rightChinese men reportedly like demure "feminine" women and feel threatened by more aggressive, educated modern women. Beauty is probably less prized in China than it is in other cultures. A good bride is considered to be a woman who can "cook, look after her husband and give him sons" and be willing to "eat bitterness."

Women are generally taught to be quiet and discreet. Openly speaking one's mind is often frowned upon. One 33-year-old man told AP, he liked his wife because she "is simple and tender and never asks too much." “Tradition has come back strongly, but it’s not always a good thing,”a successful Chinese businesswoman told the New York Times. “With Chinese men, there is a line you cannot cross. They have “face” that you have to respect. Anyway, most of them don’t find me feminine. They like young girls. They think a woman is beautiful when she’s “sweet.”

Professor Fu Tan-ming, a social behavioural analyst based in Beijing, told the Malaysian newspaper The Star that Chinese women with a history of suffering are more resilient than the men. “They have a stubborn streak in them that propels them forward,” he said. “They would not think twice about packing up their bags to begin life anew thousands of miles away from home. Why? It’s because they know they can survive.” [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 30, 2009]

Shanghai women are known as demanding wives and driven consumers. Many regard them as trouble. Sichuan women are regarded as the most beautiful in China. They are also thought of as temperamental and tempestuous.

Good Websites and Sources: All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) website: ; Directory of Sources on Women’s Issues in China / ; ; Bibliography / ; Library of Congress ; 1990s Sources Brooklyn College ; Women in China Sources ; Chinese Government Site on Women Women of China ; Village ; Marjorie Chan’s

Human Trafficking Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in China ;Human; China Development Brief ; International Labor Organization Foot Binding Term Paper on Foot Binding ; San Francisco Museum ; NPR Footbinding Story ; Angelfire ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia


Book: Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, a four-volume collection edited by Lily Xiao Hong Lee, the late Agnieszka Stefanowska, Sue Wiles, and a host of special subject editors and contributors, M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2014]

Status of Women in China

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Chinese girls in the 19th century

Women have played key roles in Chinese history. Several women served as empress. The Dowager Empress Jixi was one of the world’s powerful and longest ruling leaders. Empress Wu Ze Tian, a 7th century ruler, changed the name of the Tang dynasty to Zhou, had her own harem of men. Tang Dynasty women held high government offices, played polo with men and wore men’s clothes. Mao’s wife was the leader of the Gang of Four and regarded by some as the mastermind behind the Cultural Revolution.

In the old days it wasn’t uncommon for village women to be kidnapped and made into concubines for warlords or wealthy people and never be heard from again.

The status of a Chinese woman is often determined by her success at being a wife and a mother, often measured by performance of her children in school. Many Chinese women seem shy, submissive, demure, innocent and sweet when they are young, and become rough, loud, and pushy after they get married.

Women have traditionally been expected to be loyal, faithful and modestly dressed. Many women regard themselves as soft on the outside but strong in their hearts. Some have said the traditional identify of a Chinese woman is defined in terms of two female archetypes — the “loving kind angel” and the “working warrior” — which are almost diametrically opposed and difficult to reconcile. In the cities woman often affect a certain amount of physical helplessness.

Traditionally, when women got married they were no longer considered part of the family in which they were born. Instead they became the possession of their husband’s family. Maggie Far of the Los Angeles Times wrote that many rural Chinese compare raising a daughter to "fattening a hog for someone else's banquet" and spending money on them as "scattering seeds to the wind."

Low Status of Women in China


In many parts of China women do not have the legal right to own land and are generally regarded as weaker, dumber and inferior to men. A Hong Kong feminist told AFP, "When we are born we have the status of scum. In villages, women have no right to talk about their basic rights. All we need to learn is how to put up with men." A Chinese village woman told the Washington Post, “Women are inferior from the time they’re born. You give birth to a girl people say you have a “potatou”, a worthless servant girl. When it’s a boy, they say you have a “dapangxiaozi”, a big fat boy.”

Up until the end of the 19th century, Chinese women were often called Daughter No. 1 or Daughter No. 2, etc. until the became Wife No 1. or Wife No. 2. For most of history, Chinese women viewed themselves in terms of the “three obediences” — servants to their father's first, then their husband's and finally their sons.

