Gender Inequality in the People’s Republic of China

A Historical Overview among Philosophy, Tradition, Education, and Mobility


Art Deco painting of bathing Chinese woman, ca. 1931 © UW Digital Collections / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Although it is important to recognize the great effort China has made in the past century to improve the position of women in society, there is still a long way to go to achieve full equality between men and women (Attané, 2012), and the gender gap is still particularly marked (China Files, 2019).


The role of women in China’s millennial history has been strongly influenced by its cultural matrix. Chinese civilization has always been influenced by the supreme "relationship-defined obligations" or rén lún (人伦) defined by Confucius (孔子 Kŏngzĭ), namely the obligations that the parties in a relationship should carry out towards each other. The Chinese Confucian tradition emphatically points out the significance of the "Five Cardinal Relationships" (五伦 wŭlún), among which the first three stand out: citizens must obey the government (君臣 jūnchén), offsprings must obey their parents (父子 fùzĭ) and wives must obey their husbands (夫妻 fūqī). Moreover, as stated by the idiom: “男主外, 女主内” (nánzhùwài, nǚzhùnèi; literally: men go out to work and women stay at home), women didn't typically have formal roles in Confucian society outside the home. Instead, they only had to respect the “three obediences and four virtues” (三从四德, sāncóng sìdé), Confucian moral injunctions which shaped the proper behaviour for women: obedience to father before marriage, to husband after marriage, and to son when widowed. The four virtues of morality – proper speech (言 yán), modest appearance (容 róng), morality (德 dé) and diligent work (功 gōng) – were also necessarily to be respected as a woman at the time (Knapp, 2015). Chinese women were subject to a patriarchal and familist society, where the interest of men and the family were put above those of women (Yifei, 2017).


Nevertheless, Confucianism is not the only system of though which heavily influenced this socio-cultural context; gender inequality has persisted throughout Chinese history, often justified with the Taoist concept of yīn-yáng (阴-阳): two elements that make up the universe and complement each other. The yīn represents the feminine, dark, cold and negative part of everything, in contrast to the yáng: masculine, bright, warm, positive. Not to respect the relationship between yīn and yáng meant not to respect the harmony of the world and between human beings (Leung, 2014). The metaphysical foundation of the yīn-yáng theory offers a promising conceptual perspective for affirming the equality between men and women, but it is also a very simple way to reaffirm gender differences. The discrepancy between these two beliefs partially stems from a fundamental turning point in the conception of the theory itself: as the founder of imperial Confucianism, Dǒng Zhòngshū (董仲舒) was the first to integrate the theory of yīn-yáng into Confucianism and to exploit it to place women in a position of inferiority (Wang, 2015). He modified the natural harmony (和 hé) between the two, into a union imposed from above (合 hé), strongly identifying yáng with human nature (性 xìng) and benevolence (仁 rén) and yīn with feelings (情qíng) and greed (贪 tān). The distinction between positive, masculine and negative, feminine characteristics is obvious. These two theories, combined, formed a philosophical basis for the practice of gender inequality in China.


Feminist discourses were brought to China for the first time at the beginning of the 20th Century. Discourses on women’s rights were incorporated and advocated by male intellectuals (Yifei, 2017): journalist and leader of the failed reform movement of 1898, Liáng Qĭchāo (梁启超) was one of the first and most ardent advocates for improving women’s position inside the society. His idea was that, in order to transform China into a great and strong nation, it was necessary to improve the quality of life and education of women (Yifei, 2017). Liáng Qĭchāo’s view exerted a strong influence on women’s movements in China: in 1912, the Chinese suffragettes invaded the Parliament to ask for the right to vote, while seven years later they would inspire the May 4th Movement, and therefore concepts such as gender equality and the end to polygamy and arranged marriages (China Files, 2019).


After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the CCP began to redefine and to dismantle the role Confucianism played in Chinese society: the main task was to guarantee ultimate loyalty not to kinship networks, but to the newly born CCP and the communist ideology of “self-sacrifice for the greatness of the society” (Qi, 2015). The discourse on “equality between men and women” (男女平等, nán nǚ píngdĕng) began to spread, prompted by the new agenda set by the Party-State: the establishment of a new gender-order based on the idea that women are like men in the public areas. Therefore, employment during the Maoist era was taken for granted as a basic component inside women’s life (Fang and Walker, 2015).


