Updated: Jun 29
As Chinese people’s economic well-being has progressed over the past few decades, the concept of ageism has gradually gained greater visibility, as have many other intersectional social inequalities. This article takes a brief look at issues of discrimination against womxn in China and then discusses some of today’s most familiar age-related stereotypes towards older Chinese womxn.
Gender Inequality in China
China is still facing severe gender+ inequalities. The UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index ranked China 91 out of 187 countries in 2014. Womxn will be facing additional challenges in every spheres of Chinese society, including in education, employment, or fashion/beauty standards, for example. In traditional China, womxn faced severe social oppression and were expected to be subservient to their husbands. The traditional role/place of womxn is still being felt strongly in contemporary Chinese society and institutions. For example:
shèng nǚ (剩女), or 'leftover woman,' is a term of negative connotation nowadays used to describe a woman who has reached the age of 27 and whose self-empowerment is stigmatized by the Chinese marital market. As Chinese mxn are mostly marrying womxn from lower social class, shèng nǚ womxn are being stigmatized for being too successful: they cannot get married as they are in the highest social class achievable, hence, are not able to find a "more successful husband." The shèng nǚ will be shamed by Chinese society into disempowerment and motherhood.
Employment & Legal Protection
Discrimination in the workplace is the heart of the narrative surrounding ageism in China. For the International Worker’s Day, May 1, 2020, China reiterated its engagement in ending gender discrimination and other forms of discrimination in the hiring process and workplace. Forms of discrimination are usually prohibited by laws and regulations at various government levels in the country. However, in practice, discrimination of many forms remains current practices in the workplace. Many examples are flagrant:
Although better than in the previous years, in 2020, 11% of civil service ads specify “men only” in China.
After the country ended the One-Child Policy and allowed couples to have two children in late 2015, working women in China have increasingly felt pregnancy-related discrimination.
In cinema, many Chinese actresses has come out publicly over the recent years to accuse the industry of discriminating middle-aged womxn in casting (a portrait of China’s top 100 TV shows).
Still, ageism draws little attention in the discussions surrounding inclusion in the workplace. As long as they are not going against child labor protection laws, Chinese employers usually have flexibility in establishing an age threshold for job positions. As the legal protection against age discrimination is rather weak, claims concerning age discrimination in China remain rare. If an employee or a job candidate is victim of age discrimination, he/she/they have the right to file a civil lawsuit against the employer. However, in practice, it is difficult for the plaintiff to succeed in such a lawsuit for two main reasons:
1. Proving/demonstrating how age discrimination took place in the hiring process can
2. Currently, there is no legal provision of what constitutes age discrimination in the workplace. Hence, it is difficult for the law to establish what constitutes a case of age discrimination.
The first publicly reported case where age discrimination served as the cause of action in China was recorder in early 2005. Mr. Jiahai Liu sued the Justice Department of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region for age discrimination when his application to become a public servant (government employee) was cancelled as he was older than the set age threshold.
Chinese Elders as a Social Burden
As China is rapidly modernizing, the visage of family and social relationships is also mutating. Much of modern Chinese culture is strongly influenced by Confucian values such as xiào (孝), or ‘respect and obedience towards elders,’ however age-related stereotypes have worsened in recent years, especially in rural China, where older Chinese people may be more likely to be perceived/treated as burden to family and society. Technological advances that necessitate using smart phones to purchase food or use health code apps are shedding light on poor digital literacy rates among older citizens. Some are said to be facing difficulties in maintaining a positive self-image or miàn zi (面子), literally ‘face.’ This can result in serious mental health challenges.
Age-Related Stereotypes of Chinese Womxn
Traditions of filial piety aside, the prejudice on the basis of chronological age towards womxn in China occurs linguistically. Some of the most widespread age-related stereotypes of Chinese womxn include:
dà mā (大妈), originally a respectful or affectionate term for a middle-aged womxn, but today used to portray this same demographic as uncultured, comical, and gossipy. South China Normal University Professor Teng Wei explains the history and points out the notable ageism and classism associated with the new uses of dà mā in her article ‘Dama’: A History of China’s Ageist, Sexist Slur.
guǎng chǎng wǔ (广场舞), or ‘square dancing,’ an activity where often womxn in their 50s and 60s seek physical and social activity outside in public squares to dance in groups. Although it is generally thought of as a popular sportive interest or hobby to encourage the aging population to stay healthy, “square dancing grannies” are at times the subject of contempt and ridicule, seen as a nuisance for their loud blaring of music.
As the United Nations predicts that the proportion of adults older than 65 years of age in China will reach approximately 26% by 2050, there is an urgent need for education and strong actions challenging negative attitudes toward older people, and most specifically older Chinese womxn.
Article based on
AgeDiscrimination.Info. (2018). China. http://www.agediscrimination.info/international-age-discrimination/china
Bai X., Lai D., Guo L. (2016). Ageism and Depression: Perceptions of Older People
as a Burden in China. Journal of Social Issues. Vol. 72, No. 1, p. 26-46.
Human Rights Watch. (2020). China: Gender Discrimination in Hiring Persists. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/29/china-gender-discrimination-hiring-persists
Guo, S. (2017). When dating shows encounter state censors: a case study of If You Are the One. Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 39, No. 4, p. 487–503.
United Nations (UN), World Population Prospects 2019, https://population.un.org/wpp/DataQuery/
Xue Y., Liu C. (2020). The Invisible Women: China’s Middle-Aged Actresses. Sixth Tone. http://www.sixthtone.com/news/1005237/the-invisible-women-chinas-middle-aged-actresses-