Review of Leta Hong Fincher’s Leftover Women – The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, Zed Books, April 10, 2014 - 5/5 stars
BEIJING - I remember I read a The New York Times piece by Leta Hong Fincher about her forthcoming book and later discovered that her famed journalist husband, Michael Forsythe, is now with The New York Times. Good for her to intermarry, was my first thought -and nice to know the ropes.
Which brings us to Ms. Fincher's views on Chinese women, marriage, the lack of Western-style liberalism in China and her mission to change that.
Here is her book's core message:
"Contrary to the stereotypes of single, professional women being miserable and lonely, I will show that the reality is quite the opposite: it is young women rushing into marriage too early that tend to wind up in trouble."
Sex and Chinese women sells. So does the idea of a repressive Chinese government. There were almost identical favorable ‘reviews’ in key Western media such as The Economist, The Diplomat, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, BBC, Business Week -you name it.
Having never seen anything quite like such a first-class co-ordinated Western media support, naturally I wondered what advice Ms. Fincher could possibly give to educated Chinese women -apart from marrying an influential man to boost her career? Is she maybe a bit out of touch with the common women without their usual Harvard degrees and connection to The New York Times who have to settle for less?
Mr. Forsythe became the household name of (Anglo-Saxon-led) Western journalism about China -a nation and society that has been consistently demonized by all the above media as a threat to Western values and hegemony. He became a hero for his investigative reporting into the wealth of China's current president, Xi Jinping, and his family.
Her husband wouldn't by chance have anything to do with his woman’s media success? In her book's acknowledgements, Ms. Fincher says he would:
“Finally, I thank Mike Forsythe, my most conscientious editor and my greatest champion. You cheered me on whenever I doubted myself. I am so grateful to have you by my side.”
And grateful she should be, indeed, as her book also got a great review by Bloomberg, Mr. Forsythe’s former employer. With so much stellar support, I guess, everything else just falls into place.
Choose your husband wisely
This planetary success of Ms. Fincher, a postgrad, with a sugar daddy at The New York Times is all rather irritating. I mean, aren't we scholars supposed to write original stuff that isn't understood for the next hundred years?
Before this media hype and her fame existed (he and she are Twitter celebrities) your author contacted Ms. Fincher, a doctoral candidate at Beijing's Tsinghua University, for a possible co-operation on an article about Chinese mistress culture. Boy, had I no idea in which elite journalism circles she frequents, that her husband was a U.S. Navy veteran and journalist titan out there to expose Xi Jinping, and that they were (for months) already preparing for a massive global marketing campaign for her 'gender book' -no less a harsh critique of the Chinese government. She must have thought I am a fan-boy.
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Ms. Fincher informed me she wouldn't be in Beijing for months (she lives in Hong Kong). Ah, see, this is precisely what I always tell my journalist and political friends: Get into a PhD program; you don’t have to be physically there, and after 3-5 years on your job, bam, you can also call yourself a ‘doctor’. I am not saying that to hurry Ms. Fincher in any way; on the contrary, she is career-driven and very clever, so that's why other professionals could learn a lot here.
You may think Why is all this important for this book? Well, for once Ms. Fincher is investigating Chinese women and “Christmas Cakes.” A Christmas cake, if not eaten during Christmas –December 25 and 26- will have defeated its purpose, be dried and stale, and ultimately may be thrown away. Do we blame Western Christianity for this mess? (Already, now 'left-over' moved to December 31 -New Year's Eve). No, of course not, we blame the Chinese government for Chinese parents who are eager -possible out of tradition- to urge their one-child-policy daughters to find an influential husband soon after graduation, or meet him during university (graduates from Peking University and Tsinghua University literally practice academic inbreeding), because that’s when the choices are still plenty.
Marriage, calculation, and materialism
It's precisely what Ms. Fincher did, too, snatching a powerful man while still in her education; although it can be argued she may be more mature than most of her Chinese fellow students. But is Ms. Fincher really so noble and different in her pursuit of marrying an enabler than the majority of educated Chinese women? –almost certainly not. In fact, she fits right into the Chinese pattern.
Ms. Fincher, of course, will argue she stands on higher moral ground. After all, she didn't marry Mr. Forsythe for a flat or house in the City (how despicably materialistic is that, right?). Besides, Western women are free and marry for love, at whatever age they like, whereas in authoritarian China, the government urges its women to marry early and aim high, right? Many Chinese women (and men) won’t buy into it, though. They’ll accuse Ms. Fincher of career incest, elitism, nepotism (her husband’s connections), tokenism, and for parading double-standards.
