Female Oppression in China
As with most societies, China was once a country in which women suffered severe oppression and was seen to be inferior to men. The recurring idea that women are property of men was also prevalent in China. The fact that women are represented by yin, which is also symbiotic to passivity, demons and everything negative, while men are represented by yang, which is the exact opposite, should gives us a good idea that women are “second-class” in the Chinese society. There is an unusual trend in the suicide rates of the nation as well – there are more female suicides than male suicides in rural areas – a phenomenon which is unusual and unique to China. It is thus quite clear that while China might have progressed in its treatment towards women as a whole, the rural areas have been left behind. The traditional shackles binding women still seem to be greatly functional even today.
Marriages rarely took place out of love between couples – it was an arrangement between the 2 families. Women, being entirely economically dependent on their families and later their husbands, had to be totally obedient and could not object to any arrangements made. The lack of education and a social life only served to make their imprisonment complete. Often, young girls would be married to old men, and would not be allowed to remarry in the occasion that their spouse dies. The only period when a female might have power would be when she herself becomes a mother-in-law, in which case she will abuse that authority and subject her daughter-in-law to the same torture.
Divorce was not an option for the female. Males could easily divorce their wives, but wives could not do the same. They also had to put up with the issue of polygamy and any other vice her husband might have (being an alcoholic, gambler, or frequents brothels). As a result of the physical and mental torture they had to endure, statistics show that 79% of suicides actually belong to young brides.
After China began to develop rapidly, urban areas such as Shanghai and Beijing saw a rapid decline in female suicide rates to reflect the similar trend in other countries (i.e. higher male suicide rates as compared to female suicide rates). Economic independence, increasingly liberal attitudes and the one-child policy (which freed up the time of mothers as they only had one child to take care) made women “masters of their own fate”. Divorce lost its stigma – it came easily for women. Women who used to desire only financial stability now demanded romance, passion and excitement – or a divorce would be on its way.
In rural China however, their family burdens were not lessened very much. Suicide by taking pesticide was common. Arranged marriages are still prevalent in which the bride is bought over with money. The more fortunate ones would be welcomed into the family with care and concern. This did not happen often. With such traditional mindsets dominant, sons are also preferred to daughters as they can carry on the family line. Some time back, when the one-child policy still applied to rural areas – the pressure on the wife was high to bear a male offspring or otherwise have to suffer the pain of killing her child. While divorce is accepted in urban areas, it is still greatly stigmatized in rural areas and hence leaving is not an option. This leaves females under great emotional and mental strain – leaving no surprise that female suicides are higher there. Yet as their family incomes get marginalized with rapid urbanization, many men leave their homes in the countryside to seek work in the cities, with their wives thus at the helm of the families. As a result, patriarchal values may eventually (and hopefully) be watered down in time to come for the better lives of women.
Foot binding is probably the most famous practice among a range of others that serves to remind us about the oppression females suffer from. The origins of foot binding are unknown, though it is agreed that it probably has to do with how prince Li Yu (AD 960-1280) of the Sung Dynasty liked the loosely bound feet of his concubine Yau Niang as she was dancing. The whole purpose of foot-binding was to appeal to men – the ‘3-inch foot’ was sexy and aesthetically pleasing, up to the point when the bound foot was released. It was also a way of demonstrating that the family had wealth and was quite high up the social ladder as the pain from the bound feet makes it nearly impossible for the girl to walk and work. Eventually, the practice of foot-binding, just like any fashion trend, became so widespread that only females born of the poorest family did not have their feet bound. After all, they had to work in the fields – binding their feet would only lower their efficiency.
The whole process was a torture. When the girl was around five, her mother or grandmother would slice off her toenails to prevent infections, break four of her toes and bend them under the sole and finally wrapped with bandages tightly pulled towards the heel. The bandages would be changed every two days and pulled tighter each time so there was continual pain. The pain confines most females to their rooms, and there was a possibility that an infection could arise as well. When we think how all this for the sake of looking “sexy”, it is not surprising that Westerners saw the Chinese as ‘barbarians’ upon their invasion.
Consider how painful the process must be, and the question of how the mothers and grandmothers could bear to do it on a child comes to mind. After all, having undergone the torture themselves, what could have possessed them to inflict the same pain on their loved ones? The answer has to do with their desirability. Men rejected wives without bound feet, and it was a matter of deepest shame to be seen with normal feet(otherwise termed “clown” feet). It can be seen that women were not really seen as beings capable of their own thought, but were “vases” or wallflowers that were valued based on their looks and hence how much men could use them to boast about their status.
The practice lasted a thousand years. As the Manchus invaded China, they outlawed the practice without success. It was far too much deeply ingrained into the Chinese culture. In the 20th century, there were greater calls for the abolishment of the practice. This however, caused great suffering in women again, especially those who had already had their feet bound. To reverse the trend, people were educated that China was seen as barbaric and bound feet are in fact, hideous. The bound feet of women were released – a process of great pain itself – and they were used as ‘mascots’ for the movement for stopping feet binding. Thankfully, today, all that remains of the practice are bad memories and the last few practitioners in old age.
Male babies have always been favoured as they are seen to grow up as the breadwinners of the family and the key to propagating the family name. Females on the other hand, were seen as a burden as after all, when they were married, they were no longer part of their family, but instead, part of their husband’s family. As a result, female infanticide has always been an issue not to be lightly dismissed in China.
With the advent of the one-child policy in 1979 to alleviate predicted problems of overpopulation and economic crunch, female infanticide rose. When the first child was a girl, the couple would kill her and pretend that that it was a stillbirth or that the child was never born. Some female babies were not even allowed to see daylight. As ultrasound technology began to be used to determine the gender of the child, the number of abortions rose. An astounding 97.5% of the abortions were girls. Even as the use of ultrasound technology to determine the child’s gender was banned in 1991, the ban was ineffective and the abortions continued.
The mothers had a tough time too. Employers watched them for any signs of pregnancy and forced them to go for abortions against their will. Otherwise, they had to hide into their relatives’ houses to avoid detection and forced abortion. There are horror stories of women forced into abortion only when the baby was due – in instances when the authorities discovered the pregnancy too late. Women who already had a child were forcibly sterilized against their will – an estimated 30 million during campaigns in 1983 and 1991. Such sterilizations were often not carried out properly under proper conditions and took toll on the mother’s health. It also made female infanticide all the more popular. In cases when the couple could not bear to kill their child, they would still report that the girl had died. Doing so erased her from the records, leaving her unable to attend school. Others were abandoned by roads and taken into state care – if they were lucky to be found.
As a result of female infanticide, it is now estimated that 119 boys are born to every 100 girls, unlike the norm of around 105 boys to 100 girls worldwide. This has led to many males being unable to find wives and a severe bride shortage. Predictably, this will lead to problems such as ‘bride’-trafficking and a peak in prostitution.
The founding of the People’s Republic of China gave women some opportunities to improve themselves and enjoy better footing. There were movements to overcome the social outlook that were discriminatory against women. Some of the changes were:
- Women could inherit land like their male counterparts
- Women could vote
- Women could take up jobs outside their homes
- Women could be educated
- Women did not have to submit to arranged marriages and monogamy was enforced
- Prostitution was banned