“No kids, no ring, keep living serene.”
These seven words have become a catchphrase in recent months, a call for women to skip the grief of matrimony and enjoy the security of singledom. It’s a call that has only intensified after a recent spate of reports detailing shocking incidents of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other attacks on women.
The slogan’s popularity is about more than just fears of gendered violence, however. It’s tied to the rise of a radical discourse in China against marriage, childbearing, and men. To anti-marriage activists, women who get married and have children are “married donkeys.” Men, meanwhile, are simply “dick cancer.” A few zealots have even floated the idea of male feticide.
It’s easy to write all this off as the inflammatory rhetoric of keyboard warriors, but it clearly resonates. At a time when women are being squeezed out of the workforce and even some feminists are defending the decision to become a housewife, radical proponents of women’s liberation feel cornered, and not without reason: To many, “no kids, no ring” seems like the only way to maintain their independence.
Over a century ago, during the May Fourth movement, women and young people took to the streets across China, rallying around the cry of modernization — and by extension, women’s liberation. Almost every “new woman” had their own dramatic tale to tell about splitting with their family or fleeing an arranged marriage, and for the next 60 years, the ability to find work outside the home was treated as a marker of women’s progress and emancipation.
But does the ability for women to leave home necessarily equate to women’s liberation? This question became a core concern for women’s studies scholars on the Chinese mainland in the 1980s. Many researchers argued that female employment fell short of altering women’s traditional roles at home — instead, it exacerbated their burden by effectively forcing them to do battle on two fronts: the home and the workplace.
In the midst of a broader debate over the role of women in the mid-1990s, Peking University professor Zheng Yefu proposed a controversial “no glass ceilings, no safety nets” gender equality strategy. Criticizing how efforts to get women into the workforce had ruptured the traditional division of labor and social order, Zheng called for female employment to be neither obstructed nor supported.
In the years since, the choice to withdraw back into the domestic sphere has lost much of its stigma. Data from successive Surveys on Chinese Women’s Social Status shows that the rate of female employment has trended downward over the past few decades, while the number of respondents who believed “a man’s place is in society, while a woman’s is in the home,” rose from 47.5% in 2000 to 58% in 2010.
But this shift raises more questions: Are women making a purely independent choice to leave the workforce? Or are they being marginalized and pushed out? Do they feel compelled to give up their jobs because of familial pressure or overwhelming duties at home?
The reality is that the privatization of both property rights and the family unit since the 1980s has had a dual effect, forcing women to shoulder a greater portion of household labor and child care, even as it’s put women at a structural disadvantage in the labor market.
In the socialist era, the pendulum between a woman’s personal and professional lives swung decisively toward the workplace. Women were at least theoretically entitled to equal pay for equal work, and slogans exhorted them to “sacrifice” their responsibilities at home and devote their time to working for the nation and collective. This discourse naturally influenced the country’s family structures, and was reinforced by various state welfare programs and other interventions.
The family unit is viewed much more positively today. The era in which the ideal husband and wife pair were little more than comrades — and the decision to have a second child supposedly incurred few costs beyond an extra pair of chopsticks — is gone. In its place are nuclear families centered on a mix of reproduction and consumption, with a new emphasis on intensive childrearing and intimate companionship.
This shift, combined with the disintegration of state-sponsored welfare programs and universal employment mandates, has reinforced women’s positions as family caregivers and made them the primary candidate to stay home full time. That inevitably clashes with their competitiveness on the job market, forcing them to juggle their work and home lives — while conditioning employers to assume women will put their families first.
Against this backdrop, slogans like “No kids, no ring, keep living serene” have particular appeal. They throw into sharp relief the incompatibility between family and individual needs that today’s women face. As the barriers to raising a family while maintaining a career grow higher, it’s becoming sensible for women to choose one or the other, rather than reconcile themselves to the tug-of-war of trying to have it all.
Indeed, when the choice is between committing to becoming a full-time housewife or committing to a career, it’s not surprising that some women who want to stay in the workforce would reject starting a family altogether.
The root problem here — what’s conditioning women to frame the struggle between being a housewife or a workingwoman as an either-or proposition — is the notion that the “home” is a fixed, static model, one which forces its occupants, including women, to play a culturally and institutionally subordinate role.
Many independent-minded women have come to see an intrinsic inferiority in the family as an institution. But family structures have shown remarkable flexibility and mobility over the past four decades of rapid social change. For instance, studies into rural-urban mobility and the new generation of migrant workers have identified a number of ways migrant working women have positively impacted family structures: They’ve achieved economic independence; gained a greater say over household affairs; and helped erode the gender norms and power dynamics that forced them to submit to men. Yes, they’ve also had to compromise for the sake of their children and families, but that hasn’t stopped them from challenging gender norms.
Ultimately, real change will likely require the state to once again wield its power on behalf of women. Many young women today fear getting married and having children, whether because they are afraid of putting themselves in a vulnerable position or because they worry that the burden of caregiving will become a stumbling block to realizing their individual aims. Either way, an effective intervention of state power would help put their minds at ease.
Looking back at China’s socialist era, women benefited from policies advocating equal pay, as well as public services like child care, at least in urban areas. If the Chinese government can recommit to these ideas, and build modern institutions capable of realizing them, it would go a long way toward advancing gender equality.
But it’s also time to free the notion of the family from its straitjacket, including by examining it in a broader social context and finding new ways to define intimate and familial relationships. Only then can we fundamentally transcend the work-home dichotomy.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: gmast3r/iStock/People Visual, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)