Rural China Entering the 21st Century:Marriage,family and women

Gao Xiaoxian

  Changes in household structure and size

  In a traditional agricultural society ,the most important social relationshipsare the kinship ties that are based on marriage and the family.Large householdsimply a prosperous family and lineage.This is the ideal household form to whichChinese families aspire.People often mistakenly think that several generationsliving together is a common household form in China.Family size is also affectedby land and resources ,and thus in real life large households are not common.In 1947,in Shaanxi Province there were an average of 4.69members per household.At the time of the 1953census the national average household size was 4.33.

  Table 1:Urban and rural average household size 1953-1990Unit:persons

  Table 1shows that between the 1950s and the mid-1970s,rural household sizegradually increased.In the late 1970s and early 1980s,household size returnedto its mid-1960s level.In the late 1980s and early 1990s ,average household sizecontinued to fall ,and by 1994was only 3.87,lower than the 1953level.

  The main factors influencing the size of rural households are the government‘s population and family planning policies ,and changes in family structure.From the 1950s until the late 1960s ,the government pursued a laissez faire policywith regard to family planning.After land reform and the formations of collectives,the farmers ’living standards had risen somewhat.During the collective periodincome was largely distributed on a per capita basis,which gave farmers incentivesto have more children.So rural women ‘s fertility rates were high ,and by 1968reached a high of 7.025.In those times ,rural women commonly gave birth to betweenthree and five babies.The relative improvement in health care services led to alarge drop in the infant mortality rate compared to the early years after Liberation,and thus the average number of household members increased.In the early 1970s,the government started to promote family planning and gradually advocated the twochildren and -only later -one child system.[i]These measures brought about adecline in average household size.

  There has also been a trend from complex household structures towards simplerstructures.Data from the Shaanxi 1‰population recall survey undertaken by thePopulation Research Center of the Shaanxi Academy of Social Sciences in the mid-1980s(see Table 2)shows that after the 1950s in both rural and urban areas nuclearhousehold structures became more common while stem and joint households decreased.In rural areas nuclear households increased more significantly than in urban areas.Table 3also clearly demonstrates this trend in more developed areas.

  Table 2:Comparison of household structure in Shaanxi ,1949-1982
  In rural China there are three common types of household:nuclear,stem andjoint households,which often represent three different stages of the developmentalcycle of the family.For example,Mr.Wang and his wife have two sons.While thesons are still minors ,this is a classic nuclear household.After a few years ,when the eldest son has married and had a child ,this household has developedin to a stem household.A few years later the second son has married and this householdhas developed from a stem into a joint household.The joint household has many memberswith complex relationships,and over time differences among the members will causethe household to partition.The result of partitioning is that the elder and youngereach set up their own households,and Mr Wang and his wife live on their own again.Thus a large household has partitioned and become three small households.As Mr.Wang and his wife age and eventually pass away,the household‘s developmentalcycle has finished and the two sons ’small households start another round of development.

  In recent years ,nuclear households have increased in number.This is closelyrelated to early partition of the household.According to data from the Sichuanmarriage survey undertaken in the mid-1980s ,in the 1960s the peak for householdpartition was five years or more after marriage.In the 1970s this peak came 3-4years after marriage.By the 1980s the peak period had shortened to between 1-2years after the marriage of the son.Surveys from northern Zhejiang in the 1980salso show a trend towards partition upon marriage.By the 1990s ,in northern Shaanxiit had already become the norm for households to partition upon marriage.

  Household partition and joining is ultimately a question of economic interest.Joining is in the interest of the household head and unmarried children in a largehousehold ,but not beneficial for daughters in law.Conversely,partition isin the interest of daughters in law but not for other family members.This is becausemarriage incurs a large cost(as discussed in more detail in the next section )which is equivalent to an ‘investment’by the whole household in the married son.Partition means that the household cannot receive any ‘returns ’on their investment.If the household stays together until the youngest son gets married ,this impliesthat they can gradually repeat the‘investment’,and even make a contribution ,because if there are many sons then the eldest will feel that there is more to gainthan there is to lose.If the parents have sufficient authority and ability ,thehousehold will tend towards joining ,whereas if the children and daughters inlaw are more capable,then the household will tend towards partition.

  Since the 1980s ,changes in the structure of the rural economy have favouredthe better educated younger generation,and their economic advantage makes partitionhappen earlier.As household structures simplify,young women play an increasinglyimportant role.In large households the relationship of mother-in-law and daughter-in-lawis the most difficult to deal with.Traditional morals dictate that the relationshipshould be maintained by the daughter in law being filial and tolerant ,as suggestedby the saying :“After 30years a daughter-in-law is brewed into a mother-in-law”。In the 1980s,for those young women who grew up under the influence of publicmedia ,who have received secondary or high school education ,and who beforemarriage have traveled all over in search of wage labour and have some experienceof doing trade,such ideas leave little impression.They like to freely controltheir own income and are not willing to let the in-laws interfere in their lives.They are often unwilling to take on the duties and filial responsibilities towardstheir in laws that would befall them in a large household.Thus ,as soon as theyare married ,or even before marriage,they request to partition the household.This has caused problems in caring for the elderly in rural areas.

  Household relationships and division of labour

  The larger the family ,the more complex relationships become,despite theirbeing based on blood and marriage ties.Changes in rural intra-household relationshipsreflect striking changes.The core axis along which relationships within the householdare based is undergoing a historical change from blood-ties to marriage ties.Thehusband-wife relationship is becoming increasingly important.

  Husband-wife relationships It is inaccurate to say that the traditional husband-wiferelationship is a relationship between two individuals.Rather,it is a role relationset by customary rules of rural culture.Generally speaking ,the core of the relationshipbetween spouses is not their emotional life ,but the stipulated roles and dutiesof each.Each must fulfil their duties and cooperate in a division of labour,workingtogether to do keep the household going.In the eyes of rural people it has beenclear from long ago which things should be done by men,which by women ,and whichby either men or women.Traditionally ,productive activities -such as wage labouroutside the village ,purchasing production inputs ,plowing the fields ,plantingrice and wheat,harvesting paddy and wheat ,and chipping wood -should all bedone by men.Household work ,such as washing clothes and vegetables ,cooking,feeding children,changing clothes ,washing nappies and pouring out the chamber-pot,was the wife‘s role.Feeding pigs and goats,raising silkworms,weeding,grindingflour and threshing could be done by either men or women.After land reform in the1950s ,the household had more land and the government promoted the idea of maleand female equality.So women were mobilized to take part in more labour activities,and many women also began to go to the fields to plant and harvest.During the collectiveperiod,in which income was distributed according to work points ,most able-bodiedwomen were taking part in agricultural and other production activities.However ,changes in women’s roles in production did not lead to corresponding changes inthe division of labour between women and men regarding household duties.Rural womenstill carried out all the household tasks that were traditionally regarded as women‘s tasks.Thus they had not only to earn work points to feed their families,butalso to undertake the tiring tasks of feeding and clothing the whole family.Somewomen ,finding themselves too busy,would ask their husbands to help look aftera child or cook.But men who often did these tasks would be laughed at by othervillagers.Even in the 1990s,pouring out the chamber pot was still the wife ’s task.In general,a wife would only ask their husband to do traditionally femaletasks when absolutely necessary.For to do so would cause their husband to‘loseface’and the wife to become the topic of others‘gossip.

