Olivia’s Cambridge Diary

Chinese alumna speak out


The linguistic structure of Chinese Mandarin isn’t exactly favourable for female empowerment. The radical (a component that makes up a character) for a ‘woman’ is a picture of a woman sitting down — 女. Linguists have squirmed for some time over the pejorative and negative meaning of characters made from the female radical. Some examples are 1) jiān 奸, meaning evil; treacherous; traitor; illicit sexual relations, 2) lán 婪 , meaning greedy; covet[ous]; avaricious.

However, women in contemporary China don’t – on the surface – seem to be doing so badly. Certainly for those born into wealthy, urban families most parents are happy to support their child’s education regardless of their gender. Women make up a high proportion of Chinese graduates. There are 89 self-made female billionaires in the world – 57% of which are from China.

At a more micro level the topic of ‘Chinese Women at Cambridge University’ is an area I recently decided to explore (my own college only finally admitted women 40 years ago). So, I decided to organise a panel discussion with four illustrious Chinese alumna. Sponsored by the University Library’s Rising Tide Exhibition – which seeks to promote the successes of Cambridge alumna – I was able to rally an incredibly diverse group of ladies.

From banking, to bioengineering, to business, the panel comprised of: Cindy Lo, global head of liquidity solutions at HSBC; Ting Zhang, founder of; Qun Yang, co-founder of biotechnology company Biorbyt; and Yan Yan Shery Huang, University Lecturer and Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Due to a last minute dropping-out of the initial chairperson on Covid-19 fears, Professor Hans van de Ven, a Professor in Modern Chinese History, agreed to chair.

On the night, over 70 people were in attendance despite our 7pm Friday evening start, the fairly dire weather conditions and recent worries over the spread of the virus in the UK. I gave an introductory speech about my motives for organising the discussion, telling anecdotes from my experience working in Shanghai last year.

The panel speeches included personal tales of confidence, cultural integration, career expectations, the retention of Chinese values when abroad, strong women in previous generations, the economic opportunities available to women, Chinese men’s domestic role, as well as the double burden faced by women (home and work).

The feedback from the audience proved fascinating. Consisting of Cambridge students, local businessmen and women as well as prominent lecturers, the audience was (to my surprise) gender diverse.

One female student asked how conversations about mental health are approached among circles of Chinese women abroad, given that this is often a taboo subject within mainland China. A male student questioned why all the panellists had married Western men, and pondered how Chinese men ought to reflect on their desire for obedient, quiet women as opposed to those seeking independence.

A local woman asked how to retain Chinese values amid inter-racial marriage; the panel also reflected on their attitudes towards parenting, with many admitting they’ve shirked a ‘tiger mother’ approach for one that’s more liberal. Some career advice was also sought by female Chinese students – who deliberated how to express confidence when plunged into work environments that are “outgoing, loud and expressively male-dominated”.

The range of topics raised and debated suggest to me this won’t be the last such event in Cambridge – particularly as more and more women from China graduate from the university each year.



UK-born Olivia has lived and worked in China and is studying for an MPhil in Second Language Research at Cambridge.

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