Saturday, March 7, 2009

Rights of Spring‏ (Part 1)

Spring is in the air at last. Not that there are blue skies or flowers in bud, it's just that daytime temperatures are almost into double figures (centrigrade), and bulky down jackets are gradually giving way to more shapely outer garments. Fresh strawberries have been available in the local market for some time, and more seasonal vegetables and fruit are on offer.

It's high time, since it's been a month or so since the official start of Spring, 'li chun' ,on the Chinese calendar. Ten days ago we celebrated the 'long taitou' (rise of the dragon's head) or Spring Dragon Festival on the second day of the second month, when farmers offer a pig's head to the Dragon King in charge of spring rains so as to get a good harvest. People eat spring pancakes ('chun bing'), a cousin of the spring roll, representing the dragon's scales, or noodles representing the dragon's beard, to mark the occasion. It's also considered a lucky day to get your haircut. A few days ago it was 'jing zhe' on the Chinese calendar, marking the time when all creatures great and small start to come out of hibernation.
The ice on small ponds and canals has already melted. Meanwhile, all big lakes such as at Houhai which were designated skating areas are now out of bounds. The small lake in our compound is still partially frozen over but even the few daring kids here have stopped walking across it as visible black holes appear in the thick ice. Some keen local fishermen have managed to make holes in the ice cover of the nearby Grand Canal and stand there patiently waiting for fish to bite. Yes spring is in the air, and in the water as well!
March 8th marks International Women's Day, so I want to talk about women's rights (Part 1) and also gay rights (Part 2). It's interesting to note that according to the offical International Women's Day website, there will be over 150 events marking the occasion in USA where the whole thing started 100 years ago, more than 200 events in the UK, and only 4 in China, (but I think that is more to do with lack of information on China than lack of interest here). China has always strongly promoted women's rights since 1949 when the Communist government took over.
Mao said "women hold up half the sky' and they certainly seem to do at least half the work! However, as the country has moved from a planned to a market econony, so has the nature of the holiday. What used to be a whole day of special events for female employees organised by the State employer, with free cinema tickets and tea parties, has now been devalued into at most half a day's holiday - work permitting! This year the ‘holiday’ falls on a Sunday, so employers are making even less effort and it's up to the commercial world of shops, restaurants, spas and beauty salons to drum up business by giving gifts or discounts to lure the female consumers.

Women's social status has changed a lot since Confucian times which forced women to be subservient to 3 generations of men, as dutiful daughter, wife and mother. I have met lots of powerful women officials and managers in China and we see more female engineers and bus drivers than in the West. However, traditions are hard to change, especially in the countryside, and in many homes, women still play the role of a traditional wife and mother. Furthermore, despite all the rhetoric, there is less evidence of equality in politics, as is clear in the recent ongoing meetings of the National People's Congress (annual parliament meeting) where female delegates and goverment leaders account for far less than half (less than 20%) of the total. This may be due in part to the fact that less than 20% of Party members are females. Before you shake your heads in disapproval, do you know what the corresponding percentages are for the US House of Representatives, or UK House of Commons ? Well, they are actually surprisingly similar!

Hillary Clinton said during her recent Beijing visit to a Women Leaders Forum, 'change comes from millions of little decisions made by courageous individuals'. And so the fight for women's rights carries on. (end of part 1).

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