BEIJING, March 8 (Xinhua) -- The ongoing annual session of the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) has given Shen Jilan, 84, a chance to consolidate her position as one of the world's most venerable political figures.
With her 59 years as an NPC deputy, she even trumps the congressional career of the late Robert C. Byrd, who served 51 years as a U.S. senator. Shen is the only deputy serving all 12 terms of the NPC.
With the International Women's Day being marked on Friday, she has become the figurehead for a growing number of women in Chinese politics.
When Shen began her role as deputy, she was in a much smaller minority and experienced a very different Chinese political situation as she learned the ropes in what was understandably a daunting male-dominated atmosphere.
From a remote village in northern Shanxi Province, the national model worker says her overriding prerogative in her early 1950s days in the NPC was that "we must elect Mao Zedong as chairman."
How times have changed -- in political and also practical senses. Shen remarked recently to media, "I used to start my four-day journey to Beijing by riding a donkey from my village to the county. And this year, the high-speed train journey to Beijing took only two hours."
This year, Shen showed she was capable of keeping up with these fast times by presenting proposals on narrowing the gap between rich and poor regions, and optimizing rural land use.
While she may have record-breaking longevity in terms of politics, this grandmother is far from the only female to bring new life to this year's key political session in China.
Of the 2,987 NPC deputies this year, 699 are women, 62 of them newly elected. Females comprise 23.4 percent of the deputies, representing a 2.07-percent increase from the previous NPC term.
Among a number of high-profile female NPC appointments, Fu Ying, who served as Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Australia and Britain, becomes the NPC's first ever spokeswoman for this session.
Further headlines were generated by Liu Yang, a newly elected deputy from the People's Liberation Army.
China's first female astronaut, 35-year-old Liu said she felt honored to take up her new position. "I used to watch [the congress] on television, but this year I am obliged to deliberate on and examine the government work report," she said.
Young diver Chen Ruolin, who won gold in the 10m platform category at the London Olympic Games, is likewise making her debut as an NPC deputy.
Worries over such young debutantes' inexperience have also been highlighted. "She is so young. Obviously, she needs more political training," said a domestic journalist surnamed Xu after interviewing Chen.
Inexperience is an issue that will need to be worked though as the NPC embraces more deputies from all walks of life, not just the political elite.
Even Shen Jilan has her detractors. Some netizens have labeled her a "living fossil," a reputation that can't be helped by her admission that she has never voted against any motion.
Decades before, the few women NPC deputies were generally selected from those with outstanding contributions such as model workers or officials. Nowadays, female migrant workers and even female poets have joined this team.
"'Political training' is utterly important, as being a new deputy, I knew little about the law," said Zhu Xueqin, who is in her second five-year term as an NPC deputy.
The 36 year old was the first-ever migrant worker deputy five years ago.
She still remembers her nervousness when she stood at the front of the Great Hall of the People for the very first time. "I take the NPC as my school, a law school. The law matters so much to both women and migrant workers," according to Zhu.
This year, before attending the NPC, she voluntarily took part in the deputy training, going over what she learned last time.
Shen Jilan's political education has been less formal but no less hard earned.
"The first time I came here, I dared not to speak," she recalled.
As she learned more about the NPC and its functions, however, she came to realize it was a channel for ordinary people to express their opinions."As a people's deputy, I must listen to their voices and help them to relieve their stresses," she believes.
Of course, opportunities to join the top legislature of a nation are prized for both men and women. But, for Chinese women, this trend underscores the fact that their overall status has gained an unprecedented leap forward over the last century.
A hundred years ago, the grandmas and great grandmas of women like Zhu Xueqin and Chen Ruolin may have suffered foot-binding, and now their descendants are talking about state affairs.
In addition to their responsibilities as mothers, housewives and daughters, Chinese women are shouldering more political roles. As the saying goes, Chinese women "hold up half the sky" along with their elevation into the country's politics.
(Xinhua correspondents Xu Xiaoqing, Xu Yang and Meng Na contributed to the story.)