In the early 20th century the situation for women began improving in China as Western ideas began take hold. Foot binding was banned and there were efforts to improve the literacy of women. Under Communism, things improved further. Child marriages, prostitution, arranged marriages and concubines were banned.

The Communists are proud of their women's right record. Mao used to say, "Women hold up half the sky"---an ancient Chinese proverb. The Communists raised the status of women and made them useful members of the revolution. They did a lot to improve the health care and education of women, and helped them enter the work force as pilots, doctors, factory workers and farm machine operators and currently are trying to combat the cultural preference for boys.

Chinese women did their part fighting for the Communists against the Kuomintang. One unit was immortalized in the movie and ballet Red Detachment of Women, whose theme song featured the memorable lyrics: "March on, march on. A soldier's burden is heavy. A woman’s hatred is deep." The detachment emerged in 1930s from a group of women who helped the war effort by mending uniforms. They claimed the could carry weapons like men, teh story goes, and ended up participating in hundreds of bloody battles, sometimes fighting with their bare hands.

The Communist system empowered women to work outside the home which in the end, in many cases, just doubled their work load---because they were still expected to take care of the house and raise the children when they weren't working. A typical woman in the Maoist era rose at 5:00am in cramped apartment with her family and parents to fix breakfast for everyone and get her kids off to school. She then took a crowded bus to work. At 2:00pm she got off work and then rushed to the butcher shop with a ration card and queued for meat and after she was done rushed to another store to wait in another line for vegetables. After arriving at her apartment bloc she walked up the stairs because the elevator didn’t work, fixed dinner, washed the dishes and collapsed into bed exhausted only to have to wake again the next day and do it all over again.*

Under the Deng reforms, things improved. Women were able to chose their jobs and careers, improve their status and gain more freedom over their lives. Improved status meant that women no longer had to obediently follow the orders of their in laws. They could pick their boyfriends and husbands, chose where they wanted to live, and enjoy life in a way they would have never dreamed of in the past.

Changes and Improvements for Women in Communist China

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A real liberation and revolution in the female’s role has occurred in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The first law enacted by the PRC government was the Marriage Law of 1950. The law is not only about marriage and divorce, it also is a legal statement on monogamy, equal rights of both sexes, and on the protection of the lawful interests of women and children. [However, it took years for the law to become more than words on paper and move into real life. (Lau)] [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality hu-berlin.de/sexology =]

In 1954, the constitution of the People’s Republic of China restated the 1950 principle of the equality of men and women and protection of women: “Article 96. Women in the People’s Republic of China enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of political, economic, cultural, social, and domestic life.” Under this principle, major changes happened in the social roles of women in the PRC, especially in the areas of work and employment, education, freedom in marriage and divorce, and family management. For example, 600,000 female workers and urban employees in China in 1949 accounted for 7.5 percent of the total workforce; in 1988 the female workforce had increased to 50,360,000 and 37.0 percent of the total. [Most women continue to be employed as cheap labor, but this is not a condition limited to China. (Lau)] =

A neighborhood survey in Nanjing found that 70.6 percent of the women married between 1950 and 1965 had jobs. Of the women married between 1966 and 1976, those employed stood at 91.7 percent, and by 1982, 99.2 percent of married women were breadwinners. A Shanghai neighborhood survey reported 25 percent of the wives declared themselves boss of the family, while 45 percent said they shared the decision making power in their families. Similar surveys in Beijing found that 11.6 percent of the husbands have the final say in household matters, while 15.8 percent of families have wives who dominate family decision making. The other 72.6 percent have the husband and wife sharing in decision making. A survey in Nanjing revealed that 40 percent of the husbands go shopping in the morning. Many husbands share kitchen work. Similar surveys of 323 families in Shanghai found 71.1 percent of husbands and wives sharing housework. (Dalin Liu’s study of Sexual Behavior in Modern China (1992) contains statistical data about domestic conflicts and the assignment of household chores.)

Although the situation of women changed dramatically from what was before, in actuality, women still were not equal with men. For example, it is not unusual to find that some universities reject female graduate students, and some factories and government institutions refuse to hire women. The proportion of professional women is low. Of the higher-level jobs such as technicians, clerks, and officials, women fill only 5.5 percent. Of the country’s 220 million illiterates, 70 percent are women. Women now make up only 37.4 percent of high school students and only 25.7 percent of the university-educated population. Moreover, actual discrimination against women still exists, and continues to develop now. Many women have been laid off by enterprises that consider them surplus or redundant. Only 4.5 percent of the laid-off women continued to receive welfare benefits, including bonuses and stipends offered by their employers. Many enterprises have refused to employ women, contending their absence from work to have a baby or look after children are burdensome.