  The real challenge to the traditional division of labour came in the 1980s withrural industrialization and the trend towards nuclear households.After the developmentof rural enterprises,which recruited a large amount of local labour ,many youngcouples went together to work in the enterprises.Those who were unable to passhousehold tasks on to their parents began to share household duties like city folk.Of course ,this was only a start.The volume‘Sample Survey Data on ContemporaryChinese Women ’s Status‘,produced in 1991by the Institute for Population ofthe Chinese Academy for Social Sciences on the basis of surveys in 10provincesshows that the wife is still the main bearer of household duties,and that thetraditional gender division of labour is still dominant in the rural areas.

  Table 4:Main bearer of responsibility for household duties in rural areas
  Changes in traditional division of labour have been slow.But since women haveparticipated in production activities they have had their own independent income,and the structure of power within the household has changed slightly.By the 1990s,traditional power relations ,such as‘the husband makes the final decision’and‘husband decides everything’,had already begun to shift towards joint decision-makingby husband and wife.The 1991women ‘s status survey data referred to above showthat 81%of rural couples jointly manage the household income.Some major affairsare jointly decided by both husband and wife,such as purchasing large livestock(57.2%),purchasing production tools(59.8%),house construction (76.3%),purchasing household consumer durables(67%),gift giving at New Year and festivals(73.4%),children ’s education (82%),children ‘s choice of partner(66.6%),and children ’s wedding (73%)。But among the decisions made separatelyby husband and wife ,apart from children‘s marriage affairs,others were allmore likely to be decided by the husband than the wife.The same survey shows that25.5%of women could decide to spend up to 10Yuan without first informing theirhusband ,and that 38.5%of women could spend between 11and 50Yuan without seekingconsent from their husband.

  Inter-generational relationships Chinese households operate on the basis ofa mutual fostering relationship that can be represented thus:parents→children→parents.That is,when children are still minors ,the parents have the dutyto raise their children.When the parents are old the children must take on responsibilityfor looking after their parents.The two main aspects of the relationship betweenparents and children are caring for the young and caring for the elderly.In patrilinealrural China ,looking after elderly parents is mainly the duty of the sons ,whiledaughters who marry out do not in principle have to look after their own parentsin their old age.Because raising a son is an insurance against old age ,so parents‘prefer sons to daughters.

  In rural areas,parents‘care for children begins with birth and ends withthe child ’s marriage.Parents suffer many hardships and privations to bring uptheir children,and it is only after having built them a house and found them abride that the parents can relax in the knowledge that“I have at last completedmy task for this lifetime ”。Parents who are unable to marry off their childrenwill have to deal with complaints from their children and blame and laughter fromother villagers.They will feel ashamed in the eyes of their ancestors as well astheir children.In recent years ,the costs of building a house and arranging amarriage have risen ,so some households with many sons have a heavy burden tobear.Many 40to 50year old women go out to seek wage labour in order to be ableto afford to build a house and find a wife for their sons.


  Villagers still think of giving birth is still as an extremely important event.From the day a women becomes a bride -when she is welcomed to the village and teasedafter the wedding banquet -in the eyes and words of their mother-in-law,husbandand relatives ,they can sense the expectation of childbirth.If a wife who hasbeen married for half a year shows no sign of being pregnant,she is certain tobe interrogated by her mother-in-law.If time passes and she is still not pregnant,her mother-in-law and her own mother will start to get restless and become suspiciousthat they have an illness.At this time ,the mother-in-law will mobilize the husbandto take his wife to see the doctor or have an examination.A great deal of attentionis paid to reproduction within the family ,mainly due to the need to continuethe family line.Reproduction is still seen as the main purpose of marriage in thetraditional conceptualization of most farmers.In order to ensure that incense cancontinually be burned for the ancestors ,having a son is the most important dutyof a couple.Especially for the bride ,it is only after having fulfilled thisduty that her status in her husband ‘s family can be affirmed.


  Because the age of marriage has become increasingly delayed ,most women becomepregnant within the first year of marriage.Once it has been ascertained that thedaughter-in-law is pregnant ,great happiness and consolation will be felt by thewhole family.The mother-in-law will worry that the daughter-in-law may miscarriageand become concerned for the latter ‘s health.But this does not mean that a pregnantwoman will therefore receive special attention or care.In rural areas,reproductionis seen as a natural thing,just as cows need no special care in order to givebirth to a calf.People believe that continuing to work right up until the birthis due will lead to a smooth delivery.Thus ,although pregnancy brings many physicaland psychological changes for women ,there will be no change in their daily lives,and they will not be given additional meat or vegetables.Pregnant women must continueto work in the household and in the fields as before.In the collective period,in order to earn work points,many women did not cease to work during their pregnancyat all.Some women who feel various kinds of discomfort will be embarrassed to goto the hospital for a check-up,and even will not tell their mother-in-law or husband.During surveys in Shaanxi ,the author found that before the 1980s ,it was veryrare for pregnant women to go to the hospital for a pre-natal check up.

  There has been some change in the 1990s.Firstly,starting with food ,somebetter-off households have begun to pay attention to the pregnant woman ‘s nutrition,adding eggs and meat to their diet.They also work less frequently in the fields.This is mainly because after the implementation of the household responsibilitysystem,household economic conditions have widely improved ,so the economic basisfor caring for a pregnant woman has improved.In addition ,the number of nuclearhouseholds has increased in rural areas ,and this has promoted the enhancementof women’s status within the household.The implementation of family planning hasplaced limits on the number of children a woman can have,so the family is moreconcerned with each pregnancy.Some older women say :“In the past ,if you wantedto eat something,did we have it ?Even if there was something to eat ,in thosedays we ate together with the in-laws ,and you wouldn ‘t dare to eat it yourself.Nowadays,young women are lucky,and can eat what they want.As soon as they feela bit uncomfortable they go straight to hospital,and do less work in the fields”。


  “Pregnant for 10months,and delivery all at once ”–for both women andother family members,delivery is seen as a happy event.In rural areas,particularcare is paid that delivery should take place in the husband ‘s house.Before the1970s ,women relied on local midwives who had received no special training anddid not understand about disinfection and dealing with difficult births.So deliveryposed a great risk to the bodies and health of women.After the 1970s ,the largenumber of midwives whom the government had trained in safe delivery methods beganto play an important role.In the mid-1980s ,the Ministry of Health began to promotethe ’systematic management method for rural pregnant women ‘which required thatpregnant women had at least 3-5pre-natal check ups and must use safe delivery methods.Hospital delivery was also promoted.By the mid-1990s ,in suburban areas of largecities and more developed coastal areas ,most deliveries take place in hospital.In the plains areas they either deliver in hospital or invite the doctor to theirhouse to deliver,and most births use safe delivery methods.But in many poor areas,especially in remote mountainous and ethnic minority areas,most women still dependon the traditional network of midwives.In some ethnic minority areas ,pregnantwomen are still required to give birth on their own.

