Yang is pictured on the campus of Qinghua University in Beijing in front of the Wen Yiduo statue, which honors the famous Chinese poet and newsman.
Campus Closeup: Renxin Yang
It seems appropriate to close out Women’s History Month by profiling an NMU professor who has studied the impact of three decades of economic reform and globalization on women and family relationships in her native China. Renxin Yang (Sociology and Social Work) has also conducted interviews across generations to determine how the beliefs, values and behaviors of middle-aged Chinese women compare with their younger counterparts.
In many of the traditional Chinese dynasties, women were characterized by obedience to their fathers and husbands and by the four virtues: quiet, beautiful, submissive and a good housekeeper. Marriages were run by parents and a good woman, once betrothed, would never divorce or seek a new husband. The 1950 Marriage Law radically changed the structure of this union.
"It stipulated that marriage be strictly monogamous," Yang said. "It also legalized free choice marriage, allowed divorce and protected women’s property rights. The catch phrases of the period included ‘Times have changed; women and men are equal’ and ‘Women hold half the sky.’ Great strides were made in reducing gender inequality in urban areas. But in remote, rural areas, traditional habits die hard. I suppose it’s easier to change law than habits of the heart.”
Before economic reform, Yang described China as a collectivist environment that emphasized what people could do for their families, communities and society as a whole. Economic prosperity brought about more freedom and opportunity, but also an increased focus on individual interests.
“Women could seek an education and become successful professionals and entrepreneurs,” said Yang. “But along with that came difficulty in balancing family life, similar to what some women experience here. Divorce rates have increased dramatically, and in large cities reached the same level as in the West. While economic reform elevated the social status and quality of life of some women, others were marginalized in the job market and at home. Those without a good education were vulnerable and sometimes pushed into the flesh trade.”
Yang classifies her deceased parents’ 56-year marriage as “ideal” and filled with love that transcended any hardship. They were adamant that each of their six children—five girls and one boy —receive an education. Yang attended school in her home country, but left for the United States in 1989 to pursue a graduate degree in sociology because the field wasn’t well-developed in China at the time. She returns each year for personal visits and so that her daughter, a pre-med student, can retain the language. Yang also led an NMU student trip to China in the summer of 2008 with colleague Michael Loukinen.
In her spare time, she enjoys teaching Tai Chi classes for NMU students through the health, physical education and recreation department. The ancient art form promotes serenity through gentle, flowing movements that connect the mind and body. She has worked with continuing education to share her expertise in Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting, skills she developed while studying with one of China’s most famous masters. Yang also enjoys classical music, with Chopin being one of her favorite composers.
She has worked at NMU for 15 years and has adapted to the snowfall and long winters. “This is a peaceful place that nurtures the psyche and is in tune with the whole environment. I like to walk by the lake. Even though there is limited diversity, the people here are very friendly.”