China’s Napoleon Complex

Not long ago, Stephen Morgan was dining at a restaurant in Sichuan Province, in southwestern China, when an employment advertisement caught his eye. In addition to experience and skills, it listed height requirements for each position—the higher the ranking, the taller the stature. A female kitchen hand had to measure at least four feet nine inches; a waitress had to be a minimum of five feet; and the pretty hosts who greeted guests at the door needed to be a lofty five feet five.

“Being tall is seen as [being] better educated, being a good marriage partner, and so on,” said Morgan, the dean of social sciences at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. In fact, if the diminutive Deng Xiaoping were alive today—he stood at four feet 11—he would not have qualified to work as a waiter, let alone find a good job in the private and public sectors, establishments that, as the architect of modern China, he helped to create.

With Deng’s political reforms in the 1980s and 1990s came increased discrimination based on appearance. Diplomats now must be tall enough to match their foreign counterparts, to avoid losing face; some interview processes for flight attendants are literally beauty contests that involve a stroll down a catwalk in a swimsuit; and female civil servants in Hunan Province were once required to have “symmetrical breasts” (a criterion that was dropped in 2004). Companies often want employees not only to be tall but also to have a fair complexion and good deportment. It is standard to include a head shot and vital statistics, namely height, in a résumé.

“If you look around any workplace in China,” Morgan told me, “jobs of different status are likely to be associated with people of different height.” At construction sites, for example, “all the guys wearing red helmets”—supervisors and engineers—“will be much taller on average than those in blue helmets”—migrant workers.

Xingzhong Yu, a professor of Chinese law at Cornell Law School, pins it to the nature of Chinese culture, which he says is traditionally “very hierarchical and discriminating,” values compounded today by modern capitalism. “With the economic reform deepening, and more and more people better educated, it has become very competitive to get a job in China,” he said. “Some institutions become very picky and arbitrary in recruiting potential employees.”

In 2013, almost seven million students graduated from institutions of higher education, but only 33.6 percent of Beijing college graduates signed employment contracts. This year, McKinsey released a report, revealed that except for “an elite minority, starting salaries will be flat yet again, at levels less than the income level of a full-time taxi driver.”

Although it is slowly becoming more unusual for employers to explicitly state height requirements, short candidates are often still vetted out. Those not up to the bar need not apply. Jiang Tao learned the hard way. In the early 2000s, the Sichuan University graduate spotted a staff position at the Chengdu branch of the People’s Bank of China advertised in a local newspaper. The ad specified that male candidates had to be over five feet five. Jiang—like some 40 percent of men in his home province—was too short.

In 2002, Jiang sued the bank, bringing global attention to height discrimination in China. The court rejected his claims, but the bank relinquished its height requirements. Although others have sued employers, none aside from Jiang has made it to court, and today there is still no law to protect against “heightism,” Yu says.

In fact, cases like Jiang’s are common. Last year, two security guards in Dalian, in northeastern China, realized that they had received different paychecks for identical work. When one complained, his manager told him that he had received less than his colleague because he one was two inches shorter. In 2004, Cheng Hongping, a Communist Party member, was rejected for a job as a legal affairs official because she was half an inch too short. She sued the local government, but the case presumably didn’t make it to court.

In 2003, a worker at the Shenzhen State Tax Bureau filed an administrative suit against her employer. Although she had been on contract for seven years, she was not considered tall enough for a permanent position. The court refused to consider her case, stating that the “hiring and firing practices of state agencies are not within the court’s jurisdiction over administrative adjudication suits” and that the plaintiff had provided insufficient evidence to establish her claim. In February 2004, the Shenzhen Municipal Intermediate People’s Court turned down her appeal, stating that the “recruitment of civil servants pursuant to certain hiring standards is part of the internal personnel management of a state administrative agency” and that “any claims arising from such administrative function is outside the jurisdiction of the People’s Courts over administrative adjudication suits.”


