Lead Article

Women in China

Holding Up the Heavier Half of the Sky

Mao Zedong argued that China’s Confucian worldview held Chinese women to be nothing more than chattel, nonentities in a nexus of male-dominated social, political and economic relationships. Rejecting the inevitability of this reality, Mao declared that “women hold up half the sky,” implying that women were equal to men in both their abilities and responsibility to follow the party in advancing the socialist revolution. This dictum became a rallying cry for those who sought, under the leadership of the Communist Party, to change forever the humiliating and oppressive situation of Chinese women.

Following liberation in 1949, women began to be depicted in socialist art as strong leaders, martyrs and model workers,[1] serving alongside men, even leading men, as they marched together into a bright red future.  Almost overnight, it seemed, the status of Chinese women had risen from cipher to salience, a giant step toward the creation of a brave new world.[2]

More than thirty years later, Margery Wolf published a study of the lives of Chinese women in the post-Mao, early-Deng era of modernization; she titled her study “Revolution Postponed.”[3] Her research showed that while there indeed had been significant improvement in the lives of Chinese women under Communism, as compared with the feudalism of the preceding era, for most Chinese women the revolution had not delivered on the promise of gender equality, much less on a genuine liberation of women. There are those who would argue that it was impossible for Mao even to conceive of such equality because he himself continued to be influenced in his understanding of gender by the ineluctable expectations of Confucian society, which understood all personal (for our purposes, gender) expectations to be subsumed within the greater needs of the whole Chinese people.[4] Mao believed that women held up half the sky, but not a distinctive half. Chinese liberation was the liberation of the nation, and women were not expected to claim any special recognition.

In 1978, following Mao’s death two years earlier, Deng Xiaoping began to move China toward a market economy with the popularization of slogans such as “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is white or black; if it catches mice, it is a good cat” and “To get rich is glorious.” While Chinese women had failed to achieve real equality under the leadership of Chinese socialism, at least the early period of Communist Party rule had seen women’s official status in society rise to that of co-revolutionaries with men, providing them with a rationale for possible future improvement in their overall circumstances. However, the new period of capitalism, termed “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” abandoned even the pretense of gender co-responsibility and urged all Chinese citizens to use whatever means possible, short of political reform, to create wealth. This meant that those within Chinese society with power and influence, usually men who were able to generate vast sums of capital, were held up as the new models of Chinese patriotism at the expense of anyone who happened to find themselves without the necessary connections to such power, influence and wealth.  After all, another of the popular Deng-isms was, “Let some get rich first.”[5] That the “some” usually did not include Chinese women was not of general concern in the face of drastic economic restructuring.

Virtually overnight even the semblance of equality between men and women disappeared, and women began to find themselves relegated to menial agricultural production in the countryside and to low-paying factory jobs in the urban areas. While it cannot be argued that capitalist Chinese society always and in all places is inherently male-biased, it is indisputable that Chinese women overwhelmingly bear the weight of economic liberalization and are faced with a crushing array of social problems as a result. Violence against women has reached epidemic proportions including rape, kidnapping, forced prostitution, spousal abuse, sex selective abortions and female infanticide. Even the government-sponsored All-China Women’s Federation has released reports in which it is estimated that 30 percent of Chinese households experience family violence, and that more than 100,000 families fall apart each year because of such violence.[6] It is, therefore, no wonder that suicide among women is on the rise.[7] Unfortunately, the Chinese government’s response too often has been authoritarian, with calls to “ban family violence,”[8] rather than constructive, with comprehensive plans for national mental health programs.

