rightChina had one of the greatest gender disparities among newborns of any country in the world, all the more alarming because China is such a populous nation. In 2005, 118 boys were born for every 100 girls, up from 110 boys per 100 girls in 2000 and 112 in 1990. One Chinese expert told the Times of London in the late 2000s the rate seemed to have peaked at 120.4 at the end of 2006. The sex ratio in China is better than it used to be but still favors males. Worldwide, 103 to 107 boys are born for every 100 girls.

According to the 2020 census in China, the male population of mainland China in 2020 was 723.3 million, accounting for 51.24 percent of the total. The the female population was 688.44 million, 48.76 percent. The sex ratio of the population was 105 men for every 100 women, slightly lower than that of 2010. The sex ratio at birth was 111.3 male babies for every 100 female babies, a decrease of 6.8 from 2010. [Source: Ryan Woo and Raju Gopalakrishnan, Reuters, May 11, 2021]

Sex ratio:
at birth: 1.11 male(s)/female
0-14 years: 1.16 male(s)/female
15-24 years: 1.17 male(s)/female
25-54 years: 1.05 male(s)/female
55-64 years: 1.02 male(s)/female
65 years and over: 0.9 male(s)/female
total population: 1.06 male(s)/female (2020 est.) [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021]

Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on the One Child Policy Wikipedia ; Family Planning in China ; Christian Science Monitor article on Too Many Boys ; National Bureau of Statistics of the People's Republic of China; Trends in Chinese Demography ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Institute of Population and Labor Economics

Preference for Boys in China

According to the 2010 census, the sex ratio between was 105.2 males for every 100 females, compared with 106.74 in 2000. Leo Lewis wrote in the Times of London, “But those numbers are skewed in an ageing population because women have a longer life expectancy than men. When asked about the gender imbalance among newborns, the Government admitted that there were currently 118.06 boys born for every 100 girls — a 1.2 per cent increase from the previous census.”

In some rural areas there are only 67 girls for every 100 boys. Kindergarten classes in places where the problem is particularly bad have twenty-some boys and maybe three or four girls. Some primary school have enough boys to fill five classes but only enough girls for two.

According to American Enterprise Institute demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, there are about 113 male children for every 100 females up to the age of four, much higher than 50 years ago when the figure was 106. In Jiangxi, Guangdong, Hainan and Anhui boys outnumber girls by 30 percent or more. [Source: Niall, Ferguson, Newsweek, March 2011]

A study by the British Medical journal Lancet said that selective abortions had left China with 32 million more boys than girls. A UNICEF study counted 29 million "missing females" in China. The number of “missing girls” generated in one year increased from around 500,000 in 1990 to 900,000 in 2000. So many baby girls are “missing” that Chinese authorities have delayed the release of census data because it showed the situation getting worse rather than better.

In the old days wealthy men with wives who gave birth only to daughters often took concubines to have sons. If one of the concubines produced a son the man often dumped the concubine and give the son to his wife to raise.

Although many Chinese still cherish male heirs, the Communist Party has largely succeeded in easing age-old attitudes about gender. In major cities, where one-child families have become the norm, many parents say they are happy to have a daughter and no son. [Source: New York Times]

Places in China with High Ratios of Boys to Girls

left In some places, particularly in the southeastern and central Chinese province,s the boy to girl ratios are much higher than the national average. In some places in rural Guangxi province, where boys are prized on farms, the numbers approach 144 boys for 100 girls. In some villages more than 75 percent of all children born are boys. In the city of Lianyungang in Jiangsu Province, 163.5 boys are born for every 100 girls. In some rural counties in Shaanxi Province newborn boys outnumber girls 2 to 1. Qishan Country recorded a ratio of 2.53 to 1. Some villages here had not had a baby girl born as a second child for more than three years.

Hainan Island has the highest newborn-born-to-girl ratio of any Chinese province with 135.7 boys to 100 girls. About 70 percent if the island’s residents live in rural areas. Many belong to the Li and Miao minority. A 29-year-old farmer who has a son and a daughter told the Strait Times, “If you fail to bear a son, people will laugh at you at you. People will say things like, “You “ll end up in an old folks’ home in your old age, as you have no son to take care of you.” A 45-year-old Li woman who gave birth to three daughters said, “I was so sad when my third daughter was born. I was worried no one would take care of my wife and me when we grew old.”

Families on Hainan with girls play hide and seek with authorities to keep their children secret so they can have more. One woman with a daughter, who was told that she could not have any more children if her second child was a girl, said “I will try again until I get a son.” Already the island has it share of bachelor villages. In Hainan by some estimated 9 out 10 aborted fetus are girls. In the old days the expression “a daughter had given to seas” was a euphemism for female infanticide, a customs that is now rare.

