China New Era Women’s School: Teaches female students to be ‘perfect’.
At a university in southern China, Duan Fengyan is studying to be an accountant. She is also getting lessons in how to be a woman in the time of President Xi Jinping.
In a course launched in March, not long after China abolished presidential term limits, Zhenjiang College and the All-China Women’s Federation have been teaching female students how to dress, pour tea and sit just so – all in the name of Xi’s “new era.”
“You must sit on the front two-thirds of the chair – you cannot occupy the whole chair,” said Duan, 21, demonstrating. “Now, hold in your belly, relax your shoulders, legs together, shoulders up.”
The class, offered only to female students, aims to develop “wise,” “sunny” and “perfect” women, where wisdom comes from studying Chinese history and culture, sunniness from oil painting and etiquette classes, and perfection from the application of (never too much) makeup.
The Communist Party wants women educated, yes, but with economic growth slowing and the population shrinking, it is bringing back the idea that men are breadwinners and women are, first and foremost, wives and mothers. It is teaching young women that this is the norm.
The college launched the New Era Women’s School to heed Xi’s call for education in traditional Chinese culture, to help women compete in the job market, said Sheng Jie, who runs the program – but also to prepare them for domestic roles. “Women’s family role is more important now,” she said.
Forty years into China’s great economic transformation, Chinese women are, on average, healthier, wealthier and better educated than ever before, but they are losing ground relative to men.
Since the start of Xi’s tenure, China’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index has dropped significantly – from 69 out of 144 countries in 2013 to a 100th-place finish in 2017.
The country’s top cadres do not seem concerned. The party wants women educated, but it is worried that educated women will decide not to marry men and have kids, compounding the surplus of males caused by the one-child policy and potentially destabilising the country.
“The direction of the future is that women are supposed to play the role of wife and mother in the home,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.