Over-the-top marketing campaign
Thanks to this harry-potter style global marketing campaign, she may have become the most visible female writer at Tsinghua University, if not the whole of China, certainly far more prolific than many of her faculty’s professors whom I can hear gnashing their teeth. And that was just her first book!
There is a Chinese saying “bao ren bu zhi e ren ji” meaning well-fed people don’t understand the suffering of the starving. Ms. Fincher has everything Chinese educated women can only dream of: Degrees from Stanford and Harvard, husband is a journalism superstar (Xi Jinping fears him). Soon a PhD from Tsinghua University (China’s president Xi Jinping’s alma mater). Now best-selling author. It’s easy to patronize millions of not-haves.
Western Elitism and Privilege
At a time when most Chinese get very angry at rampant cronyism, nepotism, and corruption of the elites, it may not be helpful for Ms. Fincher to be the most noticeable and stellar example of elitism, even more snobbish, perhaps, than Amy Chua, the “tiger mom” –a law professor and her Jewish law professor husband who use Yale University as their publication platform to write disdainfully about less elitist cultural circles and their kids.
Meanwhile, Chinese scholars get quite heated up in debates about their standing in the world, and Ms. Fincher's (not even a post-doc) US Anglo-Saxon media backed academic superstardom is a big part of the civilization-sized problem, namely that Chinese scholarship virtually doesn't exist until it is picked up by a Western person.
Tsinghua College was founded as a prep-school for Chinese students going abroad to the United States. It looks American in architecture. You can study there as a foreigner without knowing Chinese. It wants to be international, but it utterly depends on Western recognition. 'Chinese sociology', 'Chinese journalism', 'Chinese culture studies', 'Chinese politics', 'Chinese civil rights', 'Chinese arts' – are all well established academic disciplines; yet you won’t find their Chinese representatives easily (if at all) with US internet services such as Google or Wikipedia -those disciplines are all literally waiting for someone from the West to be ‘discovered’ , ‘claimed’, and ‘branded’. Ms. Fincher comes in handy for ‘Chinese Gender Studies’.
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It is phenomenal, I suppose, how a tiny group of Westerners can literally take over the entire China scholarship and make it theirs -with a bit of The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Economist etc. backup. US President Barack Obama already announced he would love to send tens of thousands of US graduate students to China; and Tsinghua University in particular just received a US$300m donation for cultivating just that: many more Finchers.
So, is this a good book? Yes, of course, what do you think!? A lot of work went into it. She interviewed 60 people and checked her Weibo and Twitter followers. It’s been handed down and recommended through the entire Western liberal media establishment. It is going to be translated into all major languages, it’s a sure bet. Soon, Ms. Fincher will be announced to the German speaking world as they replicate Anglo-Saxon feuilleton. It will become standard reading in ‘Women Studies’ and ‘East Asia Studies’. It may win her the Pulitzer Prize, who knows. I am happy to rate it 5/5 stars, but who gives. Ms. Fincher just tweeted at Amazon that she is back in Beijing to address a EU delegation. Holy Mother of Success!
Some commentators argued that the two premises of her book –Chinese women don’t get their names down on shared property, and the Chinese government is behind all this- are quite a stretch. Maybe Chinese society has just different priorities? Confucian values such as filial piety, patriarchy, and ancestor worship come to mind.
Some reading around may still be useful in understanding the situation of women in China today, it is advised to read about the past, perhaps, Gu Hongming’s classical The Spirit of the Chinese People (1915) –the chapter on ‘The Chinese Woman’. Another journalist’s work, Richard Burger’s eye-opening Behind the Red Door – Sex in China (2012), is also highly recommendable. A scholarly anthology edited by Elaine Jeffreys, Sex and Sexuality in China (2007), is an in-depth background reading on gender studies.
Leftover Women is a journalistic longer essay about marriage orthodoxy, sexism, promiscuity, mistresses, Chinese playthings, and exploited women under 27 -who by the way of (Western male) imagination look like elves in European fairy tales- that are controlled by an evil government of communist patriarchs. The liberal and free West must come to their rescue.
If this isn't the sensational stuff you wanted to read about China this spring and summer, you must be gay. Which, needless to say, could well be the theme of the next big Western push and storm heading for China.
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