Chinese society, despite decades of communism, is still very much attached to traditional values, which are largely derived from Confucian principles. Nevertheless, in recent years we can see significant changes, heavily influenced by the opening up of the world, the market economy and widespread access to the Internet. Women in China do not have the complexes of their mothers and grandmothers. Brilliantly educated, informed and financially independent, they are increasingly challenging patriarchal patterns.

Table of Contents:

Golden lotuses – the role of women in traditional China

To give a good outline of the contemporary role of women in the Middle Kingdom, it is worth starting with an overview of historical conditions. In traditional China, marriage was a kind of contract between two families rather than an act of love. The choice of spouse depended primarily on socioeconomic issues. For this reason, a huge role was played by professional matchmakers, whose tasks included not only finding a suitable candidate representing a significant family, but also negotiating favorable financial terms and taking care of the organization of the ceremony according to elaborate rituals. Polygamy was legal, “second wives” or concubines even added prestige to aristocratic families.

One of the traditions that amazes and shocks Europeans is the custom of restraining (bandaging) the feet, which has been cultivated since ca. X century to the 1920s. In the 1970s. Even today, though fortunately increasingly rare, one can still find elderly women in China who were subjected to restraints during their childhood and youth. There is no doubt that it was a response to a male fetish. Interestingly, in Chinese culture it is not so much the women’s feet themselves that are considered extremely attractive, but their small size (the ideal “golden lotus” should be no more than 12 centimeters), smell and shoes. Women with small feet were considered better lovers, their distinctive gait arousing desire.

In pursuit of this ideal of beauty, girls’ feet were bandaged from childhood so that the toes would break, keeping their size small. This often caused pain to accompany women throughout their lives. They had great difficulty getting around on their own, and were unable to go long distances, making them more dependent on their husband and other family members. The practice was officially banned in 1904, but the custom still survived for decades.

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Xian qi liang mu (贤妻良母) – the Chinese ideal of a good wife and mother.

Over the centuries, women’s freedoms and privileges were also severely restricted by the religious-philosophical system. Derived from Confucianism, the Chinese ideal of a good mother and wife, xian qi liang mu (贤妻良母), described a submissive woman entirely devoted to working for the household, her husband and bearing children. No other role was intended for her.

From the beginning, the Chinese Communist Party has promoted gender equality and fought to break with the tradition of arranged marriages. Mao Zedong himself has always stressed that these are among his priorities. In a famous quote, he claimed that “women sustain half the sky” (the Chairman himself married four times – they were marriages of “choice”; but as many as three of Mao Zedong’s wives ended tragically). The Communists, after coming to power, allowed women to initiate divorces and actively participate in the workforce (in practice, they were often forced to work). Although the party likes to invoke women’s rights, unfortunately, to this day, in a great many cases, systemic equality remains only a façade. The whole on key in the state is definitely dominated by men, which is why critics sometimes say that “in the party admittedly women hold up the sky, but men rule.”

Consequences of the one-child policy and demographic structure

In 2015, China announced that it was moving away from its one-child policy, which had to do with its aging population. A two-child policy has been in place since 2016 and a three-child policy since 2021. The Middle Kingdom’s population is currently around 1.412 billion people (World Bank 2021 data). However, the drastic reduction in fertility will continue to take its toll on the structure of Chinese society for decades to come, causing numerous problems.

Since 1977, the Middle Kingdom has had a restrictive anti-natalist policy that has been controversial and sparked outrage around the world. It was intended to counteract massive overpopulation, especially in cities. The purpose of birth control was primarily to combat extreme poverty and numerous social and environmental problems. It is estimated that by 2000 alone, Chinese authorities had prevented more than 250 million births. The limit was very strictly enforced in cities, less so in the provinces. Permission for a second child could sometimes be obtained if the first child was born disabled or mentally retarded. Some ethnic minorities were also not affected by the restrictions.

