Despite the strong political and ideological controls placed upon them, social media platforms in China can provide valuable space for the discussion of a range of issues. Last week, Tsinghua Law Professor Lao Dongyan (劳东燕), who serves as deputy director of the Legal Policy Research Office of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, posted an article to her WeChat public account exploring the enormous pressures facing women in China under social norms that stress both traditional roles centered on the family and modern ideas of professional achievement.

Lao’s post has so far attracted hundreds of thousands of views, underscoring the resonance of the points she raises. The post is derived from a video talk she previously delivered at the “Light Stone Law School,” a legal studies platform that regularly hosts teaching videos and lectures at Bilibili, a Chinese video-sharing website based in Shanghai – though Lao makes clear at the outset of the post that it underwent “substantial revision.”

Screenshot of Lao Dongyan’s video chat at Bilibili. The slide deals with the two competing roles defined for women, the “traditional female role” and the “modern female role.”

Interestingly, despite Lao’s extensive legal expertise, she does not grapple directly in her article with the implications of laws and policies, including China’s Marriage Law, which leaves women at a distinct disadvantage. These issues are laid out in some detail in this recent article by feminist scholar Joan Lee. Instead, Lao focusses on the “social mores” and attitudes that persist in China, and present women with impossible choices.

On balancing career and family, Lao writes: “The answer is that these are impossible to balance. If you invest more in your career, this necessarily means investing less in your family. And if you must invest in both, then you will ultimately be exhausted and anxious. After all, women are not made of iron.”

A translation of the first section of Lao’s post follows.

“On Modern Women: The Challenge of Balancing Career and Family” (关于现代女性:事业与家庭难以平衡)

By Lao Dongyan (劳东燕)

In traditional society, the role of females is to be a good wife and a loving mother. For a woman, the most important identity was to be a wife to someone, and a mother to someone, not to exist as an independent individual. Even down to the present day, there are certain social norms for women that stubbornly cling [to these ideas].

In most families, if both husband and wife are busy with work, one of them must make sacrifices for the sake of raising children. And in China it is essentially women to make this sacrifice to take care of the family. Such sacrifices are often seen as having been voluntary on the part of the woman, but in how many cases is it actually so? In most cases, they are either compelled or simply accept it.  

In modern society, therefore, requirements such as good wives and mothers remain the primary expectations in society and in families for the role of women. These expectations create immense pressure for women. If these role expectations are not met, these women will possibly face condemnation from their families and society.

Through long immersion in this social environment, as external expectations become internalized, women can easily tend to have an attitude of self-blame. When they focus on  work, they are bound to feel that they are inadequate as mothers and wives.

At the same time, under the influence of individualism in modern society, there is a sense among women and in society that they should be independent, that they should support themselves, that they should have their own careers.

And so the ideal modern woman in people’s minds must not only achieve in her own career, but must also be capable of caring for her family. To paraphrase the popular expression, she must be as beautiful as a flower, able to make money to support the family, and also must be able to work and raise a child.

For ordinary women, however, this is fundamentally a difficult task to achieve. Even in a modern society, then, there is a rather sizable gap between the ideal woman and the real woman. And the position for women at the bottom of society is even more difficult.

The requirements for women in our society at present are: on the one hand, to work hard to achieve in one’s own career; on the other hand, to be a good wife and mother, able to take care wholeheartedly for your children, running your family with color and vibrance. This is the reason why professional women are constantly asked the question: How do you balance family and career? Have men ever been asked such a question in the workplace?

The answer is that these are impossible to balance. If you invest more in your career, this necessarily means investing less in your family. And if you must invest in both, then you will ultimately be exhausted and anxious. After all, women are not made of iron. The expression, “Women are weak, but the mother is strong,” is chiefly used to kidnap women psychologically. I can’t stand expressions like this, which on the surface purport to support women, praising their glory and selflessness, but which actually suppress women and transfer pressure onto their backs.  

When all is said and done, there is no way to balance career and family. The more time and energy is invested in one’s career, the less it can be invested in one’s family. Many families choose to have their women give in unconditionally and relinquish their normal social intercourse for the sake of the family – something that is greatly unfair to women. This is not to say that they shouldn’t invest in their families, but just to ask: Why is it always the woman who must sacrifice?

When women must sacrifice themselves, they are not the only ones who pay the price. We often ignore the fact that the poor condition facing women means that the effect they have on children, on the family and on society is counter-productive. A woman’s wholesale return to the family not only narrows her world substantially, but so-called ‘widowed parenting’ (丧偶式的育儿) – is disadvantageous to the raising of children. The father’s relative  absence in the development of the child notwithstanding, how can a woman surviving in a narrow world cultivate children with broader visions [of the world]? In such a situation, we can suppose that it is difficult to ensure the physical and mental health of children is difficult to achieve.

. . . .

In family life, both partners need to make concessions or negotiate. At some stage, one party may invest more in the upkeep of the family, while at another stage, the other steps in, taking on more or sharing the family responsibilities together. Women should not be required to devote their full effort [to their families], or to invest more [than their partners].