The economic rise of the Middle Empire, beginning in 1978, brought to light a phenomenon that seemed to belong to the past. The strong State intervention, which characterized the Maoist era, was replaced by the rolling back of such intervention and by discrimination against women both in public and private life (Fang and Walker, 2015). Since the reform and opening up of China, women began to face prejudice and to occupy inferior positions, mainly because of the cost of maternity leave. Moreover, as stressed by Fang and Walker (2015), Confucianism-inspired ideologies stressing the role of women in the family regained centrality in the public discourse, forcing women to be more focused on domestic labour.


Between the 1980s and the 1990s, the first NGOs born outside the official system appeared in China (China Files, 2019), with the aim of supporting gender equality. Their purpose was to enforce human rights norms, with an eye to the situation of women. For the first time, thanks to the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, not only were the same organizations invited to take part in consultations on relevant negotiations – a sign that the Party was interested in the issue, as well – but most importantly, the topic of gender equality was based on women’s subjectivity (China Files, 2019). More recently, since the beginning of the 21st Century, China’s government is bringing back traditional Confucian concepts such as “filial piety” (孝 xiào), “harmonious society” (和谐社会, héxié shèhuì) and moral rectitude, which tend to stress the unique role of women as responsible for the household.


With this kind of social and cultural heritage, the young (and, in some cases, emancipated) Chinese girls and women who study and work today struggle not to fit into this puzzle of defined social roles. 剩 (shèng) literally means: residual, remaining, superfluous: an adjective generally accompanied by nouns such as food, clothing and products, indicating an excess amount of them. In 2006, shèng became a mainstream term (To, 2015) when it appeared as an attribute of the character 女 (nǚ), female. 剩女 (shèngnǚ) can thus be translated as: “leftover woman”, referring to single women around thirty years old, with university-level education and a good working position. Graduated and independent, these young women are considered a "negative surplus” for the nation. Women “not particularly attractive” and eager to obtain a high-level education were also defined as "yellowed pearls" (人老珠黄 rénlǎozhūhuáng), meaning that their goals will be achieved too late, and when their “value” is already diminished. American researcher Leta Hong Fincher argues that it was a mere campaign to make up for the millions of excess bachelors in China due to gender-based "selection", a series of abortions linked to the one-child policy.


During the Chinese Revolution, women supported “half of the sky” (妇女能顶半边天, fùnǚ néng ding bànbiāntiān), but due to deeply ingrained sexist norms within Chinese society, a gap between wages, sexual harassment at the workplace and prevailing machismo made it impossible to achieve equality de facto (Ash, 2016). Shèng is a surplus that suggests that whatever these young women have in addition – typically a degree – becomes a limit to the development and full realization of a Chinese woman: to find a good husband, to become a respectable lady and a virtuous mother. A more contemporary expression to convey the same concept divides human genders into: "Male, Female and Female PhD", alluding to women who will struggle to find a mate – or will never find one – because they are too old and focused on their academic and personal fulfillment (Ash, 2016).


Academic mobility is also influenced by gender differences, due to patriarchal norms in national, social, and cultural space, expressed through institutional and family decisions about who is encouraged – or allowed – to go abroad (Leung, 2014). However, prior to the Communist period, formal education was considered a privilege of the wealthiest families only, and the percentage of female illiteracy was around 90%. Conversely, in 1958, 16 million women received an education. The survey jointly conducted by the National Association of Women (中华 全国 妇女 联合会 Zhōnghuá Quánguó Fùnǚ Liánhéhuì) and the National Statistics Office (国家 统计局 Guójiā Tǒngjìjú) in 2010 also reports apparent improvements if compared to the previous decade: women between 18 and 64 years old completed an average of about 8.8 years of education (an increase of 2.7 years since 2000). Between those interviewed, 33.7% received education in higher secondary school and beyond (updated data: 2011, Xīnhuá), while 14.3% received education in college and beyond, an increase of 10.4% over the last decade. The most notable difference at a higher level of the academic career is demonstrated in a survey (2011) conducted among "outstanding" (杰出 jiéchū) students of the humanities and social sciences. Among the 1,278 students selected for exceptional merits, only 89 were women (about 7%); among the 743 students selected from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (中国科学院 Zhōngguó Kēxuéyuàn) only 6% were women.


