Comment: China's Material Girls

Zhang Lan, the Board Chairman and founder of South Beauty Group, attends the opening ceremony of the LAN Club in Shanghai, China.

Frivolous young women obsessed with fame, luxury and rich husbands are stealing attention from positive female role models in China, writes Jeremy Goldkorn.

China does not lack notable female entrepreneurs, publishers, social activists, educators or commentators.

Prominent businesswomen include Zhang Lan, founder of the South Beauty chain of restaurants and Dong Mingzhu, CEO of GREE air conditioning company.

Hu Shuli, the financial journalist at the helm of Caixin Media, has an international reputation that has seen her win awards including the World Press Review’s 2003 International Editor of the Year.

For two years running, in 2009 and again in 2010, she was named by US magazine Foreign Policy as a Top 100 Global Thinker.

The independent journalist and historian Dai Qing was one of the forces behind China’s nascent environmental movement in the mid-1980s, and continues her tireless advocacy for human rights, democracy and environmental protection.

Hong Huang is a well-known media mogul, microblogger and television host, whose projects include the high-profile promotion of Chinese design brands.

The list is long.

Yet Chinese women’s representation at the highest levels of the Chinese political sphere has rarely been more than token.

There has not been a woman in the ruling Chinese Communist Party government since Wu Yi (one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2004) retired from her position as Vice-Premier on the State Council in 2008.

The most prominent Chinese Internet celebrity of the first decade of the 21st century was, arguably, Xu Jinglei, an unmarried film director and actor.

After long-form blogging became the medium du jour from 2005 to 2008, tens of millions of fans logged onto Xu’s blog on a daily basis, for her independent, down-to-earth take on life, and her willingness to share non glamorous photographs with her fans.

In 2010, Xu directed Go La La Go! (Du Lala shengzhi ji), a film about a young professional woman’s struggle to balance work and life.

Disappointingly, the era of the microblog (Weibo in Chinese), which started with the launch of Sina Weibo in 2009, does not give credence to female role models such as Hu Shuli, and Dai Qing, because it celebrates brashness and materialism while portraying women as sexualised and subservient.

Although there are still independent female voices of authority and intelligence, the ones who appear to get most of the attention in this new ‘micro’ climate are women like Guo Meimei Baby – famous for flashing pictures of herself with extravagant items on Weibo; and model and trendsetter Zhou Rui Emily, who popularised the so called B-cover skirt – which she says are minis just long enough to cover a woman’s private parts.

Perhaps most notorious was Ma Nuo, a twenty-year-old female contestant on a TV dating show in 2010, who famously said that she would ‘rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle’.

In contrast to Xu Jinglei’s 2010 film, the biggest hit film with young women in early 2013 was Tiny Times (Xiao shidai).

Directed and produced by male pulp novelist Guo Jingming, the film depicts four young women whose main aim in life appears to be snagging a rich husband.

Writing in the Atlantic magazine Ying Zhu and Frances Hisgen noted that the women’s “professional aspirations amount to serving men with competence” and that the only “enduring relationship” in the superficial world portrayed by the film is “the chicks’ relationship with material goods”.

Zhu and Hisgen call the male-scripted film “a great leap backward for women” that portrays “a twisted male narcissism”, along with a “male desire for patriarchal power and control over female bodies and emotions misconstrued as female longing”.


Jeremy Goldkorn, is the founder of Danwei Media in Beijing, an a collaborator with the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

This is an edited extract from the new book China Story Yearbook 2013 ‘Civilising China’, co-edited by Goldkorn and to be launched by CIW this Thursday.

Download the book at

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