Changing gender and class relations in post-socialist China have led to the revival of patriarchal values and the rise of a highly competitive marriage market. To grasp the nature of gender antagonism in China therefore requires us to not assume a self-evident “Chinese feminism,” but to examine the forms in which women are disrupting the prevalent patriarchal social order.
Traditional attitudes toward gender roles are slowly shifting, as Chinese women are becoming breadwinners and men stay-at-home dads. Views on masculinity are also evolving, as young men unabashedly wear accessories and makeup, regardless of the name-calling it can lead to. But deep-seated patriarchy and traditions in Chinese society make it difficult to dismantle conservative attitudes.
Traditionally, Chinese, both male and female, treated childbirth as the natural and inevitable responsibility of all women, and any pain associated with childbirth was simply taken for granted. This is perhaps one reason why so-called painless labor — often achieved by administering an epidural during childbirth — remains very rare in China, where it is used in less than 10% of births.
Although sons traditionally have been expected to take care of elderly parents in China, daughters are playing an increasingly active role in elderly care, especially now that more and more men leave China’s countryside in search of work elsewhere. So, as women take on some of the responsibilities once assigned to men, has their position in the family improved? And has there been any change to the unequal power dynamics between sons and daughters?
“What to do if your first child is a girl? Use Jianyunbao for your second birth,” proclaimed the ad for Jianyunbao, which roughly translates to “alkaline elixir for pregnancy,” exploiting the persistent preference for boys in Chinese families as well as widespread ignorance of reproductive science. The brazenly sexist ad had soon raised eyebrows across online discussion forums, with even state-backed publications piping up. Mochou, a magazine funded by a provincial branch of the All-China Women’s Federation, a government-backed women’s rights organization, published an article on its WeChat public account titled “Taobao, You Owe Every Woman an Apology.”
In the vast majority of cases, couples undergo illegal sex screening because they want to give birth to a boy, not a girl. Chinese society has historically favored sons over daughters for a number of reasons, particularly the notion that only sons can continue the family line. Although this cultural preference for boys harms society as a whole, couples who opt for illegal sex screening never seem to remember that many of their hoped-for baby boys will one day struggle to find romantic partners, thanks to their parents’ contribution to the country’s skewed sex ratio.