‘Encountering a better self in the near future’ is what Nina shared with friends in her Wechat account of the photo (above): shadowed by dim light, her eyes glint, her smooth shoulder emerges from the background as she lies back on a couch, she fills the space with oriental feminine charm. Nina’s message functions both as continuous self-motivation and as self-representation of her successful embodiment of China’s gendered modernity. When asked what is her interpretation of success, Nina re-emphasises the importance of continuous betterment: ’Success for me means that I can better help others to become better people’.
The proverb: ‘the only thing that does not change is change itself’ perfectly captures China’s social reality since 1979’s economic reform, which requires individuals to adaptation swiftly to avoid being weeded out by the times. Hence, the rhetoric of constant self-improvement is particularly popular among China’s young generation who grew up witnessing the dramatic social changes.
Belonging to China’s only-child generation, like many of her urban peers, Nina received unprecedented family investment in her education due to the lack of competition from siblings. Only-daughters born into urban households are often treated as substitute sons by their parents and carry family expectations as the ‘Only Hope’ (Fong, 2004). Experiencing China’s rapid economic growth accompanied by rampant materialism and consumerism, this generation is trained to live up to the capitalist ideal: self-realisation through competitiveness. Simultaneously, the party state has re-emphasized the ideal practice of filial piety as a means of compensating for the lack of welfare provision for an aging population, as well as of counteracting increasing individualism.
In her early 30s, Nina is the director of customer service and operation manager of a regional PR company. She is married and has a three-year-old son. More importantly, as the image displays, she wants to ensure that, despite her promising career and successful marriage, her desirability as a beautiful young woman doesn’t wear off. She wishes to represent the ultimate gendered embodiment of personal success for Chinese women from this generation.
Based on my interviews with 37 university educated urban women (and 12 men) who were all born under the One Child Policy in the 1980s, I explore these women’s subjective experience of becoming respectable modern Chinese women. The overwhelming majority of my participants’ responses revealed a gendered reality, indicating that the image of a successful woman, which is commonly aspired to is the one represented by Nina. The aspiration is to be able to manage a decent career without interrupting the norms of marriage and childbearing while maintaining feminine charm and without becoming a threat to the established gender order. In white-collar woman’s desirability should be displayed as ‘beauty at work’ (Liu, 2016). She is neither a fulltime housewife, who connotes social isolation that leads to the destiny of desertion in marriage, nor a ‘female strong man’ (nü qiang ren) that refers to dominant women who risk all their feminine virtues for career success. Essentially, she needs to carefully negotiate with a moralized female sexuality in order to find a right balance between family and career to be perceived as successful. However, such success is not easily obtainable even for these privileged daughters.
Despite the serious gender imbalance, resulting from the preference for sons under the controversial one child policy, Chinese women are still not at an advantage in the marriage market. Indeed, the well-educated woman’s marriage dilemma has become a national sensation. The matchmaking market in Shanghai’s People’s Park set up by desperate parents has almost become a tourist attraction, and resembles many others across the country. The derogatory term ‘leftover women’ (shengnü) is commonly used even in China’s state-run media, including the All-China Federation of Women (ACFW), to refer particularly to ‘picky’ educated women who remain unmarried after the age of 27. Being the only child of their parents, these women are under strong pressure to marry from their natal family. Ironically, a Japanese skincare brand SK-II has recently exploited out this experienced by targeting Chinese customers with a successful commercial campaign entitled ‘We are single but not leftovers’. One of the videos, ‘Marriage Market Takeover’, vividly depicts the emotional burden these women’s single status creates for them and their parents.
It is worth noting that the China is facing a looming demographic crisis, which forced the government to replace the One Child Policy with a Two Children Policy in 2016. Nevertheless, the heterosexual family remains the only reliable form of welfare provision for Chinese people and is a rooted Chinese political tradition to link managing the family to the governance of the state. The contemporary government continue this tradition of viewing the family as ‘the cell of society’ and believe that fostering a harmonious and productive family is crucial to maintaining good social order. Such a ‘functionalist’ view of the family is evident in the State’s 2015 campaign ‘looking for the most beautiful family’. Lamont (2017) describes the idealised happily married heterosexual family promoted by this campaign as a hybrid of notions taken from Confucian ‘filial piety’ and ‘harmony’, westernized ideas of love and romance, and the party’s belief in ‘scientific development’. It aims to erect the family as moral exemplifier and to harmonise social conflicts. Within this context women’s role is crucial and accords with the traditional division of labour: women in charge of the household, men in charge of the public domain (nan zhu wai nv zhu nei). Under this governing framework well-educated Chinese women are particularly under pressure to marry and reproduce as they embody the idea of a modern Chinese nation that is formed by productive/reproductive high ‘Suzhi’ (quality) citizens. Hence, these women’s success in marriage and reproduction becomes the target of sanction under China’s biopolitics.
