Chinese Women Look at Eileen Gu and Do Not See Themselves

Is Eileen Gu, a skiing superstar born and raised in San Francisco, the right role model for Chinese girls?

For many Chinese girls, Eileen Gu is exactly the kind of strong woman they need as a role model. 

She is athletic, charming, and academically excellent. In the three months before her dazzling performance at the Beijing Games, the 18-year-old Olympic gold medalist also found time to make and post videos on TikTok almost twice a week, showing off her three lives as an elite skier, model, and top student who scored 1580 out of 1600 in her SAT. 

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And she didn’t just dump her content on the short-video platform and call it a day; she read the comments and replied at an unusual frequency for someone training for the Olympics. Last month, when a TikTok user asked why Gu, who was born and raised in San Francisco, chose to represent China in the Winter Games, she said: “Cry ab it.” The response has gone viral on Chinese social media, where she’s embraced as a symbol of a confident China, and been used as a retort to perceived attacks on the Chinese state.

In a country where rigid gender roles put women in boxes and the government suppresses feminist activism, Gu is a rare example of a high-flying woman who has become a source of national pride but is also vocally encouraging young girls to break their limits.

Having already bagged a gold and a silver, and with a third event to come on Friday, Gu’s dream Olympic debut has won her almost universal adulation on the Chinese internet, where social media users gush about her endlessly and push her name to the top of trending charts.

Millions of people have watched makeup tutorials showing them how to get Gu’s biracial look. Education bloggers tout the importance of time-management skills—Gu says she sleeps 10 hours a day. Some cite Gu, who was raised by her mother and grandmother, to fight the stigma that single mothers couldn’t raise excellent children.

But with every detail of the superstar’s family and education put under intense scrutiny, more Chinese women have noticed something else in the shadow of Gu’s undeniable success: an enormous gap between Gu’s social status and their own. Some questioned the idea of celebrating the California-born Olympian as a symbol of women empowerment.

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“The success of her and the elite education behind her is beyond what an average person would achieve with their resources,” Chen Xiaoyu, a feminist influencer, said in a video that has been viewed more than 3.7 million times on the microblogging site Weibo and the Instagram-like Xiaohongshu.

“When you overplay her personal effort, you are ignoring the huge structural inequality in resources and class.”

Gu wants to be a role model for young women in China and beyond. The question is, what exactly is Gu a role model of?

Gu’s surprise first Olympic gold last week, in big air, ignited patriotic pride and celebrations. But as people look for the secret sauce behind her success, many have discerned a path that is, for most Chinese families, impossible to replicate.

Four decades of unbridled economic growth has created a larger wealth gap in China than in many developed nations. In 2020, the country had more than 28,000 individuals with net worth above $50 million, second only to the United States. In the meantime, some 600 million people lived on an average monthly income of 1,000 yuan ($157). 

That inequality is evident among China’s Olympic gold medalists. Many athletes come from impoverished families who sent their children to sports schools because of the low tuition. The children follow a rigid schedule of training and studying, hoping to become one of the very few who would excel in national and world competitions. Among them is Quan Hongchan, a diver who won gold in the women’s 10-meter platform at the Tokyo Olympics at the age of 14. Quan said she had never been to amusement parks or zoos, and was competing to make money for her sick mother

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Gu, in contrast, was born into one of the Chinese families that could afford a privileged life in the Bay Area. Many members of China’s political and economic elite have chosen to send their children or grandchildren overseas so they could enjoy better education and social stability. America is the most popular destination. The richest could give birth there or send their children to private high schools, while upper-middle-class families would let their children go to U.S. universities.

Her maternal grandmother was a senior engineer from the Chinese Ministry of Transport, while her late grandfather was called “the most decorated chief electrical engineer” of China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in a 2014 obituary.   

Her mother, Gu Yan, graduated from the prestigious Peking University. She moved to the U.S. at the age of 22, at a time in China when studying abroad was a rare opportunity. After studying biology at Auburn University and obtaining an MBA from Stanford, she worked at Lehman Brothers and became a venture capitalist. In a 1998 interview on her founding of a tech company in Beijing, Gu Yan said she wanted to make China a better place with her Wall Street experience.

The identity of Eileen Gu’s father is not publicly known. Gu Yan only mentioned that her daughter’s father graduated from Harvard, while the paternal grandfather went to Stanford. Following speculation that early Google employee Ray Sidney was the birth father, Sidney clarified that he only dated Gu Yan for a few years and met the future Olympian when she was little.

“My mom told me, studying in China for ten days is the same as studying in America for a year.”

Thanks to the family’s wealth and ability to travel between China and America, Gu has grown with the best of both worlds. Raised in San Francisco’s exclusive Sea Cliff neighborhood, with a bedroom view of the Golden Gate Bridge, according to the New York Times, Gu began going to skiing school when she was 3. In Chinese documentaries featuring her, a young Gu was seen surfing, horseback riding, snorkeling, playing golf, acting in school plays, practicing the piano, and attending a one-on-one singing class. 

Every summer, she traveled to Beijing to study for the Mathematical Olympiad and the SAT in a district famous for its test-prep centers. “My mom told me, studying in China for ten days is the same as studying in America for a year,” she said in an interview last year. 

Eileen Gu carries a Chinese flag onto the podium after winning sliver in the women's freeski slopestyle event. Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Chinese people have recognied the elite, trans-Pacific education as an essential part of Gu’s success. “Ailing Gu’s mother has offered a guidebook for elites to raise their next generation,” a person wrote on Weibo, using Gu’s Chinese name. “Caucasian look, Chinese language, American education, Chinese tutoring, career development in China, and modeling agency in America.”

