Peoples of China

China’s Minority Women

On a fall midnight Granny Yang[1] silently slips out of bed to carry out the special sacrifice to “Sasi,” the grandmother goddess of the Dong people. She waits until no other family member can watch. This sacrifice is a tradition observed by the oldest female in every family.

As she prepares, she frets about Ermei who has gone to work in Hainan. Ermei assembles toys in a factory. Because the family had no money for school fees—and because educating a daughter who eventually will live with a husband’s family is money down the drain—Ermei only completed fifth grade. With little education and no marketable skills, a factory job was the best she could find. Ermei sounded miserable in her last letter home: low pay, filthy work area, crowded dorm room shared with young women from several provinces. Ermei hates the hot, noisy city and longs to return to her cool mountains. She wants to sing mountain songs under the moon. Like any well-brought up Dong girl, Ermei can sing three days without repeating herself. She mourns, as well, that there are no young Dong men with whom to sing songs of love and longing.

Gamei trembles as she ties the sash to her traditional dress. Tonight will be her first night to dance around the fire for tourists who come to the lake to see Mosuo culture. Several months before, her best friend sobbed as she told Gamei about the government worker who came up after the dance. The man openly fondled A’Li then led her off to his bed. Bruised and bleeding, A’Li crept away as soon as the old letch started snoring. At fourteen Gamei does not want to lose her virginity to a strange man who pays to exploit her.

Xiao Luo struggles to forgive her father. Since coming to know Christ, she feels an obligation to forgive. She knows Christ has forgiven her. However, she grew up hearing the story of how her father tried to kill her when she was born. He already had two daughters and hoped for a son. Her father’s sister grabbed the infant out of his hands and took Xiao Luo home to raise her. When she was ten, Xiao Luo’s father gave permission for her mother to bring her home. Home was not happy. Xiao Luo’s father often got drunk and beat her mother. She often went hungry. Food was scarce because of flood or drought. By Bouyei custom, the men ate first and the women and children ate whatever was left which seldom included meat. Xiao Luo’s father always begrudged her school fees. Through her own hard work she earned a scholarship to attend college.

Xiao Luo enjoys teaching school. She tries to encourage her students. Often she invites boarding students home for a meal. She knows most of them can only afford a bowl of rice flavored with a spoonful of sour vegetables. She worries that she might not be able to marry because her father does not want to provide a dowry for number three daughter.

Soo Lian lives with fear. She went before the Wa elders to divorce her husband. When her husband returned from harvesting opium in Myanmar, he brought more than money home. Soo Lian now tests HIV positive. She has watched neighbors waste away and die of this mysterious illness. One good friend had been kidnapped while working in village fields, carried across the border and forced into the sex trade. Her friend was beaten and thrown out of the brothel when the boss learned she had AIDS. Rumor says one woman with HIV infected more than forty government officials who slept with her. Soo Lian is angry that her husband infected her with the dread disease. She worries about how she will care for herself. She cannot read and does not speak Mandarin. How will she find food when she has no strength to work in the fields? How can she pay the hospital for medicine? She considers suicide. The one thing she has is pesticide.

Many issues faced by minority women in China are those faced by Chinese women as a whole. Minority women, however, are more vulnerable. Often living in remote farming households on marginal land, they struggle under the specter of poverty, uneducated and unaware of resources or alternatives to the life they have always known.

Critical Issues

A list of critical issues faced by minority women in China would include:

