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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Women's Issues in Contemporary China: The Case of Female University Librarians in Beijing

Zhang Li Xin
Librarian, Foreign Languages Department
Beijing Normal University
Beijing, China



I am a librarian and have been working in a library for 20 years. I therefore want to present in this paper the situation of female librarians in China such as myself. It was the Beijing IFLA Conference that opened my eyes, made me understand the situation of librarians in different places all over the world, and stimulated me into write about Chinese librarians, especially female librarians, their work and their life.

Because this is the first time I am writing a paper like this and also because it is generally difficult to obtain materials containing gender statistics in China, it has been a challenge for me to provide a clear picture of the situation of women librarians in China. I do hope, however, to tell you as much as I can and to get your advice for improving this work. In addition, please let me know of any questions that you may have, and maybe next time, with your input, my paper will improve greatly.

I would first like to introduce myself, my work, and life experience, because just as I was growing up my country, the People's Republic of China, was changing dramatically. I think my personal background can help you gain insight into Chinese history and reality.

I was born in 1956. My own road to women's studies has been tumultuous, but never boring. Because schools were closed down during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1977), at the age of 10, I lost the chance to continue my schooling. So at age of 14 I took the next best option-- I became a female soldier in the Chinese Army. The schools opened up again, and when I was 20, I came back to Beijing from Sichuan Province, worked at Beijing Normal University as a librarian and began my middle and high school studies. At 26 years old, I passed the college entrance exam, became a university student(studying in my free time, as I was working full time), and began studying English . It was only in 1993 that I discovered the world feminist movement through translating articles on it.

Learning about women's studies and the feminist movement was, and continues to be, a source of inspiration and knowledge for me. It seems to me that I was searching for this for so long, but didn't know what I was looking for until I found it. I think that women's studies in China is to be looked at differently than women's studies in other countries. It is, in some ways, much more difficult to do research and obtain data. Because women's studies in mainland China is always following national policy, it sometimes looks as if there no problems exist and little research has been carried out to show the real life of women.

Market Economy Changes Women´s Situation

In 1978, China initiated a set of economic reforms that led to the opening up of China and the development of a market economy. Unfortunately many new social problems began to emerged at the same time. For instance, reforms led to the emergence of a large number of migrant workers from rural areas and a wide range of concomitant problems. These migrant workers, many of whom are women, come to the cities in large numbers, hoping to improve their economic situation.

Another women's issue emerging from the economic reforms is the impact local industry has had on women, particularly the current situation of women workers in state enterprises. In recent years, a large number of women have lost their jobs due to the poor economic performance of these enterprises. Economic reforms have also led to the discrimination against women in the work environment. Alongside these new issues emerging from economic changes, the previously existing problems which Chinese women face in marriage and sexual relationships remain significant areas deserving attention.

Women´s Studies in China

Liu Bohong, a researcher at the All-China Women's Federation, has noted that the development of women's studies in China has occurred in two stages: the initial stage covering the early 80s to 1990 and the second stage there after making a phase of strengthening and consolidation. Since the 70s, when China first opened its doors to the outside world, western ideas have circulated in China. In this atmosphere, and as the free market has become more powerful, the scope of the government's control has lessened, women's studies and other individual, activities, not originating in government circles have emerged.

Sexual Discrimination and Employment

In 1993, Wenhuibao(a newspaper) began a discussion of the problems of sexual discrimination and unemployment among women. Professor Tao Jie, of Peking University, noted at a workshop that, in the factories, women are the first to be laid off when staff is being reduced , because employing female workers is more expensive than employing male workers. For instance, if a female worker's goes on maternity leave, the factory has to pay 1500 Yuan in wages and additional benefits.

Recently, it has been found that even female university students are facing discrimination. Because of the limited quota for employment of new staff of each research department or work unit, priority is usually given to male students when graduates are being recruited. Many reasons are given by the work units for giving priority to male graduates over female graduates. It is said that it is not convenient for women to go into business, that female students can not do physical work, and that female students are likely to get married and have children in the immediate future.

Education of Girls - and Mothers

Another area where discrimination is obvious is the education of girls. Why is it that fewer girls than boys attend school? The problem here is poverty. However, there also some families even though they are not very poor, still resist sending female children to school. This is a result of the traditional thinking that boys and men are more important than girls and women, and that even women with no education can still perform the traditional function of giving birth to children.

As a result, mothers (most of the women living in rural area) often have little education, and it will often not occur to them to send their daughters to school. At the same time, these relatively uneducated women normally get married early, have many children and need their daughters to help them with the housework. Thus creating what has become a vicious cycle in some areas of China.

Owing to constraints in social development and the influence of traditional believes, the condition for Chinese women in present day Chinese society are still not wholly satisfactory. There still remains a long way to go before Chinese women can become full emancipated. Female self-improvement is a strategic task fundamental to the protection of women's rights and interests.

