Emancipation of Chinese Women: Reality or Just an Illusion

Women’s status varies in many aspects all over the world. Talking about countries with the richest history and most unique cultures, it is worth analysing the East, and especially China. From early ages, Chinese women were thought to be just boy-bearing tools, objects with unequal rights, unaccepted opinions and with no chances of becoming equally appreciated, respected and valued human beings like men were. Nowadays China is said to be different and there are more than enough laws to protect women’s rights, but what is the true situation in everyday life? Are women seen the same way men are?

Historical Perspective

The social status of Chinese women has undergone dramatic changes over the years. In ancient times in traditional China, a woman was a really important figure. She was the mother, while the father was not certain. She would keep her name after marriage. A woman played a significant role in spiritual currents. “At that time, China was probably not a male-oriented society. It was only later that a patriarchal society appeared” [1]. In Confucius’ times (550 – 479 BC), the society’s understanding about Chinese women became much more strict and inalterable: “Confucians taught that a virtuous woman was supposed to uphold ‘three subordinations’: be subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband after marriage, and to her son after her husband died” [2]. According to Confucius, who had a major impact on the Chinese thinking and their way of understanding, a woman was to be dependent on a man her whole life.

A woman was seen more like an object, a submissive commodity: with its price, physical condition and a purpose to take care of the household and give birth to sons. It was thought that giving birth to a girl was a big shame and expecting mothers were under great pressure from the husband’s family. All pregnant women used to go to visit the Temple of Gupo to pray for sons to goddess Guanyin, and having a girl meant that the woman did not sacrifice enough. The whole family, especially the husband’s mother, would humiliate the new mother and make her status in the family even more insignificant [3].

Even the foot binding reflects woman’s subordination: “Of course, small feet had a strong erotic meaning, but they also represented the total submission of women, at least those in wealthy societies. What could have been only a passing fashion became the symbol of faithfulness to the husband, and neo-Confucianists totally embraced it” [4]. The so-called ‘lotus feet’ could be stated as a symbol of imprisonment which was carried on until the early 20th century [5].

Positive Tendencies

The 20th  century marked the beginning of various writings about women’s rights. One of the first very famous writers about women’s emancipation was Kang Youwei. In 1902, he published several chapters of a book called Datong Shu (“The Book of One World”), in which he expressed his feminist views. The “issues he raised anticipated many issues raised in the Chinese women’s movement later on: women’s education, women’s right to public office, women’s equal legal rights, married women’s right to keep their own names, freedom to choose one’s spouse, freedom to have a social life, abolition of what Kang called “corporal punishment” (binding feet, piercing ears, wearing girdles, and so on), unisex clothes for men and women, and freedom of marriage” [6]. His ideas grew at incredible pace, and by 1912, society was talking about it loud enough to start the New Culture Movement. People expressed their discontentment against Confucianism and old practises, old-fashioned attitudes and inequality [7].

Ever since then, women were officially given more and more rights. By 1930, quite a large number of women had access to education, and they started taking part in the labour market. In the 1930s, a new family code was established, which gave women the right to divorce and to inherit, and which also institutionalised monogamy. The trade of girls was forbidden. In addition, the choice of partner was less imposed [8]. “One of the most striking manifestations of social change and awakening which has accompanied the Revolution in China has been the emergence of a vigorous and active Woman’s Movement” [9].

All the Western ideas of feminism could not leave Chinese women’s minds. “With great enthusiasm and the spirit of self-independence and self-improvement, they made remarkable achievements, like the men, and they held up half of the sky, especially when it came to social development. They completed a new, splendid chapter in the history of the women’s movement in China” [10]. In 1949, ACWF (The All-China Women’s Federation) was established to promote equality between both genders and represent and safeguard women’s rights and interests.

The launch of the Third Session of the 11th Central Committee of the CPC in 1978 was another milestone in Chinese women’s development. The CPC and the Chinese Government attached great importance to the roles of women. “The formulation of the basic State policy of gender equality and the Program for the Development of Chinese Women and the promulgation of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women effectively protect women’s development” [11]. It seems like women in China are treated equally with men like never before, but these are only formal laws and they say nothing about the society’s attitude and the actual situation.

The Preferred Sex

It is not a secret that throughout the ages sons have been preferred. Even though women are now considered to be socially equal to men, statistics show that expecting families still want their baby to be a boy rather than a girl. “Although governments and other concerned parties have attempted to restrict or prohibit the use of such [gender detecting of unborn babies] technologies, experience indicates that legal restrictions in isolation from broader social policies and other measures to address deep-seated social norms and affect behaviour change may be ineffective and may even detrimentally impact upon the human and reproductive rights of women” [12]. This causes a great gender inequality in the country: according to CASS (Courses of Applied Social Studies), China in 2020 will have 30m-40m more men than women. If so, are women really socially equal?

