Gender – China

Intro. To talk about current issues of gender inequality in China is to talk about the consequences of a quickly developing socialist society with a patriarchal, agriculturally intensive and confucianist tradition.


The Chinese are a patrilineal, patriarchal and patrilocal society. Patrilocality, for one, can be traced back to the women’s Confucian three obediences, namely obedience to her father before marriage, to husband after marriage, and to her son after her husband dies. Therefore the “ideal” woman needs to stay with, and hence economic and psychologically attached to either her husband or son.

Margery Wolf (class already read this article) points out that patrilineality combined with patrilocality places a big burden in women’s hands, that no matter in which state of life the woman is – be it marriage-age girl, married woman, or mother of children – she will be looked on with contempt by his parents and suspicion by her husband’s family. These practices become subtle ways of discriminating women as they normalize.

[as children] In general women will hold less economic and political importance within Chinese society after they become adults. Therefore they have less to contribute as a family member on parents. On the other hand, girls will eventually leave the family upon marriage and not contribute to extending the clan. Because of such reasons, Chinese families see bearing a girl as undesirable. Often female babies are given names such as “Little Mistake” or “Little Unpleasantness” In South Korea, a country heavily influence by Chinese tradition, the abortion rate of female fetuses by mothers who found out their babies were not male was so high, that in 1990 doctors were banned from letting the parents know the sex of the yet-to-be-born baby.

[as wife] The Chinese people feel highly suspicious against any alien members joining the household. This is why the wives aren’t totally received as a member of the family, and take a long time to become an insider. Especially if the wife does give birth to too many girls and not many boys, the family will resent against her; this is often a point where beating patterns emerge.

Traditionally, the only way for a wife to expose her husband’s family’s hostility towards her was by committing suicide, after which investigations might eventually follow and cast shame upon the involved family.

These are general descriptions of non-institutionalized subordination of women in Chinese society. This striking gender stratification is the source of domestic violence against women. (some examples to be added)
These cultural circumstances set up an environment where women are looked down upon and gave men justification to exercise


There is digression among authors on whether the sexual equality initiative included in the Cultural Revolution held by Mao has improved women’s lives, or has only brought the aggressions undercovert. The consensus is that, in one way or another, Chinese Socialism brought about a change in the treatment given to women’s issues, and that since then women in general have acquired more economic power than in the past.

On these Confucianist foundations were the patriarchal-socialist reforms laid. By transferring the individual family heads’ power in the hands of a communal authority, socialism seems to establish a more egalitarian power distribution among men and women. (This is true statistically for the first years of Socialist China)
However, the Cultural Revolution emphasized the resolution of conflicts through power. And now domestic violence is in the rise back even in urban zones.
Beating of wives is frequent, and especially serious in rural China since women have no means of contact for help. Many popular phrases justified wife beating. “Women are like wheelbarrows; if not beaten for three days they cannot be used”
In the present there are laws concerning the matter, and institutions dealing with women issues (in the cities). However the tradition of women oppression is long, and it is still impregnated in people’s minds. Recently (is it now?) as a modification to the laws on marriage were being discussed, a legislator presented his doubts as for whether unconsented sex by the woman’s husband constituted a violence. Also many dynasty-time Chinese novels and stories feature a woman-hero whom after losing her virginity on whoever was not her promised husband or being raped by barbarous soldiers of the north would keep her honor by committing suicide.
According to popular tradition the king or emperor would then appoint the village the woman was born as a “virtuous woman village”. A more modern version of the suicidal wife is portrayed in tv-series where a woman loved by some other man, would have a terminal disease and die at the end of the story. (I know these two things are related but not sure how)

Domestic violence is higher in marital relationships with little mutual communication and conflicts between spouses in private places.
Bound feet: the bound feet became a trend during early 12th century and has stayed as a steady tradition. Scholars argue that the bound feet was meant to deprive women of freedom, since Chinese men were worried that they wouldn’t be able to control the whereabouts of their wives.

Towards the 90s, the patterns of domestic violence seem to resemble more and more those of the western world as service-oriented laborer sector emerges in the large urban centers.

For further thought:

Is the Chinese society where the labor force moves progressively towards the service, undergoing any change in the position and conception women hold? (I don’t have bibliography on this, all the arguments I read talk about the transition from agricultural to preindustrial, then to Maoist Socialism, then to industrialist and export-oriented economies and their impact on women’s lives, but not on “service” or tertiary area – does it even constitute a distinct phase?)

(And then the usual thing on the boundaries of cultural identity and human rights, impact of the opening of national frontiers to the general consciousness, etc)







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