  • The right to live. China’s one child policy does extend to the minorities, despite “common knowledge” that members of minorities can have multiple children without penalty. By statistical probability, 33 million girl children are “missing”—unborn—each year. In spite of a government campaign to convince parents that girl children should be valued as much as boys, feticide and infanticide of girl children are common. Suicide is a major problem among rural women, the number one cause of death among women ages 15-34.
  • The right to eat. Malnourishment results from too little food available but also from such local traditions such as men—but not women—can eat pork, or that men eat first, women and children afterwards.
  • The right to receive an education. Nearly 80 percent of non-enrolled school-age children in rural areas are girls. Most minority women are illiterate. Many do not speak Mandarin. The feeling persists that it is not important to send girls to school because they will leave the family when they marry and will not contribute to the welfare of the birth family.
  • The right to work productively. Most minority women still farm marginally productive land, sometimes with their husbands or other family members, more often alone as husbands or sons have migrated to cities to find work. A tradition among some minorities is that any money a man earns is his to spend as he wishes; any money a woman earns belongs to the family. Of China’s “floating people” who have left home to seek work and send money home, many are young women, average age 20. They often live and work in sweatshops or as maids in hotels, coping with appalling conditions and receiving minimal wages.
  • The right to own land. In most minority cultures land traditionally passes down to sons. In a recent survey a young minority woman stated that in her area a woman could inherit her family’s land rights only if she had no brothers. A widow or divorcee has no place. Children stay with the husband’s family, and her dowry would not be returned.
  • The right to choose one’s spouse. Although minorities who live close to cities or who have been largely assimilated allow a young woman freedom to choose a mate, self-contained communities and remote villages still work through local matchmakers and consult fengshui specialists to arrange marriages for the young people. Among minorities in Southwest China, the maternal uncle still has the right of refusal for marital matches. Gradually, young people are being given more say in determining their futures, but numerous festivals still commemorate star-crossed lovers.
  • The right not to be exploited sexually. Historically, the Chinese portrayed minority women as exotic and promiscuous. Pornographic art shows minority women—not Han—unclothed and in provocative postures. In some areas, tourist-hype promotes prostitution with minority women, and even young girls opt to enter the profession to earn money or are sold into prostitution by relatives. A related problem is the kidnapping of women to be transported to areas far from home and sold as wives.
  • The right to health. Poverty and malnutrition, a shortage of trained medical personnel and reliance on traditional spiritist healers contribute to health problems among minority women. Inbreeding and lack of iodine in the diets of mountain women result in mental health problems among their children. Deaths related to childbirth are common—many minority women still spend a month in confinement and delay the celebration of birth for a month to six weeks after the child is born. HIV/AIDS is a growing concern and already a major problem in Yunnan which is susceptible because of crossborder drug trafficking and prostitution.

Positive Aspects

The government is aware of the needs of minority women but bemoans the fact that the needs are great and economic resources are small. Some members of the People’s Congress are urging the government to promote the organization of charity organizations to relieve the pressure.

Minority women have a positive role in preserving their cultures. They are the keepers and transmitters of a people’s traditions. Rural girls learn from birth the songs, the crafts and the chores which are part of their people ís history. They retain elements of costume peculiar to the people group and even to their individual village. Many take pride in their heritage and resist efforts to assimilate them into mainstream culture. As women across China organize to solve the problems of poverty and ignorance, minority women add teaching their heritage to the agenda.

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement is moving to harness the energy of women for the glory of God and the work of the church. One example is Yingjiang County in Yunnan where representatives of more than 12,000 Lisu and Jingpo Christian women from 180 villages formed a Women’s Affairs Committee to address the problems of poverty and heresy. From the sale of traditional handicrafts, they gave offerings to purchase two typewriters capable of printing in minority script and a photocopier so that educational and devotional materials in their native languages could be produced. They also have organized Bible memorization and recitation competitions.

Future Outlook

The needs are overwhelming and the government is impotent. Hope for the future of minority women in China lies primarily in their own hands. Their best hope is found in Christ. Observers, both past and present, have noted that people in Christian villages and Christians within traditional villages are healthier and wealthier. They have found a dignity and a purpose. As the women of Yingjiang have learned, the Gospel means “good news” for today and for the future.


Interviews by the author with minority women, government officials and Christian workers among minority groups in China, 2001.

Survey among minority women enrolled in an education college in SW China by a friend of the author, March 2002.

Amity News Service: “Tapping the Potential of Women Within the Church,” January, 1998. []

“China Issues White Paper on Human Rights,” April 2001. []

Covell, Ralph R. The Liberating Gospel in China: The Christian Faith among China’s Minority Peoples. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995.

Harrell, Stevan, ed. Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.

Murthy, Ranjani K. and Lakshmi Sandaran. Exerpts from “Gender and Human Rights in Asia: Implications for Actionaid,” January 1999. [www.sdnp.undp. org/ww/women-rights/msg00138.html]

Vess, Deborah. “Women Hold Up Half the Sky: Women’s Issues in Modern China,” IDST 2205: Global Issues in Society, 1998. [ chwo.htm]


  1. ^ Names and individuals mentioned are fictional composites based on interviews with minority women and those who work with them.
Image credit: Gaylan Yeung. 
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Lynn Savage

Lynn Savage has been involved in community development work in Asia for the past ten years.View Full Bio