Women Librarians

On the whole, the Chinese revolution and socialism have made the experiences of Chinese women unique. Even within China, women in different realms of society have different experiences. This paper is looking at the experience of women working in libraries. Below I describe the situation of librarians at Beijing Normal University and give a picture of their work and life.

Most female librarians in China are found in cities and, in Beijing, most of them work in colleges, universities and institutions. Libraries in China can be separated into three categories: public libraries, school libraries and company libraries. Most of the libraries belong to the state, though a few are in private hands. The problems discussed above are not as prominent for women working in libraries as they are for women in other workplaces. Libraries are supported by the state; and thus, the change to a market economy has had less impact in this area. For example, female librarians are less affected by unemployment than women in other sectors. Although the quota for employment of librarians has been lowered in recent years, the number of librarians has also been decreasing for other reasons. Many have retired and often almost no new staff has been employed to replace them.

When I interviewed the president of BNU library and asked him if the library hires new staff on equal basis, regardless of gender, he said that he prefers male staff. Hardly any men, however, want to work in the library, so that, in the end, men and women are essentially equal in the librarians´employment process. Many people believe that being a librarian is a women's position and that women are well suited working in this area. China still is a developing country, however, and librarians must do much physical labor. Thus, women's work in the library is very hard.

The Beijing Normal University Library

There are 130 librarians in BNU's library, 30 of whom are male. Even though they are in the minority it is the men who are usually the first ones to be considered for promotion. When I interviewed the female librarians however, they all said that there no discrimination in the work place, and also no sexual harassment. But why is it that women are considered most suited to perform library work by our society? I believe this is because work conditions for librarians in China are not adequate. The salary is low, heavy work is involved, and there is hardly any chance of promotion. In a sense, this is a discrimination against women, however, even though many people have been living with this situation for a long time they do not see the problem.

In the wake of economic reforms, librarians' salaries have been increased. The lowest salary for a librarian at BNU rose from 80 Yuan in 1979 to 800 Yuan (about US$100) in 1997. A research librarian's salary rose from 100 Yuan in 1979 to 1000 Yuan in 1997. Compared with staff working in companies these salaries are extremely low, but compared with factory workers or the jobless workers from failing state enterprises, these salaries are significantly higher.

The president of BNU said that the library is facing a number of difficulties and may not continue to exist. The library is short of funds and the low salary is a significant obstruct to maintaining quality employees. The library sponsored 10 of its staff for M.A degree programs, however none of them returned to work in the library at the end of their studies. Thus continuing education is also a major problem. If the library does not send people no training course obtain new skills, it cannot improve the quality of its work. If people are sent for further training, however, they usually do not come back.

Below is a table showing the educational background and position of BNU library staff.

Table 1.  BNU Library  - Librarians´ Educational Situation

Age Age Age Age 20-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 Total 18 39 35 18 M* F* M F M F M F 7 11 6 33 8 27 9 9 Educ. degree M.A. 1 1 B.A. 3 5 1 17 3 10 1 C* 3 5 3 10 1 9 6 6 HS* 2 6 1 5 1 2 MS* 1 2 3 1 1

From the Table 1. we can detract that: out of the 130 librarians in the BNU library, the only three people who hold a MA degree are male; 28 females and 13 males have a B.A. degree; 26 females and 8 males have 2 years of higher education; 12 females and 4 males have graduated from high school, and 4 females and 2 males have graduated from middle school.

Table 2.  Beijing Normal University -- Librarians' Positions

		Age		Age		Age		Age		
		20-29		30-39		40-49		50-59
Total		18		39		35		18

		M*   F*  	M    F		M    F		M    F
   		7    11		6    33		8    27		9    9
RL*   						1    1		5    4
L*		2    5		1    18		4    15 	4    4
SL*		2    8		2    11		2    8			
Other		1		2    5 		1    3 		     1

Key: M = Male, F = Female, RL* = Research Librarian, at the level of professor, 
     L* =   Librarian, SL = Assistant Librarian 

Table 2 shows that 5 females and 6 males are research librarians (same level as professor); 42 females and 6 males are librarians; 27 females and 6 males are assistant librarians; another 9 females and 4 males have no official title.

Twenty female librarians returned my questionnaire. They come from three different age groups; 11 women were between 30 and 40 years old; 6 were between 40 and 50 years old; and 3 were between 50 and 60 years old. There were no respondents among the 20 and 30 years old.

Questions and Answers

Below I present the questions and the answers.

