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March 6, 2012

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Courses unlock ladies' potential

AS International Women's Day rolls around, Shanghai's working women find themselves facing more opportunities and more pressure from work and family. They are carving out time for the inner woman. Fei Lai reports.

Women increasingly are taking self-improvement courses in an effort to become more culturally sophisticated, spiritually aware and better able to balance the pressures of career and family life.

In the run-up to International Women's Day (Thursday, March 8) a college alliance for women has opened in Shanghai for lifelong learning, in a joint effort with the Shanghai Women's Federation.

Though there are courses to develop professional skills, the emphasis is not on employment but on personal development and expanding a woman's overall capacity in marriage and family life.

A wide range of courses is offered on weekends and weekday evenings at various locations around the city. They include female etiquette, how to deal with domestic servants, how to conduct a tea ceremony, flowers arrangement, makeup skills, writing, calligraphy, photography and child rearing. There are also courses in applying Confucian values in modern times and in traditional Chinese culture.

Women can learn how to prepare healthy meals in the traditional one month's post-natal confinement or yuezi (a virtual requirement of traditional Chinese medicine), though the new mother doesn't cook for herself. Prospective grandmothers under age 65 can take a course in how to care for their newborn grandchildren. "New female Shanghainese" (migrants) can study Shanghai dialect.

In China's big cities, especially those like Shanghai, women are pulled between career and family - though family always wins out since marriage and career are seen as the paramount concerns in a woman's life. Balancing career and family can be stressful since women are supposed to be wife, mother and often household manager, with little personal time for themselves. There's also pressure on women to acquire wealth (and men with wealth) and to flaunt material possessions as a sign of status.

Psychologically harried, more and more women try to carve out some personal space and fulfill their own spiritual needs in a demanding society.

"The courses aim to help Shanghai's 11.6 million women pursue happiness and realize their individual capacities," says Zhang Lili, chairman of the Shanghai Women's Federation.

The courses attract a range of students.

Tang Xin, a 28-year-old physician, is taking a class in etiquette or "women's social manners." She watches a teacher demonstrate how a woman should sit and move. She imitates her teacher and learns to act more gracefully. She learns how to dress properly for different occasions.

"As a doctor, a white coat is my uniform. The class teaches me how what I wear can show respect to others. It's so rewarding," she says.

Chen Biru, a teacher from the college alliance, says the first phase of the course has attracted more than 30 women ranging in age from their 20s to their 40s.

"Etiquette is needed everywhere," Chen says. "Good appearance and good manners will give women more credibility."

Xu Lan, another teacher, mainly gives courses in Confucianism and traditional Chinese culture. Taking these courses can help women today relieve stress and achieve a balance of life and work, Xu says.

"Unlike other training centers targeting women, these courses are not for the purpose of employment. It's all about personal progress and cultivation of character."

Hong Xiangyang, Chief Career Development Mentor of Sunward Career Management Consulting Group, says that after the 1980s, Chinese women started to enjoy greater opportunities for their career and their professional and intellectual fulfillment. "Women's situation has changed greatly, with a growing focus now on manners, inner qualities and growth of mind and soul," Hong says.

She says the courses at the new college alliance major areas of knowledge for a woman's growth. Cooking for postnatal confinement and infant care cannot be taught in regular schools, she says.

Hong calls the courses "a good way for women to build their own network outside their family and career, to get support from other women and to better manage their time."

Lisa Lin, a consultant with two sons, has no extra time for networking since she devotes all her time to job and family. But she decided she had to make time for herself to take a night class in photography. She has also found more women like herself. "Photography helps me find undiscovered beauty in life," Lin says. "This cultivation of women's talents and moral education is necessary. Before society gets too materialistic, we need to find something peaceful and spiritual."

Steven Zhang, senior human resources consultant from, says women need to equip themselves not only with new knowledge and skills, but also inner attainments.

"Using educational resources for self-improvement is important in a new era in which career-focused women will never give up their family life," Zhang says.

Confucius on women

Confucius once said that it was very hard to live in peace with women and small-minded people. If you get close to them, they become unruly. If you keep them at a distance, they will grumble, he famously said.

Liu Xiang, a famous Confucian scholar of the Han Dynasty (206 BC -220 AD), wrote a tutorial for women called "Lie Nu Zhuan" ("Biographies of Eminent Chinese Women"). Among many other things, educated women of the time were required to strictly observe the three obediences and four feminine virtues.

The obediences are obeying her father before marriage, her husband after marriage and her sons in widowhood. The four virtues are morality, proper speech, modest manner and diligent work.

Vases and vinegar

In Chinese culture, women are frequently compared to vases, beautiful when young. A pretty but incompetent or empty headed woman is often called a pretty vase.

In middle age, she may be compared to a vinegar bottle (bitter, jealous) and in old age both women and men may be called medicine bottles (sickly).


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