Ruth Schechter: A historical perspective on gender issues in China





[Ruth was Director of Communications for eleven years at Stanford University and is currently a freelance writer] China has 32 million more men under the age of 20 than women. This imbalance is higher in rural areas and leads to questions of marriage, progeny and social stability. By perusing through China’s vast collection of legal archives, researchers have been able to glean insights into widespread historical practices that set the groundwork for social behaviors today.

“The central and county archives cover a wide range of issues that establish deep background for the current situation in China,” said Matthew Sommer, PhD, an associate professor of Chinese history at Stanford University and a Clayman Institute for Gender Research faculty affiliate. “Though we study legal cases, we are able to look beyond the law into issues of gender, sex, and family that affected ordinary people.”

Focusing on records from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Sommer found that economic stresses of the time inspired some creative solutions among the poor and marginalized, where about 15 percent of men were never married in a culture in which marriage for women was nearly universal.

“For the poor, there were just not enough women to go around. When money was needed, wife selling and polyandry became logical solutions,” said Sommer, author of Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China. “Though there is no clear way to measure female infanticide, more subtle forms of male favoritism, such as feeding boys first and weaning girls earlier, made females the minority. The bottom line is that women became a coveted asset when money was scarce.”

Sommer noticed that wife-selling often took place around the new year, when debts were traditionally collected. The husband may have suffered some stigma as a seller and his chances of remarrying were low; at the same time, the wife may have had some input as to who she was sold to and often improved her economic circumstances.

Another “under-the-table” solution was polyandry, a household of more than one husband. The second husband could buy into the family and provide labor or a marketable skill if the first husband was unable to work.

“The gender system was certainly biased against women, but they still had some say in these matters. Bringing in a second husband was a way to preserve the family, to avoid selling the wife or children,” said Sommer. ”Women were not necessarily the victims because you can see that these arrangements solved problems for all involved. In fact, sometimes it was the women who initiated and negotiated these arrangements.”

Though both these practices were technically illegal, Sommer found archival patterns of homicides, when sales and wife-sharing went awry, and cases of extortion, when a husband later demanded more money from the buyer by accusing him of kidnapping and rape—both felonies punishable by death. Magistrates would sometime ratify the second marriage after a small secondary payment to the first husband. Wives could also go to court or make a public scene if they were unhappy with the prospect of being sold.


In China today, there has been a resurgence of the family farm and with it a material and cultural preference for sons, said Sommer. As a result of this deficit in women, a newly mobile population, and economic realities, there has been an increase in kidnapping and sex trafficking, as well as marriage fraud, where men are bilked of money through fake bride sales.

“It’s obvious that these problems are not new but based on a skewed sex ratio that has been around for a very long time,” Sommer said. “These are problems that go down very deep—a complex, tenacious intertwining of economic, social, gender, and sexuality issues.”




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