18 Mar 2013

Future beckons for young Chinese women

Wandering down Nan Luo Gu Xiang, a funky street of little shops selling expensive silk scarves and fancy pottery,  I could scarcely move for crowds of young Chinese women. Three were giggling as they strutted along in multi-coloured wigs: pink, blue and white. Some were eating ice-cream or chuanr, a kind of kebab; others were trying on clothes. All were chatting and laughing – in short, having the time of their lives.

Four years ago, when I lived here in Beijing, the clientele would have been primarily foreign tourists. No longer. As China has grown richer, Chinese have more disposable income, and single women working in the city are the fastest growing consumer group.

The “one child policy”, introduced in 1978, prompted Chinese families to lavish attention on a daughter that would previously have been reserved for sons. Today as many Chinese women as men have a university degree, and – for the first time – young women are earning enough money to be independent. It has given them the freedom and self-confidence to go out and have fun with friends, unconfined by poverty, family or convention.

Multi-national companies often prefer to hire young Chinese women than men because they are frequently better at languages and more flexible – having benefited from the rigid hierarchy of both Confucianism and communism, Chinese men may be understandably less eager to cast it aside. Other women are starting their own businesses.

Traditionally, a Chinese man would expect to marry a less educated woman than himself; as a result, female graduates in their late 20s and early 30s may struggle to find a husband – they are sometimes called “sheng nu”, meaning “left-over women.” Young women I know talk of pressure from parents who want a grandchild, and the difficulty of finding a man who would be comfortable with such an independent wife. Yet they’re certainly not going to give up their new lifestyle.

On the way back to my hotel, I shared a taxi with 16 year-old Max, a high school student with heavily mascara-ed eyelashes and a fashionable straight-cut fringe. She said she was hoping to go to university in America, like her older sister who had just returned from Miami and got a job with a Chinese company investing overseas. Her mother thought she too should go into business, but she wanted to be a writer. She was keen to travel but aware that her sister had been lonely in the USA.

Looking into the future, Max was hoping to have it all, to enjoy life in a way her mother and grandmother could scarcely have imagined.

“I will take my husband and child and travel with them,” she said. “Hope to see you again!” With that, she hopped out of the car near a new shopping mall and went to join her friends for coffee.

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