Reasons for Preference for Boys in China

Boys are regarded as important because they look after property; inherit land; have more opportunities to get ahead in life than daughters; care for parents when they get old; and perform important ceremonial duties when the parents die. They care for parents spirits in the afterlife so their spirits do not wander the earth as hungry ghosts. Celebrations are held for the birth of a son. One peasant woman told AP, her husband celebrating by getting drunk and buying her candy. “That was like New Year’s Eve,” she said.

Having boys is regarded as kind of pension system. In recent years pressures to have sons have gotten stronger rather weaker as the Chinese “iron rice bowl” welfare and pension system has been dismantled and replaced with survival of the fittest capitalism. In much of China, there is no universal, government-sponsored social security anymore. Many rural Chinese have no pensions. One peasant farmer in southeast China told the New York Times, “People around here depend on their sons to provide for them in old age because you can’t rely on anyone else.”

The preference for boys is tied up in the Confucian belief that male heirs are necessary to carry on the family name and take care of the family spirits. A Chinese family worries that if there is no son no one will look after them and keep them company in the afterlife. Confucius once said, "there are three ways of being disloyal to your ancestors. Not carrying on the family name is the worse."

"Farming families all believe that it's better to have many children," a 34-year-old farmer in rural Bobai County of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, told the Yomiuri Shimbun. He and his 32-year-old wife have a 9-year-old son. He earns less than 3,000 yuan ($500) a year. The farmer experienced misfortune in the past. Seven years ago, his wife became pregnant with their second child but was taken to a hospital by officials and forced to have an abortion. [Source: Kenichi Yoshida and Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 31, 2013]

Girls and the Reasons for Preference for Boys


Girls, on the other hand, have to give away any property they possess to their husband and are not supposed to take care of their parents in old age. A daughters responsibility to her family ends when she gets married. She moves in with her husband, often in another village or town, and become part of her husband's family and helps care for them. In China there is an expression, "Daughters are like water that splashes out of the family and cannot be gotten back after marriage."

The Communists raised the status of women in China, making it no longer such a bad thing to have daughters. But since the one-child policy and economic reforms were launched in the 1970s, Confucian values have returned, making it once again fashionable not to have girls.

One farmer told the New York Times, “If you have a son he can go out and make money, then the whole family will be secure. If your daughter gets rich that’s a different thing altogether, because the money goes to her husband’s family.”

While parents openly celebrate when they have boys they often look disappointed when they have girls. Newborn girls are sometimes given names like Pandi ("expecting a boy"), Yanan ("second to a boy") in hopes the next child will be a boy. Some six million women bear the names Lai-di ("call for a brother") and Ziao-di ("bring a brother").

This contrasts with sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, where sons and daughters both care for aging parents — and sex ratios are fairly normal. In South Korea, the ratio of boys to girls peaked in 1990 at 119 to 100 and declined to 110 to 100 in 2000. Demographers attribute the change to a weakening of the patriarchal family as people have become more urbanized, Westernized and independent. These changes haven't occurred in China, which remains largely agrarian.

The trend is changing in Chinese urban areas, where there is now a slight preference for girls, under the belief they are more likely to care for their aging parents.

Myth of the Big Chinese Family

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “One of the great myths about China is that of the Chinese family that so desperately wants a son that they have as many kids as possible and end up having enormous families. Although Chinese families did very much want sons, they were also perfectly conscious of the fact that their ability to support children was limited and that, in the long run, they didn't improve their odds by simply having the maximum number of births. And, in fact, births per woman in late imperial China are actually, on average, probably somewhat lower than in early modern Europe. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“There are various theories as to what kinds of birth control were practiced during this time. This is actually quite controversial and hard to reconstruct, but we do know that one way or another, they seemed to keep births down. This is very different from the traditional image of China as this land of Malthusian horror where, because they couldn't restrain their population, it was only kept in check by floods and famines.

“That's not the story at all. And it's again a good example of how we find the things we're trained to find. Western-trained demographers understood that in Europe, population control worked as people delayed marriage in hard times. They assumed that this was the main mechanism for fertility control available to premodern societies, so it didn't even occur to them when they looked at societies like China to think about the possibility that there might be effective birth control within marriage. Therefore, when they looked at China, they saw that access to marriage wasn't economically regulated the way it was in Europe—the average age at marriage doesn't seem to get older at hard times, women marry young anyway—and they said, "Aha, society with no control on fertility. Therefore, if fertility is unchecked, they must have had all these enormous problems of overpopulation."

