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Understanding Chinese Women E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by Gregory Mavrides, PhD
Most foreign men, prior to visiting China—particularly ones who have never dated an Asian girl before—hold a stereotype of Chinese women that portrays them as these soft, demure, reserved, shy, alluring, and near ethereal-like "creatures." What Western men encounter instead is often something much closer to the polar opposite.

Although it is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to generalize about women from any specific country or culture, there is a great deal of strong anecdotal evidence, as well as data from a few empirical research studies, to suggest that many Chinese women do share certain culturally-influenced and induced characteristics. This unit will attempt to describe and explain the various factors at play that influence the psychosocial development of women in China today and how these express themselves in relationships with men.

Psychology of Chinese Women

When a son is born,
Let him sleep on the bed,
Clothe him with fine clothes,
And give him jade to play...
When a daughter is born,
Let her sleep on the ground,
Wrap her in common wrappings,
And give broken tiles to play...
From the Book of Songs (1000 – 700 B.C.)

Confucian Tradition

Confucian philosophy and doctrine still very much influence values and beliefs in current day China. According to Confucius, relationships among family members must follow a hierarchy of status according to generation, age, and gender. The elder family members hold a higher position than do younger members and men are absolutely superior to women (Baker, 1979). The enormous social importance of the relative status of each family member by age, gender, and generation is reflected in the Chinese language itself: There are no less than 52 different words in Mandarin used to describe family kinship as opposed to just 17 in English (Huang and Jia, 2008).

Historically in China, only the number of a man's sons would be used to refer to the size of his family. When a woman married, she was expected to leave her family to live with her husband in his hometown, where the wife was subordinate to the whims of her mother-in-law. In many non-urban regions of China, not much has changed.

It wasn't until the year 1912, after the revolution of Sun Yat-Sen, that the binding of women’s feet was banned but that practice continued unofficially throughout the countryside well into the 50s, until Chairman Mao eradicated it for good. One scholar estimates that 40 to 50% of Chinese women during the 19th century had their feet bound and, for the upper classes, that figure was as high as 100% (Lim, 2007). Certainly, one can still find women alive in China today whose feet were bound some 60 to 90 years ago.

It is undoubtedly true that many Chinese women today enjoy new personal freedoms that were previously, up until very recently, denied to them. But in mainland China, what is a matter of law does not necessarily equate to what is experienced as a matter of practice in day-to-day life. A country's four-thousand-year-old culturally-ingrained regard for its women cannot be eradicated overnight no matter how many changes and improvements in law are promulgated by its government.

One of the many latent effects of China's 1979 single child policy has been the ongoing selective abortion of female fetuses and, at best, the withholding of medical treatment from sick female infants in the countryside. It has been estimated that there are 120 men for every 100 women in China (Fragoso, 2007) and that ratio is even steeper in the more rural regions of China. In the absence of a significant social welfare infrastructure, a son is a parents' best—if not only—assurance for security in their old age.

One woman kills herself every four minutes in China and, according to the World Health Organization, it is the only country in the world where more women commit suicide than men (Allen, 2006). Two of the main reasons cited for this finding are the profound discrepancy in social status as well as the relatively high rate of domestic violence that women in China endure. Surveys conducted by the United Nations Development Fund for Women found that 35% of all women in China had been the victims of domestic violence and that China ranks 81 out of 177 listed countries in the Gender Development Index (2007). As a matter of social policy, domestic violence is primarily regarded in China as a private family affair and the authorities are reluctant, at best, to intervene. Particularly for poor and uneducated women in China, suicide is perceived as the only way to extricate themselves from a miserable existence.

Do You Think I'm Pretty?

To further complicate and aggravate matters, women in China are evaluated on physical appearance and overall attractiveness against standards of beauty that are based primarily on Western (European) facial features.

According to numerous news media reports as well as an online survey conducted by involving more than 5,000 respondents, Chinese standards of female attractiveness emphasize height (165 to 170cm), an oval face, long straight hair, wafer-like thinness, a pale complexion, a complete absence of moles and freckles, large eyes with a double-fold or crease in the eyelids, and a pronounced bridge of the nose (China Daily, 2005; Chen, 2008). Unfortunately, most of these features are not characteristically Chinese at all. The average height of Chinese women is 160cm (about 5' 3") as compared to 170cm (about 5' 7") for Chinese men.

In their quest to attain these features, more than 20,000 Chinese women flocked to just one public hospital in Shanghai alone over the course of a single year for cosmetic surgical procedures that mostly included blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery), rhinoplasty (nose job), malar augmentation (cheek implants), and augmentation mammoplasty (ABC News, 2008). In the latest statistics released by the Chinese government in 2005, it was estimated that US$2.4 billion dollars is spent annually on cosmetic surgery in China and that number has risen each year subsequent to China's removal of the ban on plastic surgery in 2001 (Chen, 2008).