  Confinement after childbirth

  Han Chinese women have the custom of going into confinement for a month afterchildbirth.This custom is related to patriarchal culture.People think that women‘s menstrual blood is unclean,and that their bodies are polluted after childbirth,and are afraid of angering the spirits and calling disease or disaster upon themselves.Before the baby has reached one month old ,the mother cannot leave the room inwhich she gave birth.Her food is brought to her by her mother-in-law or her natalmother or sister-in-law.The cultural meaning of this is to play down the significanceof childbirth.But in fact it also reduces the new mothers’workload,giving theirbodies a chance to recover after childbirth.The custom of confinement is stillcommon today,but the fear of angering the spirits has weakened,and many youngpeople do not know the origin of the custom ,merely that it is a necessary measurein order for the mother ‘s health to recover.

  The treatment of new mothers during the period of confinement depends on theeconomic condition of the household.In better off households ,they can ofteneat eggs,chicken,fish ,meat and some nourishing tonics or foods.Less well-offhouseholds can only provide the same food as normally eaten.Most women are lookedafter by their mother-in-law during confinement ,but some are looked after bytheir own mothers.Women who have no mother and no mother-in-law have worse conditionsduring confinement,and a few days after the child is born ,will start to cookand look after the child themselves.The situation of women in confinement alsodepends on the sex of the child.If their first child is a son,then this meansthat there is already someone to continue the family line and the in-laws as wellas their natal family will be happy.The mother-in-law will only fear that the newmother has no experience or that the child may have an accident ,so she will takebetter care of the new mother.If the first child is a girl ,family members willbe somewhat disappointed,but because the family planning policy allows them tohave a second child ,most families will appear satisfied.If this mother‘s secondchild is also a girl,then the mother-in-law and husband will often complain thatshe is unable to give birth to a son and will cause the family line to end.Sheherself will also feel that she has not been able to please her mother-in-law andwill feel ashamed.Thus ,during her confinement she will not only be in poor spirits,but it would also be too much to expect such good care from her mother-in-law.


  Since the late 1970s,when the family planning policy began to be implementedin rural areas,there was a significant decline in the number of births for eachwoman.This brought many benefits to women and also brought them the new problemof contraception.According to the current rural family planning policy ,if thefirst child is a son then the woman is no longer allowed to have another child.If the first child is a daughter then they can have a second child,after whichthey must stop having children, sterilized.That is,for most of theirlives ,women must use some form of contraception or other sterilization measure.Because at present the standard of medical practice in rural areas is limited ,it is not possible yet for family planning propaganda to push for all women to haveinformed consent,and this adds to the difficulties that women face.For example,the most common contraceptive method in rural areas today is the IUD.But many womenget pregnant despite inserting an IUD ,and this increases the number of abortionsthey undergo.Many women report that their menses has increased after insertingan IUD,and that they have pains in their back and abdomen.Sterilized women reportthat there are many women with the above symptoms ,and in some cases these symptomsare so severe that they are unable to work in a normal way.In order to preventaccidental pregnancies,the current practice is to have checks for insertion ofan IUD,for pregnancy and for infection.Every women with an IUD is requested togo to the township health center for a check up on a set date four times per year,and if they miss the date of the check up they are liable to pay a fine.From onepoint of view this is beneficial for women‘s health,but it does not take accountof rural women’s livelihoods and brings them great inconvenience.In rural areas,dates are calculated according to the lunar calendar and often women forget thedate as they are busy with agricultural and household tasks.Agriculture is stronglyseasonal and at the time for planting and summer and autumn harvest ,or when theirchildren are ill or something has happened at home,or when women have gone toseek wage labour,conflicts of timing with family planning check ups only add totheir mounting worries.


  “Men marry and women marry out ”。In rural areas marriage is seen as a majorevent in life and great attention is paid to it.Parents with adolescent childrenstart to worry about and raise funds for their future wedding arrangements.Successfullyproviding for the wedding of one‘s children is seen as an important responsibilityof parents.

  In traditional society,marriages were set ‘by command of the parents andby the word of the matchmaker ’。Young men and women had no choice at all in thematter of their own marriage.The Marriage Law promulgated in 1950forbade arrangedmarriages.Following the passage of time,especially by the 1990s,because ofthe development of the rural market economy and industrialization ,there havebecome more opportunities for contact between young men and women ,so there hasbeen a large decrease in arranged marriages.Marriages for love are no longer thespecialty of urban youth,but have become increasingly common in rural areas too.Nevertheless,marriages based on love alone have not yet become the main form ofmarriage in rural areas ,and most marriages still depend on a matchmaker‘s introductionand parents ’opinions still have some part to play.Below,we will look at choiceof spouse ,marriage customs ,marriage age and residence after marriage,marriagedistance and divorce in order to describe marriage in the late twentieth century.

  Choice of spouse

  Tables 5and 6show the different ways in which couples in different decadescame together and the extent to which they had the right to decide.From these onecan see that the proportion of couples who knew each other before marriage has beencontinually rising,but that the way in which couples came to know each other stilldepends on introductions by third parties.By the 1990s ,only 4.7%(compared to29%in 1966)of marriages were totally decided by the senior generation withouta role for–or without the satisfaction of -the younger generation.In the 1990s,56.7%of marriages were decided by the bride and groom,compared to 32.8%in 1966.Thus young couples have more self-determination than before.But one should alsonotice that there are still some arranged marriages that go against the willingnessof the bride and groom,especially in poor remote areas.The proportion of marriagesdecided completely by the bride and groom is still not high.The contemporary marriagemodel in rural areas has changed from the traditional marriage arranged by parentsto one based largely on the will of the marriage partners with consent from parents.

  Table 5:Forms of introduction of rural male household heads in differentperiods
  Wedding customs Different areas of China have different cultures and histories,which are also reflected in marriage customs.The major stages described below arebroadly the same in northern and southern China.

  Proposing :Proposing is the start of the wedding process.Mostly when menand women are 17or 18years old,people will begin proposing.The person who makesthe proposal is called the matchmaker.This used to be a profession but nowadaysmatchmakers are mostly the friends and relatives of the prospective marriage partners.The heads of the households involved seek information through all available channelsabout the situation of each others‘household ,and choose one of the many marriagepartners proposed.In general ,when considering a choice,the bride to be’sside considers economic status,moral character,an approachable mother-in-lawand the number of brothers.The male side mainly considers the health ,beautyand ability of the bride to be.In the late twentieth century ,after the growthin the scope of social circulation by young men and women ,many choose peoplethey have come to know themselves but still use a matchmaker to make the proposition.

  Meeting :For the majority of introduced marriages ,this stage is when thecouple to be meet for the first time.On this day ,the young man and woman areled by their parents to be introduced to each other by a third party.Mostly thisoccurs in the household of the person making the introduction or in the house ofa relative of the male or female side ,often in the female side ‘s village.Themeeting does not last long,but compared to the 1980s one difference is that bothof the young couple have had previous opportunity to get to know each other.Aftermeeting ,both sides must express an opinion on the spot ,and it is mostly thefemale side that is expected to be proactive.The female side can agree immediatelyor can say that they wish to understand each other some more in order to gain sometime to reconsider.

  Viewing the house :This is a visit by the female side to the male side‘shouse.The visit includes inspection of the housing conditions,economic conditionsand relations of the prospective in-laws with others.This is a key step in theprocess of marriage.On this day,the bride-to-be is accompanied by her motherto the prospective groom’s house and the latter must receive them with a banquet.If the bride-to-be‘s family is satisfied with the conditions of the prospectivegroom ’s household ,then they will stay and eat -by which they signify theiracceptance of the marriage proposal.If they are not satisfied,then they leavewithout eating and the male side understands that the marriage is off.For youngcouples who already knew each other before they invited the matchmaker,this stageis omitted.

