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Changing attitudes towards women’s roles in China


While Mao once described women as “holding up half the sky”, this goal of gender equality hasn’t been reflected in all aspects of life and society in China. Cultural expectations related to family duties, behaviour and looks are put onto Chinese women from a young age.


Social pressures on women

Social pressures dictate that women must be married by a certain age – the term “leftover women” or “shengnu” (剩女) has been widely used to describe women in their late 20s who are still single. “Marriage markets” are common in parks in Chinese cities where parents or grandparents go to find their single children a partner. They come armed with a CV-like advert containing their children’s educational status, work, income, height. Men are not excluded from these pressures… they are expected to own a house, car and earn a high enough salary.


While these attitudes are relaxing, especially in cities, their continued existence reflects the pressure on young Chinese women and men to conform to certain expectations. Among other issues, the majority of women are also still expected to take on more domestic tasks; many companies offer little entitlement to maternity leave; there is little protection for women who suffer domestic abuse; and there are few women at senior levels in the Chinese political system.


Social media and TV shows bring about discussion of women’s rights

However, in the last five years, the conversation about women’s rights and female empowerment in China has grown. China’s history and culture define many of the gender stereotypes and assumptions that still exist, meaning that different issues have dominated the discussion in China, compared to feminist awakenings in Western countries. Political restrictions mean that the movement is organised in a different way: while protests and petitions are often used in the UK, these are not tools of social change which are adopted in China. Much of the recent discussion of women’s rights in China has originated on social media as users share their thought on trends, media, campaigns and news stories.

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