• Andrew Singer

Empowered Chinese Women

Is Chinese Society (Slowly) Changing?


Photo by Wang Binghua on Unsplash.

A friend sent me a link to an article on @qz.com entitled, “One of the most sought after jobs for rural Chinese women is to become a mistress.” Since she knows I am a widower of a Chinese woman who is in a new relationship with a woman from China, I naturally asked her where she was going with this.


Her response, “Just saying.”


Gotta love friends. 😊


But she piqued my interest, so I logged onto my Quartz account to read the article. Turns out it is from March, 2018. While surfing the site, I scrolled by another article from a few weeks ago entitled, “A movement to pass mothers’ last names to their children is gaining traction in China.” And then two more headlines (from 2013 and 2015, respectively) caught my eye, “Chinese women pay thugs thousands of dollars to win back their cheating husbands” and “China’s newest whistleblowing activists are the angry mistresses of corrupt officials.”


Ok, so now I am thinking. Synapses begin to fire. There is a common theme among these stories. Not just that they are each about women. No, it is more than that. They each profile empowered women. Specifically, empowered Chinese women.’’


Mao stated that women hold up half the sky, but that changed little in traditional male-dominated thinking. There have indeed been many strong Chinese women throughout Imperial Chinese history — from nineteenth and twentieth century pirates to nation leading empresses to the legions who ruled behind the family screen (back then, it was nanzhuwai, nüzhunei, men rule outside the household gates, while women rule inside the home), but China nonetheless has for millennia been a mostly patriarchal society.


Is this finally changing?


Since China has been awash in money and growth the past thirty years, society is different. Whether it is evolving is another question. Women now do have more ability to lead their own lives. So-called “leftover women” (those who marry later or not at all) decide to focus on career and financial security before/over marriage and family, none to the pleasure of most of their aging parents and grandparents to be sure. More divorces, most according to one judge, are women-driven these days. But sexual harassment remains rife. Power opportunities for men far outweigh the same for women. China has a me-too movement, but it is limited. China has feminists, but they are constrained. Tradition dies hard.


So where does that leave me with these Quartz headlines? The mostly rural women of the 2018 story (though urban women are mentioned as well) are smart, industrious, and looking to make their way in today’s new world. If they cannot feasibly do so locally, they spread their wings and go farther afield. They are not afraid to use themselves to better themselves. Powerful men are powerful men after all. This is nothing unique to China, but the tradition of “second wives” is more ingrained, more accepted, and more extensive in China. China’s most famous novel, the one hundred and twenty chapter, eighteenth-century A Dream of Red Mansions, is replete with Qing Dynasty mistresses and concubines.


As for surnames discussed in the 2020 story, longtime Chinese custom is that spouses keep their own surnames at marriage and children take the fathers’ names. Inheritance has traditionally been male-based. Sons have always been viewed as more desirable than daughters. There remains a strong Chinese tradition of “zhongnan qingnü,” loosely translated as “emphasize the male and lessen the female,” even if it may be more subtle at times. Certain women (men too?) now desire to change this naming custom and take more control. Maintaining separate names is also not unique to China (two of my married friends in America have different surnames and my late wife did not change her last name for the first four years we were married), but while relatively rare in the West, it is standard in China. This nascent movement to surname children for the mothers (in an interesting parallel, the daughter of my same American friends uses the mother’s last name) is another example of women wanting to indeed hold up half the sky. This one, though, may take longer to gain traction.


As for wives threatening their husbands’ mistresses (2013 headline) and scorned mistresses turning the tables on their corrupt “uncles” (2015 headline), the message is a bit more straightforward — Do not piss off Chinese women. A related message is this — Chinese women are nothing if not practical. My girlfriend told me the story of a friend whose husband was leaving to go abroad for business. She dutifully packed his business clothes and toiletries and slipped in a package of condoms. My girlfriend was horrified. “What are you doing,” she asked. Her friend replied, “if my husband is going to be with any women while he is away, I want him to be safe.” Yet she then also told me that her friend subsequently tracked down her husband’s domestic mistress with an intense resolve. “Why the difference,” I asked. The reply, “my friend believes that a fling during a business trip abroad will not threaten their marriage and her place therein. A domestic mistress does.” For the record, as my girlfriend told me this, she looked at me with a face that clearly communicated her disdain for her friend’s overall philosophy.


I learned the lessons of empowered Chinese women long ago. I was with a strong-willed Chinese-Indonesian woman for almost thirty years. She left her homeland to travel to America because she saw more opportunity and wanted more control over her life. My girlfriend is cut from the same cloth. She quit one career after more than two decades and started another and splits her time between countries because she saw more opportunity and wanted more control over her life. Opportunity for both of these women is (was) freedom. Freedom to choose. Freedom to control one’s destiny. Freedom to be oneself.


Thus, here are my takeaways from the four Quartz stories:


1. No “second wife” or dalliances for me (really, who would have the time and money anyway?);


2. Minimize risk of becoming involved in a scandal (ok, so maybe that’s not the prime lesson from that story);


3. Never forget that Chinese women are a force to be reckoned with (check); and


4. Most importantly, do not piss off the new woman in my life. Since I did piss off the prior woman in my life at times, trust me, I know what I would be in for, and it is something I want to avoid at all costs. Been there, suffered that.


I wonder if the above is what my friend was thinking when she sent me the article link.

Just saying.


--Andrew Singer

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ANDREW SINGER

Author based on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In his memoir, China Sings to Me, he explores a nation in the midst of seismic growing pains, and finds the courage to live his own life without boundaries.