Other social media users have sought to tally the costs of raising a child like Gu, taking into account her private schooling, skiing training, and traveling. Some put the number conservatively at $1 million, and others say the time and energy invested by her single mother is even more valuable.

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While marveling at Gu’s extraordinary achievements, Chinese people also cite her experience as further evidence of “involution,” a viral slang that denotes how people are engaging in increasingly fierce competition within their own social class but are unable to move up the ladder. Gu’s success story, many believe, took place up in the stratosphere, a place their children could never reach.

“What Gu has received is purely elite education, and most people cannot replicate the wealth and energy her mother has,” said Doreen Huang, mother of a 6-year-old girl in the northwestern city of Xi’an. “Now China is so involuted. For a family like ours, we would be content with letting our child become a healthy, happy, average person.” 

Despite that obvious class difference, many women, including Huang, are calling Gu a role model who could bring positive messages to Chinese girls. Thanks to her American upbringing, Gu is equipped with the kind of confidence, cross-cultural competence, and social media skills unseen in other local celebrities.

Compared with the state-employed Chinese Olympians, who are under huge pressure to bring glory for the nation and must share their endorsement incomes with the state, Gu speaks of enjoying the competitions and winning for herself. She uses her liberty to appear on all kinds of adverts and also talk about inspiring Chinese girls, a topic seldom addressed by the local athletes, who tend to avoid advocacy that the ruling Communist Party didn’t explicitly sanction.

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And as an entertainment star, Gu is bringing into Chinese showbiz a kind of carefree style and body positivity many girls have been longing to see. Most female stars in China use heavy filters to whiten their skin and go on strict diets to stay thin, but Gu, like American teens, does not mind showing her tanned skin and acne. She says physical strength makes her beautiful. 

Even footage showing a younger Gu taking interviews with glittering earrings and attending class in a bright red tank top excites internet users, since Chinese schools rarely allow girls to wear jewelry and sleeveless shirts. Gu’s glamorous style, her female fans say, shows girls should wear whatever they want, without worrying about body shaming and the male gaze. 

“She exemplifies incredible confidence, which is not favorable in the traditional Chinese culture,” said Yawen Li, a literature and gender researcher with the National University of Singapore and King’s College London.

Although fans are aware of the wealth gap between Gu and themselves, Li said, they could still relate to her passion, perseverance, and interest in women’s rights—qualities not displayed by many of China’s notoriously spoiled rich kids.

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“I can imagine many Chinese, especially young women, feel suppressed by such culture and therefore find Gu’s confidence emancipatory to some extent.”

The extent to which Gu could be deemed a feminist icon has sparked fierce debate among Chinese women. Supporters call her mere existence an inspiration for Chinese women to break out of the traditional gender roles. China’s national strength has long been represented by macho men, and it is revolutionary enough that a woman has become the poster athlete of the Beijing Olympics. 

But critics say the celebration of Gu only distracts people from the structural problems that prevent less-privileged women from reaching their own potential, such as domestic violence, workplace discrimination, and the pressure on women to have more children. They have cited a Chinese mother of eight chained by her husband inside a village shack, a case of abuse that prompted an outcry against the plight of rural women prone to human trafficking. 

“We can’t only care about which woman has a gold medal on her neck, but also need to care about which woman has chains on her neck,” a Weibo user wrote. “Because most of us and our daughters will never become the former, but could accidentally become the latter.”

Eileen Gu competes during the women's freestyle skiing Big Air qualification round of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Photo: AP / Matt Slocum

Tony Zhang, a University of Macau sociologist who studies inequality in China, said that as the thrill around Gu’s gold medal cools down, people might become more aware of the economic privileges she has enjoyed.

“Fatigue, frustration, and fury are easy to find on social media nowadays,” Zhang said. “When young people find their daily struggle is nothing similar to that of a shining star, the star will lose its brightness.”

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Gu’s stardom in China is also contingent on her carefully toeing the nationalistic ideology. Chinese celebrities have faced public backlash after being accused of holding foreign passports or expressing opinions at odds with the government’s.

Gu has so far done well in that regard. She has publicly defended China online and in media appearances.

At a press conference following her first Olympic win, Gu called her haters unempathetic and uneducated. She dodged questions about her suspected dual nationalities, which would violate Chinese law. When asked about tennis star Peng Shuai, Gu said she was happy to see Peng “happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again.” Peng watched Gu compete in big air last week amid international concerns over her safety and freedom to speak her mind after she accused a former Communist Party leader of sexual assault. Peng’s name has been effectively erased on the Chinese internet following the allegation.

The only time Gu might have misspoken was when she tried to defend Chinese censorship. After an Instagram user named Cilla Chan asked Gu under a Feb. 4 post why she was able to use the app, which is banned in China, Gu replied that the virtual private networks, used to circumvent the Great Firewall, are “literally free on the App Store.” But, for one thing, the apps are not available in the Chinese App Store. For another, the use of VPN is a taboo topic Chinese celebrities are not supposed to touch—people have been punished before for providing or using such a tool

So far, it doesn’t seem that Gu has gotten into any trouble. The Instagram exchange has since disappeared, likely deleted by either Gu or Cilla Chan, who did not respond to a message. There’s no easy way to tell how her fans feel about their role model flaunting her key to an unfettered internet that they’re denied—screenshots of her remark have been censored.

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.

Tagged:

feminism, skiing, china, worldnews, beijing 2022

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