The Life, Death, and Potential Rebirth of China’s ‘Taitai’ Housewives
Late last month, a reporter with Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, reached out to me for comment on China’s latest televised hit: “Nothing but Thirty.” The recently concluded show centered on the lives and struggles of three 30-something women, but it was Gu Jia, a high-powered businesswoman-turned-housewife, who arguably attracted the most attention.
I listened, somewhat puzzled, as the reporter explained Gu’s appeal. In the show, Gu’s portrayed as the apotheosis of a new kind of modern housewife, raising a child, keeping her house spick and span, and still finding time to pull the strings as a key stockholder in her husband’s company.
Not having seen the show myself, I couldn’t speak to Gu’s circumstances, but her story threw me for a loop. If you’re quietly running your husband’s firm, are you really a “housewife”? The answer lies partly in semantics. In Chinese, housewife is usually translated literally, as jiating zhufu, whereas the discourse surrounding Gu revolved around a similar, yet distinct term — quanzhi taitai, or “full-time wife.”
But more importantly, “Nothing but Thirty” represents the latest manifestation of a centurylong tug-of-war between two different ideals: the career woman and the stay-at-home wife. Gu is undeniably capable, but her decision to willingly quit her job and return to the home seemed retrograde to some. Can any modern women call herself liberated if she’s not also financially independent? Others wondered why being a good wife and mother somehow isn’t enough.
In traditional agrarian society, Confucian norms called for men to predominate outside the home, while women stayed within. Women supported themselves through marriage; only nuns or prostitutes could survive outside it. That’s not to say married women were housewives — at least not in the modern sense. In addition to housework and reproduction, these women made significant economic contributions, weaving, sewing or mending clothes, and taking care of livestock.
The concept of a “housewife” only emerged after the rise of a new kind of female role: the professional woman. By the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912), elite women were growing unsatisfied with the shackles of domesticity and increasingly determined to create new lives for themselves. To name a classic example, the radical revolutionary Qiu Jin left her marriage to a wealthy man and decamped to Japan to study, before eventually returning to China and being executed for her suspected role in a planned uprising.
Not everyone’s story was so extreme, but education gave women access to new, modern occupations. During the Hundred Days’ Reform campaign of 1898, the briefly ascendant modernizing faction within the Qing government made educating girls a priority. In 1905, a year before Qiu returned to China, Qing officials started opening new public schools for women in counties around the country.
That a still rigidly patriarchal society would take an interest in educating women can be explained by the ruling elites’ need to create a modern citizenry for a modern state, including female citizens. In the words of a contemporary slogan, “Ordinary women bear responsibility for the rise and fall of nations.”
By the time the May Fourth Movement erupted in 1919, a growing mass of female students were calling for a “new woman” archetype: self-reliant and with her own personality, rather than leaning on men. Over the ensuing decades, women became accomplished lawyers, doctors, architects, and scientists.
As is true whenever women are empowered, conservatives soon pushed back. The rise of working women as a new social group went hand-in-hand with discussions about herding women back into the home.
Emerging Chinese conceptions of the full-time housewife bore a distinctly American flavor. Between the 1850s and 1950s, the ability of a man to support a wife and children on his paycheck alone became an important indicator of his middle-class status in the United States. Correspondingly, a woman’s ability to enjoy a respectable level of material well-being without working for income also became a signifier her middle-class status.
Influenced by these ideas, a number of early 20th-century Chinese women rejected the independence of “new women” and embraced their roles as the wives of wealthy men, or taitai. While some married professional women continued to work, hiring nannies from the countryside to take care of the home and insisting on going by their professional titles, others subsumed their identities into that of their husbands. Even an educated woman who married well might adopt Western practices and go by her husband’s surname: “Mrs. So-and-so.”
There was a distinctly class-based element to the taitai identity. Women who didn’t marry rich didn’t have the option to become taitai or quit their jobs, and few gave up their surnames. Unsurprisingly, the tide turned against this group after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Afterward, taitai vanished from public discourse without a trace.
The first legislation passed by the new government was a marriage law stipulating the independence of women — including that married women should get to keep their own surnames — and their equal rights to education and employment. Yet Marxist ideas of feminism also contended women could only achieve true liberation by taking part in productive labor. When Mao Zedong said “women hold up half the sky,” he was endorsing women’s equal participation in social production.
Consequently, under Mao, urban Chinese women enjoyed high employment rates, while state-supported nurseries and canteens helped lighten the burden of domestic labor. Underpinning this system was the belief that reproductive labor was valuable and should be shared by society. At the same time, however, it was clear that childrearing and chores were considered “lesser” than work outside the home. A liberated and independent woman had to be more than just a virtuous wife and good mother.
While progress was made, these ideas — and the institutions that supported them — retreated with the advent of “reform and opening-up” in the late 1970s. Public opinion, as ever dominated by elite males, once again swung toward the notion that a woman’s role is to support her husband and raise children. Accomplished professional women were vilified, as if succeeding in the public domain was something abnormal.
The changes weren’t merely ideological. The country’s post-socialist transition saw its canteens and nurseries scrapped, and women once again left to bear the burden of reproductive labor. This was incredibly short-sighted, and it was detrimental to the healthy development not just of society as a whole, but also to those women who actually did go back into the home.
There’s no denying some young women today really do want to stay at home and take care of their families. But without financial security or the ability to support themselves, what happens if one day their marriages fall apart? They’ve put themselves in a passive position full of risk. If they do go back on the job market, finding a new position after years at home won’t be easy, and in any event there’s a huge gendered pay gap.
If a woman truly finds meaning in supporting her husband and raising children, then she should certainly choose to do so. But I really hope young Chinese women today won’t be drawn in by the glamor of characters like Gu Jia. Women need to hold on to a sense of self, to look out for their own interests, and to always have a fallback.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A still from TV series “Nothing but Thirty,” 2020. From Douban)