The necessary complexity behind ‘Chinese women’: Economic opportunity and gender equality in urban China

Society & Culture

“One of the most valuable aspects of the city is the fact that it has so many opinionated and courageous young people. I could do what I want in any city, as long as it has that.”

Illustration by Derek Zheng


According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s blog China Power, using data from the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, China is ranked 103rd globally for overall gender equality and 86th for equal economic participation and opportunity between genders.

The same article points out that, according to Human Rights Watch, 19 percent of national civic service jobs in China listed preferences such as “men only” or “suitable for men.” The pay gap is real as well, with Chinese women earning an average of 22 percent less than their male coworkers. All of these numbers are from 2018, decades after China’s reform policies were implemented.

It might be unrealistic to expect China to have simultaneously undergone seismic economic and political change while also making huge progress on gender equality. But gender inequality actually worsened during the economic boom years: the income gap increased between 1990 and 2000 from 15 percent to 25 percent. This may serve as a useful reminder that neoliberal policies intentionally create winners and losers, and the numbers suggest that men are less likely to lose.

But that doesn’t mean women in China don’t stand a chance. In fact, some of them are choosing to turn the narrative on its head. They are starting their own companies rather than applying to join a system where the deck is stacked against them.

“If I lived in my hometown, I’d have a house, a husband, and a car,” Flow, 27, candidly explained to me over barbecue fish in Shanghai. She left her hometown in Shandong Province when she was 18 to start a life on her own in Shanghai, China’s largest city.

“I might even have a baby. I wouldn’t have to worry about money, and my parents would be proud,” she continued in her largely self-taught English. “But there’s no way I could live like that.”

Flow is among the many young Chinese women who have created their own tracks toward economic success with rigid self-reliance and a determination to succeed in opportunity-rich cities in China. Others try to forge similar paths in smaller developing cities. For all of them, the right mindset is all it takes.

They work as bartenders, actresses, entrepreneurs, executives, and more. Rebecca, who is from a small town in Henan, is 31 years old and co-owns three restaurants and a vintage clothing store in Shanghai. She’s a fashion stylist on the side.

People tell me these women are not typical Chinese women. They insist they represent the alternative minority who have been able to pursue independent and non-traditional sources of happiness, who work harder despite receiving less societal and parental praise. They argue these women do not represent the desires of the next generation of Chinese women.

But maybe, in fact, China is not so simple that one can neatly delineate between “typical” Chinese women and the “alternative minority.” Maybe modern China, with its extreme regional diversity and hard-to-define economic freedoms and opportunities, is home to dozens of distinct types of people, or dare we say it — individuals.



Rebecca, 31, is a Shanghai success story. She runs three restaurants, all of which serve hip Yunnanese food and creative cocktails. She also runs a vintage clothing store, where she sells artfully selected pieces sourced from Japan and the United States. On the side, she’s a fashion stylist and does PR for SIRLOIN Shanghai, a design label which, according to its mission statement, “celebrates the importance of laziness and stupid elegance.”

While she might be in the business of celebrating it, Rebeca does not exactly embody laziness. “On a normal day, I’ll work on the restaurants in the morning, SIRLOIN and other work in the afternoon, and fashion styling for shoots on a freelance basis — when I have time,” she said. Somehow, she does; she’s worked as an assistant on an Adidas shoot and has done styling for the North Face.

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Rebecca is from a small town in Henan Province. When she was 13, her parents moved to Tianjin. “After that, I was relatively free. I could buy the clothes I wanted to wear, read the books I wanted to read. I developed a sense of self and an ability to be independent.

“At that time, I knew I wanted to do work that had something to do with fashion, but I didn’t expect I would open restaurants.”

After living in Shanghai for 10 years, Rebecca describes the city as a place where one can feel free to discover new passions and design a work life on her own terms. “To me, it’s a very free place. It’s a city for pioneers, especially in fashion and art. One of the most valuable aspects of the city is the fact that it has so many opinionated and courageous young people. I could do what I want in any city, as long as it has that.”

For Rebecca, learning new things, like technical skills or foreign languages, is a really important component to a good life. “It keeps me active,” she said. She eventually hopes to have her own fashion and lifestyle brand. Stay tuned.



Emma Huang, 33, runs training schools in Guilin, Guangxi Province, which she described as “a tourism city.” Emma now has three schools in Guilin, teaching kids ages 3 to 12 English and art.

She started her business eight years ago, to provide a creative outlet for kids to explore their language and artistic interests without the typical confines of a classroom that conforms to the standard Chinese education model.