Perhaps because of the very difficult position of women in today’s China, some women’s groups have been organized over the past two decades for the support of women in general and within various fields of endeavor. The All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), the leading official organization for women, describes itself as “a multi-tiered organization with local women’s federations and group members at every divisional level of government,” the purpose of which is “to represent and to protect women’s rights and interests, and to promote equality between men and women.”[9]

There are also groups such as the China Women’s Association for Science and Technology, and the China Association for Women’s Journals and Periodicals. In addition, there are several centers for the study of women’s issues in academic institutions, including the Study Centre for Women in Social Development of China at the Hebei Social Sciences Academy in Shijiazhuang, the Women’s Study Center at Fudan University in Shanghai, and the Women’s Study Center located at the Party School of the CPC in Beijing.  However, it should be noted that such organizations and study centers are relatively few, and, except for the ACWF, they involve a minority of women at the very highest levels of China’s social structure.[10] The vast majority of China’s women are poor, relatively uneducated and live in the countryside with little or no access to educational, medical or legal resources. While the small number of organizations which currently concern themselves with women’s issues have the potential to provide significant support and research as China develops over the next several decades, this offers scant hope for the millions of women who today bear the brunt of the social upheaval caused by China’s period of economic transition.

One indicator that does point toward the possibility of significant change in decades to come is the rising educational level of Chinese women. Government statistics for the year 2000 show that the average number of years of formal education for female students was 6.5, and that over 97 percent of elementary school-age girls are enrolled in school. The percentage of students enrolled in Chinese institutions of higher education who are women has reached more than forty percent.[11] Still, these figures paint an overly optimistic picture. While a high percentage of girls are enrolled in elementary school, many attend only periodically, being required by their families to put the needs of farm and household before formal schooling.[12]

There is no question that the Chinese government and the Communist Party of China have taken a genuine interest in the situation of women in contemporary China. The Chinese constitution provides for the equal protection of women,[13] there are growing numbers of women filling official government positions,[14] and the educational level of women continues to grow. But significant and long-lasting change remains frustratingly slow for those many millions of women who find themselves part of China’s huge new economic underclass.

The situation of women in China provides both opportunities and challenges. The primary challenge for China’s women over the next several decades, faced with ever-accelerating change and increasing pressure to adapt to the new demands imposed by a market economy, is survival. Most will survive, but at what cost to China’s social fabric? Opportunities exist, but will Chinese women be prepared to take advantage of them? The full entry of China into the community of developed nations, while demanding extreme sacrifices from those on the bottom of the economic ladder, will also bring about unimagined social change within China. The level of education will necessarily rise to meet the demands of the new economic realities; with education will come not only new skills, but new ways of seeing the world and of understanding one’s place within that world. The question, then, is how will Chinese women survive this period of wrenching change? Will they take advantage of new opportunities and emerge in mid-century as vigorous participants in the life of the new China? The answer to this question is complex, and the Christian church is uniquely placed to participate in providing options.

The market-capitalist image of all people as primarily consumers, and of women as objects for possession and consumption, is quickly becoming part of the fabric of daily Chinese life. Research already has shown that the dominant image of the ideal woman in Chinese advertising (the contemporary counterpart of the former Maoist propaganda) is that of a diamond bedecked girl with a wealthy husband on her arm.[15] Christianity offers Chinese women radically different options for understanding themselves in the modern world that is now being thrust upon them—models that will lead to freedom rather than to a new kind of captivity. The equality of all people before God, both women and men, reflects the image of God. It declares the ultimate value of each human life, regardless of gender, because each life is a creation of God.  It heralds the revolutionary notion that in Christ there is neither male nor female and no person is the slave of another:  both are new creations and friends of God.

The majority of women in China continue to hold up the heavier half of the sky, and their suffering can never be minimized. However, they now have the promise of rest and a lighter burden through increased opportunities for education, a gradually higher standard of living, social awareness of women’s rights and new options for imagining their world in a new way.

China’s Women[16]

  •  Women form 48.4% of the total population 
  • Approximately 70% of women live in rural areas (400 million)
  • A woman’s life expectancy is 72 years
  • The illiteracy rate for women over 15 is 25% (85 million)
  • Women form 45% of the labor force


  • Rate for women is 25% greater than for men
  • Women in rural areas are three times more likely to commit suicide than urban women

The church

  • Women compose 70% of active Christians
  • Many congregations are 90%  female


Share to Social Media

John LeMond

John LeMond teaches at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong.View Full Bio