Unintended Consequences

February 29, 2016

I’ve almost exclusively examined purely historical topics in this blog without a discussion of how they affect us today.  For some topics, this isn’t a necessity: while Napoleon being swarmed by hundreds of rabbits or the life of Jack Johnson are interesting and fun to learn about, they don’t necessarily affect our everyday lives.  Some other topics, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation work or the Black Death have had a demonstrable impact on human history, but we don’t really think about them on a day-to-day basis, and we certainly don’t imagine their continuing impact on the future. 


For this week’s post, I’d like to examine a topic that, while historical in origin, is currently having a palpable impact on the world’s most populous country, and has potentially disastrous implications for the future.  Let’s talk about women in China.


In historical ideology, women in China were not considered inferior to men, not exactly.  Rather, women were the yin in the Taoist yin-yang symbol we have all seen in many 20-somethings’ bad tattoos: an interlocking and equally important, yet intrinsically different and opposite, piece of the whole.  As the image relates to gender (it also represents various dualities), the yin symbolizes passive, yielding femininity, while the yang exemplifies aggressive, active masculinity.  The moon vs. the sun.  Wet vs. dry.  Cold vs. warmth. 

 A yin yang.  Note how each side has a small element of the other in it.


This sense of a duality that diminished neither side, however, did not mean that China was some sort of egalitarian paradise.  While Taoism did allow women some empowerment outside of the house, Confucianism largely negated that empowerment, with its fussy adherence to the ideas of proper relationships and proper behavior that placed women at the bottom of the family structure.  Lessons for Girls, a Han Dynasty era (around 2000 years ago) advice manual by female historian, Ban Zhoa, tells girls – among other things – that they ought to “yield to others; let her put others first, herself last.”


Later on, during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), neo-Confucianism brought in some of the more odious practices we associate with historical China: the selling of unwanted daughters, the insistence on widows remaining chaste to not dishonor the memory of their husbands, and, of course, foot-binding. Foot-binding can be considered somewhat comparable to the European practice of corsetry.  Both practices, largely perpetuated by the upper classes, painfully and permanently deformed women in order that they might conform to society’s standard of beauty under the auspices of heightened social status and some dubious notions of moral virtue. 



A drawing of an 1890 "summer corset", and an x-ray showing two bound feet.


Female infanticide also has a long history in China. Chinese parents desired sons over daughters, as sons would traditionally carry on the family name and look after their aging parents, while daughters were expected to leave their families and live with their in-laws upon marriage, thus becoming of no practical use to their parents.  Though Buddhism did not condone the killing of children, its belief in reincarnation carried with it an implication that death was not truly final, lessening the guilt that parents would feel in choosing to end a child's life.  Confucianism, with its focus on age and wisdom over youth further lessened the perceived value of an infant’s life.  To be perfectly fair, Confucian intellectuals did worry that killing too many girls would upset the balance between yin and yang, but to me that seems more like damning with faint praise than a genuine sense that killing baby girls because they were girls was wrong. 


The practice of female infanticide continued through the 19th century, and then plummeted during the first part of the Communist era.  However, it re-emerged again (to some extent) upon the implementation of 1979’s one-child policy.  This rule, as the name implies, enforced a strict one-child-per-couple restriction in an attempt to gain some control over China’s burgeoning population amidst worries of resource shortages.  There were numerous loopholes for ethnic minorities or wealthy citizens, but as China keeps its currency, the yuan, of an artificially low value in order to make it a more desirable and cheaper trading partner (hence the proliferation of “Made in China” labels on just about everything), wages in China have also been kept artificially low.  As a result, most families could not afford to pay the fine levied upon those who had a second child, much less to raise a second child. 


Some Chinese parents, rather than to have their sole child be a girl who would not take care of them in their old age or carry on the family name or family business, chose to abort their female fetuses, abandon their infant daughters, or to place the girls in orphanages, and try again to have a son.  Many tens of thousands of Chinese girls have been adopted by U.S. citizens alone during these years.  Of all Chinese-origin adoptions in the United States since 1999, 61.8% have placed girls with new families.1  As of last year, the one-child policy is being gradually phased out, but the damage has already been done.


A photograph of a one-child policy propaganda poster.  Seen in Zhongdian, China.