In villages women often do most of the work, and even then are ordered around by men and are only allowed to eat after the men have finished. Many such women say they don’t miss their husbands when they are away or even when they are dead and those that do miss their husbands only say they do because they sometimes help with the work.

Many young girls are virtually sold into their marriages, and are treated like servants in their households, pushed around by their husband and in laws, especially their mother in law. The tension between the wife and mother-in-law stems from the fact that mothers-in-law expect their daughters-in-law to be servants just as they were to their husband's mothers-in-law.

See Suicide, Poor and Social Problems

In the old days, women accused of adultery were sometimes subjected to horrible punishments such as "peeling the skin off the bones" until the victim died. Widows showed their loyalty by not remarrying. Many had no means of taking care of themselves and died from hunger. One Sung dynasty Confucian philosopher wrote, "It is trifling when a widow starved to death. But it is a very serious matter when she loses her chastity.”

History of the Status of Women in China

China is often held up as a model for women in Asia. Women made great strides in the early decades of Communist rule, and the government has taken pains to portray women as equal to men, starting with Chairman Mao’s declaration that women “hold up half the sky.”[Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Michael Forsythe, New York Times, February 20, 2015 /^]

Roseann Lake wrote in, Towards the decline of the Qing Dynasty at the end of the 19th century, Chinese women were considered a negative influence on their own children because they were uneducated and superstitious. In an attempt to strengthen the nation, Chinese intellectuals during the first half of the 20th century championed the idea that a stable home space meant a stable nation, and began a movement to train women for their jobs and responsibilities as household managers. The home came to be seen as a small-scale model of the imperial order of society, and its management became central to national concern. As Helen M. Schneider writes in “Keeping the Nation’s House, Domestic Management and the Making of Modern China,” “Managing the domestic space was an important responsibility; a wife who managed well and without complications enabled her husband to attend fully to public “outside” affairs.” [Source: Roseann Lake,, March 12, 2012]

Protests and concerted efforts to alter women's place in society began in China's coastal cities in the early years of the twentieth century. By the 1920s formal acceptance of female equality was common among urban intellectuals. Increasing numbers of girls attended schools, and young secondary school and college students approved of marriages based on free choice. Footbinding declined rapidly in the second decade of the century, the object of a nationwide campaign led by intellectuals who associated it with national backwardness. [Source: Library of Congress]

“After the Communists came to power party leaders condemned the oppression and subordination of women as one more aspect of the traditional society they were intent on changing but they did not accord feminist issues very high priority. In the villages, party members were interested in winning the loyalty and cooperation of poor and lower-middle-class male peasants, who could be expected to resist public criticism of their treatment of their wives and daughters. Many party members were poor and lower-middle-class peasants from the interior, and their attitudes toward women reflected their background. The party saw the liberation of women as depending, in a standard Marxist way, on their participation in the labor force outside the household. [Ibid]

“The position of women in contemporary society has changed from the past, and public verbal assent to propositions about the equality of the sexes and of sons and daughters seems universal. Women attend schools and universities, serve in the People's Liberation Army, and join the party. Almost all urban women and the majority of rural women work outside the home. But women remain disadvantaged in many ways, economic and social, and there seems no prospect for substantive change. [Ibid]

“The greatest change in women's status has been their movement into the paid labor force. The jobs they held in the 1980s, though, were generally lower paying and less desirable than those of men. Industries staffed largely by women, such as the textiles industry, paid lower wages than those staffed by men, such as the steel or mining industries. Women were disproportionately represented in collective enterprises, which paid lower wages and offered fewer benefits than state-owned industries. In the countryside, the work of males was consistently better rewarded than that of women, and most skilled and desirable jobs, such as driving trucks or repairing machines, were held by men. In addition, Chinese women suffered the familiar double burden of full-time wage work and most of the household chores as well. [Ibid]

“In the countryside, a disproportionate number of girls drop out of primary school because parents do not see the point of educating a daughter who will marry and leave the family and because they need her labor in the home. There are fewer female students in key rural and urban secondary schools and universities. [Ibid]

Village Women in China


Three fourths of Chinese women — more than 450 million’still live in the countryside. While opportunities have increased for urban women, rural women often remain stuck in the same world and harsh life their mothers and female ancestors were stuck in.

