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Gender Lines, Roles, and Tradition in China

Time after time I’ve found myself sitting around a big banquette table in a restaurant with Chinese men and women eating a large meal. Time after time the women controlled the conversation: they talked among each other, made jokes, giggled, asked me funny questions, told stories, and carried on discussions. All the while the men sat as [...]

Time after time I’ve found myself sitting around a big banquette table in a restaurant with Chinese men and women eating a large meal. Time after time the women controlled the conversation: they talked among each other, made jokes, giggled, asked me funny questions, told stories, and carried on discussions. All the while the men sat as silent as stones, staring straight ahead, and looking dead bored. If I asked them a question they would generally answer quickly and then shut up again or one of their female companions would take on their conversational burden.

“Chinese people like men who don’t talk very much,” a Chinese woman explained to me. I nodded my head while she added to her statement: “Men will talk a lot if they are with other men, but they talk about big things like politics or how to make money or about male friendship. They don’t talk about little things like shopping like women do.”

But if alcohol is on the table the bunch of otherwise bored looking men all of a sudden become boisterous and gregarious.  The tables shift, and the meeting becomes a man’s affair. One could say that Chinese men need a little booze to loosen them up, but I think it’s deeper than this: the presence of alcohol turns the situation masculine, and the men take the lead.

My friend’s statement about males gravitating towards talking about “big issues” was correct. They do. Well, right after they finish talking about basketball.

“Do you think Taiwan is a part of China?” I’m often asked almost before a new male acquaintance gets my name.

“Taiwan use to be a part of China but now it’s not, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” is usually how I respond.

“I think the Chinese government is acting too weak,” is a common follow up.

“You can’t fight the USA,” I usually respond, knowing where the conversation is going, “they owe you too much money. A war would be stupid.”

“Well, not now, but maybe someday . . .”

Sometimes it is a relief to talk with women about shopping.

Gender in China

It is obvious in China  that there is are very strictly followed social protocols for most all situations, and, depending on circumstance, the Chinese act very differently depending on what sex they are. Gender lines and roles are very well drawn in this country.

“My husband doesn’t talk to me, he doesn’t care what I have to say because I am a woman,” my friend continue. “Chinese men don’t listen to women.”

I then asked her to describe for me the typical Chinese male character.

“Men should make the money for the family, they should have good jobs, and be successful,” she replied as though it were a matter of fact.

“What about women?” I asked.

“Chinese women should be thin, have light skin, and black hair. Men like women who listen to what they say, who are obedient, and who don’t disagree with them. They also don’t like it if we call them on the phone asking a lot of questions like, ‘What are you doing? When are you going to be home? Is your business meeting with a man or woman? Did you touch each other?”

The last statement made her giggle shyly.

There are very tight stereotypes of what defines the sexes in China, but rather than rejecting or trying to disprove them as we are prone to doing in the West the Chinese often try their hardest to live up to them — or at least have everyone around them believe they do.

It would be an understatement to say that the social eye reigns supreme in China: people see themselves how they think their society sees them. There is a protocol of behavior that is followed to the hilt, and transgressions are met with ridicule, gossip, and a loss of face. It is my impression that there are few things worse than being atypical or unique in Chinese society. If you’re male you act as men are suppose to act; if you’re female, you fall into your gender fold.

There seems to be few grey areas for behavior in this society. Everything is laid out, the rules are easy to read, your parents and grandparents tell you what to do, all you need to do is follow along and everything will be alright. Though social and professional life in China is clearly in the modern age, family life seems to be the dominant influence here, and it tends to be rather traditional and conservative. The new generation is directly molded by the one that proceeded it, and tradition rolls on. If you lose your way someone will tell you where to go. A spade is called a spade and encouraged to act like a spade, regardless if it wants to or not.

There is perhaps a reason why the idea of fate is so strong here.

“Are you a typical Chinese woman?” I asked my friend.

“Yes, of course,” she replied.

By her own definitions, she was one of the most atypical Chinese women that I have ever met. In private with me she has spoken boldly about politics, raged about elements of her culture, and I could tell by how she explained the gender breakdown of China that she wasn’t quite thrilled with it. This has been a repeated pattern throughout my time in China: people speak in terms of black and white, but their real feelings are various shades of grey. All too often I’ve sat in a room alone with a Chinese person out of earshot of their family and peers and have found them to be rather revolutionary people. This is perhaps a country of closet anarchists. I’m an American, and I must view this as a positive phenomenon, for if Chinese people really were as they say they are this country would be full of obedient, serious, soulless, and uncreative robots. It’s the way it seems on the surface, but deep down there is something more that is churning.