  Salutations :There is no fixed form for giving salutations.After both sidesare satisfied with each other ,the prospective groom must pay a certain amountas brideprice to the prospective bride‘s family as a sign that the engagement hasoccurred.The amount of brideprice varies between areas and over time ,and accordingto the economic situation of the groom’s family.In general,brideprice will belower if the groom‘s family situation is comfortable ,while it is higher forpoorer grooms.In 1997in central Shaanxi ,brideprice was between 7000and 10,000Yuan.After brideprice has been paid,on festivals and at New Year both sidesmust visit each other.In the 1960s and 1970s this was an important way in whichboth sides could come to know each other better.In the 1980s ,contact was nolonger limited to festivals but could also take place by inviting each other tothe county town to see a film or to buy things,and opportunities for young peopleto socialize have increased.

  Engagement:The engagement ceremony often takes place on a specially selectedday.On this day the male side must lay a banquet and invite relatives of both sidesto the engagement banquet.From the bride ‘s side,between 16-24people from amongthe important lineage members and relatives (such as maternal and paternal unclesand aunts )will attend.Engagement is the most important ceremony prior to marriage,and it announces to the two lineages and to relatives that the marriage contracthas formally been established.This plays two functions.Firstly,it states thatone ’s child has found a marriage partner and neighbours ,relatives and friendsneed no longer worry about their marriage.Secondly ,it extends the contract topeople outside the two immediate families ,and thus welcomes a wider social monitoringof the marriage.

  Greeting the bride:One of the important stages of the traditional marriageis the wedding ceremony.Although there are differences between the forms of weddingceremonies in different areas ,it is common for a ceremony to be held.In thepresent day countryside ,the wedding has irreplaceable functions,since it ensuresthat the marriage is approved of and recognized by society.In the 1990s,as theeconomy developed ,the scale of the ceremony became larger.

  In terms of form,wedding customs have not changed greatly from the past ,so some people think that wedding traditions are the most resilient of all customsin rural folk culture.But if one looks closely at the contents of the ceremonyone will find quite a few changes.Firstly,the stage of ‘meeting ’has been added.In traditional weddings ,some couples met for the first time at the wedding ceremony,thus leading to many tragic weddings.In central Shaanxi,‘meeting ’became popularin the 1970s,which is certainly the result of resistance by young people.Initially,‘meeting ’was to give the two young people a chance to gain an impression of eachother.By the 1990s ,it gave an opportunity for the couple to chat,thus showingthat more importance is now given to mutual understanding between the prospectivemarriage partners.Secondly ,the age of proposing has risen.Traditional weddingswere often between children ,in which the parents made the engagement when thechildren were still young ,and sometimes even occurred before birth.This customcontinued and was still common in the 1970s.Farmers say that if one gets engagedlate,the‘good ones ’have all been chosen by others.By the 1990s,young peoplewere getting engaged at 18or 19years old.Older villagers explain it thus :“If you set the engagement too early when the child is still young and immature,then when they grow up they will be dissatisfied and argue with you.If you setit too late you fear that if you can‘t find a good partner your child will blameyou ”。Thirdly,the function of bridewealth has changed.Historically,bridewealthensured that neither side would break the marriage arrangement.Tang dynasty lawstipulated that “it does not matter how much the bridewealth is–as soon as alittle has been accepted,one cannot break the agreement ”。It still plays thisfunction today.Common folk sayings state that after engagement ,if the male sidewishes to break the engagement off,then the bride ’s side does not have to returnthe bridewealth.But if the bride ‘s side wishes to break off the engagement ,then they not only have to return the bridewealth but to pay interest on it too.Another function of bridewealth is to provide some funds for the establishment ofthe new household ,in the form both of the bridewealth paid by the groom’s sideand in the dowry returned by the bride‘s side.In recent years ,both bridewealthand dowry have been increasing in size.The reason is that demands to set up a newhousehold have increased.Unlike before ,bridewealth is no longer the propertyof the bride’s family,so there is no commercial transaction involved in marriage.As the economy has developed,and young women‘s own earnings before marriage haveincreased ,it has also become common for the bride’s side to add money to thedowry payment.

  Age of marriage

  From one perspective,the age of marriage reflects the degree of self-determinationover marriage.Historically early marriage was the custom in China.From the Songto the Qing dynasty (420-1911)the legal age of marriage was 16for men and 14for women.In the Republican period (1911-1949)the Relations Section of theCivil Law regulated that the marriageable age had been raised to 18for men and16for women,But because of the popular idea that ‘early marriage leads to anearlier son ,leads to earlier happiness ’,many new couples ‘real ages werebelow the legal age.

  After the founding of the People‘s Republic,in order to eliminate the customof early marriage ,the 1950Marriage Law(Section 1)stipulated that the legalage for marriage was 20for men and 18for women.In 1981a new Marriage Law wasenacted that again raised the marriage age to 22and 20for men and women respectively.The actual age of marriage in rural areas has continually risen ,especially amongwomen.This has been due to popular education about the Marriage Law,and alsoto the increased number of years children are required to spend in school ,andalso because of increases in women’s status following their participation in moreeconomic activities.

  Table 7:Average ages of first-time marriages of women
  From Table 7we can see that the average age of first marriage for rural womenhas gradually increased over time.In 1980it reached a high-point(22.54years )。This was due to the government‘s promotion in the 1970s of late marriage and familyplanning.By 1980the average age had fallen slightly (to 22.07years),becauseafter the promulgation of the second Marriage Law ,marriage age was implementedaccording to the law but the original promotion of late marriage was relaxed.However,the average age of first marriage among rural women was lower than that of urbanwomen in all periods.The proportion of rural women marrying late has also continuallyincreased ,and by 1980had reached a high of 44.8%and after dropping in 1982,returned to 47.1%in 1987.At the same time ,the proportion of rural women marryingat an early age has steadily declined from 51.1%in 1949to 3.4%.This suggeststhat although there is some difference with urban areas ,the influence of thecustom of early marriage in rural areas has changed greatly since the early 1950s.The increase in the age of first marriage also suggests that young men and womenhave more freedom and self-determination in their marriage affairs.

  Nevertheless,early marriage has persisted in rural areas,especially in someremote poor areas.In the 10years between 1982and 1991in Shaanxi Province,morethan 20%of women married at an early age ,particularly in southern and northernShaanxi.In 1989in Yeping District of Ankang City in southern Shaanxi,more than70%of those getting married were below the legal age ,mostly around 16-17yearsold ,and some as young as 13years.From the national point of view ,comparing1990with 1982,the proportion of 15-19year old women who were married rose from4.38%to 4.71%,and among 15-21year old males from 2.32%to 6.51%.In 1990,amongmarried women between 15-19years old ,rural women accounted for 89.65%,whilerural men accounted for 87.81%of 15-21year old married men.In very poor areas,the custom of engaging infant girls still exists.

