Want in China.
It used to be that women’s bodies were the only means of survival, even at the cost of mutilation just half a century ago. Now, women are breaking free and setting standards for what they want for themselves. More specifically, as wealth has become the most important factor in the relationship equation, a woman would like to see the man own an apartment before starting anything serious. Almost everyone I know in China, 40-60 years old, has only one child, and they’ve all helped that child buy an apartment, especially if they have a son. Otherwise, that boy can forget about having a girlfriend, let alone starting a family.
Who needs marriage anyway?
The one-child policy positioned a family’s one daughter to be the center of the family, holding as much responsibility and power as the boys all over China. Thus, millennial girls have become far more independent by nature than any time in the past. In their minds, they can do anything the boys can, and many have achieved that. Oftentimes, today’s women have done well in education, and many have become wealthy themselves, which, in fact, have limited their choices in finding the right men. At the same time, massive economic inequality has lured many less-educated women into making quick money by taking on the oldest profession, as women today are more outgoing or even promiscuous (especially those from remote rural areas).
It is completely unlike men and women just two decades ago in China. Back then, looking directly into the eyes of the other gender would make them blush. Without a doubt, marriage has become exceptionally complex and difficult, even a social issue in China now.
Imagine that women can get what they want, accumulating wealth one way or another, maintaining enviable careers themselves, and are able to enjoy life the way they choose. In the meantime, men have their ways to get what they want—easy and inexpensive access to women just for a one-night stand. Why bother with marriage? Census figures for China show that around 25% women aged 25-29 choose not to marry, which was 5% just two decades ago.
Then again, these millennial girls (and boys) are still young, their attitudes towards each other, and life for that matter, are still brewing. For that reason, what they truly want remains to be seen.
Chinese marriage, a zero-sum game?
On the other hand, plenty more women have found Mr. Right and started their happily-ever-after lives. But unlike what would be the end of many fairy tales, it’s only the beginning. Today’s Chinese women are holding half the sky, and then some–a phenomenon single-handedly enthused by Mao Zedong. In typical Chinese families, both husbands and wives go to work, and both take their professional careers seriously. Under similar work pressures, wives often get more involved in everyday family matters, from what to eat, how to raise children, to financials. Among my acquaintances, the wives usually consult me for investment advice, much more often than their husbands do, as I appear to be pretty good at making my money grow.
Strong-willed, independent by nature, and striving for equality are the ways people often describe modern Chinese women, compared to women in neighboring countries, such as Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam, where men are more dominant in marriages. As a result, Chinese men, who used to be the only pillars of the households not long ago, are no longer as indispensable in the modern homes. This balance shift in the family equation reminds me of the zero-sum game, an economic theory I learned in graduate school. It’s a situation in which one person’s gain is exactly balanced by the losses of the other on something they do together, thus the outcomes add up to zero.
In marriage, when a woman makes more decisions in the family, the man would think less about these family matters, therefore, more relying on just being told what to do. Most marriages do last though, and often as harmoniously as they appear to be, but some don’t. It’s not until one day when men realize that they want something else for themselves as well. A close friend of mine, who divorced after 30 plus years of marriage, told me that he and his wife both have strong opinions, and it has become harder and harder to get along. It was a shock to everyone who knew them, a seemingly well-matched couple all along.
To me, a marriage should be better than a zero-sum game on a day to day basis, even though any relationship between equals may be possible only in theory. Furthermore, in China, men and women both have undergone the fastest changes in history over the last a few decades; thus, both needing constant mental adjustments to make their relationships work. Based on research by Sexologist Li Yinhe, China’s divorce rate jumped 13 percent in 2014 in one year, reaching as high as 27%. It’s at 30% in 2015.
But divorce rate was only about 2% in the 1970s and 14% in the ’90s. Although the current absolute percentage is still lower than that in many Western countries, the skyward trend seems to indicate the society is experiencing a modern awakening.
By no means am I to imply the Chinese women are at fault for driving up the divorce rate, although they are the ones who underwent the revolutionary changes over the years. After all, women deserve an equal education and should go for what they want, as much as men do. But, what now?
One thought jumps to mind, and you may decide for yourself: how about a married couple could be like team players–doubles partners in tennis, for example. (I happen to be an avid tennis player for 20 some years.) My tennis partner and I have played together for more than a decade, and he and I have completely different strengths and weaknesses on the court. We move around, cover for each other, and try to hit the right shots at the right times with an implicit understanding as if an invisible thread were connecting two people the entire time. And yet, we both often make mistakes, but rarely let it affect our focus on the next game.
Clearly, this is nothing like a zero-sum game, but two people who are both trying to achieve a cumulative net gain: a winning proposition in sports, as well as in marriage–I would say. Now, looking at our family, my wife and I, as well as our daughter who graduated from vet school recently, are a little more like team players or aiming to be that way, as far as I see it.
Two people in marriage, undoubtedly, are far more complicated than any sports team, but part of the mindset may have something in common nonetheless. No one disputes that a long-lasting—and a happy—marriage takes perpetual cultivation on both sides, whereas what women want and what men want are seldom the same. As a matter of fact, every marriage is a negotiation, arguably the most grinding one. For reconciling the differences, we could ask ourselves a question: how much one cares about what the other person wants—even at your own cost?