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Rules and Reality

'Why do some men look so average and still have so much confidence?'

By Zhang Yue Updated Jun.1

This one-liner from 29-year-old comedian Yang Li is just one of many that has put her at the center of a social media firestorm in China.  

Her routines about the male ego have sparked wider conversations about the country’s changing gender roles and deep-seated inertia to those changes, particularly among men. 
More recently, electronics brand Intel got caught in the crossfire on March 18 following the release of an ad that featured Yang, where she delivered the punchline: “Intel is so picky about laptops, they’re even more selective than my taste in men.”  

Many of her male critics accused her of stirring hatred between genders to advance her career and called for a boycott of Intel products. But Yang’s supporters argued that these reactions just prove her point.  

Even questions about how to refer to women in the public discourse have become increasingly controversial. In recent years when celebrating the annual International Women’s Day on March 8, the terms “girls” and “goddess” were popular in online posts. But this year they were met with a widespread backlash, with many saying they discriminated against older women. This has much to do with subtle cultural connotations these words carry in Chinese: As “woman” often refers to middle-aged women, nagging wives and stay-at-home moms, some said the new labels imply that only young and beautiful girls are worth celebrating.  

China has a very long tradition that requires women to stay at home and look after their families so their husbands and sons can focus on their careers. Women were not supposed to deal with anything outside the house. This dates back more than 3,000 years during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). The I Ching (The Book of Changes), which is thought to have been written at that time, states this as a rule of nature. Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BCE–9 CE) adopted ethical rules based on Confucianism that integrated other schools of thought such as Taoism, Legalism and Naturalist theories. According to these standards, wives must be obedient to their husbands, and husbands must set a good ethical example for their wives. The same is applied to relationships between sovereigns and their subjects, as well as fathers and sons.  

About 100 years after Emperor Wu’s adoption of Confucian standards, the Western Han came to its last years. The Empress Zhao Feiyan is known in Chinese history for her beauty. Her name Feiyan means “flying swallow,” a reference to her slender figure. In a legendary story, she was once nearly blown away by the wind as she danced. But she had a bad reputation as a court conspirator, framing the former empress, causing abortions in royal concubines and adultery. Liu Xiang, a Confucian scholar at that time, wrote a book of morality tales that mostly portrayed examples of virtuous and idealized women. He submitted the book to the emperor in the hopes it would put the imperial house in order and set a good example for the public. In one of the stories in his book, a mother moved her family three times until they found a house near a school. She noticed her young son was imitating the students there who were learning etiquette. She decided to settle there because she believed it was a good place for her son’s education. Her son would grow up to be the philosopher Mencius, known as “the second sage” after Confucius.  

There were also a few stories about “bad” women, especially women in the imperial court who pressured their husbands in power to treat people cruelly. Zhao Feiyan committed suicide after the new emperor deprived her of her royal title. 
About a century after Zhao Feiyan’s death, a woman would emerge that played an important role in setting rules for women. Ban Zhao was a scholar and politician in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). Her elder brother Ban Gu was the first author of The Book of Han, one of the most important historical records. Ban Zhao continued his work after he died. She served as a teacher for female royal family members. In her old age, she wrote a code of conduct for female members of her family that stressed obedience, diligence and decent behavior in daily family life. Although the code was only for her family, it immediately became very popular due to her positive reputation and popularity.  

However, not all women were limited to the home. For example, Ban Zhao herself was engaged in top policymaking. Archaeological discoveries and historical records showed that many women before and during the Western and Eastern Han were active in businesses like catering and vending. Liu Bang, once a poor junior official during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), often bought alcohol on credit from restaurants run by women before he founded the Western Han Dynasty at the end of the third century.  