But Chinese society, though extremely repressive and suffocating, remains incredibly strong. I know that wherever I go among the Han population of this country and observe gender roles — or societal roles in general — I will see virtually the same exact patterns over and over again. This is a culture that’s pretty much still on the same page, the generational gap here is far tighter than it is in many other newly developed countries.

At least the people here know who they are and how they should act.

There are well defined parameters for behavior for each gender in China, and the people seem far too pragmatic and/ or fearful of the consequences to bother with much culture jamming or rebellion. But alternatives to these preset gender based characters are rarely truly viable. To go against the character lines that are set out for you here seems to be a sure shot way to lose status at best, to be ostracized at worst.

Though it has been reported that Chinese society is becoming more tolerant in regards to nontraditional gender roles, as trans-gender/ homosexual/ lesbian identities become more visible throughout the country. But tolerance and acceptance are two different phenomenon. Chinese people tend to be amazingly tolerant of people who are outside of their home and personal social circles, but inside these circles the pressure to conform is still great. It has been reported that 80% of gay Chinese men still marry women and live the social life of a heterosexual, often due to family pressure. The Chinese have an amazing live and let live outlook, just so what they are letting live does not do so within the walls of their own home.

What is culture but a protocol of behavior? Live your role or face the consequences. Acculturation is not a pretty thing in this aspect, there is nothing romantic about it; culture is restrictive, often repressive, and full of rules designed to transform a unique individual into a social entity. Mao perhaps defined the mechanisms of cultural cohesion best when he said, “The nail that sticks up gets pounded back in.”

Filed under: China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3576 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

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  • Mercury September 5, 2012, 12:55 pm

    “There is a protocol of behavior that is followed to the hilt, and transgressions are met with ridicule, gossip, and a loss of face. It is my impression that there are few things worse than being atypical or unique in Chinese society.” –such an emphasis on rigid conformity must really stifle creativity and innovative thinking. It’s my impression that the societies that really embrace non-conformity and diversity in all its forms end up being far and away the most creative. And human creativity is the resource that’s far more important than all others in the world today. I question if China can ever be a true superpower until it begins to embrace non-conformity and just plain weird behavior?

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    • Wade Shepard September 5, 2012, 9:15 pm

      This is a really big issue, and it will take many, many articles before I’m anywhere close into it haha. But the interesting thing is that Chinese society is very aware of their shortcomings in regards to creativity. Countless times I’ve heard people criticizing the education system for putting an emphasis on repetition and imitation rather than creative thinking. Many rich families will send their kids to international schools that supposedly teach on the Western model. In fact, my wife was shipped over from the USA to completely design a new Western style Montessori class at a very upper end kindergarten. By their own admission they know that their acculturation system is designed more for creating robots than innovative individuals who can act on the global stage. But the problem is that they seem to have trouble truly breaking out of these molds. In the case of my wife’s class, it’s the most expensive and most elite kindergarten class at the school she’s working at but much of her design (which is truly “Western,” what they hired her to do) is incomprehensible for her immediate supervisors, and, more than likely, the parents they need to sell the class to. The end result was a class that they call “international” that is really Chinese.

      What is interesting is that there seems to be a drastic push and pull effect going on in China (or at least in the middle and upper class spheres) in which they say they want to change their mentalities and approaches in regards to matters like creativity, but when it comes down to action the effects of this effort more often than not come off as being very Chinese.

      I had a friend who studied modern art in China some years back. It really blew her away when she realized just how much many artists struggled with issues of creativity. She told me how someone would do something somewhat unique and then everybody else would just copy them.

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      • Mercury September 6, 2012, 4:57 pm

        Interesting reply, thank you. My comment was really nowhere complete. In all honesty I believe China will embrace diversity of behaviour eventually. Ex-pats and travelers such as your family are clearly an agent of change within China. China is importing a more western mindset every time it encourages Americans and Britons to work in the country, they also adopt a more western mindset as they rapidly convert to Christianity and learn english (english skills in china are now said to outpace India). So, I think china is very much in the process of opening up and will eventually become creative and yes a true superpower. All of which will be good for not only china but ultimately the world. Of course as an American, I hope the USA remains a step or two ahead of china. But I think the westernization of china will be very good. 1.2 billion chinese learning how to be innovative will be a major engine of progress and really help improve the human condition everywhere.

