Students of Shanghai Normal University stand for a traditional women's coming-of-age ceremony in Shanghai on April 12, 2013. Photo: CFP
In May, Ye Feng sat on a train to Dongguan, Guangdong Province, for a week-long lesson on how to be a good wife and mother.
Ye, a freelancer for the Women Awakening Network, a new media site mainly focusing on women's rights, was told by a male friend that she should join a "women's moral class." She wrote in her account for Women Awakening Network that the friend suggested her that three big things in life are "losing weight, learning women's morals and marrying."
But while checking out the class, held at Mengzheng Classics in Dongguan, Ye discovered that its vision of "women's morals" was deeply patriarchal and patronizing. It encourages women to be subordinate to men and be gentle and obedient.
Ye isn't alone. Such classes remain common in China, even over six decades after the Communist Party of China pitched women's liberation as one of the foundation stones of the People's Republic.
Revival of moral classes
On the official propaganda publication, the class was introduced as teaching women how to become good wives and mothers, to have a good family as well as having their own career, according to the Women Awakening Network.
Ye wrote that the people who took part in this class all wanted to improve themselves. A stylist from Hubei Province said that she "won't return home until she becomes a good wife and mother" when she introduced herself.
A woman from Hefei, Anhui Province, surnamed Gao also said that many women have lost their proper looks, sitting position and clothing styles.
After everybody spoke, they bowed to statues of Confucius and Ban Zhao, a female historian in Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) who wrote Lessons for Women, a document regulating how women should behave.
The class began with a talk from the dean, Huang Cheng, which included points such as "men should conquer the world, but woman can conquer a man, that's enough," "divorce can make your children into criminals," or "women should learn how to cook, sew, arrange flowers and write calligraphy."
In the afternoon, videos of two "successful women" were played. These talks can be found on the Internet as these women travel from city to city, giving lectures at both government and company-run forums.
The videos mostly focus on how women should be obedient and hide behind their husband. One of the presenters, Liu Fang, is the founder and CEO of Fangzi Beauty Parlor. But even Liu, with her own successful career, advocates getting up earlier and sleeping later than her husband, doing all the housework and never stealing the husband's thunder, Ye wrote.
All this video-watching and lecturing made the nighttime self-criticism session go much smoother, Ye wrote, and members of the class gathered to think back on their "sins" in the past. One woman said she divorced her husband when he had an affair, now she regrets it, thinking he only had an affair because he didn't receive enough care from her. Many cried or said "I'm not human."
When asked about the recent discussion, a worker at Mengzheng Classics Institute surnamed Mo said that the accusation was a made-up story. She insisted that a lesson at the institute, especially at the women's moral class, is helpful for them to become better and happier people.
Li Sipan, the founder of the Women Awakening Network, told the Global Times that such organizations often use techniques similar to pyramid-selling to hook the women into believing.
"You'd have to complete one class in order to qualify for a higher class, and the members will just sink in further and further," she said.
A search on baidu.com turns up many "free moral classes," but according to Ye, it turned into a donation convention at the end, when the volunteer workers tried to persuade everybody to sign up for VIP classes for a considerate fee.
Besides, the methods used in those moral classes to solve issues are wrong, Li said.
"They are placing more responsibilities on women, rather than promoting equality between the sexes, such as advocating sharing housework," she said. "Marriage is a complicated issue, you can't blame every issue that went wrong on morals."
Such classes usually don't discuss specific issues, don't advocate communication between men and women and don't talk about men's morals, only blaming the women, she said.
Besides the class in Dongguan, many teachers of "women's morals" also teach over the Internet or at companies and festivals. A search on baidu.com for "women's morals masters" turns up names like Chen Jingyu or Ma Yiling, prominent teachers who have made their own promotional videos.
In her revelations online, Chen wrote about her relationship with her husband and how it changed after she started following the Lessons for Women. When they first married, she wrote, her husband restricted what kind of friend she made. Once she looked at a man who made a good speech during group lunch, her husband criticized her for having a "bad heart."
"Now I feel thankful," she wrote. "A man should know how to train his wife, so that she doesn't do anything out of line."
These lectures are in demand, even though these "lecturers" don't necessarily have credentials. Chen, the CEO of a jewelry company, is often invited for talks by government and companies alike. She attended the first charity forum on women's morals in Xinzheng, Henan Province, hosted by the local government.
Li Sipan said there is a legal gray zone when it comes to the women's moral classes, there isn't a law that can be used to target these classes and they walk a thin line between right and wrong, sugarcoated in the name of "Chinese classics" but actually teaching outdated values.
Ye Kefei, a commentator with Tencent column Dajia, wrote that the real reason behind the existence of the "fake classics" class is that the people need it to serve them.
The Lessons for Women aren't the only traditional view, he wrote, pointing to the teachings of Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, as well as other philosophical or religious views on women that see them as every bit men's equal.
"Parents hope children are gentle and obedient, officials hope their subordinates listen, and they recommend the Standards for Being a Good Student and Child, written by Li Yuxiu in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), which doesn't advocate freethinking. This straitjacketed moral principle is not only at odds with the modern day values, and has no connection in essence to Confucian thought, it's only a tool for the ruling class to make slaves of its people in the Qing Dynasty, but now it has made a comeback," he wrote.
The reasons people join and believe in those classes is also simple, Li said. People are always in need of stabilizing their relationships and family affairs, especially in a world that's changing so fast and where relationships and careers are no longer stable.
Ke Qianting, an associate professor in gender studies at the Sun Yat-Sen University, told the Global Times the values in the Lessons for Women and other ancient Chinese classics don't apply to modern society.
"The 'women's morals' in China were established in a patriarchal society and hold a double-standard on men and women. It also restricts women in the form of sancong side (the three obediences and four virtues according to Confucian ethics)."
The Lessons for Women were written against a social background where women were confined to the domestic sphere and restricted from socializing, especially with men. However, the women in today's society already participate in public affairs, have jobs and are free to socialize, she said. Therefore, it's wrong to use the same set of morals and undermine the values of women.
Grain of salt
Ke said the ways in which these classes are conducted and whether they use old or refreshed value sets. She believes if lectures promote equal communication and are conducted in a peaceful manner, they can be beneficial.
However, the way some of these classes are conducted includes shaming or even threatening women, which she believes should be banned.
Last year, the Chongqing Information Technology College opened a women's morals class, and 43 women joined the class, 20 of them teachers at the college.
The class doesn't focus on the traditional morals and the Confucian belief that women should possess no talent to be considered moral, because women nowadays have a more independent stance, Xu Jiuqing, the college dean, told the Chongqing Evening News.
However, he thinks there are some parts that can still be appreciated by women nowadays, such as saying the husband and wife should treat each other with respect. Such traditional values can be applied to the modern world to help women deal with relationships, solve family issues and fight against gender bias, he said.
Li agreed the way these values are discussed and taught is important. She acknowledges there are reasonable values such as that the wife and husband should love and respect each other, but these qualities aren't equal to "women's morals," she said.
"Men should have the same morals as well. People should be equal in relationships, why should the morals be stressed only on one side? " she asked.
There needs to be more actions on the government side, Li Sipan believes. "The basic national policy promotes equality between the sexes, so how can the government use public resources to support such propaganda?" she asked.
Agencies contributed to this story