  Post-marital residence The range of choice of residence after marriage includesto live with the husband‘s family or with the wife ’s family or to establish anew household.Differences in residence patterns reflect power relations withinthe marriage and household.The traditional Chinese family is patrilineal ,andthe custom is for the bride to move to live with the husband‘s family after marriage,in what anthropologists call’patrilocal residence‘。It is often thought thatas women marry out and move to their husbands ’village ,they have left theirfamiliar environment and that this is equivalent to depriving women of the thingsthey depend on.It is also thought that this strengthens men‘s status as a memberof the household-based primary social group ,and thus adversely affects women’s social status.

  From the 1950s to the 1990s ,China‘s rural society underwent many politicalmovements and social changes,but their influence on post-marital residence patternshas not been great.Patrilocal residence is still the norm.All over rural China,it is still men who marry-in a bride and women who marry-out,away from their natalvillage to live with their husband(see Table 9)。What is different from theearly 1950s is that after marriage,the proportion of couples living together withthe parents has declined.Since the 1980s the number of couples setting up theirown households has increased,in a trend related to the decreasing size of householdsdiscussed above.Independent nuclear households are still in the husband’s villageso patrilocality has still not changed in essence.

  Table 9:Patterns of post-marital residence among male household heads fordifferent periods
  Since the 1980s ,another change in rural post-marital residence patterns isthat,since the implementation of the family planning policy ,the governmenthas promoted residence of couples with the wife ‘s family,so the number of peopleresiding matrilocally has increased.

  Distance of marriage

  Distance of marriage is an important measure of the scope within which peopleintermarry.This scope is often called the‘marriage circle ’。Historically inChina there has been a taboo against marrying people with the same surname.At thebeginning of the twentieth century,in many rural areas it was forbidden to marrypeople within the same village.Data from the 1920s to 1940s shows that in thisperiod the distance of marriage was around five kilometers.Based on this ,sociologistssuggested the theory of the ‘primary market structure’,which maintains thatin rural areas the scope of marriage is included within the local market area.

  During the collective period,the restrictions on marriage within the samevillage relaxed.Natural villages were mostly a production team.Collective labourand other common social activities within the production team (e.g.militia training,artistic performances ,Communist Youth League activities etc.)all providedmore opportunities for the young people of the village to interact,and thus naturallyenabled young men and women to fall in love.But real instances of such marriagesbefore the 1980s were rare.Since the mid-1980s ,some sociological surveys ofrural marriage and family have discovered that between the 1950s and late 1980sthere was little change in the marriage distance in rural areas.A 1986survey ofmarriage and households in six provinces nationwide (see Table 10)found thatwithin each age group the marriage circle is roughly the same ,such that almostone fifth of marriages occur within one kilometer or so ,and more than one fifthbetween one and five kilometers.Thus ,more than half of marriages occur betweenpeople who live within five kilometers of each other,suggesting that intermarriagebetween people who are near to each other is common all over rural China.

  Table 10:Marriage distance of different age bands in rural areas(1986)

  In general the ability to determine the distance of marriage lies with the femaleside.During fieldwork,the author once asked many women :“Is it better to marrysomeone close or someone far away ?”The majority replied that “not far and notclose is best ”。If one marries too far away it is not convenient to look afterone another ,but if one marries too close ,the new couple lives under the watchfuleye of one‘s parents.So if one has an argument,one’s natal parents know aboutit which is not good.‘Not far and not close ’is mostly between one and threekilometers.

  In recent years some economically developed areas have seen a trend towardsever decreasing marriage circles.Data for 1986from the suburbs of Shanghai showthat respondents‘parents lived within 1.5kilometers of each other before the respondent’s marriage in 48.8%of cases for respondents over 60years old,54.8%for respondentsbetween 35and 59years old ,and 73.6%for respondents below 34years old.Ofthese ,many were marriages within the same village.The increase in inter-marriagewithin the village occurring in these economically developed areas is related tothe efforts by women to secure their economic status.

  In the late 1950s ,China enforced strict restrictions on the movement of ruralpeople into the cities through the household registration management system.Thismeant that apart from studying,joining the army and a small number of job recruitmentopportunities ,there were very few routes through which rural youth could enterthe cities.And for young women -for historical and cultural reasons -schooling,enlisting and employment opportunities were even rarer.Thus marriage became themain way in which young women could change their situation.The direction of marriageis naturally from low to higher social status ,such that people wish to move fromeconomically less well off to better off areas.In the collective period,agriculturalproduction levels were mainly determined by natural conditions,such as land resourcesand irrigation.In general,villages in the suburbs had similar natural conditions,so for the young bride,to marry outside the village would not bring a downturnin her economic conditions.After the reforms ,industrialization started in manyrural areas ,and the factors influencing levels of industrialization were morecomplex than those influencing agriculture.So at the same time as causing greaterdifferentiation between regions ,it also increased the gaps between differentvillages within a region.This was especially so in coastal areas and in the ruralsuburbs of large cities.It was first in these early developing villages that youngwomen were unwilling to marry out into other villages.

  Along with the decrease in the size of the marriage circle,the mid-1980s alsosaw a rise in distant marriages.These distant marriages were mostly of women movingacross provincial borders to marry.Such marriages began to appear in 1980and reachedtheir height in 1984since when they have continued to be common place.Becauseof the lack of relevant data,it is hard to say with any certainty how many womenhave joined in this tide of cross-province marriages.But through some partial surveysone can gain an impression.In 1993,the Department of Civil Affairs in WeiyangCity,Jiangsu Province ,undertook a census of marriage and migration.Between1982and 1992,17,978women had migrated into the area,distributed in 5158villages within the city‘s 304towns and townships.On average there was one bridemarried in from outside the province in every 126households,or one woman fromoutside the province in every 136married women.Between 1982and the first halfof 1990,around 300,000rural women from outside the province entered Jiangsu,and around 100,000women married into Zhejiang from other provinces.The directionof marriage within this type of distant marriage is from mountainous areas to hillyareas and from hilly areas to the plains,and from the interior areas of Chinatowards to coastal areas,from the less developed to the more developed areas.Estimates suggest that nationwide between 1985and 1990,a total of over threemillion women moved from hilly and mountainous areas towards the cities and plainsand the coastal areas.Among these,more than 700,000women moved from southwestChina towards the east.The total population of Wanxian County in Chongqing Cityis only 7million ,but in the space of five years more than 14,000women leftthe county.

  The mass movement of women from the economically less developed to more developedareas and the decreasing trend in the size of marriage circle since the economicreforms appear to be working in opposite directions.But they have similar causesbehind them.Inequalities in the level of development between regions cause theeconomic gaps that are the direct pulling force for women to marry to distant places.But the wave of distant marriages occurred in the 1980s ,and apart from economicfactors ,this is also related to the long-term over-supply of men in the ruralmarriage market and to women‘s desires to improve their situation.The sex ratioof China’s population has been high for a long time.The 1990census showed thatamong women over 30years of age,0.3%were unmarried,while the figure was 5%for men over 30.This implies that a considerable proportion of adult men is single,which produces demand in the marriage market for women.Villagers in post-reformChina ,under the influence of pulling forces due to regional economic differencesthat meet with women‘s desire to improve their living standards,have followedthis demand ,and through marriage flow towards areas with better living conditionsthan their places of birth.