“It turns out the Chinese found ways to control fertility within marriage, which many scholars thought simply did not happen before modern chemical and mechanical contraception. Population growth was concentrated not in the advanced regions of the coast, which were running out of land and realized it, but out on the frontier”.

20080223-PRC says crime to.jpg
Family planning poster that says abandoning girls is a crime

Girls, Preference for Boys and the One Child Policy

Demographers have found that the boy-to-girl ratio increases the more strictly the one-child policy is enforced. One study of three villages in Shaanxi found that 114 boys to 100 girls were born in 1979 to 1983 when the "one child" policy was introduced; then dropped to 98 to 100 during a lenient period from 1984 to 1987; and soared to 145 to 100 in 1988 to 1993 when the policy was strictly enforced.

Couples that have a son the first time around count themselves fortunate. If they have a daughter, they often want to try again for a son. It is not unusual for woman to make three or four attempts to have a boy, keeping the first girl, giving the second girl away and having the third aborted after discovering she is female with an ultrasound test.

Some women feel overwhelmed by the pressure to have boys. A mother of a daughter who gave birth to a second daughter told the New York Times, “I felt I couldn’t hold my head walking in the village.” Undesired baby girls, who are born, often end up in orphanages, or being put up for adoption.” Some in the same circumstances contemplate suicide.

A booming economy has resulted in more not less sex selections as families have more money to spend on things like ultrasound tests to improve their chances of having a boy.

Poor Treatment of Girls and Abandoned Children in China

The low number of girls is attributed to poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, desertion and infanticide. One Chinese woman told the New York Times, "My parents were disappointed in my gender. They wished I were a boy. I had to work very hard to compete with my brothers." Girls are sometimes not counted by census takers because they are hidden by their families.

Mortality rates are considerably higher for girls than for boys. Girls are 12 percent more likely to die before the age of five than boys. In the countryside the mortality rate for infant girls one year or younger is 27 percent higher for girls than for boys. A Chinese demographer told the Washington Post, "If the son is sick, families in the countryside will get a doctor. If the girl is sick, they won’t.”

Many girls go hungry while food is directed to their brothers. A women with a younger brother told the Los Angeles Times, “My sister and I knew that all the good food went to him — when he was done, then we could eat.”

In the 1990s it was relatively common for parents with unwanted children to abandon them. Orphanages were often overwhelmed by requests and didn’t have enough staff and formula to take care of all the children that were sent their way. Because it was illegal to abandon children even at orphanages, babies were often left in cardboard boxes or bamboo baskets near orphanages and firecrackers was set off to let staff members at orphanages know where the babies were. One woman who worked at an orphanage at that time told the Los Angeles Times, “We’d find them all over. They’d be wrapped in rags, filthy...Sometimes they’d have ant all over their face because babies have a sweet smell and ants like them.”

Infanticide and Girls in China

In rural China, it reportedly is not that unusual to see a dead baby left in a garbage heap or abandoned by the side of the road or in a train station. Some couples regard the punishments for having a child to be so severe that they feel it makes more sense to abandon unwanted children than raise them. Some demographers say that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of infanticides have occurred in China in the last two decades. Many of the victims are baby girls. The simple fact that second child born in a Chinese family is often a boy is proof enough that female infanticide is at least a possibility. Some women go into hiding when they are pregnant so that if they give birth to a daughter they can get away with murdering it without anybody knowing about it.

There are many stories about parents paying old ladies to murder their baby daughters: drowning them in toilets, smothering them with pillows or strangling them, and then burying them in their backyard. Many baby girls are simply neglected and die from causes related to poor nutrition or being poorly taken care of when sick. The Chinese government has admited that the practice of female infanticide is a concern and the People's Daily has even labeled it a "grave problem." The paper has reported that the ratio of males to females under the age of five in one rural area of Hebei province was five to one and has run stories about of men asking for divorces from wives who only gave birth to females. Some villagers didn’t like accusation that they abandoned their girls. One villager in Guizhou Province told the Los Angeles Times, “People around here don’t dump their kids...Boy or girl, they’re our flesh and blood .”

Infanticide has a long history in China. It was practiced often in the past, resulting in high male-to-female ratios and was not stamped out until the Communists came to power in 1949. In the mid-19th century after a large wave of infanticide so many men across China were unable to find wives they organized into armed bands. The ensuing Nien Rebellion took the imperial government in Beijing more than a decade to put down and played a role in weakening the Qing dynasty and ultimately toppling it.

