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    Why Meeting the In-Laws Makes Young Couples Revert to Tradition

    Even the most liberal Chinese people sometimes find it easier to reprise established gender roles.

    Generally speaking, Chinese couples wait until they are considering marriage before introducing their partners to their parents. While most young Chinese nowadays believe in the freedom to choose one’s partner and shun the use of professional matchmakers, many still emphasize the need to get their parents’ approval prior to marriage.

    Of course, the need for parental approval is not merely a Chinese phenomenon. Here, though, it is exacerbated by the sky-high cost of matrimony. Many young men are expected to own a home before tying the knot, and rely on their parents for financial assistance when buying one. Traditionally, families also splash large amounts of cash on lavish weddings, and don’t want to waste their money on a second-rate partner for their child.

    All this means that lovestruck Chinese tend to take their parents’ views of their partners more seriously than Westerners. But generational differences in values and lifestyles can scuttle those all-important first meetings. A recent example is Zhao Zhengkai, a young man from the northern province of Hebei, whose story was first published in the Chongqing Evening News and later shared widely in the national media.

    During Chinese New Year, Zhao brought his girlfriend from Chongqing — identified only by her surname, Gu — to his rural hometown. At first, Zhao’s family, friends, and neighbors all fawned over Gu and commented on how pretty she was. Soon, however, her supposedly delicate sensibilities turned the meeting into a nightmare. After declining to help make traditional dumplings, complaining that the family’s kitchen was cold and smelly, and sleeping in late while the rest of the family attended to their chores, Zhao and his family accused Gu of laziness and she flew home early.

    Online, the debate focused on whether a woman should have to perform household chores in order to win their potential future in-laws’ approval. The Chongqing Evening News received more than 80 responses from women who sided with Zhao’s family, with many saying that joining in with the housework shows the woman is hardworking. Others added that women should take care not to boss their boyfriends around in their family homes, so as not to seem domineering.

    In China, social expectations of feminine virtue dictate that women should appear obedient, polite, caring, and diligent. Recent years have seen the emergence of a number of workshops purporting to teach women so-called feminine virtues, a trend that has drawn condemnation from more progressively minded groups. In Fushun, a city in the northeastern province of Liaoning, a female teacher of one such workshop was recorded claiming that women were naturally inferior to men, shouldn’t try to advance their own careers, and should serve their husbands.

    Virtue classes appeal to women of all backgrounds and educational levels, and justify their own existence by claiming that they merely propagate traditional Chinese culture. Currently, the central government is aiming to oversee a revival of Chinese traditionalism, a move that has fostered public interest in, say, wearing long, flowing scholar’s robes. Feminine virtue classes are piggybacking on this trend, legitimizing their own misogyny by evoking deep-seated cultural norms that oppress women.

    Some women attend virtue classes at the behest of their husbands or male family members, but others seemingly sign up of their own volition or attend workshops at their friends’ recommendations. All this begs the question: Why do some Chinese women actively choose activities that further diminish their status relative to men?

    My own theory is that many married Chinese women face serious, and seemingly irresolvable, oppression and either emotional or physical abuse. Many live in fear of their male family members, or blame themselves for their own lack of fulfillment and remain reluctant to divorce their husbands. In this environment, listening to self-styled teachers sermonize about purported feminine virtues can be a cathartic experience.

    Today, while the slogans of gender equality are widely known in China, society remains deeply, systemically patriarchal. Though many younger Chinese recognize that the above archetypes are outdated, they do not challenge them consistently and universally. As a result, young couples often experience a disconnect, whereby they interact on an equal basis when they are by themselves, but at large social gatherings — for example, when a woman meets her boyfriend’s parents for the first time — men prefer women to revert to time-honored forms of obedience, docility, and compliance.

    With the exception of a few first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, the majority of Chinese society remains yoked to a set of gender roles dictating that men dominate the “external” world of politics, economics, and work, while women dominate the “internal,” or domestic, world. Couples who refuse to conform to these roles face discrimination: The man is often mocked as weak or henpecked for not “mastering” his partner, while the woman is characterized as domineering and controlling.

    While it is stressful for women to meet their boyfriend’s parents, the same rule applies to men meeting their girlfriend’s families for the first time. Traditionally minded Chinese parents frequently view the value of their daughter’s husband-to-be through an economic lens, and so men expect to be grilled over their salaries, home ownership, and future job prospects. Their success is forever judged by the power and wealth they possess.

    Outdated patriarchal mindsets oppress both men and women, but overturning gender norms is an exhausting process. For many couples, it is easier to pretend to go along with established practice when in public, so as not to arouse the ire of their parents, family members, and friends. While their conformity is a façade, it is nonetheless a kind of survival instinct.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: Xiao Muyi/VCG)