Beautiful Women and Gifted Men – Gender in China

“What are *they* like?” oftentimes turns into a question of men and women. Thus, one of those things one often rubs up against, whether observing China or being involved in an intercultural relationship, whether being in-country or hearing about it from afar, are issues of gender.

How you are, as a man or woman, seems to have become largely a matter of choice in “Western” countries. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that women are naturally less capable of something – take mathematics, for example, at this time when girls typically outperform boys in education. …

Chinese shake their heads, say that bodies are different, and therefore people are, too.

Tradition, as it so often does, appears very well-ordered on this matter. Chinese literature, for example, presents us with the romances about “gifted scholars and beautiful ladies” (才子佳人); “talented man and beautiful woman” (男才女貌) has even acquired the meaning of “ideal couple.” Women were exhorted to follow the three obeisances (to father, husband and son) and four virtues (morality, physical charm, proper speech and diligent needlework) (三从四德) – it is all, nowadays, just about as quaint as the pope speaking about the proper sexual behavior, though.

Yet, strong notions of how men and women are and should be different continue to hold their sway. Oftentimes, it is the women who are noticed most. They are not only most noticeable when they are beautiful, but it often seems as if their main value in China is, in fact, their beauty. It does not stop there, though.

Chinese women are also supposed to strive for the quality called 可爱 (ke’ai), cuteness, to the point where their looks and behavior may appear infantilized. Pleading, 撒娇 (sajiao), even means both the acting and begging of a spoiled child, and coquettish behavior of a woman – and even the wounded look of a puppy not getting its favorite food, even though it is already in sight, is nothing against the puppy look of a woman in sajiao-mode.

Add the preference for a look that is also as young, even childlike, as possible, mix with the preference (if not fetish) for virginity, and all a Westerner’s alarm bells screaming “pedophilia” are going off. What may be most striking to the outside observer, after all, is the sexiness that cute looks and cute behavior entails.P1080223

Looking even just at the campus stores for underwear and nighties – where, one can safely assume, young women buy what they find pretty without much thought of how it would look to a man – it is quite obvious that this is not the intention; the cuteness is just a female thing, and one that is heavily supported by Chinese society. The Lolita look it often ends up being admittedly does not seem to be recognized, and certainly not problematized.

Nonetheless, the common (Western) interpretation that the striving for beauty and cuteness necessarily entails a demeaning, brings the women into a weaker position opposite men, is not entirely justified. It is also a mechanism of power. If you add push to shove, argue for direct equality… well, carry your purse yourself. On the other hand, if you give men the appearance of an intact social order, you can take over positions of power and encounter less resistance while you do so.

There is some awareness that beauty and cuteness isn’t everything, either. It has become rather popular amongst Chinese parents to want their daughter to be “wild”/boyish enough, at least in her early years. Whether that is meant so that she will be better able to fend for herself, or so that she doesn’t get any ideas, is quite questionable, however. Modesty, i.e. to not only be concerned, or counting on, her looks, does seem to play its part.

Stranger though that attitudes about proper behavior survive quite widely while parents themselves are quite inconsistent about it. The idea that women’s power is just their beauty (and other qualities such as education, but mainly just to make a better wife and mother) is around strongly, in society, in popular culture. Too boyish a behavior will be reprimanded, too.

Concern for propriety and modesty goes to the point where boys and girls rarely interact in any other way than studying together – or at least that’s what the parents would like, and the teachers (to some extent, even at university) are meant to ensure. After all, youth is there for studies; relationships can come later.


What do the men know of their roles? Apart from being stronger and carrying their girlfriend’s/wife’s purse, attitudes are at least as complicated. They should be strong, and a common complaint is that the current generation’s males are not nearly masculine enough. Yet, at the same time, the stereotype is that only too many men are not good, and naturally so.

Women who smoke can elicit negative comments; men may smoke, drink, and while away much of their time (and money) playing cards, but still be seen only as men. Being good-looking and well-behaved is a rare quality in combination, which is much commented on; the expectation is that a handsome man is not normally well-behaved, a well-behaved one probably so because he’s not handsome enough – and anyways, a man may be on his best behavior before he gets married, in order to woo a future wife, but will turn out just as bad as all the others afterwards.

The danger that a man will be a man, and a rich man an adulterer, seems on many a woman’s mind. It seems one of the reasons, along with the women’s worse standing on the job market, why Chinese women (or maybe even more so, their parents) look for house, car, and bank account – at least material comforts should, as long as social pressure is enough to make divorce unlikely, be ensured then.

The good man is much sought for, nonetheless. The chances of poor scholars seem even worse nowadays than before, however, as the talent of the romance stories’ “gifted scholar” has turned into mere wealth.

I’ve had quite a few discussions on it, stereotypes abound both East and West, but it does seem clear that the (rare, hoped-for) good man will be able to provide for his wife, and also be faithful. (The woman even more so, but her fidelity is hardly ever seen as anything that could be questioned.) Not only that; he will take the best possible care of his wife. It is here – where carrying her purse and shopping bags is a very noticeable, but far from the only, element of being a good man – that things become very interesting again.

It may be that the woman should strive for beauty and cuteness, and be a pretty and well-behaved ornament on the arms of her husband. That’s only part of the package, though, just as the man’s role doesn’t end with his carrying her purse. In the household, he may not only be the breadwinner, but also – at least regularly – be the cook. She may beg to have him buy something for her, but (as wife) also control the family’s finances tightly, to the point where the husband, if he doesn’t take good care himself, only gets some pocket money out of his earnings. Modern-day students (and even couples in earlier times) may not know enough about sexuality to understand which part goes where, but the man is expected to care for his wife to the point of his knowing when she has her period so that he can take extra-good care of her during that difficult time of the month. No jokes about PMS here, at least if you want to be a good man!

The fascination – and also the points of friction – arise because China’s deep-seated traditions are strong and pronounced (much more so than in much of the West). They are also vocally pronounced and upheld, in ways which rub a Westerner attuned to feminism – let alone an emancipated woman – in all the wrong ways. And yet, at the same time at which Chinese see roles and behavior as naturally arising from innate differences between the sexes, there is ever more diversity, ever greater change, the attempt of every individual to navigate between strong social pressures and their individual desire, good sides to it and bad. It makes for a mix that is exciting, at least when one sees it as the raw life it is.


  1. ellis

    I like the passing comment on how what we perceive to be as blatantly sexual hardly registers with many Chinese. My students would ooh and ahh if I wore a tank top, while their skirts and shorts hardly covered much of their legs. Different ideas of sexuality.

    And I do wonder about where the infantalization came into being so sought after. Part of it is a cultural subset, the girls who try to look like anime characters with contacts and makeup and costumes, but I’m not sure about the rest. I think part of it is a fetish for innocence, or the facade of it.

    1. Elizabeth Allen

      If you have not yet already, I suggest looking into the term Neoteny and research how it relates to human female development.

      Thank you for putting this work together.

      1. Gerald

        Hmm, good pointer, forgot all about that. As a biological/evolutionary aspect, it should supersede culture – but there’s a follow-up post in the works, on differences in how the body is seen and talked about, where that sort of idea does play a role..

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