There’s a culture clash occurring across urban China and it’s benefiting women

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The Chinese film “Tiny Times,” based on a young adult book targeting middle school and high school-aged girls, presents a quartet of young women in Shanghai who let career aspirations fall by the wayside in pursuit of material wealth and beautiful young men. It was one of many Chinese blockbusters aimed at the burgeoning youth audience this year and, earning close to a half billion renminbi ($82 million), it easily beat out many Western blockbusters competing for youth dollars. Although the film is clearly derivative of two iconic American hits, Sex and the City, and “The Devil Wears Prada,” and it trades in the same kind of aspirational consumerism that was so prevalent in the West in the late nineties, “Tiny Times,” and the heated dialogue it is generating, is distinctly Chinese. Pitting the Communist and post-Communist intellectual class, who argue that the film exemplifies a cultural wasteland, against a fiercely independent consumer class of post-90s and ’00s youth, the film has become emblematic of the culture clash of values occurring across urban China.

In the Atlantic’s recent review of the film, Dr. Ying Zhu and Frances Hisgen argue that the movie’s presentation of feminism indicates a step backward for this latest generation of women. The authors use the review to make a more general claim about modern Chinese society: That China’s recent economic boom has widened the gender gap and revived oppressive views on women. They write:

Years of accelerating economic growth have brought unprecedented social and geographic mobility, and increased pressure on Chinese men to succeed, to follow the trail of power and money, leaving their women behind. Economic growth has exacerbated the gender gap, often reviving cultural traditions that reduce women to a sub-human status.

This portrayal of the women as losing ground in economic participation does not reflect the widespread reality. According to Shaun Rein, director of China Market Research Group, Chinese women comprise 50% of total household income. The Economist reported in 2011 that the labor force participation rate is higher for women in China than in any other country in the world. Moreover, 25% of senior management positions in China are held by women, in contrast to 18% in the US, 24% in Europe and a mere 5% in neighboring Japan. Of course, 25% is a far cry from 50%, and much remains to be done in the achievement of gender parity. But these and other statistics indicate that the gender gap in China isn’t as wide as the movie, and the article, might lead us to believe.

Moreover, “Tiny Times” is just one of the many representations of modern femininity in the current culture. The movie “The Story of Du Lala’s Promotions” made a big splash in 2010. It tells the story of a young, ambitious woman who makes it in the corporate world, rising up successfully using her own skills and talents rather than relying on her connections or relationships with men. Young, urban Chinese women lauded the movie’s theme of self-reliance for weeks on social networking sites. AA Marriage is another popular example: a reality TV show based on a blog about “AA life,” a phrase that refers to the practice of a couple splitting costs equally. Couples on the show demonstrate the satisfactions and challenges of a lifestyle based on equal economic footing. Do Not Marry Before Age 30, a recent bestselling book, debunked the conventional wisdom in China that single women are “leftovers” by their late twenties, instead encouraging young women to eschew compromise: “For our mothers and grandmothers, a man was husband material if he had a job, didn’t drink too much, and didn’t beat you…We don’t want just any man; we want a good man,” reads one of the many encouraging passages.

Our own research in China, including ethnographic interviews and observations of women in Shanghai and Beijing, also revealed far more empowered mindsets and practices than those portrayed by the female characters in “Tiny Times.” During our fieldwork, we spent time with a young woman named Li, who works as the general manager of a lighting company in Shanghai. Her biggest aspiration is for her daughter to be financially independent of men, as she herself has become. She told us, “When I was a young girl, my only dream was to find a good husband. Things have changed a lot since then. My 6-year-old daughter is dreaming about becoming a lawyer.” That this is her daughter’s dream, and that she is responsible for cultivating it, was an obvious point of pride for Li. When Li spoke to us about her husband, whom she met online (like a large and growing portion of Chinese women), she was eager to emphasize to us that she didn’t marry him for money: “I don’t care how much my husband earns, I have my own money. In fact, I don’t even know exactly how much he earns,” she explained. We observed a similar mentality in many of the other young Chinese women we met. Take Xin, 21, a university student in Shanghai. During our time together, she told us that getting a good job once she graduates is critical for her independence: “It is necessary to have my own income. Then I can do whatever I want and don’t need to consult my father or future husband about money.”

If “Tiny Times” does not reflect the cultural or economic reality of most Chinese women, why has it caused such a stir? What does it tell us about the aspirations and pitfalls of the current youth culture?

According to douban (link in Chinese), a social network site for young people, “Tiny Times” is ranked only one star out of five. The loyal fans of the book and the film say they simply enjoy the pretty faces and clothing. But many more on the site describe the film as “fake” and out of touch with modern life for women in China. One nineteen-year-old college junior wrote, “In the bookstore, one section is full of Guo’s publications. I have moved on, but Guo’s books are still there targeting the same audience. For me, it’s just daydreams I had when I was young.”

Certainly the film serves as an example of the material obsessions and subservient mind-sets—including public deference to men, or “face saving”—that continue to challenge women seeking empowerment in China. But the emerging portrait of urban women in China reveals something far more nuanced and complex than a quest for the latest arm candy. What do women want? Modern Chinese women seem eager to answer that question for themselves. The fact that a film like “Tiny Times” can succeed alongside all of these other contradictory points of view is the surest sign of progress yet.