Daughters of Mulan
How women are changing China
Fascinating conversations with Chinese women of diverse background and outlook
Since the death of Mao, life in China has moved ten times faster than in the West. Ramshackle towns have become glittering metropolises, half a billion people have been lifted out of grinding poverty and brand-new millionaires strut their stuff. Beliefs about female sexuality are changing rather more slowly, however, and this is where Bettine Vriesekoop’s Daughters of Mulan come in.
In Confucius’ hierarchical social order, a woman had to obey her father, her husband and, if widowed, her sons. She practised the ‘four virtues’: morality, correct use of language, modesty and diligence. Romantic love was confined to poetry. Only women of the elite and brave ‘sword women’ dared to stand out. One famous sword woman was the legendary Hua Mulan of the book’s title, who fought as a warrior for twelve years disguised as a man.
China’s first feminist, Qiu Jin, also liked to dress as a man. She was beheaded in 1907. Vriesekoop describes how, under Mao, Qiu’s ideals were incorporated into state feminism: equality between men and women, education for girls, and a ban on foot-binding, arranged marriage and polygamy. This meant women could go out and get jobs – but they still also had to do the housework. The Cultural Revolution turned them into sexless creatures.
In forthright reportage, Vriesekoop describes how the economic revolution and the one-child policy have improved the position of Chinese women. But the sexual revolution is only just beginning.
There is little sex education. The pressure to marry is so great that most homosexuals remain in the closet. Even today, parents often decide whom their daughter will marry. A man will not want to marry a woman who is cleverer or richer than he. Women unmarried at twenty-five are still regarded as pitiful ‘leftovers’. A conversation with one of these, a cultivated, affluent woman, is one of the highlights of the book.
The old practice of killing girl babies at birth has been replaced by abortion. Prostitution was virtually eliminated under Mao and is still illegal, yet today it’s a thriving business. Ex-prostitute Lanlan, who defends the interests of sex workers, says: ‘A woman in China gets three crucial chances in life: education, marriage and a job.’ Prostitutes generally miss out on all three.
Vriesekoop describes her memorable meetings with colourful modern women, including two lesbians who work at the Durex condom factory, a female plastic surgeon – who offers to work on Bettine’s face – and the emancipated tai chi virtuoso Gau Yu, a modern-day sword woman.