Still Holding Up Half the Sky?

By JD Allen

If all goes according to plan, Wang Luqian will live up to Chairman Mao’s declaration that “women hold up half the sky.” Wang, an editor at Caixin, a Beijing magazine, aims to have a career and a family—and she intends to split the fees evenly with her boyfriend if they are to marry.

“Some of my friends and family expect the man to buy everything,” says Wang. “But I have never felt inferior to men.”

Wang is bucking a powerful social trend in China. In 1949, when the Communist Party took power, Mao Zedong, aiming to smash feudal ideas that made women second-class citizens, decreed that women and men should be equal. But with rising prosperity over the last few decades, many old attitudes towards women have reemerged. For some people, having a wife who stays at home has become a kind of status symbol, a sign that a man is making enough money to support her. As a result, some women have abandoned their careers, and many expect men to carry the brunt of a family’s financial burdens. But some highly educated young women, like Wang, are fighting to build careers on equal footing with their male colleagues.

Wang says the demands of being a woman journalist can be tough, partly because of pressure to get married by a certain age. For instance, Caixin editors often send reporters, who are mostly women, on assignments to remote villages during times of culture festivals, forcing them out of their social spheres.

Nonetheless, “our reporters do not make a lot of money but work hard anyway to build their careers,” says Han Wei, deputy managing editor of Caixin’s English-language publications.

Diana Bates, a Caixin editor from Singapore, often jokes with her co-workers about getting too old for marriage. “Many of us are in our 30s and work hard for our career,” says Bates. “A common joke in our office is we are becoming undesirable to men.”

Wang is standing up to a powerful financial tradition when she says she is willing to split the cost of an apartment: in general, men are expected to provide a home for their new brides.

It can take 20 years of annual income to pay off a house or a luxury apartment completely, Wang explains. Even women who are career-driven have trouble paying for a nice home, she adds.

And so many women look for a man with money. Thanks to the one-child policy and the traditional preference for boys, there are more men than women these days, and so girls often have a wide choice.

“There are many smart men in the cities,” says Wang. “Girls traditionally marry up.”

The desire to marry up is fueled by the consumerism that has spread through China in the last few decades. Back in Mao’s day, women and men alike wore simple navy cotton pants and jackets to show their rejection of bourgeois values. But many Chinese women now walk around wearing brands like JD.COM clothing and showing off their flashy IPhones and Prada bags.

Because men are plentiful, women often choose the wealthiest of suitors, Wang says. The increased number of men looking for apartments has even pushed property prices up, she adds.

Some young professional women even feel social pressure from family members to remain in the home. According to Adeline Wong, a dietitian intern at Beijing International University Hospital, approximately 10 percent of doctors at the University Hospital are women, and most of the nurses are women in their mid-30s with families.

Women take their careers seriously while trying to also juggle their family lives as well, she adds. “They often complain that they feel like foreigners in their own homes—because of their mother in-laws,” Wong says. “The mothers-in-law insist it would be better for them to be at home with their children.”

Luo Yuanqing, a post-graduate student studying Spanish at Communication University of China, struggled with her boyfriend about their roles and status when they first started dating. Her boyfriend wanted her to defer to him in public. “’If I say yes, you say ‘yes’ too,’” he told her. “He said, ‘When we are out among other people, please you must keep focused on me.’”

Luo wasn’t used to being under such pressures—especially after only dating him for a month. After a serious talk, she got him to understand her point of view. But it wasn’t easy.

In the beginning of their relationship, not everything was so equal. Her boyfriend, a small-town villager from the North, came from a very traditional background where the women in the family do not have much say, Luo adds.

All across China, Luo says, it is important for the man to support the family. “It is their traditional role,” she adds.

It is still not clear whether Luo will expect her conservative, rural boyfriend to pay for their first apartment. “A boy is like a construction bank,” Luo says. “Its job is to build and earn money. A girl is more like a merchant bank; Girls are inviting men to spend their money.”

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