Growing Up Female
WHEN PEOPLE STROLL by the banks of a lotus pond, enjoying the sight of budding lotus flowers," began a 1985 handbook for young women,
they cannot help but be deeply affected by the purity, grace, and vitality of the flowers, their beauty that emerges unstained from the mire, their noble qualities.
And they naturally associate this with fair, slim, and graceful young girls. . . . Girls entering the age of young womanhood (ages fourteen to eighteen) undergo great physiological changes. . . . How this stage develops, how the basis is laid, often will deeply affect their entire lives. For this reason, enabling them to grow up healthy, and not become deformed or break when they are washed by wind and rain or infested by "insect pests," is not only the urgent desire of young women themselves, but also a matter of deep concern to their elders, teachers, relatives, and friends.1
When a young woman reached adolescence in 1980's China, her elders regarded her as uniquely beautiful and uniquely vulnerable. She became the target of publications that sought to guide and protect her by explaining female capabilities and describing proper female behavior. The advice literature discussed the two social roles she would play as an adult: worker at paid productive labor, and worker at unpaid reproductive labor-that is, as wife and mother. This chapter analyzes the messages young women received about how to fill the first role by choosing a career appropriate to female capabilities.
Although much advice literature concerned areas of public controversy, the opinions of adolescent women themselves were heard very little in the discussion. Unlike older women, whose views on love and courtship, marriage, family relations, and divorce appear later in this book, young women from ages fourteen to eighteen were expected to listen and to ask questions, not to hold forth themselves.2 Because most of the writing about adolescence in 1980's China was of this type, this chapter and Chapter 2 of necessity draw largely upon the words of adults to explore the experience of adolescents. They risk describing things as adults would like them to be, rather than as they are. Yet by listening to the voices of adults as they explain, cajole, chastise, and warn, it is possible to learn