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'I push myself to do even better than men in a male-dominated field'

CHINESE women are supposed to be modest and ladylike (with inner steel, of course), and there's scarcely a whisper about shattering stereotypes and storming the bastions of convention and guys-only professions.

Still, we're making progress. This is only the beginning.

We know about successful businesswomen and CEOs, women doctors, lawyers, detectives, scientists, engineers. Female taikonauts are reported to be in training.

Publicly recognized super-successful women are commonly called "superwomen" or elite women - nu qiang ren, literally meaning "female strong beings."

Here we take a look at lesser-known strong beings - they're not in business or show biz, they're not rich or powerful.

They are in unusual professions (so far) for women - with a dash of danger and risk. Sissies need not apply. This is about as far from "office lady" as you can get.

We introduce you to a lady lion-and-tiger tamer, a panther feeder, a group of female prison guards, and the first Chinese female captain in civil aviation - she skippers Airbuses to Europe and North America.

Because of the hazards and skills required (especially for the pilot), the jobs don't have many takers, men or women.

No one says "ladies first" and opens the door for them. Most get no public holidays. They go through rigorous training "just like men" and push themselves to surpass their male colleagues.

"Nobody pushes me and my bosses take good care of me. But I push myself to do even better than men in the male-dominated aviation field," says 46-year-old female airline captain Wang Qiying. She has been flying for China Eastern Airlines for almost 10 years.

"If men's passing score is 60, I'll make it 80 for myself," says the former Air Force light transport pilot.

When these women are on the job, they really are nu qiang ren, tough physically and mentally. But they are less admired than rich businesswomen and professionals; their jobs don't appeal to most ladies.

Outside of work, they seem no different from other women, except for some signs of strong will and refreshing directness that flash from time to time.

The unarmed women guards in a high-security prison are not the big, tough, masculine and cold types we see in TV or movies.

Lion tamer Li Liang is afraid of mice and cockroaches.

Captain Wang says: "I'm just an ordinary woman. I love everything that a woman fancies."

Beauty and the beast make an engaging couple. And on stage, 35-year-old lion tamer Li Liang from Shanghai Circus World is just such a head-turner with a nice shape, long black hair, big eyes and soft voice.

Up close, you can see fading scratches and scars, many on her arms and one on her face that required five stitches. Her hair now covers it.

Li tames, trains and performs with five beasts - she calls them her "babies" - two lions and three tigers, all males. Wearing a short gladiator-type costume, helmet and boots, and holding a whip, she commands them to sit, stand on their hind feet, walk forward and turn around.

She also pets them and even lies down alongside the beasts, a common circus act.

The hard part is ordering them to leap over her body as she lies on the stage.

It is a cliche that a second in the footlights requires 10 years of sweat behind the scenes.

Li's scariest scar is on her lower left arm, millimeters away from the vein, it took 10 stitches with no anesthesia because the painkiller would have made the skin swell.

Li just smiles and defends her "babies."

"Most of the scars are from 10 years ago, when I just started training them," she says. They were kittens then, only six months old, "and it was only normal for them to strike out in fear when a stranger like me came close."

The new scratches, she says "are just accidents - they just wanted to play with me and didn't realize their own strength." She once collided with a lion, and that hurt.

Li became Shanghai's only woman animal trainer 10 years ago. A former acrobat performer, she joined the circus as a dog trainer when she was 22. She had worried about her short-lived acrobatic career and knew she needed a switch.

"I always loved pets like cats and dogs, so I grabbed the dog-training offer," recalls Li. She has no extra energy to raise a pet at home as she splits life between the five beasts and her husband, a lawyer.

Three years later, the boss asked her to train the new lions and tigers, since she was the youngest on the team.

"Of course, I was scared. I was never a brave girl. I still scream when I see mice or cockroaches," says Li. The offer was enticing and she thought about it for six months as she got to know the cubs with a trainer.

"I was tricked into agreeing by those cute and lonely creatures," says Li. "You don't feel the danger when they're so little."

The work isn't just about taming and training, she says. "There are definitely emotional attachments, or else I wouldn't stay so long."

Her income is only 3,000-5,000 yuan (US$440-US$730) a month, not much in Shanghai.

"I feel like their mother and friend at the same time, which is different from dogs and cats. Lions and tigers have their pride, and they are very smart."

Li knows when her babies are unhappy, lonely or just lazy and playing tricks. They're lazy in training on show days because they know they won't get punished with the whip before the show. On other days, they're perfect angels.

On typical non-show days, Li takes her cats outside for a walk in the restricted area in the circus city. She feeds them meat, cleans their enclosures and trains them.

She says she sees lions and tigers almost more than humans. "That's why I almost have no friends outside," says the lady lion tamer. Most friends are other performers and acrobats.

She got married when she was 31 after two years of dating.

Her family worries about her safety and urges her to be careful.

She takes them to her shows and training to ease their minds.

It is the same for 39-year-old Ma Xuejie who has been feeding around 10 panthers and leopards, the medium-size cats, at Shanghai Zoo for six years. She has been there for 11 years.

Although keepers are required to stay outside the enclosures, Ma still received many scratches, mostly dating from the days before the zoo was relocated and enclosures were less secure. The gaps between bars were wider and she had to get close to toss the meat in.