As a direct result of the one-child policy leading to parents disposing of their daughters, there is a significant gender ratio imbalance in China today.  This has serious implications, no matter which way you cut it.3 There are an estimated 30-some million Chinese men of or approaching marriageable age who will not be able to find what they consider to be a marriageable Chinese woman because there just aren’t enough women in the one-child policy-era age bracket.  To put that in perspective, picture the entire populations of Texas and Colorado together comprised solely of 20-something or 30-something single men who will, barring serious changes, always remain single.  It’s simple economics: as supply of a good drops, demand for the good rises, and the price of that good skyrockets.  Young women in China have become precious commodities, and as such, when it comes to men, they essentially have their pick of the litter.  Overwhelmingly, Chinese women are choosing to meet and marry wealthy city-dwellers, not the men who live in rural areas, and certainly not farmers. 


 A beautiful and somewhat overly romatic image of what the life of a poor farmer in China is like.  It's a hard life.  As I lie here on my comfy couch, I can't blame Chinese women for not wanting to sign on.


This means that Chinese farmers who cannot find a bride will have no children and no heirs to whom to bequeath their farms (if they are results of the one-child policy, they also have no siblings or subsequent nieces/nephews to pass the farms on to).  In addition, as they age, they will have a harder and harder time successfully working the farm on their own.  With no replacements coming in to take over these farms, China is going to have to confront the question of how to feed itself (when a country can no longer sustain its own population, it, by definition, becomes a food importer, and that drastically changes the entire economy).  Here are a few of the possibilities of what might happen in China over the next generation or two:


1.  Chinese farmers turn to marrying women who have culturally been seen as low-value: divorced women, and disabled women (either physically or mentally).  This is beginning to happen somewhat.  While this may, in some respects, be good, as it would restore value to women who are currently seen as thoroughly undesirable, I find something intrinsically nausea-inducing in the idea of people preying upon mentally-disabled women solely for their reproductive capabilities and strong backs.  Moving on.


2.  Chinese farmers begin importing their brides from elsewhere.  This, too, is already happening to some extent, as there is increasing intermarriage between Chinese men and Russian women (and this is where I feel the uncontrollable urge to make a “In Soviet Russia, farm works you” joke…).  While intermarriage is no bad thing, we are unfortunately not a post-racial world, and it is hard to imagine that a country with largely poor mixed-race farmers and ethnically “pure” and wealthier Chinese living in the cities wouldn’t lead to cultural separation and tension.


3.  Without heirs, Chinese farmers slowly fade away and ownership of their farms either goes to businesses or to the government.  If it’s businesses that take over, it will likely lead to the proliferation of agribusiness, an industry known for pollution and for shrinking the diversity of the foods that are available to consumers in a country that already has serious challenges with at least the former issue.  The government, on the other hand, doesn’t want to have to work these farms itself, so it would need to find a way to make farming a more desirable occupation to other Chinese, possibly through extensive subsidies.  Of course, those subsidies would have to come from somewhere, and this would likely be achieved through increased taxes, which would lead to resentment of the new farmers on the parts of those with the heaviest tax burdens… again possibly leading to serious ugliness.


A very similar situation did occur in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).  The preference for boys led to the usual female infanticide, but also to infant boys being fed first and weaned later than their female counterparts, many of whom became sickly and died as a result.  The resulting gender imbalance led to a China in which 15% of men were unable to find women to marry.  Wife-selling and polyandry became popular solutions to the problem (though both practices were technically illegal, and neither would be considered even remotely acceptable in 2016).  Many men were also scammed in fake bride sales.


At the moment, it seems like there are no easy answers.  No matter what route China, or the Chinese farmers, choose to go down, there is the potential for great adversity, and no matter what happens, China will have to change significantly.  Unfortunately, it seems that the creators of the one-child policy didn’t bother to read up on their very own history; had they done so, they would have seen that the historical devaluation of girls was still a very real thing, they would have seen how this exact story played out several hundred years ago, and perhaps today’s situation could have been avoided to at least some extent.  History cannot be ignored, as it shapes our present and thus, our future.  As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”



1 Source: Statistics on Intercountry Adoption, U.S. Department of State. < https://travel.state.gov/content/adoptionsabroad/en/about-us/statistics.html>


2 Photographer: Arian Zwegers. Retrieved from <https://www.flickr.com/photos/azwegers/6169806541>


3 In addition to the gender imbalance, the policy has also directly contributed to China having an aging population.  This is also going to be a huge economic burden soon.

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