Growing up with an Absent Mother in the Mao Era

In Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love , Xinran wrote: As a child, I used to believe I was an orphan, because my mother gave me a life but had no time to love me, nor believed she should make any special effort to be with me. From the 1950s to the 1970s, most Chinese women like my mother closely followed the Communist Party's line concerning your "life order"” in other words, the political party came first, your motherland came second and helping others came third. Anyone who cared about their own family and children was considered a capitalist and could be punished---at the very least, you would be looked down upon by everyone, including your own family. So, exactly a month after I was born, I was sent away to live with my grandmothers, spending my time between Nanjing and Beijing. [Source: Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran, The Guardian, April 24, 2011]

I wasn't the only one; for millions of Chinese children growing up in that Red period, life was lived without our mothers. Their busy careers as "liberated women"---part of the victimization of the Cultural Revolution---kept them away from us. And then, when I grew up, I moved away to university and we were living in different cities, different time zones---and, finally, different countries. [Ibid]

But I know how much I miss her, when I'm chatting to my family, writing---even when I'm on book tours around the world and in the night, I often dream of when I was a little girl. With one hand I hold the baby doll, which was taken from me by a female Red Guard on the first day the Cultural Revolution took place at my town; with the other hand I hold two of my mum's fingers. In the dream, she always wears the purple silk dress she had on in my first real-life memory of her, when I was five. [Ibid]

My grandmother took me to a railway station to meet her there---she was on a business trip. "This is your mother: say 'Mama', not 'Auntie'," my grandmother told me, embarrassed. Wide-eyed and silent, I stared at the woman in the purple dress. Her eyes filled with tears, but she forced her face into a sad, tired smile. My grandmother did not prompt me again; the two women stood frozen...This particular memory has haunted me again and again. I felt the pain of it most keenly after I became a mother myself and experienced the atavistic, inescapable bond between a mother and her child. What could my mother have said, faced with a daughter who was calling her "Auntie" [Ibid]

Xinran and Messages from an Unknown Chinese Mother

Lesley Downer wrote in the New York Times: “Xinran was a radio journalist in Nanjing until moving to Britain in 1997. Before her departure, her program for women, “Words on the Night Breeze,” had millions of listeners: at that time, few Chinese owned televisions and many were illiterate, so radio journalists reached far more people than their colleagues on television or at newspapers. Xinran received hundreds of letters and phone calls, and told some of her correspondents’ harrowing stories on air.

Her program---and her 2010 book Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love “gave a voice to some of the poorest women in Chinese society, whose stories would otherwise never be heard. Among them are women like Kumei, a dishwasher who twice tried to kill herself because she’d been forced to drown her baby daughters. When a child is born, Kumei explains, the midwife prepares a bowl of warm water---called Killing Trouble water, for drowning the child if it’s a girl, or Watering the Roots bath, for washing him if it’s a boy.

Xinran also investigates Chinese orphanages, for many of which the word “Dickensian” would be totally inadequate. The children abandoned there are almost always girls, and they regularly arrive with burns between their legs, marks made as the midwife holds the newborn under an oil lamp to check her sex. Mothers forced to abandon their babies often leave mementos in their clothing, hoping the children will be able to trace them later on, but the orphanages routinely throw these sad tokens away.

Separated from her mother by the Cultural Revolution, Xinran grew up with her grandparents and considered herself an orphan. Years later, she founded a charity called the Mothers’ Bridge of Love for Western families who adopt Chinese children. Downer wrote Message From an Unknown Chinese Mother is full of heart-rending tales. “They are raw and shocking, simply told and augmented with passages that provide information about matters like the one-child policy, the history of orphanages and Chinese adoption laws.”

Book: Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran, translated by Nicky Harman Scribner in the U.S., Chatto and Windus on the U.K., 2010)

Women in Government in China

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Wu Yi

Women account for around 20 percent of the National People's Congress members and less than a fifth of Communist Party members. As of 2003, there were only five women in the high-ranking 198-member Central Committee and only one woman in the 24-member Politburo.

