Kuora: The ways women had to rise above oppression in China — and the ways they still have to


This week’s column comes from two of Kaiser’s answers, originally posted to Quora on January 9, 2014

How have women historically been oppressed in China?

and February 2, 2019:

Were women raised to equal status and power in China under Mao or is China today still paternalistic toward women as before?

Of the myriad ways in which women were oppressed in China, probably the most glaring and cruelest form of oppression was the practice of foot binding, which was first noted in the Tang Dynasty, 618 to 907 AD, during which the tiny “lotus feet” of dancers from Central Asia were celebrated in some of its better-known poetry, and became much more widespread in the Song Dynasty (960-1275 AD) and lasted into the early part of the last century. By this practice, girls had their toes curled over and bound tightly with cloth, progressively tighter, until the metatarsals actually broke in many cases. Women were barely able to walk, and when they did, it was with very small and mincing steps. This effectively kept them from being able to escape, say, from a cruel husband and/or his family.

Chinese society has for most of recorded history been very unequal (and remains so in many ways today, for all the progress that’s been made). Confucianism was a deeply conservative doctrine (the Master says dismisses “women and petty people” in The Analects, and all but one of the cardinal “Five Relationships” in Confucianism — prince and minister, father and son, elder brother and younger brother, husband and wife, and friend and friend — are hierarchical.

Most historians will point to the Tang Dynasty as one period in which women enjoyed a little more status in society, where sexual mores were relatively relaxed, and where a woman, Wu Zetian 武則天, actually became emperor in the late 7th century. But the rest of it is quite dismal. Most Chinese communities were patrilineal (property was inherited by male heirs) and patrilocal (the bride moved to her husband’s village). Polygamy and concubinage were common among men of some means. Female infanticide was also widely practiced: After all, a baby girl — especially one whose feet were going to be bound — wasn’t going to be able to help with hard agrarian labor, and was only going to cost her parents a dowry to marry her off. Marrying her off didn’t mean “gaining a son,” either, since as I’ve noted China was patrilocal.

After the Communist Party took power, trying to make good on such slogans as “women hold up half the sky” and “men and women are equal,” some reasonably enlightened legislation was passed. The New Marriage Law of 1950, one of the most significant post-Revolutionary pieces of legislation passed by the new government of the PRC, outlawed concubinage and marriage by proxy and decreed that marriage had to be consensual. Very significantly, it granted women the right to divorce — and this was broadened in subsequent marriage law. It also raised the marriage age to 18 for women and 20 for men. In the ensuing decades, workforce participation rose almost to the levels of men. I’m not sure what wage differential there was, but I’d bet if there was one, that it favored men, and that it actually wasn’t as bad as it is today.

China obviously today has no footbinding, concubinage only informally in the lamentably common practice of keeping mistresses, divorce is a right exercised in almost half of marriages, and women enjoy on paper at least most of the same rights men do. The reality is that there’s plenty of sexism in China, much of it still structural, plenty of it perhaps also the inertia of what was for long centuries a deeply sexist society. Women earn less than men for the same work. Many women still suffer sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, often facing glass ceilings, exclusion from the “boys club” on outings to the sauna or the hostess karaoke or what have you. Women are still routinely objectified in the popular culture. The overwhelming majority of sex workers in China are women. Women are still pressured to marry by their mid-late 20s. They’re still often discouraged from pursuing advanced degrees lest they be deemed unmarriageable. Once married, they still do far more of the housework and childcare even if they work the same hours as their spouses. The list goes on.

So the patriarchy, alas, is still alive and well — but certainly not as utterly dominant as it was before 1949. It’s far less equal than, say, Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark; it’s far more equal than Japan. I would confidently say that on balance the U.S. edges out China in gender equality, mainly because China’s still much more agrarian than the U.S. and because political participation by women is much lower than in the U.S. There’s a long way to go for both countries; my sense, however, is that China has both more social inertia and structural issues especially in politics that hold it back than the U.S. does.

Kuora is a weekly column.