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China's Napoleon Complex

How the Middle Kingdom Shortchanges Its Short People

A laborer installs scaffolding to clean a statue of the late Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, September 22, 2007. Reuters

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.

Deng Xiaoping with U.S. President Gerald Ford and the first lady.

“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

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