There are a fairly large number of female party officials but they generally don't have high-level jobs. In 1994, 32.6 percent of the Chinese officials were women but only 10.7 percent of the officials above the county level, just one of the country's 13 state councilors and three of its 40 ministers were female.

In August 2005 China promised to improve women’s representation in politics.

Vice Premier and Health Minister Wu Yi is the highest-ranking women official in China and the only female politburo member. Appointed health minister during the SARS crisis, she is very popular and has a reputation for carrying about people. Some think she is a reincarnation of the Buddhist goddess of Mercy, Kwan-yin

Wu Yi is an Oxford-educated economist and former petroleum engineer. She represented China during trade negotiations between China and the United States in 2006. One U.S. official described her as “an impressive interlocutor---very direct and very capable of getting things done.”

In 2007, Wu Yi was ranked as the second most powerful woman in the world for the second year in a row by Forbes magazine, placing behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel and ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice.

Women Dance and Sing into the Chinese Military

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Peng Liyuan, wife of
Xi Jinping, the next leader of China
In some places women applying to be army officers have show off their “talents” as well as make a favorable impression in a face-to-face interview. Meng Jing wrote in the China Daily: “Aspiring female officers were surprised to learn...that they are now required to perform a 'talent' as part of the country's current recruitment drive for the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The test of artistic ability was included for the first time as part of the standard face-to-face interview by recruiters on behalf of the PLA, which took place following stringent health screenings. [Source: Meng Jing, China Daily November 30, 2009]

“I was shocked by the new talent show test when I first heard about it,” said Zhang Jing, a candidate from Beijing Union University who opted to read a piece of poetry told the China Daily. A law major from the Beijing Normal University called Zhang Wenbian said: “Ithought the talent show was a little unnecessary.” [Ibid]

“Lieutenant Colonel Ding Zhengquan from the Beijing recruitment office said they only want to choose the best eligible young women, Meng Jung wrote. “Ding confirmed there are limited vacancies for female applicants compared with their male counterparts, which is why standards have been raised.... Wang Bosheng, a judge in the Haidian district section and a member of the National People's Congress, believed the artistic element was essential. “It is amazing to see so many girls with such great gifts,” Wang said. He added it would help them select the right people for the army.” [Ibid]

The army interview for women includes a 30-second self-introduction, a 150-second question and answer period, and a 2-minute talent show....Han Sheng, a student from Minzu University of China, displayed two of her paintings to the judges. Han admitted she was surprised by the talent show: It's only 2 minutes; some talents cannot be presented in such a short time.”... The face-to-face interview has a total mark of 30. The talent show counts for 8 marks with “expression” and “impression” providing another 12 and 10. In order to ensure interview fairness, mobile signals were blocked in all examination rooms and questions were picked randomly by applicants. [Ibid]

Wang Qian, a vice battalion commander in the Second Artillery Force, reviewed the female applicants in Haidian district on Saturday in the hope of finding suitable women for her battalion. Wang believed it was extremely necessary to include the talent shows, and told the China Daily, “Female soldiers are a special element of the army.” She said the army did not only want someone who is intelligent. “We want to find those candidates who are great in every field,” she said. [Ibid]

Women and Education in China


An estimated 70 percent of China's 140 million illiterates are female. In rural areas, girls are often so busy doing chores they don't have time for school. The New York Times reported on a a school in Youyan, a village in the poor Guizhou Province, and found only four of the 100 or so students were girls. "Girls at 5 to 6-years old begin a life of farm work," a teacher said.

It is not unusual for girls to be pulled out of school when they are ten or so to work in the fields. When they are 14 or 15 they are shipped off to work in factories far from their home towns. If a Chinese family only has enough money to educate one child, they almost always choose a son over a daughter. One Chinese feminist told Newsweek, "There is an attitude that 'girls are going to get married and won't be part of the family anyway, so why waste the money?'" One migrant worker woman told U.S. News and World Report, "In the countryside, even if you finish high school, you still end up doing the same work."

Discrimination continues through university. One Chinese feminist told AFP, "When I applied for university, I found women needed higher grades than men to be accepted and, when I graduated, government units and private enterprise made it very clear they didn't want women." Many men are reluctant to marry women with more education than them. Women with master’s degree who are looking for a husband or boyfriend often don’t mention their education when they visit matchmakers or dating services.