Even before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, when there was no birth control at all, China already had female infanticide. For example, in 1948 in China, the nationwide average sex ratio (male to female) was 109.6 males for every 100 females; in Dalian it was 194.0:100. According to a survey done in the 1990s by gynecology professor Gu Zusan, 80 percent of rural families want a boy, not a girl. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D.Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

The “one child” policy appeared to increase the female infanticide rate in some places. For example, the sex ratio in a community in Wuhan (1982) among those under one year of age was 154 (154 males for every 100 females); in a village in Hubei Province (1982), the sex ratio was 503. Even the government Beijing newspaper Zhongguo Fazibao (China Law News) reported this problem (September 11,1986): “According to the survey by Zungqing Women Association, there were 2,800 cases of female infanticide in Zungqing in 1984. It was a very serious and severe problem.” The newborn sex ratio in China has risen year by year. In 1986, it was 110; in 1987, 111; and in 1990, 112. In September and October 1992, a nationwide survey of 380,000 newborns showed the sex ratio was as high as 118.5. =

Infanticide is not practiced only in China. It is common in India and occurs from time among American teenagers with unwanted children. During of period of social unrest and food shortages in the 1930s, anthropologists found that every mother in an Ayoreo Indian village committed infanticide at least once.

Unwanted Girls and the One-Child Policy

In a review of "Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother" by Xinran, Lesley Downer wrote in the New York Times, “In 1989, the Chinese writer and broadcaster Xinran was in a remote mountain village in Shandong Province having dinner with the headman when she heard cries from an adjoining room, where his daughter-in-law was giving birth. A while later, as the midwife collected her fee, Xinran noticed a movement in the slops bucket. “To my absolute horror,” she recalls, “I saw a tiny foot poking out of the pail.” But she was the only one who was shocked. “It’s not a child,” the headman’s wife told her. “If it was, we’d be looking after it, wouldn’t we? It’s a girl baby, and we can’t keep it.” [Source: Lesley Downer, New York Times, April 1, 2011]

“The traditional Chinese belief that, as Xinran puts it, “you do not count as a human being unless you have a son” to carry on the family line has been severely intensified by the Communist government’s one-child policy, promulgated in 1979 in an effort to control the country’s population growth. Since having more than one child became illegal in many areas, families choose to get rid of girl after girl until the desired male child is born.”

“Xinran sees painful evidence of this on a train trip when she meets a husband traveling with his wife and their little daughter,” Downer wrote. “As the train is leaving the station, she looks out the window and sees the child sitting alone on the platform. Later she discovers that these seemingly devoted parents have abandoned their daughter — the fourth to be jettisoned in this way — in hopes that the next child the mother bears will be a boy. The Chinese call such people “extra birth guerrillas,” since they are trying to start over in places where no one will know them or their family history.”

Ultrasound and Missing Girls in China

20080223-Ultrasound_Scanner__Portable_Chinese by priclines.jpg
Portable Chinese
ultrasound scanner

Millions of Chinese women have had abortions after ultrasound tests showed they were carrying females. By some estimates sex-selective abortions performed after ultrasound test account for a third and maybe half of the “missing girls.” By one count 97 percent of all aborted babies are girls. The United Nations estimated in a report in 2010 that 43 million girls have "disappeared" in China due to gender-selective abortion as well as neglect and inadequate access to health care and nutrition.

In villages with easy access to ultrasound machines it is not unusual to find that 75 percent of the children born there are boys. In one village in Guangxi 19 of the 24 children born one year after ultrasound was introduced were boys. Before ultrasound the ratios of boys to girls was near 1 to 1. A study in a county in Guangdong province found that couples with a girl already elected to get an abortion 92 percent of the time if they found the wife was carrying another girl. One villager told the New York Times, “If you’re rich and you want a big family, you can keep having babies until you get a boy. But if you can’t pay the fine, or don’t want all the burdens of a large family, then you get the test.”

Test used to determine gender are banned but widely carried out, mostly at underground clinics in rural areas. According to report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2009, ‘sex-specific abortions remained extremely common place, especially in rural areas...The problem is more serious in rural areas due to the lack of a social security system. Ageing farmers have to rely on their offspring.” Couples pay as little $4 for an ultrasound test. Illegal abortions are readily available for those who do not want a girl, often the same day an ultrasound test is taken for between $15 and $120 depending on the complexity of the procedure and the “gift” demanded by health care workers.

Ultrasound was introduced in the mid-1980s. China now mass produces its own ultrasound machines, which sell for $2,000 a piece. Abortions after ultrasound tests occur in the second or even third trimester of pregnancy. This is because sex determination by ultrasound is usually possible in the fourth, fifth and six months of pregnancy. "It is gendercide," said Therese Hesketh, a University College London professor who has studied China's skewed sex ratio. "I don't understand why China doesn't just really penalize people who've had sex-selective abortions and the people who do them. The law exists but nobody enforces it."