Ma has a long scratch on her waist, but she defends her animals just as Li protects her "babies." She gets excited when the cats can spot her among the tourists after she changes back to her own clothes.

"I never knew I was brave before I started feeding them," Ma says.

Wang Qiying's dream was more than flying. When she first saw big airliners at eight years old, she wanted to become a captain. She joined the Air Force and piloted light transports.

Her big skippering dream came true five years ago, when she was promoted to captain after three years as a copilot for China Eastern Airlines, the third largest of China's big three carriers.

Wang, now 46, was the first woman pilot for a major Chinese airline and the first woman captain. Today she is still the only known woman captain for a big airline.

"It's normal that they hesitate about recruiting women pilots. Males are generally considered braver and better at mechanical things," says Wang, who comes from a military family.

"But gender isn't really the deciding factor when it comes to what jobs one can do. The learning curve and adaptability differ from one person to another. So why not hire more women pilots since I have done it and physical strength is not an issue?"

Wang flies Airbus A330s and A340s. The A340 has a long-range, four-engine wide body with a capacity of 290 passengers. She flies routes to Europe and North America.

Before joining civil aviation, Wang was in the Air Force for 18 years in the transport section. She flew AN-2s, single-engine biplanes carrying 12 passengers.

Wang joined the Air Force when she was 17 and became the fifth generation of women pilots and the first since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The Air Force drafts women pilots every six to 10 years to fill just 20-40 spots.

Wang was not the first woman pilot to want to fly airliners, but they all were turned down. It was the same for her at first.

"They just told me that the airliners were bigger and more difficult to operate. They didn't think women could do it," recalls Wang. "I persisted, 'How could you say no without giving me a chance to try?' I said."

She tried out, passed the test and became a copilot in 2000.

Wang says she's lucky to work in a field dominated by men, "since my male colleagues often take care of me because I'm the only woman."

But nobody can help her when she's in the air.

Even after she passed the test and joined the airline, many people doubted her ability.

"I require myself to do even better than men in the male-dominated field," Wang says. "If their passing score is 60, I'll make it 80 for myself."

Her efforts have paid off and she has earned the respect of colleagues who had been skeptical. Her male copilots don't consider it an embarrassment to take orders from a woman, she says.

"It was difficult going for a while, but it was worth it. After the men acknowledge my ability, they just don't consider gender that important anymore," says Wang.

She encourages young women with a dream of flying not to hesitate "as long as they are brave, outgoing and careful - all characteristics that will help operate an advanced aircraft system."

And they need to be prepared for the long working hours, demands for high concentration and all-male cockpit environment.

Asked about dangerous moments, Wang asks, "What is dangerous?"

For her, bad weather and forced landings are just part of the job.

As 46-year-old police officer Wang Yu carries out her routine cell inspection, many women held in custody pause in their conversations to say "hi."

It's not a forced greeting to the boss, nor forced "hello" out of fear. It's a mixture of respect and friendliness and it comes naturally as they do it every day.

Wang returns the greeting and sometimes stops to chat about how newcomers are adapting to the place, how they're feeling - or to compliment them on their new haircut.

Wang belongs to the unarmed female guard team for the Detention House of Shanghai in Pudong. There are 17 women, ranging from 31 to 54 years old. The unit is under the Shanghai Police Department rather than Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Prison Administration.

It is the only facility for women held in custody who are awaiting sentencing, women sentenced to death and those sentenced to 15 years or more. Two of them await execution elsewhere. A convicted murderer who killed two men was executed two weeks ago.

It's also the only place for foreign women prisoners.

"It's a hard job for women, especially married ones, because you have to keep alert, continue training and work long hours," says Wang.

"But many women out there are doing more difficult and dangerous things, like our security colleagues on the street."

The women guards usually get 20-hour day shifts or 12-hour night shifts - no sleep, no public holidays.

All guards are married and only the youngest doesn't have a child. More than half of them are married to a policeman and most others are married to people in the security field. They either graduated from police academies or transferred from the army.

None is like the stereotype of the stern, brawny, domineering guard.

"After all, prisoners are human beings just like us. They have their rights and emotions," says 33-year-old Zhang Wenxia. "Why should we rule over them when we can chat with them and persuade them to change their lives?"

She often gets assigned to death penalty prisoners in addition to her normal routine.

"I usually just chat informally, except for formal education sessions. I only get severe when they violate regulations."

A graduate from the police academy, Zhang started her job in prison right after school. Over 11 years, she has taken charge of at least eight women sentenced to death.

These are often the difficult ones, not only because some are very tough but also because they lack incentive to follow the rules - after all, they will die anyway.

Some must wait for more than a year for their case to be reviewed and the death sentence to be affirmed. It can be a long difficult time, waiting for death and many panic and refuse to communicate or cooperate.

"The death penalty prisoners are the toughest, but somehow I manage," says Zhang. "It's better to talk to them straight than to pretend to be nice."

Her son is in first grade, but because of her hours Zhang has never picked him up from school or attended a parent-teacher conference. Her businessman husband takes over these tasks.

Many of her guard colleagues are not as fortunate, such as Wang Yu. Wang's husband is a policeman and her 17-year-old son is facing the National College Entrance Examination. She can't be there for him, though she wants to be.

"My son never complains because he understands us," says Wang. "What's better, he is also more disciplined than his classmates and friends. After all, what can you do when you have two cop parents?"


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