The News from China: Female Solidarity in the Academy

I was thrilled to learn that the Chinese have a tremendous appreciation for the Jewish and Israeli mind, particularly at a time when new waves of anti-Semitism are washing over Europe.

October 6, 2014 17:50
3 minute read.
Women pose as tourists crowd bridge above West Lake, on  national holiday in Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Three women pose for a selfie as tourists crowd on a bridge above the West Lake, on the third day of the seven-day national holiday in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province . (photo credit: REUTERS)

A Hebrew speaker uses the phrase “it’s Chinese to me” to signify that the matter is entirely incomprehensible. The phrase has infiltrated Hebrew literature as well, and the title of one of Israeli author Savyon Liebrecht’s novels is I’m Speaking to You in Chinese.

At a recent conference I attended in Beijing for women leaders in the world of higher education, I asked several Chinese women what they knew about Nushu script, that ancient Chinese syllabic script that was invented by women thousands of years ago and passed down from mother to daughter. In the past, only women knew how to read Nushu script, since they never left the house from the moment their feet were bound – between the ages of five to eight – until their wedding day. Nushu was apparently the only written language in the world that was created by and for women, as Lisa See relates in her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Nushu was not just an important form of communication among women, but also a means of creative expression, emotional support, and female solidarity, as well as a socially sanctioned escape from the loneliness that was their lot. 

The Chinese women had heard about Nushu script, but they did not know much beyond the fact that it was the only gendered script in the world. Only one of the conference attendees was able to relate to us that in the 1960s, an elderly woman fainted in a railway station in China. When they searched her possessions in order to identify her, they found pages filled with unfamiliar symbols. Since this was during the Cultural Revolution, they arrested the woman as a suspected spy. Only later did Chinese scholars decipher the secret code, which today is fully legal, even though very few women are familiar with it. 

The presidents and rectors of universities worldwide had come to the conference in Beijing not to invent a new gendered language but rather to discuss issues related to women in the academy: barriers to their advancement, the work-life balance, and relevant policy and legislation. 

It is not a glass ceiling that keeps women out of senior management roles in the academy, said one of the participants - it is a wall of men. 

We, the guests who had arrived from various countries around the world, asked ourselves why our hosts had gone to such lengths and devoted so many resources to host us all. We never received an official answer, but the (female) assistant to the (male) Minister of Education intimated that China recognizes the importance of higher education and its impact on economic development and on China’s participation in the global economy, and therefore saw fit to invest in it. 

As is well known, Mao Zedung was responsible for the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, which was intended as a political, cultural, and social overhaul of the country. The Red Guard went around shutting down universities, persecuting artists, journalists, and intellectuals, and destroying ancient historical vestiges such as religious temples. The Cultural Revolution had a devastating impact on Chinese society. Millions were killed, and Chinese culture and economy suffered deeply. 

China went on to prioritize higher education: Thousands of Chinese students traveled to the West to pursue doctoral studies and to familiarize themselves with the Western educational system, and they returned and established new institutions of higher learning in China. Many Chinese scholars continue to travel to the West, and hundreds of academic institutions—both public and private—have sprung up in China like mushrooms after a rainstorm.

As an Israeli, I felt wonderful. I was thrilled to learn that the Chinese have a tremendous appreciation for the Jewish and Israeli mind, particularly at a time when new waves of anti-Semitism are washing over Europe. 

Will the new academic network help women advance in the academy? 

Only time will tell. 

Professor Aliza Shenhar is the provost of the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College

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