Why does modern, urban China still prefer sons?

Carly O'Connell October 8, 2016 7:30 AM (UTC+8)
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One day while I was working in China, I sat next to a very pregnant coworker at lunch and we got to talking about her hopes and aspirations for the baby. She expressed a desire for it to be a boy, if only not to disappoint her in-laws who were pressuring her for a grandson. I was aghast. I understood the history of son-preference in agricultural rural China but, “After all,” I said, “We live in a city with no need to do farm work; what difference does it make?”

Boy and girl at the zoo. Photo by Carly O'Connell

A photo posted by Carly O'Connell (@carlyo56) on

My coworker explained that a son would be better able to support the family because women are less likely to get good jobs. This is because they are expected to prioritize starting a family over their career, and just as US presidential candidate Donald Trump has infamously pointed out, pregnancy is ‘inconvenient’ for business.

Despite the surge towards women’s equality that occurred with the formation of the PRC in 1949, Chinese women, like American women, still experience several economic and social disparities. According to a 2013 report on “Gender and Family in Contemporary China” from the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center, Chinese women currently face a substantial wage gap, earning about 70% of what their male counterparts earn. Furthermore, they are less likely to attain mid- or high-level administrative or management positions. The report author, Yu Xie, suggests that women’s continued responsibility for most housework and childcare may hold them back in the workplace.

These disparities may also affect child-parent relationships. According to that same report, about 30% of the Chinese population lives in multi-generational households. Due to long-standing social practice and low pension funds, elderly people in China tend to rely largely on their progeny for support. Thus, parents and grandparents have a vested interest in male children with higher earning power, especially as China’s population control policies have led to an “inverted pyramid” family structure where one young person may be responsible for at least partially supporting up to six elders (two parents and two sets of two grandparents).

Little girl in a cute sweater. Photo by Carly O'Connell

A photo posted by Carly O'Connell (@carlyo56) on

Of course, not all families feel that sons will provide the best support. For example, some of my Chinese acquaintances have expressed the belief that daughters are more self-sacrificing and nurturing and will thus take better care of their aging parents. While this may be a more positive perception of daughters, it still constrains them to traditional gender roles.

Thus, in terms of social pressures and economic status, China still has a long way to go towards women’s equality. Then again, so does America. Let’s race to the finish.

Carly O'Connell
Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.
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