Village women are generally uneducated and have few options in life. Their worth is measured by how hard they work and how many children they produce. At birth, they are often regarded as disappointments by families who want a son. After that they are regarded as property of their fathers, brothers or husbands. They often address the male's in their life as masters, and can't go anywhere without their permission. Some rural women are quite strong and tough.

Women traditionally have socialized with each other, laughing and telling stories, while doing chores. When they have some free time and the means they like to meet at friends' houses and try cosmetics and fingernail polish.

In rural areas rates of domestic abuse and suicide among women are high (See Suicides, Society, Life). By some estimates 80 percent of the murder deaths are the result of conflicts between husbands and wives.

It is unusual for rural women over the age of 35 to have children. Rural Chinese women on average enter menopause five years earlier than Western women because of lifestyle, genetic and dietary factors Wang Yijue of the Sichuan Reproductive Health Research Center told the Los Angeles Times.

Village Women and Work

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Women cooking in the 19th century

Among the daily chores performed by rural women are grooming and washing the children, preparing drinks for the men, making meals, cleaning the enclosures of animals, tending the family's crops, selling and buying stuff at the market, milking animals, making butter or cheese, collecting and processing dung, washing, pounding or winnowing rice or grain, spinning cloth, threshing, separating beans from their pods, hoeing and weeding the fields, carrying firewood, transporting the harvest, fetching water, housekeeping and looking after the children.

In many rural societies women do two-thirds of the farm labor. During the harvesting and planting season men and women work about equally but when those tasks are done women do much of the day to day farming chores while the men often goof around. Women often do so much of the farm work men are often encouraged not to come to agricultural meeting sponsored by aid workers.

Women in rural areas have few opportunities to make money other than selling stuff at the market or on the streets in a town or city or performing menial labor.

One of the primary responsibilities of village women and girls is making sure there is enough water for washing, cleaning, cooking and drinking. Women carry water from a communal well or stream to their homes everyday. Most of the time there is a well in the village. But not always. Sometimes women and girls walk several miles everyday fetching water. One male villager told National Geographic, "Our women spend half their lives going for water."

Village women seem to spend more time washing clothes by hand than doing anything else. From dawn to dusk the shores of lake and rivers are lined with women scrubbing, ringing and rinsing their families clothes. These women are also skilled at taking a baths in rivers and streams with their clothes on.

Rural Women in China in the 1930s, 40s and 50s

“The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past” by Gail Hershatter is the product of a decade spent conducting oral history interviews of 72 women — and a few surviving men — in rural Shaanxi province with the help of the Chinese scholar Gao Xiaoxian. The interviews focus on farming women’s experiences of political campaigns in the 1950s, ranging from land reform to the 1950 Marriage Law to agricultural collectives. The book adds individual women’s voices — often quoted at length — to the narrative of 1950s rural reform, illustrating the taffy pull between empowerment and continued discrimination that women experienced throughout the decade. [Source: Nicole Elizabeth Barnes, The China Beat, September 28, 2011, Nicole Elizabeth Barnes is a PhD candidate in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine.]

Nicole Elizabeth Barnes wrote in The China Beat, “The Gender of Memory is incredibly thorough, emotionally powerful, beautifully written, theoretically innovative, and personally searching; it will have an earth-shattering effect on the study of Chinese history, calling scholars to new fields of inquiry for decades to come.”

In the book Hershatter discusses the differences in how women and men narrate their pasts, commenting that while women tend to mark their lives by personal and traumatic events such as marriage, childbirth, or death of a family member, men more commonly refer to “campaign time” and political events as the primary signposts. On this point of “gender of memory” she told China Beat, “Men and women spent their time differently, though they certainly had many shared tasks. The gendered division of labor was a constant feature of rural life, even though its content changed all the time. Men went to more meetings; women did more unpaid crucial domestic work. They remember the tasks that they performed (which differed) and the languages of political change to which they were exposed (which varied by gender, generation, location, and a host of other factors).

