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Fewer Daughters [Global Times commentary]

Fewer daughters will raise women’s value

The Chinese countryside is scattered with posters urging people to remember that “Girls are just as good as boys,” but the surplus of men keeps rising.

According to a study released in April 2009 by the British Medical Journal, currently, 117 boys are born in China for every 100 girls, a rise from earlier figures of 108 to 100.

Gender screening during pregnancy, and follow up abortions, may be illegal, but they’re still common. Traditional thinking has combined with modern tools to create a gender gulf. But what impact will the imbalance have on Chinese culture?

Traditional Chinese society placed higher value on men, and thus sons. It was the sons who would continue the family name, go on working with their parents and support them. This is not just an aspect of Chinese culture, but is common in other societies as well. In fact, when my brother married and took his wife’s family name, some people asked me if I now had to keep mine – at which my mother immediately shook her head.

Women still face the “glass ceiling” in many careers too. Even in school, it is common to assume that men have more aptitude for the “important” subjects such as mathematics and sciences, whereas woman are better in the “soft” subjects such as languages. Often, this even goes to the point where it is thought that men were simply more talented and intelligent.

From actual data, however, we increasingly see that it is, in fact, the girls who study better at school, let alone at university.

Yet, there are still more boys than girls being born, because education isn’t the only value here. The one-child policy is clearly having an effect; families may only value boys a little more than girls, but if they only have one chance, they don’t want to waste it.

Another quality of Chinese social thought is the high value placed on family. A life is seen as incomplete without marriage and children. Typically, parents are also looking for a great match for their child. A potential husband has to be able to care for his wife, while a wife has to be cultivated, a good mother, and preferably pretty.

A part of that traditional thought is also that love takes second stage, at best, after practical considerations. The two potential partners have to be seen as fitting together. Character plays its part in that, but so do material, social status, and ethnic background.

Where does that leave the millions of Chinese men who, by 2020, will not be able to find a Chinese wife? What effect will this have on the culture?

Clearly, something has to give. Most analysts writing about this issue have been somewhat pessimistic, predicting a rise in human trafficking and prostitution, especially the import of foreign women from poorer countries and regions, such as Southeast Asia and eastern Russia, into China. Increasing numbers of young men may also make society more aggressive.

But let’s take a more positive approach. Regard for daughters will probably rise as well, as people recognize that daughters are usually easier than sons to raise into good adults who will learn well, work hard, and not forget about their parents. Most importantly, as the rarer of the sexes, they will have a better shot on the marriage market.

For the men things will get harder: The chances that the woman will have to be a foreigner will be better as there are simply too few Chinese women. The men will have to work particularly hard to attract and keep their partner, whether Chinese or foreign, since the women will have more choice.

The sooner it is realized that it is increasingly better to have a girl than to have a boy, and the sooner the old prejudices against women being educated too highly or reaching too powerful positions are abolished, the better it will be for China.

Women can’t be seen just as producers of the next generation of sons. Culture may change slowly, but the regions of Hong Kong and Taiwan, with similar cultures and traditions, both have low birth-rates and balanced gender ratios. The Chinese mainland clearly has the potential to change fast.


New Year’s, all about the family…


Food Rules China


  1. This is a great commentary you shared. I enjoyed hearing the positive side of things — specifically that people will learn to value women more, and more men may be open to marriage with foreign women.

    Nevertheless, I fear for those cities in the countryside, where the old prejudices die far too slowly. On the other hand, I suppose dire circumstances — i.e. the prospect of finding no wives — could change minds. Or it could lead to the dangerous trafficking of women.

    I’m crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

  2. Gerald

    Wow, I’m a sexist now? Seems that’s what I get from becoming more and more feminist…

    Where do I take a grim view of men? I’m suggesting, based on statements I’ve heard from many people, and also on studies which have shown a gap in educational achievement between girls and boys (with boys losing out), that “daughters are usually easier … to raise…”
    You notice the “usually easier,” yes?

    Maybe I should have added, “… than they currently seem to believe” or words to such effect, but it’s a commentary, not a scientific analysis.

    Also, I think we are talking about two different gender problems. Your aim seems to be the general, pervasive, difference in valuation; my point of origin is the problem of the skewed sex ratio.
    That being so, of course I would be talking about reproduction. And in that regard, China needs to value daughters more (as in: having daughters).
    What is happening in China, currently, is that the women don’t even have to have men tell them about babies, the society is a great example of the symbolic violence exerted by gender-differentiated socialization: both men and women will want to have sons more than daughters because that’s the way they are socialized.

    The way you are phrasing that last paragraph, it sounds to me like what you really have a problem with is me, as a man, writing about reproduction. A bit sexist, don’t you think?
    I think it’s a matter, considering couples as individual persons, of them to decide. Taking the view towards society, however, to think that “[women] need … for men to stop telling them…” misunderstands how socialization really works.

