Yin and Yang. You always hear about that describing the philosophy of China. But what is it, really? Here's a bit of an explanation. Ancient China viewed the world has a product of two interacting complementary elements, yin and yang. Yin represented all things female, dark, weak and passive, whereas Yang was the attribute of all things male, bright, strong and active. This describes Ancient Chinese's attitude towards women--that they were inferior. While both men and women are necessary and complementary, one had a nature passive to the other one.
The role of Ancient Chinese women did not change much over couple thousand years of feudalism. The Chinese, since ancient times, have always valued the male child higher over the female counterpart. The girl would have to be married off, whereas the male could keep the family name going. They would never kill the child if she were female, though. That is a gross misconception by the western world of Ancient Chinese customs.
The view of women in Chinese society was influenced by the Confucius code, which said, "A woman is to obey her father as daughter, her husband as wife, and her son as aged mother." In Ancient China's feudalistic society, women are denied political, economic, social and education rights. They were not to be seen in social gatherings at all. Even China's first and only empress Wu Zetain could only conduct business behind a curtain. However, the daughters of extremely wealthy people would often hire private instructors. She would also be seen at home embroidering, while other women would be toiling in the home, the field, etc.
A girl's marriage was arranged and not intended for love. The trembling bride left her own family behind and became at once a daughter-in-law under the control of her husband's mother. She would not even be allowed to see her own parents again. She might see secondary wives and/or concubines, especially if she fails to provide her husband with a male child. If he died, she could not remarry. Even if they were engaged and he died, she would have to go live with her husband's family and be a "widow" all her life.
During the 20th century is when women's rights in China changed drastically. After the feudalistic system was abolished by a revolution, led by Sun Yixian in 1911, a Republic was established. Right after, in 1919, there was a movement named the May 4th movement, which is also called the New Culture movement. The New Culture movement called for the abolishment of the Classical Chinese writing, and for the new Chinese characters. Due to these movements, there was immense change in the Chinese society, and also in the role of women in society. They can now go out from their homes and into the public. They also could go to school at newly established women's schools. Women during this time period had the slogan "Fight for freedom; seek for equality and liberation."
There emerged quite a few important figures during this period, such as Qiu Jin, who directly joined in the 1911 movement, and Song Qinlin. Song Qinlin received her undergraduate degree in the United States, and returned to China shortly after. Influenced by the western society's idea of freedom, she helped her husband Sun Yixian overcome the feudalistic system. She is still an international figure, and is now working in the area of child welfare.
In 1949, there was another revolution, led by Mao Zedong, which established the New China, and China has been working towards equality between the sexes ever since.
Politics are no longer alien to Chinese women today, since the founding of New China in 1949. Previously, in the feudal system that existed in China for several thousand years, women were totally expelled from political life. Now they have become an important political force, and extensively participate in political and social affairs. Chinese women have equal political status with men, as well as equal rights to participate in state affairs (as explicitly stated in the Constitution and related laws and regulations) In the National People's Congress (NPC), 626, or 21% of the total deputies are women. 19 women are members of the standing committee (12.3%), including two vice-chairpersons.
In old China, self-determination in marriage was denied the woman, and over 95% of marriages were arranged on a monetary basis. Now, very few marriages are arranged, and independent marriage based on mutual love and a family life in which husband and wife are equal have become the norm in contemporary Chinese society. The woman's right to divorce and remarriage are also duly guaranteed. Currently, divorce rates in China are 1.54 per thousand.
Another interesting fact in modern China is that the woman retains her maiden name after marriage. Every woman has her formal name, which she keeps from birth to death. The children still use the father's surname, but in cities, there are quite a few children who take the mother's name. Women also have the right to decide whether to have children or not. The family planning policy, which was started in the late 70's, restricts Chinese families to only one child. As a result, women have been marrying and childbearing later.
Household work in contemporary Chinese cities is also shared equally between husband and wife, as opposed to other Asian countries. The change brought out was by the Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s.
The Chinese cherish a tradition of respect for the old, love for the young, and harmonious relations in the family. With the rise of women's social status, family life has evolved from the patriarchy of old China to one of equality and harmony.
In the workplace, Chinese women have equal opportunities. Women employees, in 1995, account for 291 million, or 45% of the total. Chinese women aged 16-54, 85% have jobs. Women are found in almost every industry and trade. The women of China have even been doing better jobs than their male counterparts in many fields because of the feminine quality of tenderness, patience, persistence and caution.
The woman's economic independence has promoted their status in the family. Women have gained more management and decision-making power in principal family and economic matters. Their share in the family income has also risen from 20% in the 1950's to 40% nowadays. In some rural households, the money brought in by women makes up as much as 60-70%.
When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, 90% of Chinese women were illiterate. The government then started large scale, sustained literacy efforts, and the illiteracy rate dropped to 32% (1995). With the nine-year compulsory education program, the percentages of women students in primary and middle school have climbed to 46.5% and 43.7% from the original 28 and 20 percent. The number of women in institutes of higher learning has also increased, to 34.5%. Chinese women today can also learn various skills and knowledge through adult education programs and vocational and technical schools around the cities and countryside. There are 1,679 secondary vocational schools for women and three women's universities in the country, offering 60 majors for women. There are a total of 13 million women now enrolled in universities.
UN Fourth World Conference on Women
Last visited: 7/24
China, A New History
John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman
Copyright 1992,1998 The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Cambridge, MA; London, England
Interview: Jaibi Dai and Aimin Yang