Alright, China’s had 250 years of conflicts and war. From Yellow Turban and Boxer Rebellions to the Warlord period, Communist Revolution, and WW2 – there has been a great deal of uncertainty and unrest. Who then do you want for your family, your household, and most importantly your precious baby girl? Probably someone strong, capable, successful, worldly, and protective. China’s not alone in having this historical model for masculinity. But it plays out in an interesting way in the post Deng Xiao Ping Opening Up and Reform period China. Commercialization and liberalized economies make it so that money is the new way to ensure security. With more than a billion people here, competition is fierce and you are not guaranteed a spot in the “Chinese Dream”. What Chinese dream? In the last hundred years peasants have seen wars and famine. Who has been telling them that if they just work hard enough, they can do anything they want?
In a world combining post One Child Policy demographics with very poor social welfare plans, the pressure on the youngest generation to figure out how to take care of everyone has never been stronger. It’s not just for their little girl’s sake that they hope she’ll meet a fantastically wealthy man to fall in love and make a family with. Tradition is very heavily on the side of telling women that the ideal man is a Gao Fu Shuai (高富帅 – literally “Tall, Rich, Handsome”). They’ve got good genes which will help taller children succeed in a height conscious society, they’re handsome enough that they’ll be endeared in the board room and anywhere they go ensuring that people will pay attention to what he wants, and most importantly ka-ching! The government’s not going to pay for them to live another 50 years, so the wealthy son-in-law is the next best thing to financial security.
Modern Chinese media has perpetuated this image so the young women have internalized these messages too. Of course their man should be handsome, because who doesn’t want a dreamboat? To keep up with this booming commodity economy, they better be able to afford some nice gifts or what is the family going to say when I come home for New Years? They better have a strong mind and body, because otherwise, who’s going to take care of me?
The practical implications of views like this are then views like “Fei fang wu rao” (非房勿扰 – Literally, if you don’t have a house then don’t bother me). If you’re a grown woman looking for love in China you may well be holding men to the impossible standard of not only having a place, but owning it too. If you have a car and a killer phone too, even better. If not, maybe you’ll get there later, but I can’t afford to waste my time with any scrubs. Poor guys then spend a tremendous amount of time posturing and trying to show off their wealth (even when they have none) by flashing their expensive purchases like a peacock. Yet, most guys can’t meet these impossible standards. Many might be freshly out of college in depressingly low wage job market where fresh grads are often expected to work for free the first few years of their life to just get in the door with a good company. Maybe when they’re older they’ll be able to afford the marks of wealth to attract a young woman but by then they’ve found themselves on a career track they can’t back out of and the burdens of responsibility placed on them by their wife and both families make sure that he knows his life and his livelihood are no longer his.
What then do you do if you find yourself in a dead end middle management job with a wife perhaps younger than you, a child going to an overpriced, overcrowded school, and expectations for hong baos (红包 – lucky money given at many major holidays and social occasions to friends and families) pile up higher than your paycheck? Probably, you get stressed, turn inward, and perhaps take what little outlets for fun and release you can find. In short – you get a lot of emotionally stunted, money-making slaves, with no real hopes of meeting their own dreams and desires.
Sound harsh? The men are the lucky ones.
While men are expected to fill the rice bowl and be sugar daddy to a whole cohort of people, women are expected to transform themselves into ornaments of their man. While men should aspire to be Gao Fu Shuai, women aspire to become Bai Fu Mei (白富美 – Literally “Fair, rich, and beautiful”). Here too you see the echoes of history still playing a role in modern society. In aristocratic societies around the world pale skin was equated with less time outdoors, meaning less time working, meaning affluence and generally “being looked after”. In China today, if children spend too much time outside (especially women), their parents will scold them for turning their skin black and looking like a peasant. Cosmetics companies make billions selling creams that will make your skin whiter and movie stars like the ghostly skinned, Fan Bing Bing are the role model of little girls everywhere.
Combined with the historic implications of signs of a “free life” come the invasion of western standards for beauty. When the white people you see on TV, in Magazines, or on the internet are most often the most successful, affluent members of western society the association sticks. Whiter=More successful, more popular, and generally better. While women in western countries spend their money getting nice tans and breast implants, women in the east spend their money making their noses taller, taping or slitting their eyelids for the elusive “Double Eyelid”, dying and curling their hair, and wearing make-up and contact lenses that make their eyes look bigger and less squinted (in addition to getting breast implants of course).
