Council on Anthropology and Education
Oral Presentation Session
In China as in many places, women are now attending college in greater numbers than men. The proportion of women in Chinese colleges went from 20 percent in 1999 to 52.5 percent in 2016. Based on long-term fieldwork in high schools and colleges, this paper investigates an under-examined aspect of this revolution: the educational aspirations of rural women. Women of rural origin make up over a quarter of China’s population and are going to university in ever-increasing numbers. Like their male counterparts, these women see education as a way “out of the countryside.” But in many rural areas, where a “traditional” culture of “valuing boys over girls” persists, girls often have to fight to attend college. They do so by outdoing boys in educational diligence, which has long been perceived as a masculine virtue of “filial piety” (xiaoshun). This religiously inflected and complexly gendered concept refers to children’s filial obligations to parents. My paper analyzes how educated rural-to-urban migrant women continue to inhabit many aspects of “traditional” virtuous femininity, including gendered care work, while pursuing a “modern” quest for personal development in the cities. In negotiating between personal aspirations and social expectations in education, marriage, and work, they combine two seemingly paradoxical approaches to agency: disciplined performance of cultural ideals (Mahmood) and principled resistance to cultural norms (de Beauvoir/Butler). Their innovative cultural strategies trouble this binary and constitute an emergent politics of filial piety, the analysis of which helps to illuminate new configurations of social life in China and beyond.