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Despite decades of progress, some families still go to extreme lengths to secure a male heir

For the Su family of Suzhou, Jiangsu, sons are “honor earners,” daughters are “useless nothings.” The former are spoiled yet expected to excel, while the latter grow up independent but emotionally scarred.

The Sus may be fictional—they’re the main characters of the hit Chinese TV series All is Well—but for the viewers who tuned in to their travails at 7:30 every evening in March of 2019, their attitudes were all too real. Many recognized their own relatives in the misogynistic Mrs. Su and her entitled sons, and were forced to confront the reality that the patriarchal preference for male children has not been left behind in China’s past—and, thanks to ultrasound technology, may influence girls well before birth.

Song Huanhuan, a 29-year-old mother of two from Jiangxi province, tells TWOC that her mother-in-law made her sex preference known long before the arrival of her second child. “When I was pregnant, she asked me to get a B-scan ultrasound to find out the sex of the fetus, and my husband said she was just curious and didn’t mean any harm,” Song, who already had a daughter, recalls. “But I put my foot down, because I didn’t know what she’d do if it was a girl.”

The baby turned out to be a boy, but Song had perhaps good reason to worry: It was reported in 2015 that Zhang Aifen, a 53-year-old Jiangsu woman, trampled her newborn granddaughter to death because she wasn’t a grandson. The grandmother’s coldblooded sexism was made all the more shocking by her community’s acceptance of it: Zhang’s son and daughter-in-law thought she was guilty only of “traditional thinking,” and her neighbors petitioned the court for leniency; even the judge seemingly agreed, commuting Zhang’s sentence to 10 years in prison.

The one-child policy allowed rural families to have a second child if the first was a girl

While it’s unlikely most grandmothers would take such extreme measures, “When my son was born, my mother-in-law called my husband’s sister at the hospital asking if it was a boy or a girl,” Song states. “My sister-in-law refused to say, so she concluded it must be a girl, and asked my sister-in-law to adopt the baby”—Song’s sister-in-law already had two sons.

China’s mania for males dates back to as far as the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE), when oracle bones were inscribed, “Delivering boys is good, delivering girls is bad.” This blunt pronouncement has manifested in the neglect or abandonment of baby girls, as well as female infanticide, since at least the Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), when the Legalist tome Han Feizi observed, “Parents congratulate each other on giving birth to a boy, but kill newborn girls.”

In the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1616 – 1911) dynasties, local chroniclers frequently recorded the abandonment or drowning of baby girls. Both the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci and his American counterpart, David Abeel, witnessed these practices in China, with the latter writing that as many as one-quarter or one-third of female infants may have been killed after birth.

In the 20th century, the Maoists cracked down on these feudal practices: first in their revolutionary bases in northwestern China, and later by passing laws on gender equality after the founding of the PRC. But in the 1980s, the introduction of the Family Planning Policy—informally known as the “one-child policy”—gave conservative families a new incentive to get rid of unwanted daughters.

Meanwhile, new technology gave them the new means: gender-selective abortion. Terminating a pregnancy based on the sex of fetus has been banned under China’s Population and Family Planning Law since 2002, which also prohibits doctors from revealing this information—or else have their license revoked and face a fine of 10,000 RMB, plus possible criminal charges.

Still, enforcement is patchy. “If you go to a smaller hospital, and slip the doctor 100 or 200 RMB, they’ll tell you whether it’s a boy or a girl,” claims Pang Jiugui, a 42-year-old factory worker in Shenzhen, telling TWOC this is common practice in his home village in Yueyang, Hunan.

A 2005 study by scholars Jiang Quanbao, Li Shuzhuo, and Marcus Feldman stated that over 9.2 million “missing girls” were illegally aborted or killed between 1980 and 2000. No one knows how many more were simply abandoned; in 2016, the US Department of State noted that 88 percent of 88,298 children adopted from China since 1993 were female, many of them not true orphans but abandoned children.

China’s gender ratio peaked in 2004, with 121 boys born for every 100 girls

The effect of male-preference on the country’s gender ratios has been staggering. According to the national census, 108.5 boys were born per 100 girls in 1982, a ratio that rose steadily to 113.8 in 1989 and 116.9 in 2000, before peaking at 121.2 in 2004.

The disparity is even wider in rural areas, where a sexist policy exemption allowed a couple to have a second child if the firstborn was female or handicapped—in Anhui, a province in central China, the male ratio for second births is a startling 171.35. There were 24 to 34 million more boys than girls born in China in the last 30 years, and there are millions of surplus men, or “bare branches,” who may never be able to find a wife, according to researchers at a conference organized by the National Family Planning Commission in 2014.

Though the ancient preference for male children likely originated in hardscrabble necessity—in an agrarian economy, sons were needed to work the fields—it has since been held together by centuries of rigid moralizing. Mencius observed, “There is no behavior more unfilial than to have no male descendants,” and social mores long dictated that only sons could pass on the family name, make offerings to ancestors, and provide for aged parents.

Daughters, by contrast, were “outsiders” whose names were not recorded in the family’s lineage records, and could not inherit property or participate in clan worship rituals. Instead, they were expected to sever most economic and emotional ties to their birth families upon marriage, and care for their in-laws in their dotage.

These longstanding prejudices, summarized as “重男轻女 (favoring boys and neglecting girls),” have also resulted in a culture of “honor” related to having male heirs, which persists especially among older and rural family members. “Two children are enough for me, but if my second had been a girl, I may have changed my mind [and had more], because that’s our local culture—anyone who has two girls tries for a third to get a boy,” Song admits.