Fincher argues that the Chinese state deliberately utilises its propaganda machine to pressurise well-educated women to marry as a ready solution for the social consequences created by its previous population policies. Adding to this argument I contend that the popular discourse of self-betterment with its individualised value of personal success fits neatly within the state’s agenda. For Chinese women in particular, their success is primarily judged by their marital success; other life achievements are only ‘the icing on the cake’. Tong, a slightly elderly single academic woman laments: ‘half of a woman’s success is unrelated to me’.
In my research I realised that despite some single women’s high academic achievement and respectable white-collar professions, they showed strong determination to shed the shame of being viewed as ‘a life loser’. Although largely satisfied with their current status, and especially enjoying the financial freedom brought by their full-time employment, they still expressed an internalised wish to have a happily married family life in the near future and view this as the pathway to completing their lives. Motherhood within heterosexual marriage is naturalised to the extent that without it Chinese women’s womanhood is called into question: ‘Woman has a womb that is for rearing the next generation. How can you call yourself a woman without using it?’(Xiaoliu). As a result, it was not surprising to hear my participants’ aspiration to ‘get it done’: I am 28 now, it is very urgent! My first goal for the next 2 years is to get married. I just need to maintain my career as it is, marriage is my top priority, I will do it!’(Lilin).
Wielander points out that the Chinese government is adept at tapping into the sentiment of the public in order to promote its own political agenda. Re-emphasizing filial piety in the state controlled media helps to reinforce the Chinese saying ‘ the top priority of filial piety is carrying on the family bloodline’ (bu xiao you san, wu hou wei da). Therefore, the fact that individuals are yearning for family happiness functions as a safe and effective way to realise the party-state’s political agenda. Meanwhile, the neoliberal market logic exacerbates the pressure on individuals to fulfill what is expected of them in order to obtain the social recognition of being ‘a success’. These women’s marital success is set at the heart of Chinese perception of happiness and life fulfillment. It does not only matter for themselves, but also affects the social standing of their families. Their success or failure in displaying their filial duty following the societal norm is directly translated into honor or shame: adding or loosing ‘mianzi ’ (face) to her family. Consequently, setting the terms of success plays an effective role in influencing individual behavior. It is an observable trend that it is better to be once married and divorced later than never to fulfill this familial expectation.
The divorce rate among those married for the first time has increased almost seven fold over the past 30 years ago, and the average marriage of divorced couple lasted 3.8 years compared to 16.8 years before 1980. Despite the stability of marriage being in question my participants appear to be largely complacent about heterosexual marriage model as the path to personal happiness. A romanticised vision of ‘Love marriage for life’ through self-improvement carries wide appeal for the women, I spoke to, which coincides with the emergence of a self-reliant subject whose interests correspond with the party-state’s agenda. President Xi addressing young people in 2013 said ’dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation’. China’s well-educated daughters are trained to be high achievers. Their aspiration for success under the popular rhetoric of love and tradition has as its instrumental function that of transmitting the political agenda into women’s personal lives with invisible hands. Leaving patriarchal values embedded within its social structure ‘love marriage’ becomes both a struggle and a solution for these women in obtaining success in China’s changing social landscape.
Fong, Vanessa L. (2004), Only hope: Coming of age under China’s one-child policy, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Liu Jieyu (2016), Gender, Sexuality and Power in Chinese Companies: Beauties at Work, London: Palgrave.
Lamont, Alison (2017), ‘Looking for the ‘Most Beautiful Family in China’, poster presented at ‘Recovering the Social: Personal Troubles and Public Issues’, British Sociological Association Annual Conference 2017, 4-6 April 2017, Manchester.
Kailing XIE is a PhD researcher at the University of York, UK. She adopts a feminist approach to understanding how gender affects the lives of China’s urban privileged only-daughters. She places emphasis on women’s life experiences to understand from their own perspective the way they face contemporary issue, such as decisions around reproduction, marriage and career development. Besides this, Kailing’s broader research interests include identity formations, masculinity, the intersection between class and race in contemporary China.