In what is an annual multi-billion dollar industry, more than half of all Asians (mostly women), aged 25 to 34 years, use skin whiteners on a regular basis (, 2002). The Chinese preference for clear, white or pale skin is pervasive and ubiquitous and, as such, Chinese women avoid exposure to the sun whenever possible and most carry parasols with them during the summer months (you will even see women riding bicycles with a parasol in one hand). For this reason primarily, you will rarely observe Chinese arriving at pools or the seaside before 5:00 p.m., i.e., when the sun begins to set. In addition, eating disorders, particularly bulimia nervosa (binge eating followed by purging), are increasing in prevalence in China at an alarming rate, especially among girls from higher income families aged 12 to 22 (Chen and Jackson, 2007).

A revealing human interest story featured on the All-China Women's Federation website about two American-born Chinese (ABC) girls studying in Beijing, highlights their difficulties adjusting to cultural differences in regard to both weight and skin tone. The article notes that whereas both girls wore small sizes in the United States, in China they are considered "fat" (and are readily told so by both friends and casual acquaintances) and can only fit into large sizes (Martin, 2007). Whereas their skin tone would be considered healthy-looking by American standards, here they are both regarded as being way too "dark."

What all of this amounts to is that the vast majority of Chinese women are extremely insecure about their physical appearance, far more so than their Western counterparts.

There is incredible social pressure on Chinese women to be extremely thin and those who don't meet their culture's nearly unattainable standards of beauty are reminded of it constantly—by parents, friends, teachers, and commercial advertisements that conspicuously feature either Western models or those of Eurasian ancestry.

Young women who are considered too dark will spend what little money they earn to purchase whitening creams and those who can afford to do so will seek "corrective" plastic surgery (which, by the way, includes hymenorraphy, i.e., surgical restoration of the hymen). In fact, plastic surgery has become so pervasive and common in China today, the country actually hosted its first beauty pageant in 2004 specifically for women who are now considered to be beautiful as a direct result of these various cosmetic procedures, i.e., a pageant for former cosmetic surgery patients only (ABC News, 2008).

There is no doubt that Western and Chinese men maintain very different criteria for determining what constitutes a pretty Chinese girl, and this is actually one of the reasons behind some Chinese girls' attraction to foreign men. Obviously, if you are considered a "little ugly" by men of your own culture and then you come across a Western man who sincerely views and treats you as beautiful, it is understandable that the woman will be highly flattered, perhaps even grateful, and attracted in turn. The cultural difference in perception regarding what constitutes a pretty Chinese girl is so pronounced that one can actually find a public discussion among Chinese men on the China Daily forum titled "Do Foreign Men Have Ugly Chinese Girlfriends?"

As a further illustration, in 2001, People magazine voted young Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi as one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world. However, when Peng Bo, president of the Shanghai Time Cosmetic Surgery Hospital, was asked to comment on Zhang's title and whether he personally considered her to be beautiful, he refused to give a direct answer to the question. Instead, he replied "I would only say her face is up to the standard of beauty. Zhang's job requires that she has to be assertive" (China Daily, 2005).

In other words, according to at least one director of a cosmetic surgery center in China, Zhang does not qualify as one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in 2001 as she just meets the standard of "beauty," and has a look that he apparently regards as too "assertive" or hard in appearance. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that Zhang Ziyi would eventually find herself a foreign boyfriend (multimillionaire Vivi Nevo). Obviously, if a young Chinese movie star of international acclaim for her beauty cannot pass muster in China, there isn't much hope here for the majority of women. And, in fact, this partially explains how Western men fit into the picture.


Day-to-day life in China is not easy for anyone, but it is fair to say that it is far more difficult for women than it is for men. Especially following the advent of the 1979 single-child policy, girls in China face a very unusual set of culture-specific dynamics unknown to the same degree in other societies. On one hand, their arrival into this world will be met with profound disappointment, especially by their fathers who may regard and resent them as a lost opportunity to perpetuate the family name, and both parents will fear an uncertain future in their old age. On the other hand, as their only child, they will still be, nevertheless, terribly pampered and spoiled. This particular constellation of factors results in an ideal cultural environment for producing an entire generation of women with profound narcissistic injury, i.e., women who suffer from a sense of constitutional damage coupled with an extreme sense of entitlement.

The following unit will describe and discuss in detail the two types of pathological narcissism, as well as the compensatory behaviors of control and dominance, that are common among many women in China.

Reproduced with permission by Gregory Mavrides, PhD from the Foreign Teachers Guide to Living and Working in China.

Our valuable Editor Gregory Mavrides, PhD has been with us since Tuesday, 25 May 2010.
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0 #4 Rafa 2010-07-16 12:09
Excellent Article! And so true...nd: i agree with that. 2 kind of women on the planet: women and chinese women, yeah..*g*
0 #3 ND 2010-05-26 03:25
Cameron: ieeechinapropag andacitiess. Ugh..hmm..well ok. :-D. I made a tinyurl of that link ;-). Make sure to visit Gregory's site! My personal summary of this topic is: There are 2 kinds of women on this planet: Women and Chinese women ;-)
0 #2 expat209 2010-05-26 03:12
Fantastic article. In particular the second unit...Being married to a Chinese woman myself, I can confirm what is stated there...they really have lots of "loose screws in their head"....:-D
0 #1 Peter 2010-05-26 01:41
great article. very polished.

Manuel I hope you allow this, here is a link to echinacities to an article written about the difficulties of Being a Female Expat in China (

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