Every day it seems that China's influence in our lives looms larger. We've lost countless manufacturing jobs to the Chinese, our houses are full of products from the Middle Kingdom and Chinese investment plays a huge role in the U.S. economy -- and the world's. Resources are being expended and produced by the Chinese billions at a staggering rate.
China's massive population and aspects of its culture are difficult for many Westerners to comprehend, and yet, when it comes to certain aspects of life, we are very much alike -- particularly regarding women in the workplace. Both U.S. and Chinese women have come a long way, with a long way to go.
The similarities in women's struggles are especially evident in the film adaptation of author Lisa See's "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." See's novel focuses on a secret sisterhood in 19th Century China, and Director Wayne Wang, who also helmed "The Joy Luck Club," decided to add a parallel, modern story to the film. It involves the relationship between two professional women in Shanghai, a city that would give any Western metropolis a run for its money.
"Shanghai is like New York City on steroids," Wang says with a laugh.
Breaking Traditional Bonds
Even though parts of China seem as Western and modern as any U.S. city, Chinese professional women still have some catching up to do. "For better or worse, in the Chinese culture, the man is still the main one in the relationship, in the family," Wang tells AOL.
See adds, "You still don't see equal pay for equal work in China, the same way that you don't here. But there are more working women in China than there are anywhere else in the world."
Some would say Chinese women have come a lot farther, a lot faster than their sisters in other countries. After all, you don't get much more professional and successful than the film's producer, Wendi Murdoch, a Chinese native who attended Yale and married NewsCorp chief Rupert Murdoch. She is bravely soldiering on, beginning her film producing career with work she truly believes in this weekend, despite the fact that her husband's media empire is deeply embroiled in scandal. Yet she remains independent and optimistic, something which might have proved significantly more challenging for Chinese woman 60 years ago.
She told AOL that her grandmother's sister had "Golden Lilies," or bound feet, which kept Chinese women subjugated for 10 centuries. Graphically featured in "Snow Flower," foot binding was practiced into the 1940s, and was somewhat of a status symbol until it was banned.
And women's libbers in the U.S. thought bras were binding! How did Chinese women come so far and break with centuries of tradition, in just a few generations?
"Oh, I can tell you! says See, who is from one of the original Chinese families that settled L.A.'s Chinatown and whose novels of Chinese life are loved by book club readers the world over. "In 1949, Mao said, 'Women hold up half the sky.' He was the first person in the world to say that. And what that meant was, whether you wanted to or not, if you were a woman, you had to come out of your house, you had to come out of seclusion. You had to work in the fields or work in the factory, or go to school, become a doctor, become a dentist.
"This was a massive, countrywide program to get women out and into the world, and to have them hold up half the sky. Now of course they do just as we do in the United States and elsewhere -- women seem to hold up a lesser half of the sky."
Although Chinese professional women and U.S. professional women have traveled extremely different roads, they have almost ended up in the same place; working as hard as men for less pay, and still shouldering the majority of the housework and child care responsibilities. But the Chinese have found a unique way of dealing with it. That's a major theme of "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."
Making an Emotional Link
The film explores the relationship called "laotong," which is a bond, sometimes stronger than blood, between women. They communicate with men about business and matters that they relate to, but they save their intimate, more female-oriented conversations and feelings for their sisters. It's the sort of girl talk that either bores or confuses most men, whether they're Eastern or Western. This develops a closeness and support that diminishes the competition and jealousy that so many professional Western women complain about.
That's not to say that Chinese women aren't competitive with each other -- there's just something about their tradition of laotong relationships that reminds them of what they share, and to be supportive of each other.
Wang says, "In China today, women are quite competitive, but there's also something that's innate in their dealings with other women that they also could share their secrets, share things more emotionally."
So how do you develop a laotong relationship with other women? Murdoch, who says that she has those types of bonds with powerful women like Diane Von Furstenberg, Ivanka Trump and Nicole Kidman, suggests: "Be yourself, be good to each other, you treat other people how you want to be treated, be loyal and ... improve yourself."
There's more about laotong relationships, foot binding, and ancient and modern Chinese culture in "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," opening Friday, July 15.
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