China, Women’s Rights and the Round Table

In China it is well known that “Women Hold up Half the Sky”. At least that is what I was told several times when I was there during three weeks in September 2014. “Women Hold up Half the Sky”.

My husband, Mark, and I were invited to China by Beijing Normal University. Mark was invited as a research scientist and I was invited to assist graduate students to practice English. My job was to hang out with graduate students each day and hold a conversation in English. I got to choose what we would talk about and the issue of Women’s rights in China soon grabbed my attention.

The reason Women’s rights in China caught my attention was because of the round table dinners my husband and I were invited to nearly every day that we were in China. Over the span of three weeks, that is a lot of round table dinners! There were many things that seemed odd about these meetings at the round table and I want to go over a couple of things that intrigued me in reference to women in Chinese culture.

Every dinner or lunch, we were invited to, had the same format. There is always a separate room in a restaurant or meeting hall with a large round table. When we enter the room everyone mingles around until it is determined where everyone will sit. A discussion ensues about who gets to sit at the head of the table. Even though the table is round, the spot against the back wall is always the head of the table. The person seated at the head of the table had to be the most important person in the room. Each person defers politely to the other until the most important person is agreed upon. There is usually a good bit of friendly banter until the issue is resolved. The next two important people sit next to the most important person at the head of the table and so on until the table is fully seated.

Eating at the Round Table in China

Eating at the Round Table in China

I noticed early on that there were never any women at the head of the table unless it was to sit next to her husband. Only one of the many dinners I attended had an important female professor near the head of the table. Mainly, the women were collected at the least important side of the table.

The second thing that I noticed was that no one ever drank anything unless a toast was made. There were times when I became quite thirty, waiting for a toast to be made. A toast can be made between two people or the whole table. Men are expected to drink alcohol and often strong clear liquor is served. As the dinner progresses and more and more toasts are made, the men are strongly encouraged to drink ever larger quantities of liquor. My husband had to swear he was allergic to alcohol at times to avoid consuming large quantities of liquor. Women on the other hand are never pushed to drink liquor and often drink something non-alcoholic like tea or juice. I was very relieved about that. By the end of the dinner many of the men, particularly the men at the head of the table, were sloshing drunk.

It became clear to me that much business, including making contacts and resolving plans is done around these round tables. Many deals are struck over a toast of liquor. This led me down the road to asking many questions concerning equality for women in China. I asked several graduate students as well as some of the professors that I sat next to at these round table dinners.

I started with the most basic question: Are women equal to men in China?

The answer that I received was a resounding “Yes!” The Chinese I talked to went on to clarify things like: Chairman Mao made men and women equal soon after he came into power in 1949. It was Mao who said that “Woman hold up half of the sky”. I was also told unequivocally, that China is more equal than anywhere else, even the United States! I was told that at Beijing Normal University, woman entering college have a separate entrance exam from the men that is much more rigorous, because women score so much higher than men on these exams. This is one of the results of equal education for women. I was also told that as a result of equal rights for women, many women are excelling in sports and outperformed their male counterparts at the Olympics. It was clear that women had made many strides since the days of foot binding and from when Mao declared men and women equal. All the Chinese I talked to presumed that equal rights for women were a good thing and they were clearly proud of the strides that had been made for woman in China.

I felt uneasy with these answers though, since my experience at the round table dinners did not suggest that women were equal to men. I never saw a woman sitting at the head of the table. So I was prompted to ask: “What about women in positions of power? Are there as many women in positions of power as there are men?

Everyone I asked said; “No, there were not many women in power”. Of course I had to know why not and it surprised me how many people answered the same way: I was told by both men and women that “Women do not like that kind of work”. Men also sometimes added that “Women do not want to give up their power in the home and that there is so much to do in the home.” I found it interesting that only the men said this. One woman told me that she believed that these round table business meetings with all that drinking were an impediment to women getting in. It was hard to get invited to the head of the table and women do not drink like men. You are expected to drink if you are at the head of the table.

I then asked the young women graduate students if they will be contented to work in the home and let their husbands have the better paying jobs. None of them seemed satisfied to do that. I asked the young men graduate students if they think they will be contented to have their wives do all the work at home. They thought they would like that, mainly because none of them knew how to cook, but they didn’t think their wives would agree to do that. The young men were more concerned that it might be difficult to find a wife because there are more men than women in China as a result of the one child policy.

My experience in China with the round table dinners and the questions that it evoked about women’s rights in China gave me just a small glimpse into Chinese Culture. There were many more questions that I wanted to ask but I only had three weeks. I am grateful to all the Chinese who answered my many questions thoughtfully and sincerely. I am very curious to see what happens next with all these educated and talented women in China.