Patriarchal values deep-rooted in society, economic reforms driven by the competitiveness of the education system and insufficient government intervention limit the educational choices and the future of Chinese girls and women. Several studies have concluded that the one-child policy has contributed to improving gender equality in education, as parents are more likely to pay for their only child's education regardless of gender. Despite this, the gender bias in academic mobility is not only visible in China but also in Germany, one of the most popular study and work destinations in Europe. According to the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国 教育部 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Jiàoyùbù), students who move to Europe to study are males generally aged between 30 and 40, who come from academic fields related to engineering, usually affiliated with institutes in Běijīng or Shànghǎi, during short permanence periods (from three months to one year). As for the Chinese who choose to work abroad for long periods, the women interviewed are more likely to show a strong feeling of guilt, shame and regret for neglecting their family “obligations”, than their male counterparts (Leung, 2014). Many women who live abroad for work are generally compelled to divorce, while it is quite common for them to move abroad and follow their husbands to their workplaces, leaving their occupation in China.


To take the last step, the principles of equality and gender equality must become concrete. As we have seen until now, nowadays women are still victims of discrimination, as both qualitative and quantitative data reveal. According to the data collected by the World Economic Forum and published in its “Global Gender Gap Report 2020”, it is possible to interpret the trend relating to the gender gap in China over the past fifteen years (2006-2020). The ranking of China in terms of the gender gap fell from the 63rd position in 2006 to 106th in 2020. However, if at first this could lead to the conclusion that there have been worsening in terms of gender inequality, these results have to be analyzed more in-depth. In respect of the overall score, China went from 0.656 in 2006 to 0.676 in 2020, signaling a positive trend (data retrieved from World Economic Forum). This aggregate data indicates that China’s overall gender equality has experienced improvements, given the rising score. The declining global ranking is explained by the fact that these improvements are occurring slower than the global average (Ponzini, 2020).


China’s slow improvement in gender equality highlights the need for a joint effort by the government and society as a whole. In fact, gender inequality is not only rooted in the economic, political, education and health spheres – as highlighted by the analysis conducted by the World Economic Forum – but, as we have emphasized, it is also strongly influenced by cultural and social norms. Historically, Chinese culture has been shaped by philosophical beliefs, social norms and cultural values which reflect a patriarchal tradition that continues to play a huge role in the distribution of power and opportunity within the country. The Confucian tradition still influences the perception and behaviour of people towards the role of women in society (Ponzini, 2020). In order to achieve a society based on gender equality, China needs to begin to downsize the salience of the deeply ingrained gender stereotypes that link inequality between men and women to traditional culture.



Martina Albini is a Master’s Degree Student enrolled in the Double Degree Program in “International Sciences”, curriculum in “China and Global Studies” (Università degli Studi di Torino). Right now she is completing her second year at Zhejiang University (Haining). During her bachelor degree she has studied “Linguistic Sciences for International Relationships” (Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Milan) and she spent a semester in China, at the Beijing Language and Culture University (Peking) to study Chinese language. She is deeply passionate about China and her interests include gender issues and EU-China relationships. You can find her on Instagram as @martinalbiniii and on LinkedIn.

Veronica Zanon is a Chinese language, culture and society (and food) enthusiast; heritage of her Bachelor degree in Interlinguistic and Intercultural Mediation Sciences from Università degli Studi dell’Insubria (Como). She was also a Chinese language and culture student at University of Jinan (Shandong, China), where she lived for a year. She is currently attending a Double Master Degree in International Sciences (Università degli Studi di Torino) and China Studies (Zhejiang University). You can find her on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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