Inside China's 'virtue schools' for women

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Screenshot of a Pear Video piece on Chinese virtue schoolsImage source, Pear Video
Image caption,
A recent video exposing a "virtue school" in China showed women forced to clean floors while on their hands and knees

Centres training women to be "virtuous" have sprung up across China in recent years, telling women that career and femininity do not mix and forcing them to do menial work. But what are these institutes really about?

When news broke that "female virtues" were being taught to women in a traditional cultural institute in Fushun city in northern China, the whole country was enraged.

Some of the core messages delivered to women who attended the school went like this:

  • "Career women don't end well."
  • "Women should just stay at the bottom level of society and shouldn't attempt to go up."
  • "Women must always obey the orders of their fathers, husbands and sons."
  • "Never fight back when your husband is beating you, and never argue when your husband is scolding you."
  • "If a woman has sex with more than three men, she could catch disease and die."

The Fushun local government was quick to react. "The institute's teachings went against social morality," said Fushun's education bureau in an official statement.

Pressured by mounting criticism in Chinese press and social media, city authorities immediately ordered the closure of the six-year-old institute.

Seventeen-year-old Jing, who once attended the Fushun centre, told the BBC that she was very happy to see the result.

When Jing was just 13, she was told she was "naughty" and sent to the institute by her mother, who hoped that some cultural education would instil discipline.

Like many parents who forced their children to attend such training, Jing's mother grew up in the countryside and received little education.

Jing could still remember the ordeal. "As part of the training, I was forced to clean the toilets using my bare hands." she recalled. "How disgusting!"

They taught her that was what women were supposed to do, and that women were born to serve the men. Jing still doesn't understand why she wasn't given gloves to clean toilets, nor why the process had to involve such unnecessary hardship.

Image source, Pear Video
Image caption,
One lecturer advises that whatever a husband asks, the reply should be "Yes, no problem, right away"

Another important teaching method was to have students confess wrongdoings to their parents and ancestors.

Jing said the class's curriculum ranged from reciting ancient doctrines and hands-on training for domestic chores, to psychotherapy-style group sharing sessions.

What disgusted Jing the most, she said, was when the class showed video interviews of "cured women".

"They claimed they had sex with more than one man and because of that they had festering sores all over their body," Jing recalled. "But they were all miraculously cured after they learned 'traditional virtues' and became good women."

"The seven-day training camp was no place for a normal person. I couldn't stand its brainwashing any longer. So on the fourth night, I climbed over the iron fence and ran away."

Many educated white-collar people in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai might find the existence of such classes shocking and absurd.

But in reality, these outdated values have always lingered in smaller Chinese cities, especially in rural areas.

Image source, Pear Video
Image caption,
During China's feudal era such "female virtues" had been widely accepted

In May, university students in central China's Jiujiang city were lectured on the importance of female virginity and told that dressing in a revealing way was verging on vulgar behaviour; while in 2014, a cultural centre in Dongguan city taught members that a career woman might as well cut off her uterus and breasts.

In one infamous case in 2005, a young female migrant worker jumped out of a seventh-floor window to escape prostitution in the southern city of Shenzhen. Her choice of virginity over her life was considered courageous and her action was praised throughout the country.

For thousands of years during China's feudal era such "female virtues" had been widely accepted as a code of conduct for women.

These included obeying one's father, husband and son; valuing and guarding one's virginity; and understanding that a woman without talent was virtuous.

These rules were taught at homes and schools, and used as tools to enslave and suppress women in ancient China.

It was not until Chairman Mao made his famous assertion that "women hold up half of the sky", after the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, that Chinese women started to rise in social status.

The possibility that feudal ideas may be making a comeback, in the name of traditional culture, is a real concern to many.

Making money

But ideology may not be the sole motivating force behind these institutes.

Take the Fushun cultural centre. It was approved by Fushun's civil affair bureau as a "public welfare mass organisation", and was never given accreditation to run schools.

But that didn't stop its founders from opening schools and training camps in various cities across China. It had more than 10,000 students before it shut down, according to media reports.

The enterprise was funded entirely by donations from students, said the institute's headmaster Kang Jinsheng in a promotional video. It also ran a side business making traditional Chinese costumes and selling them online or supplying them for cultural events.

Image source, Pear Video
Image caption,
Students were asked to kneel in front of a painting of Confucius and confess their "sins"

The centre targeted families who had troubled teenagers and promised to change them through its version of traditional culture. It also advertised to companies and said its teachings could help a more harmonious office environment.

Another similar centre in Dongguan was registered as an events and performance company, yet it was recruiting students and collecting tuition fees. It was shut down by the local government in 2014 on charges of profit-making in the name of charity.

Such centres are suspected of making money under the pretext of promoting traditional Chinese culture. Many have been shut down because of their questionable legal status or uncertified teaching content.

But there are plenty that are still operating. Even though Fushun's main centre has been shut down, its other branches are still up and running.

Support group

So can such ideas really have a market in China?

Most students have tended to be rural women with little education, some in unhappy marriages where they were mistreated by their husbands.

They found comfort in meeting other women with similar problems, and the lessons taught in these centres - that women were of a lower status than men - seemed to have provided an explanation and solution to their problems.

In one leaked video, a female student said she attended the classes because her husband hoped she could regain a woman's "soft" and "obedient" nature.

Image source, Pear Video
Image caption,
Most of the schools can be found in smaller, rural cities

By gathering regularly and sharing each other's stories, these women formed a support group. Many ended up working as volunteers for the institute and helped to teach new students.

"The fundamental help needs to come from policymakers," said Xie Lihua, editor of Rural Women magazine and an expert on women issues in China.

"Lack of education, social support and legal protection for women's rights in rural areas have provided grounds for such ideology."

She pointed out that without such protection, more serious issues facing rural women, such as the sexual assault of young girls and non-entitlement to land, would not get resolved either.

As for these "female virtue classes", Ms Xie said they should not be treated seriously.

"The tide of history can't be overturned. Chinese society has moved on towards gender equality. The right thing to do is to give it a laugh and forget it."