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Women in China

08 Nov 2017Essay Samples

Contrary to what one might be inclined to think about modern (contemporary) China (which now includes Hong Kong) , concubines still exist and are in fact, a part of the sociocultural fabric. Concubines and secondary wives have existed in China and other places over the past two thousand years. Often, nobles married sisters of their principle wife to avoid the jealousies which might otherwise arise. The goal of these additional marriages was to ensure that a son was produced and to provide a continuation of the lineage to worship the ancestors.

The fact that the practice still exists is a powerful indication of the relatively inferior status of women in China. Men remain in positions of power throughout most Chinese institutions, and this power extends as well to the home. Women are still responsible for the household duties, as well as for working at jobs in the workplace. The fact that a wife would allow or consider a husband’s concubine to “officially” exist indicates her position relative to her husband’s is very inferior indeed.

In fact, the existence of male power at the household level—as the persistence of concubines demonstrates—is reflective of the general superior position assigned to men.

Concubines, even when they produced sons, were not considered as equal with the first wife (Queen and Habenstein 1974:99). They were women used to produce sons, to solve the polyerotic urges of the male and to substitute for the first wife if no affection developed between her and her husband (Queen and Habenstein 1974:99-100).

Even in 1990, the typical wedding ended in a "mutual bow rather than a kiss," and parents were allowed to arrange the marriages to save face. (In the law of Hong Kong until 1967, several wives or concubines were legal. They continue to be accepted as long as a husband can afford both.

Concubinage, as mentioned, had deep historical roots in China. The tradition is as old Confucianism itself. While it is impossible to describe the full historical context of the practice, some notes about the Mooi-Jai which was, essentially, the concubine institution, can be made. As recently as 1921 all young girls whose parents have assigned their rights of guardianship to other families for a monetary consideration, and whose labour is at the free disposal of the new guardian till the age for marriage were officially defined as Mooi-Jai. (Jaschok, 1988: 8).The people who gave up their children were generally the very poor who might otherwise have no better choice.

One author, Lim, who was herself a ”mooi-jai”, suggests that there were worse things to do to the perceived excess of female infants. In Lim's village in China, "it was not at all unusual to find a baby wrapped in a blanket and left on a roadside" (Lim, 1958: 51). In some rare cases a girl was adopted for the traditional pennies left for the person who actually made this sacrifice of raising a girl child.

The infant mortality rate was so high (at 50% in the 1920s and 1930s in parts of China) that any resources spent on a female infant might be considered a waste of scarce family resources for the poor (Jaschok, p. 88).The ”mooi-jai• arrangements were marginally better than the system as practiced of exposing girl infants or strangling them at birth. However, in the nineteenth century, they became more purely economic arrangements than the traditional charity from wealthier families who took the child, used her labour through adolescence and provided her with a husband.

Some conclusions can now be drawn. First of all, the fact that a system of concubinage would exist in some form or other in China (or even just in parts of China, and even if it were only among certain classes), means that women in those circumstances are pretty much automatically lesser in status than men. Women are being utilized for the purposes of either satisfying male sexual desires or for procreating; specifically for reproducing a male for the husband. There is no additional compensation for these women and therefore, they are not even able to claim the status a prostitute in the western world might be able to claim. Their compensation is merely subsistence in many cases (it certainly was at the height of the Mooi-Jai system in this century), or a way of surviving and hoping for additional status at some time in the future. In any case the concubine is lesser than the number one wife and the number one wife already has lower status than the man.

This is remarkable in so-called “modern times” when at least some fairly significant strides have been made in the west in terms of the status of women. It is made all the more astonishing when considered together with the fact that female infanticide exists in China. Some may claim that this is more a matter of official state policy concerning the number of children per couple which is permitted. The extreme limitations which are intended to control population have fuelled the female infanticide but the fact that males are chosen over females in the first place indicates that females have a very low status as far as males are concerned. The solution to these problems of the status of women in China therefore, would have to be something which gets to the deepest roots of gender inequality. Merely outlawing infanticide (it is anyway), and concubinage (also illegal), will not change the minds of the populace.


  • Jaschok, Maria. Concubines and Bondservants: The Social History of a Chinese Custom. London: Zed Books, 1988.
  • Lim, Janet. Sold For Silver. Singapore: Oxford University, 1958, 1985.
  • Queen, S. and R. Habenstein. The Family in Various Cultures. 4th Ed. New York: J. B. Lipincott. 1974.

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