Height bias is, of course, not limited to China, although it is perhaps less overt in other places. In the United States, Fortune 500 company CEOs are roughly three inches taller than the average American man, as Malcolm Gladwell noted in his 2005 book Blink. Politicians, too, benefit from tall stature: with only a handful of exceptions, the taller of the two competing presidential candidates has always won the election. It isn’t just the elite: men in white-collar jobs are on average an inch taller than blue-collar workers.

In fact, economists have even identified what they call a “wage-height premium”: across the world, tall people earn more than their shorter counterparts. In Western countries, an increase in height of four or five inches results in a wage increase between nine and 15 percent. It not only reflects an external predilection for taller stature but is also the result of what psychologists see as increased self-confidence and social dominance founded on a more physically imposing frame.

Taller people across the board are perceived as “more confident, more assertive, and able to communicate better,” Russell Smyth, professor of economics at Monash University, Melbourne, told me. “In a developing country like China there is also a physical aspect—taller people are stronger. If you think about blue-collar work, taller people would be rewarded more.”

For each additional centimeter of height, earnings increase an average of 4.5 percent for Chinese men and 7.3 percent for women, according to a study co-authored by Smyth in 2012. (Wage increases in other developing countries are also marked: one 2006 study revealed that coal miners of above average height in India earn as much as nine to 17 percent more than shorter colleagues.) And as in the United States, height provides a political advantage: Smyth discovered that Communist Party members—who in turn command more credit with employers and higher wages—tended to be taller than nonmembers.

What differentiates China from the United States, then, is not height bias but the lack of recourse for battling discrimination or ensuring enforcement of existing protections.

Article 33 of the Chinese Constitution states that all citizens are “equal before the law.” In reality, however, the Chinese Communist Party controls the courts and “rights,” such as freedom of speech, are mostly ignored. Discriminating practices largely go without criticism. Keith Hand, director of the East Asian legal studies program at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law states that, simply, there are “not effective legal remedies” against discrimination.


For now, height discrimination in China will likely continue. Beyond the legal questions are even trickier ones about social class. Children from higher-income families who have grown up with a better diet and better access to health care tend to be taller. On average, they are likely to live longer and “their cognitive functions have been better developed,” Morgan said. “They have often succeeded in going further in school—and that means a higher-paid occupation. All these things together establish bias.”

Meat consumption in China has increased fourfold per person since 1980, and as a result, malnutrition has declined. But despite decades of economic reform, roughly one-third of schoolgirls remain light or underweight for their age. According to the World Health Organization, 20 percent of children in the countryside (compared to just 2.5 percent in urban areas) are “stunted” due to chronic malnutrition. Eighteen-year-olds from China’s wealthiest cities are likely to be two to three inches taller than those from the most impoverished cities.

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With height standing in for wealth, urbanity, and education, it is not only employment where the short are suffering. As China has moved away from matchmaking by parents and work units toward the competitive world of dating, smaller men can find themselves shut out. According to Jiayuan, China’s biggest online dating website, which boasts 134 million users, the three most popular female searches for men are height, home ownership, and salary. After all, the ideal for men is gao fu shuai: tall, rich, and handsome.

It is no wonder that there is now a substantial market for devices intended to increase height—from male platform shoes to exercise machines that claim to emit infrared energy stimulating growth hormones. For those who want a more permanent and extreme solution, there is cosmetic leg-lengthening surgery. The procedure, which takes up to a year of recovery time, and costs tens of thousands of yuan, involves breaking the patient’s leg bones and then separating them slowly using embedded screws, which must be turned manually three times a day. New bone then grows in the fractured area and can add as much as five inches to a person’s stature. Although the procedure was banned in 2006, it still takes place in back-street operation rooms or under the guise of necessary medical treatment.

The quest for physical perfection is only getting worse in an increasingly capitalist society, says Jemimah Steinfeld, author of Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China. She told me, “As we move further away from Mao and more into the market economy, commodifying bodies becomes entrenched and the norm.” How you measure up, it seems, still matters.


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