Did ancient China really subjugate its women

China

Dr. Astrid Lipinsky

To person

Dr. Astrid Lipinsky is University Assistant for Chinese Law & Women / Gender at the University of Vienna, has worked for German and UN women's organizations in China and Germany, and did her doctorate at the University of Bonn with a study on the Chinese Women's Association.

Women and men have equal rights in the People's Republic. So it is in the Chinese constitution. But there are considerable differences, depending on whether the women live in the big metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai or in the countryside - with sometimes catastrophic effects.

Police women take their oath of office in the run-up to the 4th UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. (& copy AP)

One of the political constants of China is the self-description as a socialist country. This includes - comparable to the GDR - emancipation, working outside the home and equal rights for women.

First positioning of women's rights: in the law

The Chinese communists criticized the family book, which was adopted in the Republic of China in 1930, as traditionalist and far too complex for China's reality. In their Soviet republics, they enacted a series of marriage regulations starting in 1931, which provided the model for the 1950 Marriage Act, the first national law of the People's Republic of China after its establishment.
In the marriage law, the legal position of women vis-à-vis imperial China changed fundamentally:
  • Women were no longer matched up by their families, but chose their own spouse.
  • The marriage of minors (child brides) and the purchase of the bride were forbidden.
  • Each man was only allowed to have one wife and vice versa, cohabitation was abolished.
  • Women could no longer simply be cast out, but had the right to divorce.
  • Women were entitled to their own property, including in the event of divorce, and to their children.
  • Widows (and divorced people) were free to remarry.


The law was formulated simply, and first of all representatives of the women's association traveled through the country and also promoted it. That ended when there was a wave of divorce - the majority of those willing to divorce were women. The fact that this circumstance was not understandable for the men and their families, when "they had paid dearly for the woman", was never discussed, nor was it what the marriage reality looked like if women only had one goal, namely this marriage escape.

Extraordinary: violence in marriage and family

There could be no domestic violence in socialist marriage. It was not until 1990 that the Chinese Women's Association published the results of studies showing that, unlike in the world, almost a third of marital relationships in China are violent and 94 percent of victims of violence are women. Since then, women have been demanding their own law to prevent and punish domestic violence, which does not exist to this day. There are fundamental prohibitions in the Women's Rights Protection Act (2005, see below) and in the current Marriage Act of 2001. The latter also grants a right to compensation in the event of divorce due to marital violence. But nowhere is there a definition of what includes domestic violence. There are individual local telephone hotlines for those affected, but only a handful of shelters across the country.

The women's association figures are better known abroad than in China itself. In 2001, all state television channels, including those of the provinces, ran the series "You Don't Talk to Strangers", in which the victim is a teacher and the perpetrator is a successful doctor The environment is urban and the place of escape is a particularly developed southern Chinese metropolis. China's rural majority of women did not need to feel addressed. They cannot expect any help from the (almost without exception male) village tour.

Back to the beginning: China's marriage laws

By the time the Cultural Revolution ended, the 1950 Marriage Act and its contents had been forgotten. In 1980 a completely new version was formulated, the most important addition of which was the obligation of the married couple to plan their families. The law, probably with forced political marriages in view, strengthened the law of divorce and the emotional basis that should not be missing in any marriage.

China's divorce rate has actually been increasing since the 1990s, with double-digit annual growth rates since new marriage register regulations that made the divorce process easier came into effect in 2003. One of the main reasons for divorce is male adultery. Although bigamy is prohibited under punishment (Section 258 of the Chinese Criminal Code), career advancement is measured by the endurance of one or more so-called second wives (Chinese "Ernai"), possibly with their own (second) family.

Although her husband has lived with another woman for a long time and they could sue for divorce on the basis of non-observance of the marital cohabitation, many women prefer to hide the fact that their husband has left them and finance family support and child-rearing alone.

The principle of equality in China

Equal rights for women and men is an immovable basic principle of China and its legal system and has so far been included in each of the four constitutions since 1949, today in Article 48 of the 1982 constitution.

In order to underline that equality is on the one hand not subject to political changes and on the other hand is not only a legal right, but also an unchangeable guiding principle of national politics, equality became one of the unchangeable political in the run-up to the fourth World Conference on Women, which took place in Beijing in 1995 Guidelines (chin. "Jibenguoce") added. In addition to equality, this includes birth planning, the protection of agricultural land and environmental protection.

The quasi-constitutional status of women's rights

In 1992, China passed the Women's Rights Protection Act, which summarizes all of the legal rights of women. There are the same legal protection laws in China for the disabled, children and the elderly. The legal protection law for women was last expanded in 2005 to include bans on sexual harassment (Section 40) and domestic violence (Section 46) as well as ex officio prosecution. The Women's Association likes to refer to this law as "China's Women's Constitution". In the legal hierarchy, it is just below the constitution over special laws like the marriage law. However, it is not known that Chinese court rulings have so far invoked the Women's Rights Protection Act.