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'Female morality schools' spark storm of criticism in China

So-called "female morality schools" where women are taught to be subservient to men have sparked a storm of criticism in China.

HONG KONG — The video shows students at the so-called "female morality school" in northeastern China getting up at 4:30 a.m. to scrub floors and being taught not to resist if their husbands beat them.

Shot with a hidden camera and posted on a popular Chinese video website, it sparked a storm of criticism of the school and highlighted complaints that the status of women is deteriorating under the rule of a Communist Party that promised them equality.

In the recording, students at the Fushun Traditional Culture School were shown being told to put aside career aspirations and, in one instructor's words, "shut your mouths and do more housework." One group of students was shown practicing bowing to apologize to their husbands.

"Don't fight back when beaten. Don't talk back when scolded. And, no matter what, don't get divorced," a female teacher says in the post on Pear Video, a Beijing-based online platform for short videos.

"Women should just stay at the bottom level of the society and not aspire for more," another teacher says.

Image: Female morality school
Students study at a female morality school in Haikou, China.Women Awakening via AP

Such schools appear to be growing in popularity, though it is unclear how many China has, according to researchers and women's rights activists.

Their emergence reflects the erosion in the status of women since the launch of economic reforms in the 1980s that reduced the ruling party's focus on social equality, said Feng Yuan, a prominent women's rights activist. "Archaic ideas about gender equality still have a market in today's society," she said.

Deng Xichan, a 21-year-old nurse, said she and her mother attended a female morality institute in the southern city of Changsha, enticed by its offer of free classes, lodging and vegetarian food.

Students were taught to obey men because it would bring their children good fortune and that sex before marriage would bring bad luck, Deng said. Every evening, she was required to bow in front of a statue of Confucius and participate in group confessions, she said.

"Many of the students truly believed that their life was hard because they had premarital sex, or because they cheated on someone, so they would kowtow and confess," Deng said.

At many of the programs, students are closed off from the outside world — and from each other.

"The front door was locked and our phones and cash were taken away from us," said a woman in her twenties who attended a seven-day course in the northwestern city of Yinchuan. "We were also not allowed to chat with each other, so all you can do is bear with it."

"I got scared because it was so isolated," added the woman, who asked to be identified only by her surname, Chen, because she didn't want her former employer, a real estate company that signed her up for the program, to know she had spoken to the media about the experience.

The Fushun school was founded in 2011 by an ex-convict who had served time for murder and was approved by local authorities as a "public welfare organization," according to Chinese news reports. It charged no tuition and was supported by students' donations. The school had more than 200 volunteer workers and took in as many as 40 students for each 20-day "female virtue" course, according to an online report by the Yangcheng Evening News, a major local newspaper.

After the video came out in November, hundreds of people criticized the school on internet message boards and blogs, prompting an investigation. The school was shut down in December, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The local education bureau concluded it violated "socialist core values" and called for similar programs to be investigated.

The Fushun school and several others across China contacted by The Associated Press refused repeated requests for comment.