Yet one place that Chinese and Western standards of beauty depart markedly is in the degree of idolization placed on “slight frames.” Yes, western beauty standards demand skinny-ness. But at least, the “Real women have curves” campaigns and revitalized Greco-Roman standards of beauty have allowed western men to talk of “types”. Are you a tits man, boob man, skinny, curvy, tight butt or budonkadonk lover? As unfair as all of these beauty standards are, beauty has diversified to an array of ideals. In China, it’s all about the slender beauties who would blow away in a strong breeze.
But what about strong independent women who speak their mind and become successful in a career of their choice? Overrated, say the standards of the day. In recent discussions of higher education for women a term has surfaced which expresses the value of women bluntly. If you reach a certain age and are still unmarried, you are a “sheng nu” (剩女 – Literally, left over woman). Some online discussions have gone so far as to say that if a woman goes to university and doesn’t marry and have a kid they are “wasting resources”. Education for women, therefore, is good if it can be put to good use in attracting a male and educating her children. If you’re not going to do that, many insist, you’d be better off saving seats in school for those who will. In fact, for many men who feel such an intense pressure to perform and earn money for their partner and families, a strong successfully woman can often be seen as undesirable, even to be avoided. How can you be the strong successful man if your wife is more so? Better to have a cute, sweet, beauty who will make you feel better about yourself and mark your status to colleagues and family.
What does this mean for women in China? If you are seeking love, you had better invest heavily in cosmetics, strictly observe your diet, skin tone, practice expressing yourself in inoffensive, cute, and childlike ways and place the greatest of weights on become the “Fu” in Bai fu mei – that is rich. You’re likely not going to be able to find a job where you can support yourself and others. You probably won’t be able to afford all the clothes and products society at large expects you to have by yourself. So you better do what you can to find yourself a handsome wallet on two legs. Happiness? Your parents can tell you that’s having a healthy family. Self-expression? The media says that’s dressing in the latest fashions from Japan and Korea. Independence? Your friends say that’s supporting your parents enough so they can take care of your baby while you’re out with the girls.
But what if you don’t want to live by these standards? What waits for you in the path of a “Diao si” (屌丝 – literally penis thread, meaning loser). As a diao si man, the biggest cost may be love. As a diao si woman, you may lose your ability to take care of yourself, your family, and your social standing. Maybe in 20 years women will find the sort of professions that will allow them to be independently wealthy. But until then, their pass to the promised land is their guy, and top selling magazines confirm - he don’t want no diao si.
It’s easy to take messages like those I’ve given here to hyperbole insisting that it’s impossible for women to find good jobs as intelligent, self-expressed, free thinkers, or that a man with modest (or no) income has no chance in hooking a girl. Of course, it’s not that simple. But China is in a very precarious place historically. Arguably it’s been an “open country” for only the last three decades of looking outwards for new ways to be, people have only had disposable income enough to travel on holiday for the past two, and today’s generation gap is a gaping hole of grandparents who know true hardship and sacrifice, parents who were raised to look after the greater good at any cost, and children who are trying decide just who they should be in a world of limitless possibilities. It’s the youngest generation that are caught most heavily by this schism. The times they have to go home to visit relatives are dreaded because they know they’ll be asked the big three when’s: When are you getting married? When are you getting a house? And When are you going to have children? They want to know because together they are the vision of a happy and successful life as their parents taught them, as well as a sign that they might have a comfortable retirement.
Similar to the 60s and 70s in the USA where women entered the work force and only after rallying for women’s rights, sexual liberation, and free thinking achieved a place of ubiquity within the workplace, Chinese women are just beginning to fight for a future where they can be who they want to be free of their families and partners. Similar too to those times, Chinese men are just beginning to butt heads with newly modernized notions of feminism and masculinity to feel like they’re not less of a man without a house or without paying for two families’ well-being. But similar to the USA, Chinese society will have to face the introspective period of deciding who they want to be before societal norms give them a little leeway. It wasn’t easy for us and we still have a long way to go. Hopefully China will progress faster than we did as they have already with areas like LGBT rights. But until then, how about a round of applause and support for the diao si among us? Let’s send a little love to our shorter, darker-skinned, poorer, and more real Chinese beauties everywhere. They’re going to need it.
There are tons of good sources to explore Chinese gender roles. But for more information on Chinese standards for men and women, try starting with two: