Monday, April 25, 2005

Confucian Inspired Sayings

"A woman's duty is not to control or take charge."

"Woman's greatest duty is to produce a son."

"We should not be too familiar with the lower orders or with women."

"Disorder is not sent down by Heaven, it is produced by women."

"Those who cannot be taught, cannot be instructed. These are women and eunuchs."

"Man is honored for strength; a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness."


I have been to China many times and have had the pleasure of meeting, working with, becoming close to and most surprisingly of all, having many Chinese women open up to me in ways I never would have imagined.

This openness has been the biggest surprise of all. The access they have given me to their lives, hearts and inner thoughts has enriched me in many ways.

Before I leave for the Yangtze River tomorrow I am recording the first two tales of five Chinese women who have been a part of my life here.

I have changed all of their names but all of these stories are true.


Wu Cui

Her eyes are the first thing that weakened my knees and captured my heart. They sparkle and shine and in their brownness you see many colors.

Then she spoke and my heart started to swell.

In a rapid fire, confident and clever way she rattles off so many thoughts per minute it’s hard to keep up with her. Believing that she is eight years old takes a leap of faith.

She is an only child. A “little empress,” one of the generation of children born under China’s one-child policy. To curb the ballooning population China allows only one child per family with rare exceptions.

This has created an entire generation of what are called “little emperors and empresses” in urban China.

She is doted upon by the entire extended family, she has their undivided attention and receives the best of everything the family can offer as she is their future.

With that being said, she is well-mannered, smart, sweet and precocious. She doesn’t act spoiled or entitled and loves to engage others in games and dialogue.

She wants to study astronomy so that she can be an astronaut one day. She was inspired by China’s first manned space flight last year. When I told her that China just took applications from 30,000 women from whom the first female astronauts will be picked she lit up in excitement.

As I looked at her and talked with her I kept wondering what kind of China she would grow up in and live in as an adult. The rapid rise of the economy, the rising middle class, political reform, capitalism, and hyper-urbanization are all changing the country so quickly.

I also thought about how different her life is from the 700 million Chinese who live in the interior of the country who still farm and are quite poor. How will she live alongside them in the future? In her I saw the face of a new China. I saw a girl who at eight can speak some English, who will likely get a great education and who will be more of a citizen of the world than any generation before her.

She told me endless stories about school and home and her friends. I did some magic tricks for here and she was bouncing in her seat like a rubber ball.

She won my heart and I think someday millions like here will win the hearts of the world.

Tian Tian

She's an entrepreneur. Three years ago she started her own house and office cleaning company. The business is doing so well she has to turn away customers while she is hiring new people and buying new equipment.

Her husband of ten years is a manager at a mid sized factory. They both have college degrees and are typical of the new middle class. They are the type of people who would have been “sent down” (to work on a farm or in a labor camp with the poor) during the Cultural Revolution.

Over the course of a weekend Tian Tian opened up to me in a way that I found shocking . The frankness she displayed in telling me about her life, her marriage and her desires left me speechless at first.

I found myself reacting as a Chinese person would. Clamming up, looking away, changing the subject and not wanting to talk about it. I felt uncomfortable, but she pressed me to talk with her about what was on her mind. She wanted my opinion.

I agreed to talk with her, but I planned on keeping my opinions to myself and to act as a good listener and friend.

Tian Tian is 37 and slightly taller than the average Chinese woman, about 5 foot 7. She has an easy smile and the kind of personality that makes it impossible not to like her.

She laughs constantly and as I listened to her take a constant stream of calls from customers I could see she had a manner that put people at ease and gave them confidence in her.

It was a phone call that got our conversation started. She spoke hurriedly and said she had to call back later.

She told me it was a man from her office who had been “chasing” her. As she talked further she told me that she really liked him too and had thoughts of having some kind of relationship with him.

She met her husband when they were fifteen. They married ten years ago and had a child soon thereafter.

I asked her if she was happy. She said she wasn't very sure anymore. She told me her husband worked long hours and when he got home at night he would eat quickly, not say much and then eat chips on the sofa while watching TV. She even thought he was getting a little fat. Their sex life was suffering as well.

The man at the office is only 22. They had fooled around but not slept together.

Suddenly she looked off into the distance and there was a long pause. She looked back at me and said, “I think I want to make enough money from my business so that I can leave my husband and raise my daughter alone.”

My jaw dropped hard. Every piece of conventional wisdom about Chinese women and family life popped like a firecracker in the space between our faces.

Here was a smart, attractive woman with her own business facing the realities of a possible affair, a possible divorce with all the family members losing face, a scandal, single motherhood, all so she could live her life on her terms.

This is no shrinking violet.

I can t dissect to deeply the cultural, psychological and human story behind her thoughts. I can only sit back and reflect on it with a feeling of wonder and curiosity and how very familiar her story sounds. I thought about how her story is told every day in towns and cities across America, Europe and South America.

Although I felt sympathy with her struggle it also made me feel good to hear her story because it really brought home that no matter which of the world’s 50,000 languages we speak our laughter and our crying sound exactly the same everywhere.