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China’s women students escape tradition at home

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International students from China Karoline Li, Shiyu Bao, Katerina Ma and Elma Song walk along the waterfront by the Sydney Opera House, after lockdown measures put in place to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak were eased, in Sydney, Australia, 24 June 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Loren Elliott).

In Brief

In recent years, the Western media has depicted Chinese international students as either a worrisome source of political influence or an economic resource to be secured post-COVID-19. The gender perspective has rarely featured in discussions — even though a majority of Chinese students in Western countries, including Australia, are women.


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Chinese women currently studying abroad are a historically unique cohort. They are largely from China’s wealthier first- and second-tier cities, and belong to China’s most highly educated generation of women. Due to the combined effects of the one-child policy and the growth of China’s middle classes since the 1980s, they have unprecedented parental resources available to them to support their studies.

In China’s post-socialist society, a powerful, state-endorsed neoliberal-style discourse of individual self-reliance and competitive self-advancement appeals to these well-resourced young women. It nurtures their ambitions to achieve personal fulfilment and career success through investment in education.

Yet a resurgent gender neo-traditionalism is causing misgivings about these women’s ambitions. The manifestations of this trend range from the mockery of women with PhDs as a sexless ‘third gender’ and the state-led disparagement of unmarried women over 27 as ‘leftover women’ to the jailing of feminist activists.

It seems that both China’s government and conservative public opinion fear young, middle-class urban women’s self-transformation going ‘too far’ as a result of the new opportunities available to them. This leaves these women in a conundrum. They are caught between their own desire for self-advancement and strong social pressure to follow a standardised feminine life script that would see them married with children by age 30.

For many women, studying abroad offers an attractive alternative, an ‘escape route’ — whether temporary or permanent — from intense gendered pressures at home. This route is more accessible than ever, despite recent COVID-19-related disruptions. Yet this too produces gendered anxieties.

In Chinese popular media, women studying in Western countries are associated — often negatively — with the de-traditionalisation of their sexual and gendered identities. Popular WeChat accounts have published articles claiming that ‘there are many leftover women among overseas graduate returnees’.

These accounts range from conservative laments about the ‘tragedy’ of unmarried, educated women to the bravery of women resisting neo-traditionalist pressures. A more openly misogynist online stereotype, which has been criticised by female netizens, paints overseas female students as ‘loose’ women corrupted by Western sex culture, who should be avoided as marriage partners.

The idea that studying overseas risks young women abandoning neo-traditional gender ideals is reflected in the personal experiences of students. The recently published book, Dreams of Flight, revealed mothers’ fears that their daughters could become ‘left over’ as a result of studying abroad. Chinese men similarly complained that studying overseas makes women ‘too independent’ and unsuitable as wives.

Studying overseas transformed the sense of self and life plans of the cohort of women studied in Dreams of Flight in complex ways. After several years abroad, graduates describe a series of changes in themselves — changes that differentiate them from female relatives and friends who remained in China. Overseas graduates feel that they have become more personally and professionally ambitious. They also feel they have broadened their cultural horizons and developed a higher tolerance for unconventional ways of living compared to their peers who stayed in China.

These changes relate to transformations in gendered identity. Graduates feel that — thanks to years of living independently at a distance from the surveillance of their relatives — they have become more self-focussed. They are more inclined to put their own individual needs and desires, rather than those of their family members, at the centre of their life plans.

For this cohort of graduates, educational mobility results in increased gender de-traditionalisation. Many can no longer relate to their female peers’ desires to get married and have children on the schedule set by mainstream Chinese state and public opinion. They instead hope for lives shaped by more personal desires like ongoing travel, further study and other projects undertaken for pleasure and self-enrichment rather than duty or convention.

Whether these graduates will be able to realise their collective desire to shape their lives in defiance of gendered conventions remains to be seen. What is clear is that they embody a historical paradox. It is the state-led economic, educational and cultural transformations of the past 30 years that have enabled the emergence of this generation of ambitious young women and allowed them to travel far and wide for their education. Yet, as we have seen, the kind of women they are becoming as a result of these transformations makes the official culture nervous.

While conservative voices at home are trying to rein in these women’s unconventional desires and encourage a return to neo-traditional gender roles, it may prove difficult to persuade this particular genie to return to her bottle.

Fran Martin is Associate Professor and Reader in Cultural Studies at The University of Melbourne.

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