Is it better to be a Chinese Boy or Girl?

This little girl gets toys and attention

In 2003 when we arrived in China for the first time to visit my friends Liz and Doug who were teaching in Chengdu, I have to admit that I was surprised to see girls.  I assumed there would be very few.  I’d seen those cute adopted Chinese girls at home and knew of the Chinese one-child policy.  I thought most female fetuses were aborted and new-born infant girls were sent to orphanages.  But girls were everywhere, and they seemed to be well cared for even the disabled one I saw almost every day near our apartment.

However, a family in China has many reasons for a preference for boys. My ZAFU students tell me that in the past (and the time period is fuzzy), a farmer would be given extra land when a boy was born into a family.  When a girl was born, the family got nothing because she would grow up and leave when she married.  Also the father’s name is carried on by a boy, which is an important consideration for this country that values traditional family ties that go back hundreds of years.    Boys are often stronger than girls, so they are valued to work in the fields.  Even now, males almost always make more money in every career.  The economic impact for parents is an important consideration where until recently older people did not receive any (and even now it is very small) pension or Social Security or Medicare type of support.  The parents had to rely on their sons (the daughters left) to provide for them in their old age.  That is true even today: the parents rely on the son’s support.  One reason that parents drive their children (especially the boys) to get the best education possible is to raise the whole family’s standard of living.  Doctors are not allowed to tell a woman the sex of her fetus to avoid abortions if she finds out the baby will be a girl.

He is loved

Of the one-child policy, Wikepedia says, (sorry Ellen I know this isn’t the best source, but I can’t access the UHMC Library),

The Chinese government estimates that it had three to four hundred million fewer people in 2008 with the one-child policy, than it would have had otherwise.[29][30] Chinese authorities thus consider the policy as a great success in helping to implement China’s current economic growth. The reduction in the fertility rate and thus population growth has reduced the severity of problems that come with overpopulation, like epidemics, slums, overwhelmed social services (such as health, education, law enforcement), and strain on the ecosystem from abuse of fertile land and production of high volumes of waste. Even with the one-child policy in place, however, “China still has one million more births than deaths every five weeks.”[30]I

One negative consequence of this policy is what is called the “4-2-1 Problem,” which means one adult child being left responsible for supporting two parents and four grandparents. Now the Chinese government is adjusting its policy to allow couples to have two children if each parent is from a single-child family especially if they live in the lower population areas such as Zhejiang Province.

However from the beginning, exceptions to the policy have been allowed.  It applied mainly to the 92% of ethnic Han Chinese.  But the 55 other ethnic groups who are minorities were allowed to have more than one child.  The 24-year-old Uighur student we know here at the university, Rahman, has three siblings.  Farmers too were allowed to have a second child if the first was a girl and the couple waited four years before having the second baby.  For the farmers the idea was that the couple needed the physical labor of the son.  My student Mickey, whose parents are farmers, has an older sister, but his mother and father had him when his sister was only two and so lost a year’s salary and all their furniture, but that was o.k. he says because he was a boy.  The government fines have varied according to the family’s income, the region’s quota for new births, and a variety of other considerations, so the penalties have not been consistent, and some regions have more multiple-children families than others.  Although the government doesn’t say this, I wonder if allowing the minorities more children helps pacify the unrest among the ethnic groups who experience prejudice.  Does it also serve to keep ethnic minorities in poverty since the wealth they do manage to acquire would need to be shared among the children?

Also what about the adoptions of all those abandoned Chinese girls?  The Wikipedia article says,

In 1992, China instituted its first Adoption Law. Officially registered adoptions increased from about 2,000 in 1992 to 55,000 in 2001. However, according to one scholar, these figures “represent a small proportion of adoptions in China because many adopted children were adopted informally without official registrations. . . .”[79] . . .

According to the Los Angeles Times, many babies put up for adoption had not been abandoned by their parents, but confiscated by family planning officials.[81]

Before we left Maui, I had read that international adoptions of Chinese infants had been stopped because of the growing number of middle-class Chinese wanting to adopt the infants, but that might not be accurate.  According to a March 2010 article by AP’s David Crary, “Between 1995 and 2005, Americans adopted more than 60,000 children from China. The peak was 7,903 in 2005. Circumstances have changed dramatically since then. China has eased its one-child policy, fewer baby girls are abandoned, domestic adoptions of healthy orphans have increased, and the waiting time for foreigners to adopt a healthy infant has tripled to roughly four years. As a result, U.S. adoptions from China have plummeted more than 60 percent, to 3,001 last year. And of the children now adopted, roughly three of every five have special medical needs” (

Although Chinese laws make gender-selected abortion, abandonment, and infanticide illegal, the US State Department, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and Amnesty International assess that China’s one-child policy contributes to these practices. Another consequence is the practice of wealthy Chinese couples using fertility techniques to promote multiple births since there are no penalties for couples who have more than one child for the first birth.  According to a 2006 China Daily article, Wikipedia reports,  “The number of multiple births per year in China had doubled by 2006.[86]

The children are often very well dressed

In a photo from Wikipedia of a rural Sichuan  roadside sign, this notice says, “It is forbidden to discriminate against, mistreat or abandon baby girls.”

Don't abandon girls

Another result of the one-child policy is there are few unwed mothers.  If an unmarried girl does get pregnant, it is not only a big disgrace for her and her family but also a big economic burden if the girl is not married by the time the baby is one year old, which is when the Chinese government levies a huge fine on the girl and her family.  There doesn’t seem to be any penalty for the boy.   The students say that if the girl’s or boy’s family won’t help her, she is likely to commit suicide.  If the mother is “brave” and has the child but doesn’t get married, the child is never registered as a legal (as in planned baby), and he or she will never be able to get a job beyond the most common laborer and may not, my students don’t agree on this, be able to go to school.