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        • Wade Shepard September 6, 2012, 8:29 pm

          Thanks for sharing this. It’s a really interesting social situation. There are two contending pulls of influence: “internationalization,” as it’s often put and the traditional roles and structure of the family unit. One is very modern and liberal the other very traditional and conservative. It’s interesting to watch how it all comes together. It’s my impression that “modern” or “internationalized” may be more accurate terms to describe one hand of the contending pulls than Western. Speaking very generally, the “West,” meaning the USA, is seen as a very worthy adversary, but it’s not my impression that becoming Westernized is the goal by any means. The people here are very proud of being Chinese — sometimes too proud. About foreigners changing Chinese society, I really doubt we have much of an impact. It’s pretty much impossible for outsiders to get deep into this culture and to have any real influence. The “foreigner” identity is so thick and were viewed as being so far removed that it’s not really possible to set a precedence for behavior or thought. We’re kept in a bubble, so to speak, like strange curiosities in an exhibit. It’s a little different in some spheres of the big cities. As far as foreigners marrying Chinese people, well, that’s really interesting in and of itself as this is something pretty new and recent. But these partnerships just seem to pull the Chinese partner further out of their society than drawing the foreigner closer into it. A foreigner will always be foreign. But as far as the offspring from such an arrangement, yes, this does change the society — especially since many international couples are staying in China now rather than rushing off to the USA, Germany, etc . . . The traditional rungs of this culture are so old and have stood for so long in the face of many contending outside and inside influences that I can’t see them changing very much through this whole “internationalization” fiasco. It’s my impression that someone could come to China 100 years from now and write an article almost identical to the one above. Well, maybe. This country absorbs outside influence and makes it Chinese incredibly proficiently. Even such big ideologies like democracy, capitalism, and religion are absorb and put into the Chinese paradigm. Like my wife’s class, they took Montessori and the Western education model and with a few def twists and turns made it Chinese. This culture is so thick and powerful it’s truly amazing.

          Thanks for this discussion 🙂

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  • John September 6, 2012, 7:54 am

    I like your juxtaposition of the male and female photographs on the top of the page. It subtly hints are some of the things that contradict the woman’s statement about chinese. The woman has brown hair, which there is many, idealized woman who have that colour.

    Also the man is crossing his legs in a way that is more typically seen as feminine. I like that men, in this society are like balls of fire. They seem to come out of the dark, in a somewhat controlled way.

    Not sure what im trying to say. But, a really neat exploration of these issues. very thought provoking….

    -John

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  • Sylvain Beauregard September 6, 2012, 5:58 pm

    Yes, very interesting,

    That reminds me of a series of interviews on Radio-Canada TV recently from correspondents discussing about their assignment in China throughout the years… from early 70s to now.

    They explained that under Mao the population was kinda brain-washed into thinking that they were the most advanced civilization on Earth and that they were lucky to be in China, and not elsewhere. And that when China opened to the world and began receiving more visitors, the Party began to distribute dresses to women and also teach them how to wear them and how to behave in public… since at first apparently the women wore dresses yes, but were still sitting in parks like if they had pants. They of course mentioned the evolution of the relationships between the government and media, giving them more freedom.

    I don’t recall all the elements mentioned, but I clearly make a link with what you’re exposing here about the different rate of evolution of the social reports.

    The economic success of China in the last 30 years is spectacular and has to be admired despite downsides on the environment (and can in part be forgiven like a very hungry man who can finally feasts upon a chocolate cake. 🙂 ) Social revolution take more time and it’s normal. I’m not saying the social standard should be the Western one, far from that… to each culture its own rules. It’s just hard to imagine what stress is on people to adapt to the incredible different social environment within 2 generations.

    In some aspects, that is a bit similar to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

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    • Wade Shepard September 6, 2012, 8:40 pm

      “They explained that under Mao the population was kinda brain-washed into thinking that they were the most advanced civilization on Earth . . .”

      I think they are still being told that, and they may be right 🙂

      “the Party began to distribute dresses to women and also teach them how to wear them and how to behave in public… since at first apparently the women wore dresses yes, but were still sitting in parks like if they had pants.”

      This made me roar with laughter. As anyone who’s been in this country in the summer (where many of the women wear short skirts) knows, many don’t seem to care if they’re showing off their underwear — especially middle aged women. It’s sometimes very uncomfortable when trying to speak with a women wearing a short skirt who has her legs spread apart like a cowboy. Needless to say, you get flashed here a lot still.

      It’s funny how the Chinese government tries to institute protocols for behavior that really don’t work. This is a topic for another day, but this is probably the most anarchisticaly minded population I’ve ever lived among.

      “Social revolution take more time and it’s normal. I’m not saying the social standard should be the Western one, far from that… to each culture its own rules. It’s just hard to imagine what stress is on people to adapt to the incredible different social environment within 2 generations.”

      Yes, this is incredibly interesting. This is a culture that seems to be trying to be advanced/ modern and traditional at the same time. Interestingly, they seem to be doing it. One of the first things any Buddhist/ Asian philosophy student learns is that the lines of contradiction are not as firmly drawn in China as they are in the West — something can be both sides of a seemingly mutually exclusive equation. I’m not able to understand how it works, but somehow it does.

      This is a very interesting time to be living in China, for sure. I recommend everyone to come here and watch this show, it’s truly amazing.

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