East Meets West | Fran Martin: What kind of international image do modern Chinese women have?
On June 5, China's first female astronaut, Yang Liu, set off again and took the Shenzhou 14 manned spacecraft to the Tianhe core module of the Chinese space station, starting a 6-month space mission; Female astronaut Yaping Wang on Shenzhou 13 also left a powerful Chinese woman figure in the vast universe. They all manage to show the world the power of modern Chinese women.
What is the international image of modern Chinese women? Fran Martin, associate professor of the Department of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia, said in an exclusive interview with East Meets West that the confidence, talent, ability to express themselves and the profound thought that Chinese women show to the world is breaking the Western perception of Chinese women. They are now being seen by the world, shining on the international stage.
Fran Martin is an associate professor, Ph.D., and writer at the Department of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. Her research focuses on contemporary Chinese cultural production in television, film, literature, and other forms, specializing in transnational mobility and representation, and gender and sexuality culture. She is currently presiding over a 5-year "ARC Future Fellowship" research project, which aims to study the changes in the image and social status of Chinese young women in the international community.
What do you think are the characteristics of modern Chinese women? What impressions did they make on you?
A new type of image of Chinese women is characterized by aspirational, highly educated, and international mobility. They abandoned the traditional idea of "should marry and have children on time" and focus more on personal self-development. Because of the fast growing status among China’s middle class, this prosperity has brought huge benefits to Chinese women.
On June 5, 2022, the expedition ceremony of the astronaut crew of the Shenzhou 14 manned mission was held at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The picture shows Yang Liu. Credit: China News Agency, Jiangbo Wang.
According to statistics from China's Ministry of Education, about 60% of overseas returnees are women, which is the first proof of the tremendous progress China has made in women's education in recent decades. In the past few years, I have followed and studied 56 Chinese female students studying in Australia and their family members.
According to the research, I have a comprehensive understanding of China's great social and economic achievements after the Reform and Opening-up. Since 1979, China's middle-class group has grown substantially, especially Chinese women. Thanks to the prosperity of China's economy and society, Chinese women’s living standards and education levels have been continuously improved.
In my research, some of the parents of 56 Chinese female students were born during the difficult period of China's economic development. For example, one study subject whose father was born in rural China made his first fortune selling vegetables by the roadside in the 1980s. Thirty years later, this father has made his life affluent, and become a new batch of middle-class groups in China, so that he has the ability to let his daughter go to overseas to receive an international and diverse education. Inspirational stories like this are very remarkable.
Some Western media presented certain images of Chinese women, which affects the international community's perception and judgment of them. Now with more Chinese women studying abroad, how do they influence the traditional perception of Chinese women in the Western world? How has the image of Chinese women in the Western world changed?
From a historical point of view, the image of Chinese women in Western media coverage is problematic, to say the least. They often portray Chinese women in the Orientalist way as "submissive, humble, beauties who conform to traditional gender roles", or fierce, domineering, and dominant "dragon ladies" (prejudice, stereotypes against East Asian women, from the 1930s American comic Terry and the Pirates). These stereotypes and highly disrespectful views can cause some trouble for Chinese women living in the Western world. Unfortunately, they (Some Western media) still shape the way and assumptions about Chinese women in the Western world.
However, as more Chinese women study abroad, and we now see so many young Chinese women in college classrooms who are so talented, confident, articulate, and have profound thoughts. I think those stereotypes are undermining. I also hope that college staff and students around the world will be grateful for the opportunities of being in contact with these outstanding Chinese women.
In May 2021, Chinese students at New York University celebrated their graduation in Washington Square, Manhattan. Credit: China News Agency, Pan Liao.
The female image is one aspect of a nation’s image. What are the similarities and differences in the development and changes of female images between the East and the West?
I have always admired China's efforts to improve the social status of women, which is a remarkable achievement. But we have to admit that machismo and patriarchy still exist. In Western history, there have been several feminist struggles in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that continue to this day. Every country is different, and Scandinavian countries (Finland, Norway, Sweden, etc.) are far ahead of the US, UK and Australia in achieving gender equality. Of course, women in Asian countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, and India are also striving for women's equality along their own path.
On February 14, 2022, the Beijing Winter Olympics figure skating free dance competition was held at the Capital Gymnasium. The picture shows Finnish players Juulia Turkkila and Matthias Versluis in the game. Credit: China News Agency, Nan Cui.
In any case, government-led reforms are crucial to the advancement of women’s status in society. We need strong, enforceable legislation and national support to fight sexism and male privilege in the job market. On the family side, through government support for parental leave for fathers and mothers, and government subsidized parenting to allow women to return to work after giving births. In education, it needed to provide for the teaching of gender equality in schools. What’s more, in society, impose legal sanctions on gender discrimination in any area. For years, feminists have worked to change relevant legislation and government structures, as well as broader social attitudes, to support women's equality. Every country needs to continue to work on this matter, and we still have a long way to go.
In recent years, there has been an increase in literature, film and television works, and social topics about "women" in China, and the description of women in modern Western art works has also become more diverse. What are your views on this phenomenon?
I think as far as China is concerned, the rise of female-centric entertainment media may be a response to the new Chinese female image I discussed earlier.
For example, more and more TV series, novels and movies now focus on successful professional women. Many young women see their own experiences reflected in these artistic roles, and media producers have made a conscious effort to target these women for these kinds of narratives.
On the evening of December 30, 2021, the red carpet ceremony of the 34th China Film Golden Rooster Awards was held in Xiamen, Fujian Province. The picture shows Chinese actresses, Xiaofei Zhang (right), Ling Jia (middle). Credit: China News Agency, Ming Lv.
Currently in Chinese society, women face many contradictions in their gender identity, and certain influential voices are trying to convince them that "traditional" values are the best, and that the identity of an adult woman should be defined by dedication to caring for family. On the one hand, others believe that women are capable and should define themselves by independently pursuing their careers, life goals and aspirations, and dreams. Some popular media, such as women-focused TV and radio, try to help women navigate complex and tense gender relationships in their own lives.
With the rise of global female consciousness today, prejudice against "gender stereotypes" is being resisted by more and more people. Is it possible to truly achieve gender equality and how?
No country in the world has achieved 100% gender equality, and there is still much work to be done to achieve true gender equality. The long-term experience of capitalist countries tells us that market economies naturally do not encourage gender equality. Therefore, governments must intervene to promote gender justice.
Gender-related issues exist in many countries around the world, including "sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and double standards in the job market." The influence of gender bias still exists in the current period of economic and social development, and it undoubtedly undermines the positive role of women in challenging traditional patriarchy and improving their own voice. For example, in the job market, especially in the private sector, there is still some gender bias against women. Employers will think that these single women will soon get married and have children, and employers will have to pay for their maternity leave costs. This has led many employers to openly express that they prefer men rather than women, and many talented female graduates do not get a job they are perfectly qualified for. I think this situation is important and the road to breaking stereotypes is long, but I also believe that things will change in the future.
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