In the province of Yun’nan, China, a small all-girl’s high school sparked controversy across the country when an alumna offered a donation. Some claimed the school was disparaging women while others claimed the school was empowering women. Ultimately, the debate had one central issue: Is it more valuable for women stay at home or to have a career?
Huaping Women’s High School (云南省丽江华坪女子高级中学) is an all-girl’s high school founded in 2008 by Gui Mei Zhang (张桂梅). Ms. Zhang grew up in a rural community where girls often marry young. She founded her school to help these girls gain an education that could lead to a better life. It is the the first free, all-women’s high school in China. Currently, Ms. Zhang is the principal of the school, which is how she takes center stage in this controversy.
This whole issue began with a good intention born from fond memories. Huang Fu Yan (黄付燕) is an alumna from the first graduating class of the school. Wanting to give back, she came to the school with the intent to donate approximately 2,000 RNB (300 USD). While it may seem strange for such a small amount of money to gain such press coverage, there are two things to keep in mind. First, this is highly unusual for China, because schools depend on the government for funding rather than personal donation. Secondly, despite it being a small amount, Ms. Zhang refused to accept the donation.
Why Did Ms. Zhang Refuse The Donation?
Well, to put it simply, it was because Ms. Huang was a housewife.
The Chinese media jumped on this story and declared that Ms. Zhang was attacking housewives. They passionately demonized the school, claiming the school did not value women who chose to stay home and raise a family. They laughingly agreed that the school is for women empowerment, so long as that empowerment walks and talks like a perfect career woman.
Ms. Zhang says that the motive behind this refusal had nothing to do with establishing a hierarchy of privilege. Instead, this decision came out of the fear that rural parents would stop sending their daughters to school. In this area of Yun’nan province, which is quite poor, girls marry at a young age. Marriage is the way to a stable, good life. Ms. Zhang wants to change this through her school, but it has only been around for ten years. For a country that measures their history by millennia, that’s not a very long time. The weight of poverty and inequality of the genders in these rural areas are stronger motivators for these parents than new schools who claim education can improve their daughter’s life.
Ms. Zhang had a popular comment encapsulating this situation, which is:
“You tell the parents in Dashan (rural, mountainous areas) that you can’t let your kids lose at the starting line, the parents in Dashan will ask you what the starting line is.”
In other words, parents from this area do not understand how vital an education is for their daughters.
Wait… But Wasn’t Ms. Huang A Graduate?
Yes! She was. As a matter of fact, she put that education to good use. Ms. Huang continued on to a two-year teaching school and worked for a in sales and HR before she met a man from a different village. She soon stopped working and moved to her husband’s hometown. Clearly, she found value in her time at Huaping Women’s High School, because she wanted to gift them a donation. Wouldn’t this actually encourage parents within the rural community to send their daughters to school?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Parents who are already dubious about the value of their daughter’s education and are struggling with poverty will not care about the details. The way they may see it is that this girl ended up marrying and therefore having the money to give to the school. In other words, she had a good life only after she married, education notwithstanding.
This is where Ms. Zhang faced a difficult decision. If she accepted Ms. Huang’s donation, she would be sending a message to the parents of the community that alumna still just end up married even with education. Parents may just decide to fall back on tradition and that their daughters would be better off married as early as possible.
But even if women marry, they are not entirely safe. Women could end up in an abusive or unharmonious relationship that ends in divorce. Considering that the majority of these rural marriages are arranged marriages, it is a safe bet to say they will not be happy ones. While divorce is uncommon in these areas, if they do get one they have to deal with Chinese divorce laws that are not favorable towards women. The best protection for women in China is to have an education.
With all of the above in mind, Ms. Zhang decided to refuse the donation.
To Stay At Home Or To Have A Career?
One of the ways this rather isolated incident grew so big is through being mentioned on the internet. In particular, it was mentioned by a controversial youtuber when explaining her decision to continue her career even though she had a newborn. She entitled her video, “The Full-Time Mom Conundrum”. The youtuber herself is viewed as “westernized” and comes from a more privileged background so her ideas are attacked. Many viewers think her views are out of touch with the plight of these high school girls and that she takes the whole issue out of context.
There is heated discussion on this subject. It especially comes out in regards to women’s responsibility to society and society’s responsibility to women. There are also controlled yet clear opinions on where women’s value truly lies.
“我是一名律师，211的法学硕士，老公是记者，我现在是一名一岁四个月孩子的全职妈妈。我认为，在孩子最需要母亲的这三年，给他好的的陪伴，给他健康的身体，给他良好的生活习惯，帮他养成好的情绪和情商，是值得我放弃这三年的工资和履历的。当然，前提是家人支持、生活不拮据。” – 张张张一一一·
“I am a lawyer, 211 Master of Laws (meaning they got a degree from a top university in China), and my husband is a journalist. Now I am a full-time mother with a child of one year and four moths. I think that in these three years when the child needs his mother most, it is worth giving him good company, healthy body, good living habits, and helping him develop good mood and emotional intelligence. It is worth giving up these three years of salaries and work experience. Of course, the premise is the support from family and stable income.”
“挣扎在生存线或者贫困线的人来说，做全职太太真的太可怕了。底层的女性真的就是各个方面处于弱势，不做全职并不是因为一定要贡献，而是能让自己受到尊重。” – qwerty1909
“For people struggling at the survival or poverty line, being a full-time housewife is horrifying. Women at the bottom are at a severe disadvantage in every aspect (economically, socially, politically, etc.). Women who decide to work instead of becoming a housewife are not doing so to realize their own value through money or their contribution to society, but because they want to earn respect.”
Is There A Clear Answer To This Debate?
Well, at first I would have answered yes. I would have, except I reached out and talked to my close friend (chosen sister, really) from China, Silvie*. When I asked for her take on the situation, this was her response:
“All these comments talking about free will and how it is people’s personal decision are incredibly privileged.”
It took me by surprise. I assumed that the clear answer to this debate was, as a matter of fact, free will. As long as women choose what they believe is the right path, then there is no need for debate. My sister, however, disagrees.
Her view is that we have the luxury of choice only when we have a certain amount of financial stability. If we have enough food to eat and enough money to cover basic expenses, then we can make decisions more aligned with our wants rather than our needs.
While I do not entirely agree, I do admit that her perspective shifted mine. If I was starving, it could very well be seen that I no longer have a luxury of choice, save that of life and death. Similarly, those families living underneath the weight of poverty feel as though choosing education over marriage is a risk.
Education is an alternative option to the false dichotomy of death or life that Ms. Zhang is determined to provide, if only the community can be brave enough to think past tomorrow and see that education can help their families break out of the very poverty that weighs them down.
*When I asked my sister if I could share her name, she gave me the name of her archenemy that she uses at Starbucks. Confused? So am I.