A man is thought to be better, stronger and more valuable. It is worth noting that the One-Child policy was one of the biggest influencing factors, as having a boy means continuing the family line, therefore a lot of parents prefer having a son. “It was birth control that changed the position of women so spectacularly, at least as far as urban areas are concerned. Family planning, under which only one child per couple was allowed, represented a great effort for survival” [13]. In this case, political aspect outweighs social one, and the government should be highly concerned about the current situation, which will get much worse in the near future.

Women in Power

Speaking about politics, let us not forget about economics. Of course, ever since the first feminist movements, Chinese women were indulged in the labour force. Their labour was highly valued in light industry factories, as workers needed to be diligent as well as precise. However, are females valued in management positions? Is their mind power accepted as willingly as men‘s?

Back in 1935, the woman President of Gin Ling College for Women, in Nanking, spoke at length of the economic opportunity now presented to the women of China [14]. According to Doctor Wu Yi-fang, “economic independence is an easy thing for the modern Chinese lady to achieve these days, provided she wants it and is willing to work in preparation for her work. If she is well trained and qualified she may compete equally with men for any position from the highest government office down.” From this a conclusion can be drawn, that for almost a century now women in China have been given equal opportunities to pursue high positions. And then another question arises, whether this is really happening.

In the rest of the world, women in management and politics do not surprise anyone, and apparently the same is in China: “I have heard that China now has more than 300 woman mayors, and that they are doing a good job. That is because women are keener than men, have sharper intuition, and stronger powers of observation. They are sensitive to the feelings of those on the lower [administrative] levels, are good at harmonizing relationhips in every field, and feel sympathy for people. As a result, their powers of motivating people are stronger than those of men. Moreover, their natural maternal instinct gives them a willingness to put themselves at the service of others in an unselfish manner. They are warm, and have a better psychological influence on the lower levels“ [15].

Solitary Power

Summing up all of the above, it could be said that it is possible to be a successful, independent and powerful woman in today’s China, although studies have shown that such females do not tend to get men’s attention that often and therefore large numbers of such women are single. Men are more likely to marry women weaker than them, and strong women tend to seem intimidating. In 2009, a Swedish researcher Arianne Gaetano took a closer look at single women of China and investigated the reasons why they were the so-called “leftover ladies”.

Juhua, one of the women of the experiment, berated herself for being too strong, too independent and too inflexible. She explained that men do not want a woman like her, who expresses strong opinions, especially ones counter to theirs. She once frightened off a prospective boyfriend just by arguing about politics on a date. Likewise, twenty-seven year old Huanhuan feels she is too “open” for most Chinese men to accept. They judge her harshly, finding her too experienced and too worldly, and not feminine enough [16]. The only thing to question is, does the society still want to be patriarchal? Will it ever accept the new feminist trends and forget all about the past?

Change is Never Easy

After hundreds of years of a certain attitude, it is not that easy to change people’s minds. The Chinese society has such a deep culture and so many unique traditions, that it is not a surprise that they are not let go effortlessly. As everywhere in the world, there was a time when feminist movements started to oppose the patriarchal classification, and some incredibly pertinacious people led the way to today’s China. Now, in the 21st century, Chinese women have officially obtained equal status to men in every aspect: they have successful careers, marry and divorce whoever they want, and have the same conditions and opportunities as everyone else.

Even though females still feel a certain pressure in some cases, such as feeling ‘too successful’ to be attractive to men, or feeling less appreciated than male siblings in the family, it can still be said that they have experienced true emancipation, especially in comparison to the previous century or some third world countries. It is true that some people will never accept a woman as a boss, or, for example, her being in charge of a family, but it has nothing to do with the Chinese society itself. On the whole, it is the possibility for a woman to be independent that matters, and not the estimation of the fact.


Written by: Greta Oss
Edited by: Monika Dvirnaitė


Additional information


1. Verschuur-Basse, 1996.

2. Vohra, 1999.

3. See, 2005.

4. Verschuur-Basse, 1996, 5.

5. Hong, 1997.

6. Wang, 1999, 37.

7. Chow, 1960.

8. Meyer, 1986, Su Tong, 1992, quoted in Verschuur-Basse, 1996, 12.

9. Zarrow, 1988.

10. Wei, 2011.

11. Wei, 2011.

12. World Health Organization, 2011.

13. Verschuur-Basse, 1996, 133.

14. Ayscough, 1938, 99.

15. Woei Lien Chong, 1995.

16. Gaetano, 2009, 9.



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Author: Greta Oss

Her love for Chinese language and culture led her to Chinese Studies and soon enough the university in England was replaced by one in China - that was the start of the never ending adventurous journey through East Asian history, culture, politics, economy and languages.

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