Gender, History, Modern Chinese Culture

Madam Dragon: Legendary Chinese Women (2)

Carrying on with our last post about the female emperor Wu Zetian, and scientist Wang Zhengyi, this time, we look at someone even more controversial. Pirate Shi Yang (1775-1844AD)

A widely used picture of Zheng Yi Sau, source unknown

It was rare enough for a sailor to be female, let alone the head of a pirate fleet and one of top ten pirates in the 19th century! The legendary Shi Yang, or “Madam Dragon” by fellow pirates, was initially married to pirate Zheng Yi. As a smart young woman, she helped her husband establish an alliance of pirates in the area of Zhujiang River and claimed leadership. After his death, she stood up against rivals and took over. With a reputation of iron fist disciplines and harsh punishments, she stood her ground in leading the alliance and even expanded the fleet. The Red Flag, as they called themselves, had over a thousand fleets and more than ten thousand sailors, was once a formidable force around the canton area, living off raiding official and commercial ships from the west. Later in her life, she and her second husband offered their service to the Qing Dynasty. According to unofficial stories, she even helped fought against the British navy during the Opium War.

It is widely believed that Zheng Yi Sau has inspired the character of Madam Qing in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series.

Empowered modern ladies?

Legends aside, taking a big stride now in 2018 China has come a long way in development with a constitution that guarantees the equal rights of men and women. However in practice, how is the status of women in China? A few indicators may give us a glimpse: According to the latest data from the World Bank, more than half of tertiary education students in China are female (data from 2014), and more than two-third of women over 15 years old are in the workforce (data from 2016). However, the gender pay gap remained large: women on average earn two-third of men’s annual income (World Economic Forum data, 2017), and the number drops to only half in rural areas. Perhaps most significantly, female participation in leadership and political leadership roles remains low. A World Economic Forum survey in 2016 shows that women make up of only about 17% of all legislators, senior officials and manager roles in China. It is perhaps fair to say that modernization had empowered but a small proportion of women in the country.

Losing balance

In the meanwhile, largely due to the unintended consequence of the One Child Policy introduced in 1979, it is apparent that China is also facing a serious gender imbalance in the generations to come. In some rural areas, the ratio can be as high as 130 to 100, meaning nearly 25% of male will not be married. Social scientists believe the mass frustration, especially those from the lower social strata, of not being able to form a family is going to be a potential destabiliser. Despite the recent easing of the one-child policy, according to a widely reported survey in 2017, many women in China have become hesitant to have children (Zhaopin report, 2017). The government may need to do more to resolve this problem.