View from the Wall

Chinese Women in Transition


The Chinese people are very proud of their long and glorious history. Nevertheless, this pride does not include the women of China. Throughout the history of China’s feudal society, the social status of women not only could not match that of men’s, but women often were regarded as “sources of trouble.” More than two thousand years ago Confucius said that “only females and unethical people are difficult to transform.” This statement was virtually a death sentence for women in China’s feudal society where they were put in the same category as unethical people. Feudal Chinese ethics and rites had been a heavy weight laid on the shoulders of Chinese women. While men were at the center of traditional feudal society, women were excluded from all political systems. Even at the family level women still ranked at the bottom. An old Chinese proverb states: “The emperor is the head of the ministers, the father is the head of the children, the husband is the head of the wife.” There were other proverbs specific to women that reflected clearly on the status of women in society and at home. Examples include: “Follow father at home, follow your husband after marriage, and follow your sons after your husband has died;” and “Follow a chicken if married to a chicken, follow a dog if married to a dog.”

In ancient Chinese literature women were not honored for their roles as mothers, wives, and daughters but were evaluated mainly based on whether they were considered immoral women who seduced men, or women who followed traditional ethics and rites. The most important thing for a Chinese woman was to maintain her “ethical purity.” To do this she was supposed to endure everything even when she was treated inhumanely.

Mao Zedong, along with the leaders of the Communist Party, recognized that women would be an important force for their revolutionary cause. Therefore, before they marched out, they had already developed the “equality between men and women” slogan to attract women to the communist revolution. From a political viewpoint, this was a very successful move that drew many women to the revolutionary cause before 1949.

After 1949, Mao advocated the slogan “Women hold up half the sky.” Women became a political resource and entered the work force at all levels of society. To show their commitment to them, the Chinese government set up women’s federations at various government levels to specifically handle women’s issues. Cadres were designated in places such as state run factories, schools and hospitals to handle women’s affairs. Within the communist party women participated at all levels of party committees and in the National Peopleís Congress. In addition to their involvement at local levels, there were female government ministers, mayors and county magistrate. Women were often credited with their contribution to the revolutionary cause.

However, it is not difficult for those who live in China to see that men still occupy the center stage of the powerful elite. Male domination in the society is still largely unchanged. Most women in government are still merely symbolic and decorative. Discrimination against women remains common.

The market economy and economic reform of recent years have brought much change to Chinese society—including the role of women in the society. Many women from rural areas entered the cities as migrant workers taking jobs as nannies, street vendors or shopkeepers. Just as many women pour out their sweat in coastal cities in joint venture companies cranking out products labeled “Made in China.”

Additionally, there are women who remain in their hometowns working as cheap laborers. As women in China contribute to society by filling most of the cheap labor jobs, they actually do “hold up half the sky.”

The first social change for women occurs at home when they become more aware of their rights to speak up and make decisions. Because most Chinese women work, their income contributes significantly to the family’s finances. Furthermore, women are also responsible for household shopping which allows them to have more control over their family’s finances. It is uncommon in China today for a family to have the husband as the sole bread winner while the woman stays home to take care of the children. A typical family has two wage earners and women, therefore, have become more independent. The old male chauvinists may today suffer from qi guan yan disease. (Qi guan yan means bronchitis, but it also sounds like the phrase “the wife controls tightly”—a well known play on words). From a sociological perspective, this transformation is one of the most significant in family relationships.

Today, women in China are more involved in the economic development of the nation than at any other time in Chinese history. They experience a world beyond just their home, husbands and children. Today they are much more independent than at any time previously. Although Chinese women as a whole have not been granted all the rights they deserve, nevertheless the market economy has created more opportunities and choices for them. Ironically, it is the market economy with its strong bent towards capitalism that is bringing forth this “liberation” for Chinese women— not socialism.

At the same time, economic reform also brings forth unprecedented problems for China’s women. Many old state-run enterprises were forced to layoff workers. Women and senior citizens were hit the hardest. “Laid-off female workers” has become a new term that one can now see in many newspapers. While many local governments have regarded helping these “laid-off female workers” as one of their highest priorities, there are still large numbers of unemployed women who are forced to find ways to support both themselves and their families as they have lost not only their jobs but insurance and pensions. Many young women from the rural areas without marketable skills have little choice but to work in the sex industry.

At a time when morality does not have clear boundaries and ethics receive only lip service, many wealthy men are taking concubines. As a result, the divorce rate is gradually increasing every year. Domestic violence, bigamy and cohabitation have surfaced as social concerns. The traditional family model is facing unprecedented challenges in today’s China. In some poor areas of the country women are sold as slaves. Issues such as equality for women in education and in the work force continue to make headlines in the mainstream media.

Having entered the World Trade Organization, China is now going through a fundamental transformation. Chinese women are fighting so that their rights will be advanced and preserved not only for political propaganda but in real terms in society. What women in China need most are not slogans about equality or increased pay to match that of men’s but to feel that they are truly valued and respected by the society. Women’s liberation must come in terms of society’s recognition and respect for their lives, values, and free wills. Society must experience a complete social transformation regarding how it views women. Without it, women are merely pawns in the overall revolutionary and economic causes. Behind every famous female minister, professor, doctor, judge, or entrepreneur, there are many more ordinary women quietly working under the shadow of social prejudice. A long road still lies ahead for the women of China to achieve complete liberation.

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. View Full Bio