The marriages and pregnancies in China are planned.  Young college-educated couples are supposed to get married when they are about 28.  Girls who do not go to college can get married when they are 20.  The man should have enough money to buy an apartment.  The wedding plans take over a year.  The many couples we see getting wedding photos at our university’s East Lake will be getting married next spring.

Wedding Pictures at ZAFU East Lake

Wendy, the wonderful assistant in our ZAFU International Office, has recently bought her wedding dress, just had her wedding photos taken, and is waiting for her parents to choose the actual wedding date sometime next year.  Once a couple is  married, the man and woman will start planning their pregnancy by getting government approval about a year before it can happen.  The couples must want, plan for, and get approval to have a legal child.

The result in my observation is that the children are wanted.  All of my students have said they’ve had happy childhoods.  They love their parents very much and say that their mothers and fathers (and grandparents) have worked very hard to support them and give them as much as they are able.  There is no talk of dysfunctional families.      There are few divorces, which are considered a huge disgrace for the woman.   The children get attention.  In the two months I’ve been here, I’ve seen only one incident of an adult being what I consider mean to a child when a father was trying to get his two-year-old son to stop touching things behind the counter in a shop.

We’ve all heard that the one-child policy has led to the “little emperor” syndrome for Chinese boys who have not only his parents but also often two sets of grandparents looking after and expecting good results from that boy. The boys often feel much pressure.  Some reports say there are many cases of suicide especially if the boys don’t do well in school.  When we were at a minority college outside of Chengdu one night in 2003, we heard the heart-wrenching wails of a mother coming to pick up the belongings of her child who had walked into the icy, swiftly moving river beside the school.  Such deaths in China usually get no attention. Only now is there a beginning recognition in China of the need for mental health services.  A negative consequence of the “little emperor” attention is that many children especially the ones who are very bright grow up without much experience of being frustrated and not able to get what they want.  That lack of experience in how to handle challenges that are inevitable in life can lead to depression.  Many of my freshman students have expressed that they are lonely, miss home, and are having a hard time here at the university.  This is a rather normal reaction for anyone making a big change in his or her life, but it may be worse for the Chinese children from single-child households who have not even had the experience of competing with a sibling.  What help can they get?  I think it is healthy they can express their feelings and most seem to bond quickly with other students.  But being squashed into a dorm room with five other students they have not known and having to share space must be a big change for most of the students.  They do share the same classes with 29 other classmates and so are likely to form friendships quickly here.  Many of the girls sit holding hands with other girls during our classes. But if they need professional help, that does not seem available.  As in the U.S. it is not only the students who need help.   Last week during our Sports Day activities, a quite bright and competent professional Chinese woman confided to me that she is depressed and doesn’t know how to get help.

But is it better to be a girl or a boy in China?  The girls in my ZAFU classes say it is better to be a girl.  I know I didn’t expect this opinion because I can see obvious signs of sexism being alive and well in China.  However the girls say their parents love them and give them everything and that parents are stricter with the boys.   When I asked why, the explanation was that it is the boy’s duty to care for aging parents.  Girls aren’t expected to do that.  So for parents to help insure they will have support as they age, they must form strong ties with their daughters.  One Chinese girl gave the example of a roommate who was in her words “so beloved” that the mother came every weekend to wash the girl’s hair and do her laundry.  A US college girl would be ridiculed if a mom showed up to do that, but here it is a sign of how interconnected the children are with their parents.

Will this boy take care of his parents and grandparents as they hope?

Actually now in the cities the students told me that some people are saying they would prefer to have a daughter who is more likely than a son to have good communication with her parents. One of the discussion topics in my class confirmed that girls are likely to call their parents to chat every few days.  The boys perhaps call once a month because “Talking to parents is,” said one boy, “trivial and a waste of time because parents want to know such things as what the kids have been eating.”  Also, many Chinese young people now move away from their childhood villages and parents in order to seek jobs in a city.  So the boys aren’t on the farm to do the heavy work anyway.  As parents, we hope for a close connection with our children. In China that connection can be essential for the economic support of the parents and grandparents.

So what about the problem of passing on the family name?  My students tell me that one option now available is if the boy’s family has more than one boy to carry on the father’s name, one of those boys can choose to take on the girl’s family’s name and inherit her wealth and name as though a son.

The one-child policy that was decreed in 1979 and put into force especially at the beginning with sometimes very harsh applications has had many ramifications.  The Chinese government said from the beginning that the policy was to be in effect for one generation with the goal of limiting the population at 1 billion in the year 2000. Now at 1.3 billion people in 2010, the government is making some changes.

One good result I see for both the boys and girls, at least the ones in this university, is that the ones who are kept are cherished, have happy childhoods, family support and care, and are likely to grow to be very secure, well-supported young adults as my students seem to be.

My perceptions can of course be wrong.  Just as I was so sure that all those empty apartments I talked about a couple of blogs ago were unsold and now I discover that perhaps most of them are second or third paid-for residences of Chinese who are speculating in the real estate market, I can’t be sure of my opinion here especially since I don’t speak or read Mandarin.  So if you have other information, other sources, or questions, please respond in the comment section below.  We’d love to hear from you.

This child is likely to have a happy childhood




About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

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