Chinese Poem About Aborted Girl

Li Dian, a professor of Chinese literature at the University of Arizona translated the following poem: “Sister-in-law Zhang Hongping”. To introduce it, he wrote: “What is the other side of all the little emperors and empresses? What is behind all the statistics on birth control? Abortion, of course.....Enforced birth control has not been abolished, only modified. When you only think of the little emperors and empresses, or when you mainly think about economics, it is all too easy to forget what this means. Forced abortions have not been abolished altogether, just because every couple can have two children. This is a very painful text. I am not sure if I have found a good way to translate it. Chinese literature has no shortage of works like this. [Source: Li Dian, 2015 ]

“Zhang Hongping from Nanchenzan village,
from the family of Wu Zhanlei,
when she was pregnant the second time,
the time period between the two pregnancies
did not meet national regulations.

“After the late-term abortion,
they threw that ball of flesh
into a dirty plastic bucket.
Her mom prodded one or two times into the bucket with fire tongs,
That piece of flesh twitched one or two times without a sound
Her mom’s fingers shook one or two times.

“”It’s a girl,“
said her mom.
Every time she talks about it,
Zhang Hongping makes a pause at this moment.
““After that,” she says,
“‘cause it was a girl I cried not so hard.”

Regulating Sex-Selective Abortion and Effort to Increase the Number of Girls in China


The Chinese government has vowed to fix the gender imbalance. It outlawed sex-selective abortions and the use of ultrasound to screen the sex of unborn children in 1997. There have also been official attempts to ban doctors from telling mothers the sex of the expected child. In addition, China allows families in rural areas, where son preference is strongest, to have a second child if their first is a girl. The government has also launched education campaigns promoting girls and gives cash subsidies to rural families with daughters.

In January 2005, the laws restricting sex-selective abortion were tightened; the practice was officially banned and made part of the criminal code. Thus far the campaign has not been very successful. Significantly more boys continue to be born. Many doctors, undeterred by the threat of long prison sentence, perform the tests to supplement their monthly income which is often as low as $50 a month. In August 2007, the Chinese government proposed making the laws tougher on sex-selective abortion that would dish out harsher punishments to doctors who performed them.

In some places, the Chinese government gives special pensions to couples with two daughters and fruit trees to couples with one daughter (the fruit is supposed to provide a source of income in old age). The aim of the policy is to reduce incentives for having boys as a social security measure. The government also allows girls with no brothers to go to school for free while parents with sons have to pay $7.50 a semester. In other places parents with daughters and no sons are given access to the best jobs and officials with jurisdiction over areas with significantly more boys than girls are passed over for promotions.

Although many Chinese still cherish male heirs, the Communist Party has largely succeeded in easing age-old attitudes about gender. In major cities, where one-child families have become the norm, many parents say they are happy to have a daughter and no son. [Source: New York Times]

Decline of Gender Imbalances in China

These days it is becoming increasingly more desirable to have girls. In many cases it is easier for young women to get jobs than young men and daughters are considered more loyal and likely to take care of their parents in old age than sons. One commercial on television shows a mother complaining she was neglected by her three sons while her dutiful daughter took good care of her. In the countryside villages are filled with slogans like “A girl is worth as much as a boy,” “Having a daughter is as good as having a son,” and “Firmly uphold equal rights for girls and boys.”

Xinhua ran a story in October 2010 that the "zhongnan qingnu" attitude [the traditional preference for boys] was actually reversing to some extent, as families consider the pressure that will be put on sons to buy homes, etc; implied is that some parents are thinking that they’d rather marry off their daughter and leave it to their new son-in-law to worry about all of those responsibilities.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, November 24, 2010]

But China still has significant gender imbalances despite China regulating sex-selective testing and abortions. So why is that? Dr Das Gupta told the BBC he believes this may be so because China until 2016 maintained the rule that a person’s household registration (the hukou system) remained in the village where the person was from, regardless of the fact that the person might be living and working somewhere else. This she says meant that there was still an emphasis on male lineage and land ownership, but that this should start to change as the 2016 rule change kicks in. shift. But she also stressed that the change is not always linear. As people gain economic advantage they have better access to sex-selective testing and have fewer children, which actually then puts greater emphasis on their gender. [Source: BBC, January 13, 2017]

Image Sources: 1) Shanghai List; 2) Landberger com; 3) University of Washington; 4) Priceline website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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