“At the beginning, it was really difficult to do this kind of work because the parents in Guilin don’t have a very open mind; they just focus on their children’s academic grades,” she said. Emma explained that while parents care about their kids’ English level, for example, they are mostly interested in it in the context of exam preparation rather than developing listening comprehension or speaking skills.

She was also disillusioned by artistic education at schools in Guilin. “Parents don’t care if art can bring out their kids’ creative thinking or imagination,” she said. “They want their kids to paint the same as a photo.”

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Art by one of Emma’s training school students.

Emma opened the schools because she was inspired to provide a setting for creative kids to engage in writing and painting in an unrestricted and encouraging environment. “Why can’t Chinese kids in Guilin paint the same way as kids in the West or in big Chinese cities? Why must they be limited? I want the kids to express their own minds. I wanted to bring this idea to Guilin.”

But she also wants to make money. She estimates that a typical job in Guilin pays around 2,000 to 3,000 yuan (around $285 to $385) per month. According to Emma, local people are relaxed and generally content with their lifestyles. She sticks out. “In the big cities, people always want to make money and do their best in their job. Here it is more casual, people just want to enjoy their lives — especially women — they don’t pay so much attention to their career.” She thinks her business savvy might have something to do with her hometown. “But I come from Zhejiang, where everyone wants to be their own boss.”

And she is her own boss. Plus, she’s a mom; Emma had a son at age 26 with her Guilin husband, who she met while studying in the Netherlands. They moved to Guilin after college, since he is from there. She distinguishes herself from most moms in Guilin, but feels empathetic toward their plight.

“Most of their time is spent on the family, so they don’t have so much energy for their own careers. Now that there is a two-child policy, there is more pressure for families to have second kids — grandma and grandpa want second kids — and most of the moms cannot work because they don’t have time.”


“I just want to inspire them to not care only about their family. First, find yourself, then care about your family. I think this will improve their relationships.”


She thinks there is significant regional diversity in Chinese perspectives toward work and gender. It’s hard for people from Guilin to imagine an alternative career like starting their own business. She credits her own open-minded perspective to her both her family upbringing (both her parents are entrepreneurs) and her time studying abroad.

“Going to the Netherlands made me think that the world is really big and has a lot of possibilities,” she said. “It made me feel like I can do a lot of things. And if I have passion, then I must do something abut it.” Emma does not believe, though, that Chinese have to go abroad to get this kind of eye-opening experience. “It’s the same if you go to a big city like Shanghai or Shenzhen.”

She tries to talk to the moms whose kids are in her classes about these topics. She hopes to slowly open their minds a bit. But old gender expectations die hard. “They think that family and kids is everything to them. For me, it’s really a pity because men will fall in love with somebody else and be gone, kids will grow up and leave. The only person you can really trust is yourself. This is what I think.”

She wants so share what she thinks with other women in Guilin. She feels a sense of responsibility to help them understand they are more than just mothers and wives. “Now that our schools are stable, I’m thinking of organizing some activities for the mothers and other local women. I want to teach them to enjoy themselves first.”

Emma hopes to start cooking classes with these women, since cooking can be an activity that brings them together and allows them to speak more openly about their own feelings and aspirations. “When you’re sharing food, you can communicate. I just want to inspire them to not care only about their family. First, find yourself, then care about your family. I think this will improve their relationships.”



Both Emma and Rebecca identified a potential demand in the cities in which they live, and took risks by starting businesses that catered not to the visible mainstream market, but rather the market that has either not yet been tapped or may in fact not substantially exist.

Rebecca didn’t join a restaurant group or a chain; she and her partners opened small and assertively independent restaurants that would serve the food they want to serve in the environment they want to serve it in. Her personal entrepreneurial spirit, paired with the opportunities in the art and fashion market she saw in Shanghai, inspired her to further expand her professional life and give each of her interests the necessary space in her schedule. In total opposition to the sideline positions women were largely forced to take to during the reform era, she instead creates her own career, taking on all the entrepreneurial risk of a state-owned enterprise venturing into a new market without a safety net.

Similarly, Emma identified a missing component in the Guilin education system and stuck her neck out by offering to fill the gap, with no way of knowing if people would welcome her ideas. In fact, it was up to her to convince them they should.

In China, you’re told to do what society needs, and turn that into what you want. Pursuing one’s personal interests in this context while also making a living is truly impressive. The journey is worth taking, however.

As Emma puts it, “When women find themselves, they will feel happy.”