November 5, 2012Women in China- Then and Now
Throughout the history of ancient China, the family has always been the most important unit of Chinese society, valued above all else. Men were the primary breadwinners, while women did domestic duties, and cared for the children. Women were charged and obligated to uphold their society’s values about their rigid roles as wives and mothers, or else.
For thousands of years, family obligations and life were dictated by the teachings of Confucius, a widely-revered Chinese philosopher and thinker. One major idea of his was filial piety, or in other words, the obligation that children have to always show the utmost respect to their parents. He also set in stone the guidelines that would govern marriage, and the role of women in society in China for thousands of years. In Confucius’s societal framework and ideology, sons were prized more than daughters, because of their physical and economic abilities. The sons would truly be the ones to carry on the family name. In times of famine and war, daughters were the last to be fed. Impoverished families would routinely sell their daughters into slavery to afford food. Another common practice was for girls to tightly bind their feet. They became broken so that and were painfully reduced to stubs. These were, for whatever strange reason, considered erotic. Another reason for binding the feet was that with these stubs, women could only teeter around the house doing domestic chores, and thus, they could not work or get out of the house easily. This was important in order for the man of the house to maintain control, and to make sure that his wife did not rebel. When one became a wife, the woman belonged to her husband’s family. A married girl would often literally work for her mother-in-law for a year or two, before becoming dedicated to her husband. A girl gained respect in her husband’s family’s eyes if she soon gave birth to a boy. However, if it turned out to be a girl; that was acceptable ground for a man to wed another woman. It was perfectly legal and very common for a man to have multiple wives in ancient China.
Apart from their roles as wives and mothers, women really couldn’t do anything else in China. Education for women was not considered important, and therefore, an overwhelming majority of Chinese women never learned how to read or write anything other than their name. Women could not go to university, or take an exam to enter government service. In China, a woman’s role was to about taking care of the house, preparing food, cleaning, looking after children, and looking presentable to their husbands. A small sub-section of peasant women would help their husbands in the fields, but this was extremely rare.
Ever so slowly, the long-held Confucian notions and ideals about women and their place slowly began to fade away. It took a painfully long time, but by the turn of the 19th century, Chinese women were on the threshold of equality, as were so many of their female counterparts around the world. Change was incremental. In 1911, the practice of foot-binding was officially banned. Around this time, polygamy also gradually ceased. However, real progress would only really happen in the middle of the 20th century.
In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established. China formally became a communist state. The new government began to radically implement very new ideas in Chinese society, in all spheres, including economic, politic, and social changes. The new communist revolutionaries were bent on destroying ‘the four olds’ – old ideas, habits, customs, and culture. A key part of these changes was the reversal of thousands of years of the subjugation of women. For the first time, the government actively began promoting an egalitarian Chinese society, with expanded roles for women. Gender equality became a value. The Marriage Law of 1950 banned many harsh practices against women, including arranged marriage, the taking of concubines, and child brides. It seemed to work. When the People’s Republic of China was first established, only 7% of all employed people were women. In 1992, women made up 32% of all employed. However, when the dust settled, and the Cultural Revolution was over, it was clear that the Chinese Communists were more intent on centralizing and keeping a grip on power, than they were about gender equality. Women still had an extremely low social status in China, and the one-child policy did not help. This policy required a couple to only have one child, except in very special circumstances. This led to a skyrocketing abortion rate, and female infanticide went through the roof.
However, despite all of these setbacks, change is coming. Illiteracy, once rampant among women, has been falling ever since1980, and education for girls and women is on the rise. Take this figure: In 1980, the average national number of years that women went to school for was a little over 4. That number jumped to 7 years by 2000. Life expentancy is also up. Divorce, once a shameful and taboo evil, is now legal. Women do not need to be trapped in unhappy and/or abusive relationships. This gives them power to control their lives. In 2003, approximately 19% of all marriages ended in divorce. That is 5 times the amount of divorces that took place in1979. With all of the old restrictions and barriers falling away, women in China are now able to take their rightful place on the global stage, and do their part to impact the world in positive way.
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