She note that the process is cyclical: Before Song’s husband was born, “My mother-in-law had three daughters, and was horribly treated by her own in-laws because all of their other sons had boys.”

Multiple girls are common in families which keep trying for a boy

In order to have Song’s husband, Song’s mother-in-law went to the hospital with a faked permit from the local authorities to reverse the tubal ligation she had to go through under the Family Planning Policy. “You can imagine that with the medical technology 30 years ago, she suffered a lot, but endured it, because a family with only daughters had no ‘face’ in the village,” Song recounts.

Even during the one-child era, it was not unheard-of for couples to significantly exceed their birth quotas in order to get a son, leading to lopsided sibling ratios—many sisters followed by one boy. In 2018, the extraordinary story of Gao Haozhen, a 22-year-old man from Shanxi province with 11 older sisters, illustrated both the extremes to which some families were willing to go, and the toxic effects on daughters raised in this environment: Only one of the 11 girls had gone to high school, and two had no formal schooling at all; yet between them, they paid for their college-educated brother’s wedding, house, and betrothal gifts, totaling 320,000 RMB (48,000 USD).

One sister, Gao Yu, told news site The Paper that her family was puzzled by the controversy. “My parents…just want a son,” she explained. Unimpressed, netizens nicknamed the sisters “brother-assisting demons,” and the phenomenon has gained significant critique over the past year. In April, shortly after All is Well’s finale, Lifeweek magazine published a first-person essay about Zhu Rong, a 36-year-old factory worker from Henan who was forced to drop out of middle school and toil in a string of migrant jobs, just so her brother could have money for college.

Blogger Hou Hongbin writes that daughters of male-preferring families typically do all the housework, are expected to earn a good bride-price to pay for their brothers’ weddings, and continue “assisting” their brothers and parents after marriage. “Their relationship with the brother is like 11 hosts and a parasite,” she wrote of the Shanxi Gaos.

Gao Fengli (no relation to the Shanxi family), a teacher from rural Henan province, tells TWOC that her grandmother forced her high-earning aunt to give her apartment to Gao’s less successful younger uncle. “The notion of ‘favoring boys and neglecting girls’ still haunts us,” Gao says, adding that her grandmother “neglected my mother while she was recovering from giving birth to me, and forced her to have my brother.”

In spite of some defenders—like commentator Zhang Feng, who describes “brother-assistance” as “loving and supportive,” and its critics as “city people who don’t understand the countryside”—the misogyny underlying male-centric parents and spoiled brothers is recognized by an increasingly mobile and better educated society. “In my first year of middle school, there were 20 girls in my class, and only eight or nine remained the next year [who didn’t drop out],” Lei Weihua, a 42-year-old woman from Hengyang, Hunan, tells TWOC. “My generation has migrated to coastal cities for work, and widened our experience, so we basically don’t favor males anymore.”

Girls may receive less attention than their brothers at home

For other families, increased means has simply led to more sophisticated selection. In 2015, police in Zhejiang revealed that over 50,000 expectant mothers sent blood samples to Hong Kong hospitals to discover their fetuses’ sex, and officers in Shenzhen told the Beijing News that they often seize such contraband at the border.

Middle-class mothers may quietly exercise their connections with hospitals or private clinics. “In my area, it’s quite common to ask a doctor you know in private about the sex. I even have relatives who’ve made appointments with doctors to bring the [ultrasound] equipment to their homes or hotel rooms,” says Song. “You rarely see ultrasounds for a second child when the first child is a boy, but significantly more when the first is a girl.”

Then there are a range of less reliable methods: “When I wouldn’t get the ultrasound, my mother-in-law turned to the Qinggong Table,” reminisces Song, referring to a chart which purports to determine the sex of a fetus based on a woman’s age and the month of conception according to a mélange of imperial astrological strategies, the Five Elements (五行) theory, and folklore. Another old wives’ tale states that eating sour foods ensures a son, while spicy fare produces a daughter. “I have relatives and neighbors who eat Chinese medicine and apply folk remedies, or burn incense to the Buddha to get a son,” Lei reports.

More disturbing is the unconfirmed case of an 11-month-old baby girl from Shandong, found with 11 syringe and five sewing needles around her hip, abdomen, and pelvis in 2014: An aunt of the baby had supposedly followed a local superstition saying, “getting a boy by piercing a girl.” An essay published in 2017 on Jinri Toutiao tallied several more bizarre guarantees of male birth, like turning up the thermostat by one degree Celsius, or having sex with the woman on top.

Statistically, at least, the problem has lessened from its 2004 peak. The National Bureau of Statistics reports that gender ratios at birth had fallen to 113.51 by 2015. While still much higher than the international standard, Wang Pei’an, deputy director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, told news site Jiemian that national campaigns emphasizing gender equality and discouraging illegal procedures were making a difference.

Among the root causes that All is Well viewers had identified for misogyny in the family was the outdated idea that children are raised to satisfy the family’s financial and emotional interests, rather than as individuals. “I lived in Shanghai for six months, and saw many open-minded elders there who didn’t care about the gender of their grandchild,” Song says, stressing that these progressive grandparents “all had their own interests and lives” outside of the family.

Lei believes that family members still have obligations to one another, but they should be reciprocal. “When I’m old and can’t take care of myself anymore, my older children may have to help out…but only because we raised them. It’s not right to force them,” she acknowledges.

Her ideal of a family has a daughter (女) and a son (子): “Together, they’re ‘good (好),’” she says.

Boy Crazy is a story from our issue, “Funny Business.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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