  In recent years ,distant marriages across provincial borders have also involvedsome illegal trafficking in women ,which is a severe breach of women‘s rights.Many women involved in such marriages have not thought things through beforehand.The result is sometimes that their new husband is not completely satisfactory.Manysurveys find that many women involved in distant marriages were either introducedby others or got to know their spouse themselves,and that many are satisfied withtheir life after marriage.That is to say ,in this tide of distant marriages,most women make their own choice and that it can be seen as another form of normalmarriage flow.

  The intra-village and distant marriage trends that appeared in the 1980s wereboth efforts on the part of women to maintain and improve their economic conditions.If intra-village marriages are to be seen as a challenge to traditional villageexogamy ,then distant marriages by women who leave their familiar surroundingsto start a new life really requires courage.


  The freedom of marriage includes the freedom to divorce.In traditional ruralsociety ,marriages were very stable ,and each partner would marry only onceand for life.For several thousand years China‘s divorce system did not allow womento divorce.If a man found after marriage that his wife could not have children ,was not filial to his parents or was a very jealous type,then the man could ’give the wife a rest‘。But for women,“if you marry a chicken you have to gowith the chicken,if you marry a dog ,you have to go with that dog ”。Oncemarried ,one“lived as a member of the husband’s family,and after death becamea spirit in one ‘s husband ’s family”。The degree of freedom for women to divorceis a measure of their self-determination and social status.

  In the early twentieth century,China began to allow divorce based on mutualconsent and divorce by court judgement.But because of continual war and changesin government ,the influence in rural areas of the Republican Marriage Law waslimited.The real challenges to traditional rural marriage patterns came from the1950and 1980Marriage Laws.Following the announcement of these two marriage laws,China saw two peaks in divorce rates,one in 1953and one in 1981.Since then,divorce rates have maintained a steadily rising trend.But compared to developedcountries ,China‘s divorce rate is still low.

  It is very hard to find data on divorce disaggregated by urban and rural areas,so we can only rely on data from particular y, ears.The 1994National PopulationChange Sample Survey results report an urban divorce rate of 9.8‰and a divorcerate of 7.9‰in towns,while the figure for counties that represents the ruralareas was 6.2‰。Thus the rural rate was 3.6per thousand lower than the urbanrate.The growth rate of the rural divorce rate was also lower than in the cities.Compared to 1990census data,the urban,town and county divorce rates for 1994had risen by 2.1,1.5and 0.8per thousand respectively.The growth rate in ruralareas was therefore 1.3per thousand lower than in urban areas.In sum,the ruraldivorce rate is lower than the urban rate but that it is rising.

  There are several reasons for the low rural divorce rate.One is that in comparisonto urban areas,rural areas maintain a conservative attitude towards divorce.The1991sample survey on the status of Chinese women by the Population Institute ofthe Chinese Academy of Social Sciences presented respondents with the sentence:“Women should have one spouse for lifetime ”。In rural areas 49.94%of womenand 53.49%of men disagreed ,while in urban areas ,75.38%of women and 67.36%of men disagreed.Responding to the question:“What should one do when emotionalrelations between spouses are hard to maintain?”,in rural areas 28.34%of womenreplied “divorce ”,while 61.38%of women replied“see it through”。In urbanareas ,64.23%of women responded“divorce ”and only 25.16%replied that one should“see it through”。From this one can see that urban and rural women have differentattitudes towards divorce.

  Table 11:Trends in numbers of divorces,1979-1993Year No.Of divorces(thousand couples)
  Although half of women disagree with the idea that women should have only onespouse for a lifetime ,one quarter of women approve of divorce.But in rural areasif one really wants to divorce there are in fact many obstacles.For men,the costof marriage is dear compared to farmers ‘income levels ,so upon divorce theymust consider the economic loss and their ability to bear the costs of remarriage.Also,there is a noticeable over-supply of men in rural areas.Among the unmarriedpopulation between 25and 29years of age ,the sex ratio is 409.52,among unmarriedpeople between 30and 35it is 1205.8,while among unmarried people between 35-39years of age it is as high as 2000.45.Such high sex ratios among the unmarriedpopulation mean that after divorce,men face great difficulties in finding suitablepartners.Hence their reluctance to divorce.For women,the traditional idea thatone must marry a man in order to be adequately clothed and fed still bears someweight.Although limited interaction prior to marriage creates some difficultiesin marriage ,when women want to divorce they must consider their livelihoods afterdivorce.Patrilocal residence means that women leave their natal village once theymarry ,and the land resources on which they depend for subsistence belong to theirhusband ’s village Their house also belongs to their husband ‘s family.It iscommon that after the daughter marries out,the land originally allocated to heris then re-allocated to others.Thus,if a women divorces,the current moralsand practices common in rural areas make it difficult for her to remain in her husband’s village.But if she returns to her natal home ,because of the short supplyof arable land she will not receive land in her natal village ,not to mentionland for building a house.If she lives for a long time in her natal home with hernatal parents ,this will be unwelcomed by her brothers.Hence ,most women chooseto‘see it through’even though they are dissatisfied with their marriage.Thisis also the reason why many divorced women in rural China remarry quickly.

  Although divorce in rural areas is not easy ,in recent years the numbers ofpeople getting divorced has been rising.More and more farmers are leaving theirvillages to engage in wage labour or petty trade,or shifting into non-agriculturaloccupations within their local area.Radio,television and video media are increasinglycommon and the influence of the media in rural areas has begun to be felt.Thesemedia all challenge the traditional ideas and ways of life in rural areas.The decreasingsize of households and the spread of education and the women‘s liberation movementhave raised the awareness of self-determination among this generation of young people,especially women.Surveys in Sichuan and Zhejiang show that more than 70%of divorcesin rural areas are proposed by women.The Sichuan surveys also find that 67.6%ofdivorces are due to marital infidelity on the part of one or other spouse ,but60%of these are due to affairs by the husband,showing that many rural women haveno choice but to divorce.When the husband is not responsible within the marriage,women sometimes dare to use legal means to defend their rights,which shows thatself-determination by women has been enhanced.

  In the past ,common reasons for divorce in rural areas were :insufficientmutual understanding before marriage,lack of an emotional basis for the marriage,economic and household conflicts,domestic violence and abuse by the husband.Sincethe late 1980s,there has been a great change in the reasons for divorce.Extra-maritalaffairs and excessive gambling have become more common reasons for divorce,andin one area in Zhejiang accounted for two thirds of all divorces.Divorces demandedby women because of an unsatisfactory sex life have also increased,as have divorcesdue to the wife giving birth to a girl.

  After divorce ,the situation for men and women differs.For men ,becauseof imbalance of the rural sex ratio and the huge cost of marriage ,whether a mancan remarry or not depends on his economic standing.In some wealthy householdsit is not difficult for them to find a new match,but for the less well off,especiallymen in poor areas ,it is likely that they will remain unmarried.For divorcedwomen ,it is not difficult for them to build a new family.But because of thediscrimination in the current land allocation policy and in rural society againstdivorced women,they usually remarry within a short space of time,so their rangeof choice is limited.

