“You must sit on the front two-thirds of the chair — you cannot occupy the whole chair.”

“Now, hold in your belly, relax your shoulders, legs together, shoulders up.”

Duan Fengyan demonstrates the instructions, showing her classmates how to sit properly as a woman. While the 21-year-old is studying to be an accountant at Zhenjiang College, she is also getting lessons on how to be a woman in the time of President Xi Jinping.

Students are learning tea ceremony in a New Era Women's Course. (Yuyang Liu for The Washington Post)
Students are learning tea ceremony in a New Era Women's Course. (Yuyang Liu for The Washington Post)

Zhenjiang College launched the course, which is only offered to female students, in March. Along with the All-China Women’s Federation, they are teaching female students how to dress, pour tea and sit just so — all in the name of Xi’s “new era.”

With economic growth slowing and the population shrinking, the Communist Party is bringing back the idea that men are breadwinners and women are, first and foremost, wives and mothers.

A traditional future

The college launched the New Era Women’s School to heed Xi’s call for education in traditional Chinese culture, to help women compete in the job market, said Sheng Jie, who runs the program — but also to prepare them for domestic roles.

“Women’s family role is more important now,” she said.

Though this thinking has been around for at least a decade — most notably in sexist messaging about marriage — the Zhenjiang program appears to be the first college course in feminine virtue under Xi.

A student shows a tea ceremony in a New Era Women's Course. (Yuyang Liu for The Washington Post)
A student shows a tea ceremony in a New Era Women's Course. (Yuyang Liu for The Washington Post)

The Washington Post was the first foreign media outlet granted access to the campus and was allowed to interview students — while their teachers listened in.

“According to traditional culture, women should be modest and tender, and men’s role is working outside and providing for the family,” said Duan, before a class on tea ceremonies.

“I want to be a model for my children,” she added.

In his first five years in power, Xi cast himself as a champion of women’s rights, declaring, in a speech at a United Nations summit on women, that women’s equality is a “great cause.”

His tenure has been less about pushing for equality than promoting a vision of “harmonious” male-female households with a working father and a virtuous mother who cares for children and the elderly.

The party insists that this reflects the Confucian values at the core of Chinese culture. Critics counter that culture changes and that China should look forward, not back.

Students are sitting with a demure grace during a tea ceremony demonstration. (Yuyang Liu for The Washington Post)
Students are sitting with a demure grace during a tea ceremony demonstration. (Yuyang Liu for The Washington Post)

“Our traditional culture is filled with restrictions on — and the oppression of — women,” said Lu Ping, a prominent Chinese feminist who ran a website that was recently censored. “Can we push women back into the traditional roles?”

A double standard

In the halls and classrooms of Zhenjiang College, self-improvement is indeed women’s work.

The course was the brainchild of the local branch of the All-China Women’s Federation and is overseen by women. The students are women. There is no equivalent course for men.

Both teachers and students said that young women should constantly seek to improve their “quality” to stay competitive. Success requires constant “self-cultivation”— not a bad thing when it applies to all genders.

Li Ziyi, 19, an Early-Childhood-Education-major student is practicing a tea ceremony. (Yuyang Liu for The Washington Post)
Li Ziyi, 19, an Early-Childhood-Education-major student is practicing a tea ceremony. (Yuyang Liu for The Washington Post)

Li Ziyi, a 19-year-old studying early-childhood education, said she’d been taught years ago that, for women, good grades are not enough. “When I was in secondary school, my teacher told us that the college entrance exam is the last fair exam in your life, because it doesn’t look at your face,” she said.

Yes, handsome men have an advantage, she added, but “society still has a higher requirement for girls.”

Her classmate, Wang Caidie, an 18-year-old nursing student, said female nurses are advised to wear “light makeup” to look professional, while male classmates are given no instructions at all.

The double standard was not lost on them, but neither were the lessons in how to sit, stand and serve tea — which they considered fun and useful.

“Even before the job interview starts, we will deliberately pay more attention to how we sit, how we stand up. That is our advantage compared to those who haven’t attended these classes,” Duan said.

Sheng, the program director, declined to talk much about women’s rights — she is a teacher, not a feminist, she said.

Her goal is to teach young women what they need to know and, in so doing, help the nation. “The country is emphasizing traditional culture, so we are providing courses,” she said.

“This is a new era. History is moving in a better direction.”

Yang Liu in Zhenjiang and Luna Lin in Beijing contributed to this report.

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