Working Urban Women in China


See Labor

Young working women are becoming increasingly materialistic and egocentric. Some have framed pictures of themselves on their desks. In a marketing survey, one young woman wrote, “I am the center of the world...Draw a circle and you can find me. I’m quite realistic, but sometimes I daydream. I’m a little bit selfish, but I’m always there for my friends.”

A typical young urban woman lives with her parents and earns about $300 month at her job, She has given half of salary to her mother, which she regards as her savings plan, and spends the rest of it on living expenses and entertainment. Her biggest expense is eating out with friends.

Young working women are increasingly becoming major forces in the Chinese economy. Those with good salaries, by Chinese standards, of few a hundred dollars a month think nothing of plopping down $400 for a new cell phone with the latest 3G and MP3 features or $700 on a new snowboard and gear to go with it even though they have yet to tried the sport.

An economic advisor for MasterCard told Reuters, “Urban women consumers will be spending much of their hard-earned cash on personal travel and related cultural and recreational activities, dinning out, shopping, as well as buying cars and pursuing urban leisure lifestyles.”

Their spending habits, economists hope will offset the conservative spending habits of most Chinese and make the economy less reliant on investment. Favored brands by female consumers include LVMH, Christian Dior, Valentino, Swatch, Nokia and Coca-Cola.

Diet medicines are popular with middle class women. They are often amphetamines. There are stories women losing 10 kilograms in a month who look wired and dazed.

One-Child Policy a Surprising Boon for China’s Girls

Alexa Olesen of Associated Press wrote, “Tsinghua University freshman Mia Wang has confidence to spare. Asked what her home city of Benxi in China's far northeastern tip is famous for, she flashes a cool smile and says: "Producing excellence. Like me." A Communist Youth League member at one of China's top science universities, she boasts enviable skills in calligraphy, piano, flute and ping pong.” [Source: Alexa Olesen, Associated Press, August 31, 2011] Such gifted young women are increasingly common in China's cities and make up the most educated generation of women in Chinese history. Never have so many been in college or graduate school, and never has their ratio to male students been more balanced. To thank for this, experts say, is three decades of steady Chinese economic growth, heavy government spending on education and a third, surprising, factor: the one-child policy.

In 1978, women made up only 24.2 percent of the student population at Chinese colleges and universities. By 2009, nearly half of China's full-time undergraduates were women and 47 percent of graduate students were female, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. In India, by comparison, women make up 37.6 percent of those enrolled at institutes of higher education, according to government statistics.

Many single-child families are made of two parents and one daughter. With no male heir competing for resources, parents have spent more on their daughters' education and well-being, a groundbreaking shift after centuries of discrimination. "They've basically gotten everything that used to only go to the boys," said Vanessa Fong, a Harvard University professor and expert on China's family planning policy.

Girls Growing Up in One-Child Policy Families

Alexa Olesen of Associated Press wrote, “Wang and many of her female classmates grew up with tutors and allowances, after-school classes and laptop computers. Though she is just one generation off the farm, she carries an iPad and a debit card, and shops for the latest fashions online. Her purchases arrive at Tsinghua, where Wang's all-girls dorm used to be jokingly called a "Panda House," because women were so rarely seen on campus. They now make up a third of the student body, up from one-fifth a decade ago. [Source: Alexa Olesen, Associated Press, August 31, 2011]

"In the past, girls were raised to be good wives and mothers," Fong said. "They were going to marry out anyway, so it wasn't a big deal if they didn't want to study." Not so anymore. Fong says today's urban Chinese parents "perceive their daughters as the family's sole hope for the future," and try to help them to outperform their classmates, regardless of gender.

Things have changed a lot since Wang was born. Wang's birth in the spring of 1992 triggered a family rift that persists to this day. She was a disappointment to her father's parents, who already had one granddaughter from their eldest son. They had hoped for a boy. "Everyone around us had this attitude that boys were valuable, girls were less," Gao Mingxiang, Wang's paternal grandmother, said by way of explanation---but not apology.

Her granddaughter, tall and graceful and dressed in Ugg boots and a sparkly blue top, sat next to her listening, a sour expression on her face. She wasn't shy about showing her lingering bitterness or her eagerness to leave. She agreed to the visit to please her father but refused to stay overnight---despite a four-hour drive each way.