A. Work Situation:

  1. Why are you working in the library?
    Among the 20 persons, 2 answered that they have to work, because they graduated in library science, and 7 answered, that they were placed here. In China, most tudents will be placed by the government upon graduation. Normally, once a worker is asigned to a department, this is a position for life-time. This situation was more prevailing before the 1980s, but now students have more choices; but they have also more difficulty in finding good jobs. Normally, every big department has its own support system, for example, each department is in charge of housing, children's education, shopping center, canteen, etc. Institutions such as BNU also have a department that manages the staff's housing, the nursery school, the primary school, and the three middle schools. Sometimes a university appears to be like a closed society. You don't have to leave the campus -- everything can be done there. The retired university staff receive a pension. Those who started working before 1949 receive 100% of their previous salary and those who started after 1949 receive 80%. Five persons said that they were working in the library, because they like to red books. One said that she had been crazy to join the staff and that she regretted working as librarian. Two persons said that they loved their work and the work environment was good.

  2. Are you satisfied with working in the library?
    Twelve respondents said they were satisfied, 5 were dissatisfied, and 3 said they didn't know.

  3. What kind of job would you choose if you were given the opportunity to choose again?
    Six persons said they would still choose to work in library; 5said they would like to teach; 2 said they would like to go into business; 3 would like to work with children and music; 4 said they didn't know.

  4. What do you think about your work environment (including library building equipment and staff and staff relations)?
    13 said they were satisfied; 4 were dissatisfied; 3 answered they didn't know.

  5. Is your salary satisfactory?
    This is a most interesting question for female librarians , and this is also were the biggest problem for them arises. There was only one woman, above 50 years old, who was satisfy with her salary, 18 women were dissatisfied, 1 said she didn't know.

  6. When did you start work in library? How long did you work in the library?
    The women with the longest work experience could look back on 32 years work, the one with the shortest on 6 years. Compared with women in other countries, Chinese women's work experience tends to be longer. Except for six-months maternity leave, Chinese women work their whole lives, from the time they graduated until they retire. Female librarians retire at the age of 55, research librarians at the age of 60.

  7. Do you feel there is sex discrimination in your work place?
    Except 1 woman who said "Yes", the other women all said "no". Although almost all women said there was no discrimination in their work place, I think this is not quite realistic. In my opinion they are not merely not aware of the discrimination. There are 130 staff in BNU library, only 30 of them are male. However among those 30 male librarians, one is the library's president ,two are vice-president, and other two section heads. Only four women are section heads. The most important positions of the library are controlled by man, this still a man's environment.

  8. What annoys you most in your work?
    Intensity of the work was named 7 time, long working house 9 times, a low salary 19 times, no prospect of promotion 7 times, assigned housing too far away from work 2 times.

B. Marriage situation

Among the 20 female librarians, 19 are married, one is single. Two of the married women have 2 children, all others have one child. When asked how many children they would like to have, 9 women said one, 4 women said 2, 2 women said 2-3. The above tell us a little about the home life of female librarians. I believe that one child policy is beneficial to most women. It has liberated women from duties and allowed many women in the cities to go to work. However, the problem is that after they finish work women still need to go shopping and cook(in China dinners still require two hours to cook. The library closes at 5 PM, most families have dinner at &:30) and take care of their children. This double burden women for the most part have to carry by themselves. Some women hope that some day when they go back home to cook and take care of their child, they will happy because they will not to do double work.

  1. How long was your maternity leave?
    7 women had a 6-month maternity leave, 5 women had a three-month, and 7 women had a 56 days maternity leave( during the maternity leave women receive their full salary except bonuses. Women will decide how long they want to be on maternity leave)

  2. Who in the family makes the decision on how the money is spent?
    7 decide for themselves, 13 jointly decide with their husbands.

  3. Who takes care of your child/children?
    17 women said they themselves, 1 said her mother-in-low was helping, 1 said her maid was helping.

  4. Who does the cooking?
    12 said the cooking themselves, 4 said their husband, 3 both they and their husband cook.

  5. Who does the washing?
    14 said they themselves wash, 2 said their husband, 3 said both they and their husbands.

  6. What do you like to do in your free time?
    11 women like to watch TV, take care child/children and knit sweaters; 1 likes to read book and play with child; 3 read books and watch TV; 1 likes to write and go shopping; 3 like to listen to music and go out; 1 likes read books, watch TV, and clean house.


Although the figures and the survey presented above are very limited, they give a glimpse into female librarian´s working situation. I have a particular interest in the human rights of Chinese rural women. During my field research in Haogeng Village (Anhui Province), I found that there was an extremely large gap between the educational levels of men and women, and that situation was accepted as normal by both men and women. I believe that the most important thing is to make women aware of the injustice of this situation and to become able to better their own situation. I have attended the Intercultural Course on Women and Society in Manila, Philippines in 1995. I was also among the participants of the IFLA Conference 1996 in Beijing. Before, I was not sure that it is important to be a librarian. At this conference everyone was very friendly, helpful and kind, really super people. I'm thrilled I´m entering the library world. Moreover, the library field seems a logical extension to me.