On the importance of spinning yarn, weaving, making clothing, Hershatter said, “In one village, handloom weaving remained common for domestic consumption and has recently made a comeback in production for the market. In another village, local embroidery of old-style wedding pillows was an important art, though it was unclear whether it was going to die out or have a resurgence as folk craft. I was given some small handkerchiefs and embroidered shoe soles, and took pictures of more elaborate embroidery. On the hardships women endured in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Hershatter said, “These are everyday haunting stories. Whatever the terrible shortcomings of revolutionary change — and there are many — the kinds of catastrophe that were absolutely commonplace during these women’s younger years are no longer routine or even comprehensible to their grandchildren. That’s important.

On perceptions of gender inequality she said, ‘some found it natural that women should be paid less than men, and had complicated reasons why. Others thought it was unjust, and had a lot to say about that. Some expressed their opinions in language provided by the state, though they used official terminology creatively. The term “feudalism,” for instance, was used by both men and women to describe behavior specific to women, which was not the way it had first been deployed. I didn’t import gender as a category of analysis — it’s a fundamental structuring device for rural Chinese. Everything I know about how gender worked in the rural Chinese 1950s, I learned through listening to stories that even an outsider could understand. What astonishes me is how anyone could think to give an account of the 1950s without attention to gender.

Famous Chinese Women and Dragon Ladies

Amanda Foreman wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “Social forces in China” have “subjugated women. And the impact can be appreciated by considering three of China’s greatest female figures: the politician Shangguan Wan’er (664-710), the poet Li Qing-zhao (1084-c.1151) and the warrior Liang Hongyu (c.1100-1135).” They “distinguished themselves in their own right—not as voices behind the throne, or muses to inspire others, but as self-directed agents. Though none is well known in the West, the women are household names in China. [Source: Amanda Foreman, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015]

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “Now China has women running multinationals and going into space but top-tier politics remains off-limits. There are no women on the standing committee of the Communist Party politburo. This may be partly because, in tales from Chinese history, women are often depicted as a danger, a threat, says Xun Zhou, a historian at Hong Kong university, who detects a tendency to blame wives for the bad luck or bad judgment of their husbands. Take Mao and his wife Jiang Qing. It's often said that Mao's only mistake was to listen to Jiang Qing in old age. "But in fact Jiang Qing was just Mao's tool," says Xun. "Mao was really behind all of it but this is how in China they see women." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 11, 2012]

And then there is the case of Gu Kailai, wife of the disgraced Chongqing party boss, Bo Xilai, points out John Fenby. "The whole story of the poisoning of the British businessman in the hotel… it's a 'dragon lady' or Lady Macbeth scenario." Traditionally these scenarios involve dynastic rivalries at court between different concubines and their offspring. Neither Qingling or Meiling had children so could never be accused of playing that game.

See Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife; Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai’s Wife; Madame Chiang Kai-shek Under History

Shangguan Wan’er (664-710)

Amanda Foreman wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “Shangguan began her life under unfortunate circumstances. She was born the year that her grandfather, the chancellor to Emperor Gaozong, was implicated in a political conspiracy against the emperor’s powerful wife, Empress Wu Zetian. After the plot was exposed, the irate empress had the male members of the Shangguan family executed and all the female members enslaved. Nevertheless, after being informed of the 14-year-old Shangguan Wan’er’s exceptional brilliance as a poet and scribe, the empress promptly employed the girl as her personal secretary. Thus began an extraordinary 27-year relationship between China’s only female emperor and the woman whose family she had destroyed.” [Source: Amanda Foreman, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015 \~]

“Wu eventually promoted Shangguan from cultural minister to chief minister, giving her charge of drafting the imperial edicts and decrees. The position was as dangerous as it had been during her grandfather’s time. On one occasion the empress signed her death warrant only to have the punishment commuted at the last minute to facial disfigurement. Shangguan survived the empress’s downfall in 705, but not the political turmoil that followed. She could not help becoming embroiled in the surviving progeny’s plots and counterplots for the throne. In 710 she was persuaded or forced to draft a fake document that acceded power to the Dowager Empress Wei. During the bloody clashes that erupted between the factions, Shangguan was dragged from her house and beheaded.” \~\

“A later emperor had her poetry collected and recorded for posterity. Many of her poems had been written at imperial command to commemorate a particular state occasion. But she also contributed to the development of the “estate poem,” a form of poetry that celebrates the courtier who willingly chooses the simple, pastoral life. Shangguan is considered by some scholars to be one of the forebears of the High Tang, a golden age in Chinese poetry. \~\