Three-Generation One- Girl Families

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women academy in Shandong
Alexa Olesen of Associated Press wrote, “Fong, the Harvard researcher, says that many Chinese households are like this these days: a microcosm of third world and first world cultures clashing. The gulf between Wang and her grandmother seems particularly vast. [Source: Alexa Olesen, Associated Press, August 31, 2011]

The 77-year-old Gao grew up in Yixian, a poor corn- and wheat-growing county in southern Liaoning province. At 20, she moved less than a mile (about a kilometer) to her new husband's house. She had three children and never dared to dream what life was like outside the village. She remembers rain fell in the living room and a cherished pig was sold, because there wasn't enough money for repairs or feed. She relied on her daughter to help around the house so her two sons could study. "Our kids understood," said Gao, her gray hair pinned back with a bobby pin, her skin chapped by weather, work and age. "All families around here were like that."

But Wang's mother, Zheng Hong, did not understand. She grew up 300 kilometers (185 miles) away in the steel-factory town of Benxi with two elder sisters and went to vocational college for manufacturing. She lowers her voice to a whisper as she recalls the sting of her in-law's rejection when her daughter was born. "I sort of limited my contact with them after that," Zheng said. "I remember feeling very angry and wronged by them. I decided then that I was going to raise my daughter to be even more outstanding than the boys."

They named her Qihua, a pairing of the characters for chess and art---a constant reminder of her parents' hope that she be both clever and artistic. From the age of six, Wang was pushed hard, beginning with ping pong lessons. Competitions were coed, and she beat boys and girls alike, she said. She also learned classical piano and Chinese flute, practiced swimming and ice skating and had tutors for Chinese, English and math. During summer vacations, she competed in English speech contests and started using the name Mia.

In high school, Wang had cram sessions for China's college entrance exam that lasted until 10 p.m. Her mother delivered dinners to her at school. She routinely woke up at 6 a.m. to study before class. She had status and expectations her mother and grandmother never knew, a double-edged sword of pampering and pressure. If she'd had a sibling or even the possibility of a sibling one day, the stakes might not have been so high, her studies not so intense.

Some, like Wang, are already changing perceptions about what women can achieve. When she dropped by her grandmother's house this spring, the local village chief came by to see her. She was a local celebrity: the first village descendent in memory to make it into Tsinghua University. "Women today, they can go out and do anything," her grandmother said. "They can do big things."

Analysis of the One-Child Policy and China’s Girls

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Alexa Olesen of Associated Press wrote, “Crediting the one-child policy with improving the lives of women is jarring, given its history and how it's harmed women in other ways. Facing pressure to stay under population quotas, overzealous family planning officials have resorted to forced sterilizations and late-term abortions, sometimes within weeks of delivery, although such practices are illegal. [Source: Alexa Olesen, Associated Press, August 31, 2011]

Beijing-based population expert Yang Juhua has studied enrollment figures and family size and determined that single children in China tend to be the best educated, while those with elder brothers get shortchanged. She was able to make comparisons because China has many loopholes to the one-child rule, including a few cities that have experimented with a two-child policy for decades.

"Definitely single children are better off, particularly girls,"said Yang, who works at the Center for Population and Development Studies at Renmin University. "If the girl has a brother then she will be disadvantaged. ... If a family has financial constraints, it's more likely that the educational input will go to the sons."

While her research shows clearly that it's better, education-wise, for girls to be single children, she favors allowing everyone two kids. "I do think the (one-child) policy has improved female well-being to a great extent, but most people want two children so their children can have somebody to play with while they're growing up," said Yang, who herself has a college-age daughter.

While strides have been made in reaching gender parity in education, other inequalities remain. Women remain woefully underrepresented in government, have higher suicide rates than males, often face domestic violence and workplace discrimination and by law must retire at a younger age than men. It remains to be seen whether the new generation of degree-wielding women can alter the balance outside the classroom.

The problem of sex-selected abortion and even female infanticide still exist. Yin Yin Nwe, UNICEF's representative to China, puts it bluntly: The one-child policy brings many benefits for girls "but they have to be born first."

Image Sources: 1) Historical photos, Lotte Moon and University of Washington; 2) Posters, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; 3) Village woman, Beifan http://www.beifan.com/; 4) Urban woman, cgstock.com http://www.cgstock.com/china ; Wiki Commons

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 July 2015

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