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“Women in China- Then and Now”

Traditionally, the family has been the most important unit of Chinese society, and holds true till today. Over the last couple of years or so, new definitions of women’s roles have been formed as many Chinese women have received higher education, have joined the work force, begun to compete with men, and become financially independent.

Confucianism and the Communist movement greatly influenced the role of women and the family structure in China. Classical literature played an essential part in defining family and the Classical women. The Book of Changes illustrates the role of women and family through history. This book emphasized on a perfect society in which each person would wholeheartedly accept the parts assigned to them, devoting themselves to their responsibilities to others. Other literature glorifies and defines the ideal women, by stressing the main theme of submission. Throughout life, women were to follow the Three Submissions, which are as follows: observing filial piety in childhood, submitting to ones husband in marriage, and obeying ones son in widowhood.

With such notable exceptions as the old empress-dowager, women in traditional China were largely deprived of a public role, and certainly of a political one. The position of women in traditional China was based upon two considerations.

First, there was the masculine prejudice, which was common to most societies, which insists that a women’s place is in the home and their contribution in is all respects secondary to that of the male. The second factor comes from the structure of a society, which depends so much upon family and clan. In traditional China, a woman married away from home and took up residence in her husband’s house, normally under the eye of her parents-in-law. The function of marriage was basically to maintain the male lineage upon which the future depended, and a woman’s status depended very considerably upon the sons she produced. Should she fail this duty, a principal wife could find herself supplemented by a concubine, in which there was no reason why the husband should decline the younger favorite.

In contrast, the definition of women’s roles and family changed dramatically during the Communist Movement. The idea of communism was that of collectivism and equality. In this movement, religion was thought to be a numbing agent that only caused false hope; therefore many old rituals and Confucian ideas were somewhat dismissed and women became equal. The object of the movement was to promote women’s participation in all aspects of social life. Women were encouraged to work in the countryside and at city jobs. Educational opportunities for women also increased significantly. By the end of the 1940’s coeducation had become an accepted social norm.

Women in China today are otherwise known as “half the sky,” (Yanfen, 2000), which is a popular saying indicating that women can make the same contribution to society as men, and enjoy the gender equality and social status assured them since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In fact, China’s Constitution guarantees gender equality. By the end of 1997, women accounted for 46.5 percent of the national workforce, one of the highest labor participation ratios in the world. Economic independence has also resulted in improved family status for women. They can marry a husband of their choice, is able to possess on inherit property, and can decide for themselves whether or not to have a child. Over the past half a century, the consciousness of gender equality has made a big impact on Chinese women today. They now have a higher sense of self-respect, self-confidence, self-improvement, and self-support. Despite the tremendous achievements throughout this past century, there is still much more that needs to be done. Women are still inferior to men in education, employment, and political participation especially in rural areas. With the new technological innovations, economic growth, and social progress, hopefully, Chinese women and men become entirely equal.

Compton’s Living Encyclopedia. Chinese Cultural Studies: Women in China: Past and the Present. “Modern Chinese Society and the Family.” 2000. April 2001.

De Crespigny. China this Century. “New Age, New Outlook.” Oxford University Press. New York.1992. Pgs. 194-195

Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord William. “Changing China.” D. Appleton & Company. New York. 1910. Pgs. 122-123

Li, Wen-lang. Changes in China -Party, State and Society. “Changing Status of Women in the PRC”. University Press. New York. Volume 1. 1989. Pgs. 201-220.

The Republic of China 1998 Yearbook. Government Information Office. 1st Edition. 1998. Pgs. 322-326

Yanfen, Zhao, Mr. China 2000. “Women in China today; holding up “half the sky”. http://www.china2thou.com9904p5.htm. April 1999. April 2001.


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