As an ancient civilisation with a strong Confucian influence, China has not been very fair to women through its history. Hong Yan Huo Shui (红颜祸水) or “Women are like disastrous water” was a popular idiom through the ages and numerous historical stories have been passed down from generation to generation as proof of this assertion. The ruthless Shang Dynasty king Zhouwang (a ruler in the eleventh century BC) lost power to the Zhou yet history blames his concubine Daji for corrupting him. The weakening of the fabulously prosperous Tang Dynasty is attributed to Emperor Xuanzong’s fascination with his concubine Yang Yuhuan, one of the Four Great Beauties of ancient China. The Ming Dynasty’s downfall is also partly blamed on another concubine of the Ming general Wu Sangui, who colluded with the Manchus and jointly brought an end Han imperial rule in 1644.
Other notorious female figures in history include Wu Zetian (624-705) – China’s only female emperor – as well as the power-behind-the-throne blamed for the Qing Dynasty’s slow collapse, the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). In more modern times Jiang Qing (1914-1991), the fourth wife of Chairman Mao, has been blamed by many Chinese for much of the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.
In recent years, when high-flying government officials or business executives have fallen from grace because of corruption or sexual misconduct, the public has often pointed fingers at their “greedy and demanding” wives and mistresses. Sometimes I marvel at the double standards that seem to exist in social views too. When a married man sleeps around, he is perceived as “normal” and his behaviour as “understandable” as long as he does not leave his family. When a woman does the same, she is despised as dirty and morally bankrupt. Even the commonly used word dama has been given a new and somewhat derogatory meaning that refers to rowdy and aggressive middle-aged women. There is no equivalent term to describe poorly behaved men of the same age.
The double-standard is often voiced openly. Yu Minhong, founder of the listed education company New Oriental, told a forum last autumn: “The moral degeneration of Chinese women led to the degeneration of the country.” If the male CEO of a Western multinational had made such a sweeping, misogynistic statement like that one, he’d put his job in direct jeopardy.
There was another headline-grabbing instance of such chauvinistic talk last week when Foxconn tycoon Terry Gou told the media that “the harem should not meddle in politics”. Gou made this remarkable statement shortly after announcing his bid for the Taiwanese presidency (for more on that, see WiC449). The harem here, of course, is a reference to imperial concubines – the subject matter of many modern TV dramas in China – but by extension it’s also a slur on women. Prominent feminist campaigner Fan Yun was disgusted and wrote on her Facebook page, “Who does chairman Gou think he is?” and accused him of having an emperor complex.
She added the comment was not only demeaning to her sex but also hypocritical: “When you wanted to run, you said a woman [Matsu, the sea goddess] asked you to, now you are telling women not to meddle in politics.”
Remarks like those made by Gou and Yu run in stark contrast to my own views on Chinese women in general. I see them as more faithful, resourceful, resilient and hardworking than the typical Chinese man. And I regret that the country has made such impressive progress in economic development in recent decades while the prevalent views on women have not kept up. For another take on women’s social status in modern China, see my column from issue 375.
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