Women during the Tang Dynasty (618- 907) were luckier than those at other times in ancient China. They were full of vigor, free and even powerful. Their high self-esteem was underlined by the extraordinary prosperity and power of the empire, the empire’s founders’ lineage to the Xianbei nomadic tribe, and the influence of exotic cultures from Central and Western Asia. Some Tang women held great political influence. The best example is Wu Zetian, the only woman in China’s history to be crowned emperor. Her reign strengthened the empire’s prosperity. Noblewomen could ride horses publicly. Women in the imperial capital Chang’an, today’s Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, were often seen on strolls taking in the city’s scenery. In 1991, a tomb of a granddaughter of the Tang founder Li Yuan was unearthed in Xi’an. Artifacts included a clay figure of a valiant huntress riding on a stallion with a lynx, which were trained for hunting during the Tang. Hunting was a very popular pastime among the Tang aristocracy. 
However, it would be a mistake to romanticize the social status of Tang women. Wu Zetian was the daughter of a senior local official. According to historical records, when Wu Zetian was a baby, her mother invited Yuan Tiangang, a master of physiognomy, or the practice of assessing character based on outer appearance, for a face reading for her children. When he saw Wu Zetian’s elder brothers and elder sister, he immediately asserted that all these boys and the girl would be more successful than their father. When he saw the infant Wu Zetian dressed as a boy, he hesitated. He was shocked at the first sight of the infant, exclaiming that this “boy” would reach “the highest rank.” But he hesitated, and read the baby’s face three times. Finally, he concluded that she must be a girl who “would be a sovereign,” something unthinkable at the time.  

More than 350 years after Wu Zetian became China’s first female sovereign, neoConfucian scholars in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) began to develop a new theory. They advocated extremely stringent ethical standards.  

For example, Zhu Xi, one of the major neo-Confucian scholars in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), said that starvation is a better fate than losing moral integrity or chastity. This idea had a far-reaching influence on Chinese society. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it was common that wives showed their loyalty by committing suicide right after their husbands died. Young widows were encouraged not to marry again. Memorial arches were set up by the government or their husbands’ families to honor those women. This in turn put pressure on more women to follow suit.  

Still, a few women managed to free themselves from these harsh restrictions. In 1619, Gu Ruopu, a 28-year-old woman in today’s Zhejiang Province, lost her husband to disease. Gu was a daughter of an important Confucian scholar’s family. She decided to raise her two young sons on her own. She had to spend carefully and sell cloth she wove. She encouraged and urged her sons to study hard. Her sons grew up to be famous scholars. 
This exemplified how a young widow with sons should behave at that time. But Gu also did something that greatly deviated from such expectations. Although women were not supposed to be educated, Gu read and wrote with her sons every evening, no matter how tired she was from working. She kept learning even in her old age. She taught all the young girls in her extended family how to read and write. She organized and sponsored a poetry salon for ladies, a historic first in China. Twelve young women joined the salon. All this was extraordinary for her time. While many of her family elders, especially the women, frowned upon her actions, she never gave up. Gu died at the age of 90 as an influential matriarch. 
Dream of the Red Mansion, written by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century, is recognized as one of the four greatest classics of Chinese literature. It talks about a tragedy of 12 beautiful, talented young ladies from four major noble families. 
Some researchers believe the 12 women reference the members of Gu’s salon, and that Gu was the inspiration for the novel’s Grandmother Jia, who encourages them to start a poetry salon. Despite all her hardships and the prevailing attitudes against women, Gu pushed the boundaries of women’s rights and left a lasting mark on history. 
In the early 20th century after the end of the dynastic system, Western-educated Chinese intellectuals advocated a New Culture Movement, which sought to do away with Confucian ideas. Gender equality also was a major component of the movement. More and more schools were open to women. Some women saw family as a burden and decided not to marry or have children, a progressive choice at the time.  

Today the majority of college students in China are women. As more women are educated, they want to be respected as equals in society, not a consumer demographic to be valued by age or appearance. 

A pottery figure of a huntress with a lynx during the Tang Dynasty was unearthed in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province in 1991

A chastity arch with the inscription of Emperor Daoguang (1820-1850), Jiangxi Province, Central China, November 21, 1995