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The Women of China: Caught Between Old Ways and a New World


I just returned from a 19-day whirlwind tour of China, a startling nation that lunges at you with energy and contradictions.

For example, China is completing the Three Gorges Dam Project, one of the greatest engineering feats in history; yet even its 5-star hotels warn against drinking from their faucets and advise patrons to brush their teeth with bottled water.

China is scrambling to restore, in many cases to rebuild, the 6,000-year history deliberately destroyed by Mao’s 10-year Cultural Revolution. At the same moment, it strains to become modern and Western. Nothing expresses the contradiction between old and new as clearly as the status of women.

Thus, among the questions I packed with my suitcase was “what is it like to be a woman in modern China?”

Definitive answers did not emerge. For one thing, next to no one spoke openly. Even in one-on-one conversations, no one criticized government policy except in side comments through which their reservations were strongly implied. Instead of answers I came away with mental snapshots and impressions of how specific women live within a struggling culture. (As a preliminary to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, an unprecedented number of Chinese now speak passable English which made such impressions possible.)

L. addressed the dilemma of being “the sandwich generation”—a generation defined by China’s one-child policy. As only children, she and her husband care for four aging grandparents as well as their own child. There are no brothers or sisters to share the burden of elderly parents. There are no aunts or uncles for the youngest generation. She and her husband shoulder it all.

Typically, L. did not criticize the one-child policy. Indeed, she corrected some Western ‘misconceptions’. For example, rural people were often allowed a second birth if the first child was disabled, female, or otherwise undesirable.

Nevertheless, L. outlined how the “hard” population measure sprang from an earlier failed program. During the Korean War (which she called ‘the anti-US war’) Mao became convinced that all-out conflict with the West was inevitable. He urged people to have children in order to build up a huge army. Financial incentives were offered but when the population exploded and no war occurred, the government abruptly swung from one extreme of population control to the other.

In a state-owned carpet factory, we watched women at looms (never men, it seems) hand-knotting the exquisite silk carpets for which China is renown. The ‘life span’ of a weaver is 12 to 15 years during which she will make $80 to $100 a month. One carpet can take 18 months to complete, making a weaver’s lifetime production about 10 carpets.

A supervisor assured us that the women receive a break every 30 minutes so that their hands are not injured by the repetitive motion. But we were in one area for almost an hour and no one ceased work.

While browsing the sales room, I saw one carpet sell for $10,000.

I considered buying a small one but immediately realized that I could not let my dogs sleep or have accidents upon a year of someone else’s life.

J. bristled at a question from our group: “do forced sterilizations still happen in China?” The answer: they do not happen; they never did happen.” This, despite the fact that on December 1st, a Chinese court re-sentenced activist

Wendy McElroy is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute. Her books include the Independent Institute volumes, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century, and Freedom, Feminism, and the State.

  From Wendy McElroy
LIBERTY FOR WOMEN: Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century
With its vision of individualist feminism, Liberty for Women boldly explores a wide range of issues that confront the modern woman, including self-defense, economic well-being and employment, sex and abortion, the family, technology, and much more.

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