Li Qing-zhao (1084-c.1151)

Amanda Foreman wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, of Li Qingzhao “lived during one of the more chaotic times of the Song era, when the country was divided into northern China under the Jin dynasty and southern China under the Song. Her husband was a mid-ranking official in the Song government. They shared an intense passion for art and poetry and were avid collectors of ancient texts. Li was in her 40s when her husband died, consigning her to an increasingly fraught and penurious widowhood that lasted for another two decades. At one point she made a disastrous marriage to a man whom she divorced after a few months. An exponent of ci poetry—lyric verse written to popular tunes, Li poured out her feelings about her husband, her widowhood and her subsequent unhappiness. She eventually settled in Lin’an, the capital of the southern Song.” [Source: Amanda Foreman, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015 \~]

Li’s later poems became increasingly morose and despairing. But her earlier works are full of joie de vivre and erotic desire. Like this one attributed to her:

...I finish tuning the pipes
face the floral mirror
thinly dressed
crimson silken shift
over icelike flesh
in snowpale cream
glistening scented oils
and laugh
to my sweet friend
you are within
my silken curtains
your pillow, your mat
will grow cold.

“Literary critics in later dynasties struggled to reconcile the woman with the poetry, finding her remarriage and subsequent divorce an affront to Neo-Confucian morals.” Li’s :surviving relics are kept in a museum in her hometown of Jinan—the “City of Springs”—in Shandong province.” /~/

Liang Hongyu (c.1100-1135)

Amanda Foreman wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, Liang Hongyu “was an ex-courtesan who had followed her soldier-husband from camp to camp. Already beyond the pale of respectability, she was not subjected to the usual censure reserved for women who stepped beyond the nei—the female sphere of domestic skills and household management—to enter the wei, the so-called male realm of literary learning and public service. [Source: Amanda Foreman, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015 \~]

“Liang grew up at a military base commanded by her father. Her education included military drills and learning the martial arts. In 1121, she met her husband, a junior officer named Han Shizhong. With her assistance he rose to become a general, and together they formed a unique military partnership, defending northern and central China against incursions by the Jurchen confederation known as the Jin kingdom. \~\

“In 1127, Jin forces captured the Song capital at Bianjing, forcing the Chinese to establish a new capital in the southern part of the country. The defeat almost led to a coup d’état, but Liang and her husband were among the military commanders who sided with the beleaguered regime. She was awarded the title “Lady Defender” for her bravery. Three years later, Liang achieved immortality for her part in a naval engagement on the Yangtze River known as the Battle of Huangtiandang. Using a combination of drums and flags, she was able to signal the position of the Jin fleet to her husband. The general cornered the fleet and held it for 48 days. \~\

“Liang and Han lie buried together in a tomb at the foot of Lingyan Mountain. Her reputation as a national heroine remained such that her biography was included in the 16th-century Sketch of a Model for Women by Lady Wang, one of the four books that became the standard Confucian classics texts for women’s education. Though it may not seem obvious, the reasons that the Neo-Confucians classed Liang as laudable, but not Shangguan or Li, were part of the same societal impulses that led to the widespread acceptance of foot-binding. First and foremost, Liang’s story demonstrated her unshakable devotion to her father, then to her husband, and through him to the Song state. As such, Liang fulfilled her duty of obedience to the proper (male) order of society. \~\

“The Song dynasty was a time of tremendous economic growth, but also great social insecurity. In contrast to medieval Europe, under the Song emperors, class status was no longer something inherited but earned through open competition. The old Chinese aristocratic families found themselves displaced by a meritocratic class called the literati. Entrance was gained via a rigorous set of civil service exams that measured mastery of the Confucian canon. Not surprisingly, as intellectual prowess came to be valued more highly than brute strength, cultural attitudes regarding masculine and feminine norms shifted toward more rarefied ideals. \~\

Image Sources: 1) Historical photos, Lotte Moon and University of Washington; 2) Posters, Landsberger Posters; 3) Village woman, Beifan 4) Urban woman, ; 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 September 2021

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