China’s Third Gender (can you guess?)

Apparently there are now three genders in China, with the third being a relatively recent addition. Can you guess who? The photo below is what I copied off the board when my teacher explained it.

Keep guessing. I’ll explain in a minute. (Hint: “男” means male and “女” means female.)

In North America, if one spouse looks like a supermodel and the other ‘has a nice personality,’ it looks a little odd and/or suspicious to us. We’ll at least take notice. I can’t think of any marriages off the top of my head that transcend economic class lines. We (North Americans) start practicing for this in the junior high dating scene and keep at it all the way through college; best-friends and boyfriends/girlfriends are sorted and paired according to their relative degree of (imagined) sex appeal. And unlike our professors’ generations, education levels are more even between spouses. It gets a little more complicated after the school years, but the system is set. Generally, we aim roughly for a spouse who’s more or less our social equal.

But in China – according to my teachers – this is decidedly not the way to go, particularly as far as the men are concerned. A man feels the need to be a little higher than his woman, socially speaking. And this brings us to the chart from class in the photo:

  • “A”-class males (superior education and prospects, good-looking) prefer “B”-class women (decent education, not bad looks);
  • “B”-males go for “C”-women;
  • a “C”-male’s best shot is a “D”-class woman;
  • “D”-males (poor, rural, no high school education, no prospects) are out of luck.

My teacher just arbitrarily created these particular categories to make a point; she’s not saying that Mainlanders divide their society into four sections. But Mainlanders do typically plot each other on a well-defined social hierarchy; knowing one another’s relative social position is a necessity. Everyone knows where they stand status-wise in relation to everyone around them. This also came out in one of Jessica’s dating discussions with some local university students.

This idea that the man ought to be of higher status than his wife and that his superiority should be routinely affirmed by the methods of social interaction is rooted in the traditional Chinese concept of manhood, which involves (as my teachers described it) him coming home from work, sitting in front of the T.V., and ordering his wife around, who brings him whatever he wants while she slaves away cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and mothering. She should take orders and serve meekly, especially in front of her husband’s colleagues (when ‘face’ is at stake). They call Chinese-style chauvinism 大男子主义 – “Big-Man-ism” – and apparently Shandong province and Koreans are notorious for this. It’s part of the “feudal” pre-Liberation (1949) sexism that values men more than women (重男轻女; lit. “man heavy, light woman”).

Although my female teachers look down on this chauvinistic attitude, I seriously wonder who would generally be more attractive to the average Zhou Chinese female: a man of equal education and job prospects, or a man who’s a step up. I’m not talking about “gold-diggers” here; I want to know if a higher status male on average commands more genuine masculine attractiveness than an equal status male.

Now of course you ought to realize I don’t know anything about this myself; I’m just passing it along because it was interesting, a little funny, and a fascinating place to start asking culture questions, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The third gender? Women with Ph.Ds. These “A”-class women are so far outside the traditional definition of “woman” and have such trouble finding husbands and realizing the female roles of wife and mother that our teachers joke that they’re like a third gender.

9 thoughts on “China’s Third Gender (can you guess?)”

  1. Dude I’ve been joking with one of my friends Lex about how we need to get him a mail order Russian. Thing is he’d be board of her in two seconds becuase he’s so smart. Think you could hook us up with one of those class A’s. I’d pay a decent wage to get her over here! (This is just a joke, I hope I’m not over stepping any boundaries or insulting anyone.)

  2. Much of this perspective, 重男轻女 and various similar expressions seem to be rooted in 儒家, for which Confucius and his colleagues receive credit.

    Have you heard people make cracks about 三高? 高学历、高薪水、高年龄. (Highly educated, high wage-earners, and “high” age), which can amount to impossible to marry off. Following your evaluation, it seems the joke is on that category of women who make up the “3rd gender”. What a tragedy!

    In your opinion, do macho-men in China feel threatened by such women?

  3. I’m going to ask my teachers about 三高。 That sounds like it’d be fun.

    I can’t answer your second question. The Canadian in me wants to heap a bunch of arrogant post-Sexual Revolution scorn on such men who are too personally weak to handle confident and independent women, but as I don’t really understand this particular Chinese situation at all, I’ll try to keep my imperialistic ethnocentric judgments to myself for now. =)

    I suspect we’re all more the products of our time than we’d like to think, so while I won’t apologize for thinking that women and men should get equal treatment, I don’t want to forget to show people some grace and humility.

  4. Yes, grace and humility… and dignity.

    Chinese friends here make fun of the “women are persons” statement from Nellie McClung (Canadian suffragists), saying something disparaging, to the effect of “see, that’s the inequality between men and women”. I nod, smile, and pretend not to have heard clearly.

    uhm, let’s not, in the present climate, talk about imperialism eh? =)

  5. I don’t get it. What’s their meaning?

    Pretending not to have heard clearly really comes in handy sometimes. Of course, most of the time I don’t have to pretend! =)

  6. It was, I think (BIG assumption) that they are referring to the ways in which other countries are different from 我国.

    I have a photo of the statue that commemorates the 1929 declaration that allowed women into the Canadian Senate and the electoral roster, among other things. When they said, “那是男女地位不平,” my Chinese friends largely fail to see that the status of women has only been “equal” since 1949. The “3rd gender” suggests that it inequality is still a pervasive phenomenon.

    As for not hearing clearly, even my teacher uses that tactic! If it works for her, then surely I can borrow it! =)

  7. It actually goes both way: A women would never marry a man that is poor. Before marrying her, that man would have to not only shows he has good character, respect her, and treat her nicely, but also that he deals well with her family and has the three 房子車子票子 to be considered good enough. If he doesn’t, the girl has all the rights to turn him down as he just doesn’t “pass it” to reach the level for marrying her.

  8. China’s third gender is China’s nonbinary-identified trans* and intersex people, who have plenty enough troubles without you pretending they don’t exist.

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