Women at Zhenjiang College in China are getting lessons in how to sit, dress, and properly apply makeup—or, as the Washington Post puts it, “how to be a woman in the time of President Xi Jinping.” This new class in “feminine virtue” is a response to a broader push under Xi’s presidency toward traditional gender roles. There is no equivalent course for men.
The Post explains that the class “aims to develop ‘wise,’ ‘sunny,’ and ‘perfect’ women, where wisdom comes from studying Chinese history and culture, sunniness from oil painting and etiquette classes, and perfection from the application of (never too much) makeup.”
“Perfection” also comes from sitting in just the right way. A 21-year-old student, Duan Fengyan is quoted in the article while demonstrating proper technique: “You must sit on the front two-thirds of the chair—you cannot occupy the whole chair. Now, hold in your belly, relax your shoulders, legs together, shoulders up.”
The new class was launched in March, shortly after China did away with presidential term limits, which means Xi could rule indefinitely, and granted new authority to his political doctrine. Xi has presented himself as a supporter of women’s equality—once calling it a “great cause”—but his policies suggest otherwise. During his five years in power, China has launched what has been called an “unprecedented crackdown” on feminist activists—even censoring the #MeToo hashtag. The country’s rank in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index has fallen dramatically from 69th to 100th place under Xi’s presidency.
Xi and the Communist Party have emphasized the importance of women in the domestic sphere. Or, as Leta Hong Fincher, author of the forthcoming Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, powerfully put it in the Washington Post, “The Communist Party aggressively perpetuates traditional gender norms and reduces women to their roles as reproductive tools for the state, dutiful wives, mothers and baby breeders in the home, in order to minimize social unrest and give birth to future generations of skilled workers.”
It isn’t that the Communist Party is against women’s education, exactly. The Post explains that “with economic growth slowing and the population shrinking, it is bringing back the idea that men are breadwinners and women are, first and foremost, wives and mothers—so it is teaching young women that this is the norm.”
The introduction of this new college course follows news last year that a Chinese company was “operating a ‘traditional culture school’ where women were told to ‘shut your mouths and do more housework” and practiced bowing to their husbands,’” the Post reports. The class also instructed women to not fight back when beaten and, in the words of one instructor, “just stay at the bottom level of the society and not aspire for more.”
There is also concern in China, the Post reports, that “educated women will decide not to marry men and have kids, compounding the surplus of males caused by the one-child policy and potentially destabilizing the country.” This course appears to present a solution: educating those educated women on those aforementioned “feminine virtues.” Some students, like Duan, see those virtues as practical career assets. “Even before the job interview starts, we will deliberately pay more attention to how we sit, how we stand up,” she said.
But the program’s director, Sheng Jie, is clear that the course is not just about conforming to social expectations in order to get a professional leg up. As she puts it, plainly, “Women’s family role is more important now.”