But what happened when, against the law, Chinese couples decided to have a second or subsequent child? The consequences of this decision varied from period to period and region to region, but usually the parents were subject to heavy fines, and were also deprived of bonuses and all sorts of workplace privileges. Of course, this meant that many entrepreneurs and high-level officials the restriction did not apply in practice – they could simply afford the financial consequences. Less well-off parents, for whom the amount to be paid is unimaginable, are in a much worse situation. Their child does not receive the so-called hokou 户口meldun which is a basic identity document in China. Without this document, the child officially does not exist. He or she can’t be enrolled in school, the library, use the health service, or, in adulthood, legally take a job or appear in court.

Women in China - gender equality
Women in China and their families

Gender imbalance and its effects on the matrimonial market

Although the one-child policy has been loosened in recent years, all the while most Chinese women are trying every possible way to have a male offspring. Nowadays, it is largely a matter of prestige; in the past, it was thought that only a boy, when he grew up, would be able to take care of the family’s material livelihood. Because of the need for a dowry, raising daughters was often compared to caring for plants in a neighbor’s garden. In the past, many women have chosen to selectively abort female embryos, and there have sometimes been cases of infanticide and abandonment of girls. This now results in a huge gender imbalance.

In China, there are 100 women for every 119 men. According to CIA data, there are currently 39 million fewer Chinese women than Chinese men. This social structure raises certain problems in the matrimonial market. While the wealthiest Chinese not only have no trouble finding a wife, but can afford to keep semi-formal concubines called “little wives,” to whom they usually buy an apartment and/or a small business to serve as a source of income, the situation is radically different among indigent men.

In some regions – especially in remote, rural provinces, millions (!) of frustrated men have no chance of finding a wife – unless they leave or acquire a sizable fortune. This leads to many pathologies, such as the kidnapping and enslavement of women who are treated desperately as hard-to-find commodities, or parents organizing the engagement of very young teenagers on a first-come, first-served basis.

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Women in China - relationships
Women in China and their marriages

Women in China today. Pressure to “enter society well”

Currently, the situation with a woman in China varies significantly from region to region. The situation is worst in the north, where the patriarchal family model is most common. In many homes, the norm is that when guests come to visit, the women serve the men and only when the men have finished eating do they sit at the table and eat the leftovers. In the north, the most alcohol is consumed, and here a woman is still often taught how to obey a man and not complain about her fate. In the Southeast, especially in major cities, women in China function similarly to their peers in Western countries.

Although arranged marriages have been gone from China for many decades, there is still very strong pressure to “enter society well.” Few student couples get married, often the family forces to find someone wealthy, with the right social standing. Many people still believe that the decision to marry is too important to be made on the spur of the moment. What may be particularly surprising is parents actively involved in finding partners for their adult children. Sometimes this takes rather strange forms from the point of view of Europeans. On weekends in public places such as Renmin Park in Shanghai, parents “advertise” their unmarried offspring, posting cardboard boxes with long lists of their qualities and expectations of the candidates. As in the West, popular dating apps have become very popular in China in recent years, two in particular: Tantan and Jimu.

In addition to the obvious factors, the chances of a positive marriage in many cases may depend on luck – some superstitious Chinese avoid women born under an “unlucky” sign. In a country where single women are still contemptuously referred to as “table scraps,” single women in China often face social ostracism.

Of course, this is changing dynamically all the time. Women in China are often highly educated and entrepreneurial, so they don’t have to worry about the opinion of others. According to estimates, about 60-70% of the world’s women who have becomebillionaires (self-made female billionaires) are women living in China or from the Middle Kingdom. Fathers are increasingly eager to prepare their daughters for career advancement and taking over the family business. Unfortunately, the situation is much worse for unskilled workers in factories or women in rural areas.

Although traditional Chinese values derived from Confucian principles have often envisioned a subordinate role for women, and systemic equality introduced by the Communist Party in many areas remains a façade, young women in China are confident and ambitious. However, numerous problems related to the aging population and the consequences of the policies the People’s Republic of China has pursued for decades may stand in the way of realizing their dreams.


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