    All in all, you seem to be hunting after a total equality, with nobody in a whole society holding any stereotypes. Sorry, but that’s not how humans work. Even if you are made, not born, a woman (or a man, if I may add), there are and will be differences.

  3. Gerald

    Okay, got it.

    I see it as more of a subconscious process than an issue of men or women putting pressure on themselves and others, which is exactly what makes it so difficult to change. But yeah, I can see where we are getting to the same ideas.

    In fact, I totally missed the point you are making, of how seeing girls as easier to raise could excuse “bad” behavior in boys. Actually, something counter-factual to my point seems to be happening at present: Chinese parents seem to be more concerned about raising their daughters well, pushing them a lot (because girls supposedly needed beauty and breeding, accomplished through hard work), whereas they assume that boys will develop according to their innate talent (because that’s what boys do – except they increasingly don’t become tough, manly enough. – And then you get the complaints about men not being romantic enough, nowadays…)

    Actually, one of the next things I’m working on is on “good” men.

    The nerve it struck with you, something of how you were writing just struck with me… I’m certainly not brushing aside your opinions (or I would have had even worse ways of disregarding it, mwuhaha).
    Enjoy the sun!

  4. ellis

    “…as people recognize that daughters are usually easier than sons to raise into good adults who will learn well, work hard, and not forget about their parents. ”

    This is a very sexist statement. I’ve heard people say that it’s ‘easier’ to raise girls than boys, and as I’m not a parent, I can’t assert the validity of this statement. However to say that it’s “easier” to raise girls into good adults than it is boys takes a pretty grim view of men. Since when are men more likely to forget about their families? Since when are they less likely to work hard or be good people? Those traits are not gender based.

    Also, saying that people need to realize it is “better to have a girl than to have a boy” does NOTHING to solve China’s gender problems. Calling one gender “better” than the other will only lead to more, if different, stigmas. The problem is that people value one gender over another, not that they’re valuing the ‘wrong’ gender.

    You say that women “can’t be seen just as producers of the next generation of sons.” So it’s okay if they’re the producers of the next generation of daughters? What women need is to be valued for more than their reproductive systems, and what they really need is for men to stop telling them how many babies to have or not have and what gender those babies should be.

  5. ellis

    Oh Gerald, I know you’re a feminist! I’m not saying YOU’RE sexist. I know you are far from it. But I thought that, regardless of the “usually,” saying that girls were “easier” than boys to turn into good people was unfair. I don’t think it’s harder to raise them to be good, hard workers, but that more exceptions are made for males, giving them leeway where it wouldn’t be given to girls. I’m not saying boys and girls should be raised exactly the same way, but it’s treatment and modeling, not just gender, that shapes behaviors. Just by saying it’s easier to turn girls into good people excuses the “bad” behaviors in boys.

    And it’s not that I have the problem with YOU writing about reproduction, my issue is more with the fact that most of the people with influence over reproductive policy is overwhelmingly male. As you noted, women still face a “glass ceiling.” Pressure to have a boy certainly comes from collective society, and maybe it would be better for me to say that what women need is for people/society to stop telling them how to reproduce, because it’s not fair coming from women either. But as noted, the people with the most societal influence in general are men, so that’s why I wrote that.

    I also never said anything about stereotypes or the lack thereof, nor did I ever say there were not differences between men and women. Maybe I come at this from too Western a perspective; maybe I’m not thinking ‘Chinese’ enough about this, but that doesn’t mean my assertion should be wholly dismissed as misunderstanding “how socialization really works.” While women certainly put pressure on themselves, they also get it in various forms from men, which, I believe, in turn makes them put even more pressure on themselves.

  6. ellis

    Also, the sun does me plenty of good, thankyouvermuch. :) We’ve had a lot of conversations about gender issues, so you know it strikes a nerve with me. I may not formulate my opinions as academically as you do, I may not have studied socialization as intensely as you have, but I don’t think that means my opinions should be brushed aside as side-effects of the weather.

    And I hope you also know that I always respect what you say. I don’t try to challenge you to tell you you’re wrong; I do it because I like debating with you and I think you always have good insights, and I hope you would feel the same.

  7. ellis

    Though I stand with the point about raising good people, I think I may have phrased my original comment a bit harshly. But that nerve….aiya. Sometimes the Chinese way of thinking strikes that nerve even harder, if that makes sense. And, well, maybe I know too well how to write to YOUR nerve to watch you defend your opinions.

    I agree with you on how Chinese parents push their daughters harder–it does seem like women are supposed to be ‘more’ and ‘better’ anything to get a ‘suitable’ mate who may in fact be mediocre at best. I suppose i”d also agree with the subconscious nature of pressure and I’ll be interested to see what you have to say about ‘good’ men so I can provoke your opinion on that one, too, muahaha.

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