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Thoroughly Modern Women Disconcert Many in China

By Philip P. Pan, The Washington Post, Tuesday 26 December 2000; Page A20

CHENGDU, China—She is smart. She is well educated. She is successful and not unattractive. And certainly she is self-confident. But after six boyfriends left her, including one to whom she was engaged, Coco Ye concluded those were not the qualities Chinese men look for in a wife. Heartbroken, she decided she did not need a husband anyway.

But then the 28-year-old Internet executive realized she wanted to have a child. She came across an article about one of China's first sperm banks, which had a reputation for treating married couples' infertility problems. And suddenly, it hit her: Artificial insemination could solve her problems—and those of other Chinese women, too.

Her colleagues were stunned. Her friends were worried. Her parents were distraught. But that was nothing compared with what happened after a reporter in this Sichuan provincial capital 1,000 miles west of Shanghai persuaded her to go public. Newspapers across the country published her story, setting off a national discussion about what it means to be a modern woman in China.

Newsrooms were flooded with phone calls and mail from women who saw her as a pioneer, men who considered her a threat to Chinese society and mothers who wanted to set her up with their sons. Internet sites buzzed with chatter about whether Ye was a victim of male bias against women or just too arrogant and selfish for her own good. Lonely bachelors sent in their photos, offering to marry her sight unseen or otherwise help her get pregnant.

And that was all before the government stepped in, short-circuiting Ye's plan by pointing out that in China, not only is it taboo for a single woman to bear a child, it is also illegal.

The law is clear. If a man and a woman do not marry, they can't have a child. You have to be a family, a couple, to have a child, said Cheng Shengli, spokesman for the State Family Planning Commission. In our traditional culture, we have strict rules on sexual relations. The majority makes the law, and we must consider the majority's moral view: You get married, you form a family, then you have children.

Surprised by the public uproar, Ye has been in hiding since the initial article was published. But in a telephone interview granted on condition she be referred to only by the Westernized name she uses with foreigners, she argued that China is changing faster than the law is.

Many people think this is a bad idea, that it will be bad for the baby, but I have the skills to give my child a good future, she said. In China, people's thinking is changing. It's not as traditional anymore. And it's not just me. I think many normal Chinese women have had this idea.

Indeed, newspapers reported that legal hot line services and hospitals in at least one city, the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, have received numerous calls from single women requesting paperwork to apply for artificial insemination.

In many ways, the commotion that has erupted over Ye's proposal reflects unease about the rapid progress women have made in a society that once practiced foot binding. The 1949 Communist revolution sought to wipe out such customs and grant women the same rights as men. More recently, reforms have exposed China to Western ideas and presented women with unprecedented choices and the possibility of financial independence.

But prosperity has also reduced the need for families to maintain two incomes and led many men to argue that their wives should spend less time at the office and more time at home, if not return to the kitchen altogether.

In addition, the freewheeling nature of China's new economy has made discrimination against women easier. Now that employment is no longer guaranteed, women complain it is more difficult for them to get jobs than it is for men, and easier for them to lose them. Some companies fire women if they become pregnant.

The institution of marriage, a pillar of traditional Chinese society, is also under pressure. China's legislature is debating legislation that would try to stop men from taking mistresses, an increasingly common phenomenon. And the divorce rate is up—from 3 percent to more than 13 percent over the past two decades—with the vast majority of cases initiated by women.

We all know that many marriages are far from perfect. We have seen many tragedies. Why should we object to Ye's becoming a single mother if that's what she wants? asked one reader on the Internet. It may be against Chinese tradition, but I don't think it's wrong as long as she takes responsibility for the child.

Another shot back: A kid should never be born this way! Miss Ye should remember that God created women for men. I am not kidding. . . . If every woman had the same idea as her, men would all be bachelors for life!

Chen Xingxing, a journalist who writes about women's issues and helps run a women's hot line in Beijing, said the varying reactions to Ye's case highlight a gap in attitudes between many women and the rest of Chinese society. In particular, she said, young, educated women like Ye are coming of age with higher expectations than ever before, expectations that often place them in conflict with the more traditional overall society.

Ren Ting, director of one of Beijing's largest matchmaking services, said he sees this every day.

Men who are successful in their professions—it only takes us a few days to find them a match. The success rate is 100 percent, he said. But women who are successful in their professions? It may take us a few years, if we ever find a match. The success rate is the lowest of anyone.

The problem, Ren said, is that successful Chinese women want to marry men who are at least as successful as they are. But successful Chinese men want women who are young and pretty and gentle. They want wives who will look after the family and not emphasize their careers so much.

There is a phrase in Chinese to describe women like Ye: nuqiangren , which means a strong or capable woman. In the 1980s, it was mainly considered a compliment. But today, many use it as an insult to describe women who have placed their careers before their families.

Everyone knows that, generally speaking, nuqiangren have unhappy family lives, Ren said.

Many Chinese men are unapologetic in stating their belief that wives should be subservient to their husbands, a concept enshrined in Confucian philosophy. To many, that means women also should be less educated and less successful than their husbands. University professors often advise their female students to get married before they pursue graduate studies, lest they end up overqualified for marriage.

The conflict is, perhaps, sharper among the younger generation, because young women have been abandoning the traditional view of male-female relationships faster than young men have. For example, Li Gang, 21, a student at Beijing University, said he hopes to find a wife a little less capable than me. The same as me is okay, but she definitely shouldn't be more capable than me. It would affect my self-confidence and self-esteem.

But his girlfriend, Rao Zhen, 20, had an immediate retort. He's a relic of Chinese feudalism, she said. I can understand what he's saying, but I don't accept it at all.

Ye, who has a master's degree from one of China's best universities and makes a substantial salary at an Internet start-up company, said each of her six previous boyfriends told her that he would lose face if he married her, because she was much more successful than he.

A majority of guys are like this, she said, adding that she still wants to become a single mother through artificial insemination—even if it means that she has to travel overseas. I think it's going to change, but it's going to be very slow.