  Women ‘s social and production activities

  Education of girls

  Chinese traditional agricultural society has always been patriarchal,and womenhave been excluded from mainstream socio-political,economic and cultural activities.Education is an important way in which to achieve equality between men and women.Since the founding of the People‘s Republic,laws and policies have been decreedin order to achieve equality.A range of policies that promote school attendanceamong girls have been implemented.As a result,there have been historical achievementsregarding girls ’education ,especially since the Compulsory Education Law ofthe 1980s.The national school enrollment rate for girls aged 7-11has risen fromless than 15%before Liberation to 96.3%in 1990,and the proportion of girls amongprimary school attendants had risen from 25.5%before Liberation to 46.2%.In theearly 1990s ,the appearance of the National Plan for Children ‘s Developmentprovided further impetus for education of girls.By 1995,98.63%of girls wereenrolled in school.But there have been unequal gains in urban and rural areas.In the latter ,boys and girls still have unequal opportunities to receive basiceducation ,and especially in poor rural areas the enrollment rate for girls islow and drop-out rates high.According to statistics for 1990,nationwide therewere 2,111,000children between 7-11years of age who were not attending school,of whom 1,713,000or 81%were girls.In 1995there were 1,829,000schoolage children not attending school ,of whom 1,093,000or 59.74%were girls.In 1995,the enrollment rate for girls was between 90-95%in Sichuan,Guizhou,Gansu ,and Ningxia provinces,but lower than 85%in Tibet(64.25%)and Qinghai(83.69%)。The proportion of girls among school attendees declines as age increases.In 1990nationwide the proportion of girls among first grade primary school studentswas 46.8%,while the proportion in the graduating grade was 44.8%.According tothe 1990Fourth Ten Percent Sample Survey Population Census (see Table 12),amongchildren aged 6-14who were not attending school,in the 6year old age bracketthere were fewer girls than boys,while from 7years old onwards ,the numberof girls becomes greater than the number of boys.By 9years old the differenceis significant.This is mainly because at this age girls have already begun to helptheir parents with simple housework and agricultural tasks,such as looking afteryounger siblings,grazing cattle ,collecting pig fodder and so on.There is anoticeable increase in the proportion of girls over 12years old not attending school,and only a small proportion of girls attend middle or high school.In some remoteareas ,within the 10-14year old age group there are even higher rates of non-attendance(see Table 13)。The lack of emphasis paid by families to the education of girlsis also reflected in the ages at which boys and girls take part in production activities.The 1991survey of women’s status in China undertaken by the Chinese Academy ofSocial Sciences shows that the average age for women to begin to take part in productivelabour or remunerated labour is 16.4years old,while for boys it is 17.22yearsold.

  Table 12:Non-enrollment of girls aged 6-14Unit :%
  Table 13:comparison of boys and girls aged 10-14not attending school
  Sexual division of labour in production

  ‘Men plough and women weave’has always been the traditional conception ofgender roles in agricultural society.This idea is built upon the natural divisionof labour of the subsistence household economy that continued to be common untilthe early years of the twentieth century.As the coastal areas urbanized and industrialized,Shanghai and other such newly developed areas (e.g.Jiangsu and Zhejiang )werethe first to see women leaving their homesteads and going into the cities to workor be household servants.Some men engaged in trade or other crafts and this causeda lack of labour,so the women started working in the fields.At the same time ,industrialization brought traditionally female crafts such as weaving into the marketplace.These can be seen as the earliest changes in the traditional sexual divisionof labour.For the majority of inland rural areas ,the traditional division oflabour had almost never been challenged right up until the 1950s with land reformand the cooperativization movement.It was only then that women left the home andstarted to work in the fields on a large scale.This process was due to two externalfactors.The first factor was the commune system.This abolished the share croppingsystem that governed the use of land and other materials of production.It alsoallocated remuneration in part according to labour input,so that a household‘s income depended directly on how much labour resources they had.This allocationsystem forced all of a household’s labour power to engage in earning work points,including women and school age children.The second factor was based on the needfor women ‘s liberation.At that time the theory was that women could only be liberatedby participating in socialized production.Through propaganda the government mobilizedwomen to participate in production and used the strong organizational power of thecooperatives to enforce this.In 1950,between 20-40%of female labour force inthe newly liberated areas were working in agricultural production ,and in 195770%of rural women of working age worked in the fields.This represented a fundamentalchange to the traditional division of labour.

  At the same time,some men started to drop their agricultural tasks to workin the new tasks of management and industrial processing,livestock feeding andagricultural labour in the production teams.These tasks were mostly linked to powerrelations in the production teams and were given more importance than agriculture,as they had more technical contents ,required less labour ,and better workingconditions and remuneration ,or as the farmers said :“Doing relaxing work inthe shade of the balcony”。In the late 1960s and early 1970s,the productionteam in which the author worked as a rural youth sent to the countryside had 70households.The production brigade,production team and commune cadres were men,and over 20men worked in the mud tile factory,agricultural mechanization station,electric mill ,livestock pen,cooperative health insurance clinic and in theproduction team run school.Not one woman worked in these places.With the large-scaleconstruction of irrigation facilities in the collectivization period,some of thestronger young workers were engaged in the irrigation construction programmes ,and women became the main labour force in agriculture.At that time ,apart fromthe spring planting ,summer harvest and autumn planting ,it was mostly women,old people and school children in their vacations who were involved in work in thefields throughout the year.Although women had already become the main agriculturallabour force,the standards for measuring work points were 10points per day formen and 7for women.Thus the remuneration of women was lower than that of men engagedin the same agricultural tasks,and much lower than those involved in managementwho never worked in the fields.There were two common ways of calculating work points.One was on a daily basis and one was based on ‘maximum ’points.Although theyhad work every day of the year(except for on rainy days when agricultural labourerswould have no tasks ),some would also work overtime at night ,so that by theend of the year they always had the highest number of work points in the productionteam.At that time,male labour could earn as many as 400or more work points peryear,while female labour could earn no more than 200.

  In the late 1970s the rural economic reforms began,bringing an influentialwave of change to the rural sexual division of labour.The growth of township enterprisescreated a huge number of employment opportunities in rural areas,and some farmers‘economic status changed as they became’rural workers ‘in their home areas.Inthe 1980s the reforms of the urban economies and its rapid development,especiallyin the new industrial processing zones in the coastal areas that were open to investmentfrom overseas ,also led some farmers to leave their hometowns to work in the cities.These two transformations created the main changes in labour in the current era ,and caused polarization among China ’s farmers.There are already more than 200million labourers who have shifted away from agriculture.Many women have also leftagriculture.But overall,the participation of women in the de-agriculturalizationprocess has been slower than that of men.

  Data for 1992from the Central Government Policy Research Center,based onsurveys in 312villages in 29provinces nationwide,shows that the largest professionalgroup among women is still agricultural labour,followed by houseworkers and thenagricultural wage labourers.21.4%of rural women have entered non-agriculturalproduction.Compared to men ,participation in non-agricultural empolyment is 13.6per cent lower.45%of agricultural labourers are women who take part only in agriculturalproduction,which is 4.9%higher than the figure for men.In the late 1980s,thefeminization of agriculture became more noticeable.In some areas women made uparound 70%of the labour force,in a phenomenon that some people referred to asthe “386199team ”(where 3and 8refer to March eighth -international women‘s day -and 6and 1refer to June first ,children ’s day ,and 99refers to99year old elderly people)。The feminization of agriculture shows that womenare still excluded from the best employment opportunities.As the proportion ofrural production value deriving from agriculture has decreased,this has meantthat the proportion of household income as well as the gross value of social outputderiving from the mainly female agricultural work has also declined.

  There are many factors that constrain agricultural production.It requires largeamounts of labour input but with low returns.Much of the recent shift in employmentfrom agriculture to non-agricultural sectors is actually part-time.Those who haveleft are mostly male labourers.Although they may return to their villages to helpwith work in the fields in the agricultural busy season ,they are still the mainmanagers of household farming activities and are responsible for deciding what togrow,how much to grow and whether to sell crops after they have been harvested.Most women are still playing non-technical labour input roles in agriculture.Thiscan be seen from the findings of the 1994survey on the status of women (see Table14)。

  Table 14:Roles in agricultural tasks Unit :%
  Some household tasks that have traditionally been women ‘s tasks ,such asfeeding chickens,pigs and goats ,weaving,embroidery and stitching clothes ,have begun to produce products that can be marketed ,which has given women a spacein which to display their abilities.Many women have made the best of this opportunity,and learned new techniques,developed animal husbandry and weaving ,and haveset up processing factories and companies.This has made the best use of their abilities,and some have become’specialized production households ‘,and provide the basison which their families have become rich.

  Women ‘s economic and political rights and participation in society

  Cadres and officials at the township level and above are all full-time cadresappointed by the state.Because farmers are limited by their agricultural householdregistration status ,very few farmers can rise into the ranks of the townshipcadres,and most farmers can only take part in administration at the village committeelevel.Over the last 50years ,the Party and government have advocated in manypolitical movements for women ‘s participation.For example,there have been effortsto increase the numbers of female Party members in rural areas,and governmenthas required that there be female cadres among government ,Communist Youth Leagueand militia organization leaders.At the village and villager group levels,theposition of ’women ‘s cadre ’has been established.(During the collective periodthis position was called the‘women ’s production brigade leader ‘or’women ‘s production team leader’。)It is stipulated that there must be a women‘s cadrein the village committee.Although China has been a patriarchal society for thousandsof years,the participation of women in rural social life has begun.In the last50years,the rural areas have produced many outstanding female cadres.Their actionsand political achievements prove that men and women have the same amount of wisdomand capability to lead their village and manage village affairs.

  However ,progress has been quite slow ,and to date the village leadershipis still a male-dominated sphere.The 1990Population Census data shows that 77%of neighbourhood committees and village committees are led by men ,and only 23%by women.In urban areas,most neighbourhood committees are led by women ,soif one takes account of this factor ,then it is clear that in fact an extremelylow proportion of village committees are led by women.In township enterprises onealso finds only a few women in management.A survey in 1989of 20export companiesin Suzhou City found that only 1%of female employees were engineers or technicians,which is much lower than the 4%average for township enterprises in the City asa whole.Of all the township enterprises engaged in the export sector in the city,only 7.4%were led by women directors.

  For most farmers,it is still seen as natural that “men govern affairs outsidethe household while women govern affairs within the household ”。Most villagers,including women ,think that it is to become a cadre is a male role.Women shouldjust keep their house in order.In the first national survey on women ‘s statusundertaken by the National Women’s Federation in 1990,there was a question thatasked :“Did you ever think of becoming a member of the People ‘s RepresentativeCongress?”74%of rural women replied“no”。It was then asked:“If you werechosen as People’s Representative,with what kind of attitude and actions wouldyou undertake your duties ?”The responses “definitely do it well ”and “followorders to the best of my abilities”accounted for 50.2%of responses,while the“see it through”,“I ‘m not capable so don’t want to do it ”,and“I ‘dnever do it ”and ’don ‘t know“accounted for almost half of responses(49.8%)。

  There are few rural women who enter the village committee leadership positionsand are unable to represent women to take part in the major decision in villageaffairs.The strength of tradition means that in rural areas and among the currentmale leadership the influence of patriarchal culture is still strong.This meansthat in many areas women‘s economic and political interests are often ignored ordenied.This is most clearly seen in the issues of allocating housing land and contractresponsibility fields.

  In the 1950s,after communization land returned to collective ownership.Buthousing land became the farmers ‘most important private possession.As describedabove ,the development cycle of the household goes from small to large,and thendecreases in size again.When a household faces partition after all the sons havemarried ,a large household becomes several small households and the former houseis certain to be insufficient to house them all.So the sons need to apply for newhousing land.Whether or not they can obtain this land depends not just on actualneeds but also on whether or not your right to live in this place is recognized.Behind the issue of right of residence is the legalization of identity and economicright to benefit.That is to say,is it recognized that you are a member of thecollective and can take part in distribution of collective benefits ?It has alwaysbeen the policy of production teams to allocate to sons only(unless there are nosons in the household ,in which case one daughter ’s husband will marry-in )。This policy reinforces the historical patrilocal residence pattern and to some extentstrengthens the patrilineal inheritance system and patriarchal culture.The allocationof housing land as a violation of women ‘s rights was not an issue before the 1980s,because almost all marriages followed the patrilocal residence custom.After the1980s ,patrilocal residence was no longer the only form of residence,and theinjustice of the housing land allocation policy came to the fore.

  A similar issue has emerged in relation to the land contracting system.Forfarmers ,land is the most important material of production upon which their subsistencedepends.The household production responsibility system that was implemented inthe 1980s made the land the possession of the farmers ‘collective.The policy ofre-allocating land to the farmers by contract was done on a household basis accordingto the number of household members,such that each person with agricultural householdregistration status had the right to obtain a portion of land in the place theywere registered.The policy expressed the principle of male and female equality.But the result of allocating land on a household basis is that land becomes household,not individual property.While a woman is still a household member–whether asan unmarried daughter or a married wife –they will not face a land problem.Butif their status is different -such as those who are married but living within theirnatal village or divorced women -then they will face a land problem.In the precedingsection this was discussed in relation to the land and housing problems of womenin the suburbs of cities,but is the common situation of divorced women all overthe country.

  The problem of women marrying into the city mainly occurs in the suburbs ofthe cities.In these areas it is natural that some rural girls marry urban residents.But the household registration system means that the wife cannot move to the city.The result is that the woman has married but not left the village ,which is achallenge to the traditional patrilocal residence custom.In many villages,inorder to protect villagers‘-but mainly male villagers ’–rights ,they do notallocate housing land or contract fields to women.Women are not treated the sameas other villagers and are not allowed to benefit from the distribution of economicbenefits within the village collective.

  Divorced women also face these problems ,but the reason is that because theyhave married,they have lost their rights in their natal village ,while the in-laws‘village will treat them as an outsider because they are already divorced.Theylose the protection of the household and become independent individuals ,no longerso-and-so ’s daughter or so-and-so ‘s wife.Thus,it is hard for them to keeptheir grain production land and responsibility land as their own property ,andhousing land is even more difficult to retain.Although women ’s organizationshave done a lot in recent years to protect the rights of such women ,and writtenthese issues into the Women ‘s Rights’Guarantee Law and many local regulations,there are still many obstacles to the implementation of such laws.The influenceof traditional patriarchy is still strong in rural areas.


  [i]The actual arrangements in each area differed ,as did the policy in differentperiods –for details see the chapter on family planning.