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Urbanization weakens cultural roots of birth sex ratio imbalance

Author  :  Zhao Jinbo     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-05-16

The family planning policy and the deeply rooted preference for boys over girls in Chinese families have led to a high male-to-female ratio at birth. However, studies show that urbanization is shaping a new ethical order that regards males and females as equally important.

In the 1980s, China implemented a family planning policy intending to slow the robust growth of the country’s vast population. This together with the deeply rooted preference for boys over girls in Chinese families has led to an abnormal sex ratio at birth.

According to the past three national censuses taken from 1990 to 2010, the male-to-female ratio at birth has continued to grow and is far higher than the international average of between 102 and 107 males for every 100 females.

The unusually high ratio goes against biological laws and has led to various social problems, such as asymmetries in the marriage market. Many studies offer evidence that the imbalanced sex ratio is a result of excessive selection of gender due to the constraints of the family planning policy.

Traditional preference

Traditional Chinese culture is founded on a self-sufficient agricultural civilization. In ancient society, poor sanitary conditions, natural disasters and war often caused sharp declines in the population. To ensure enough people for farming, military service and wealth creation, women at that time were encouraged to give birth as early as possible and to raise as many offspring as possible.

In addition, a closed agricultural civilization relies heavily on physical strength. Having more family members, especially men, conferred a productive advantage on peasant families, enabling them to obtain more resources. Moreover, the family is the basic unit of the small-scale peasant economy. Hence over the centuries, the structure of rural society solidified, entrenching the male preference.

Traditional Chinese culture emphasizes the Confucian notion of “filial piety,” referring to one’s duty to family and ancestors. The continuation of the family line is the fulfillment of filial responsibility, and this requires a male heir. Because of these values, men were central to the concepts of rites and filial piety in ancient times. The prosperity of a family depended on women’s ability to give birth to male heirs, thus bringing into being a view of the family that placed men above women in the social hierarchy.

In traditional marriage, the daughter leaves her family and becomes part of her husband’s. She then gives up the obligation to support her birth parents. This encourages families to prefer boys because it means gaining members and resources.

Influence of urbanization

The concept of urbanization arose as part of China’s modernization drive, but its domestic connotations diverge from the Western understanding. Though it has retained the peculiar characteristics of traditional rural society, urbanization in China affects rural culture. In addition to its political and economic influence, scholars must pay attention to the cultural influence of the phenomenon. This may bring changes to the traditional perceptions of fertility, including gender preference.

A distinguishing feature of urbanization is that a large number of rural migrants flock to urban areas and many of them become permanent citizens of their adoptive homes. As China’s modernization accelerates, its vast rural society is becoming increasingly open to the outside. The first group of rural people to obtain permanent urban registration are mostly intellectuals, who are more open to new and radical ideas. They are more likely to see gender selection as inappropriate, and find it easier to cast aside the tradition of having a son to continue the ancestral line.

In addition, they rely on knowledge and skills to earn a living rather than physical strength, like rural people do. For migrants, villages are no longer the only place to live, and the land is no longer their only source of income. The exposure to the collision of old and new ideas is also weakening the preference for boys over girls.

Also, the environment that cultivated filial piety and rites is undergoing dramatic changes with urbanization. In traditional agricultural society, land plays a fundamental role in shaping the deeply rooted culture of filial piety and rites. Land binds the society as a whole from top class to bottom.

However, urbanization provides the vast majority of rural people with the opportunity to change identities and be free from land. Thus, the regulatory and supervisory functions of traditional culture have been weakened. The widening of physical distance between family members dampens the binding effect of the traditional ethical principles that have long governed family relations.

The high fluidity and uncertainty has blurred the identity and role awareness of migrants. The idea that only males can be the heir of a family is becoming obsolete as females play an increasingly significant role in the family. This shows that urbanization is disintegrating the value system that places males at the core of the family, while shaping a new ethical order that regards males and females as equally important. Naturally, the birth of baby boys is no longer emphasized as it was in ancient society.

Moreover, urbanization changes the traditional marriage model in which the wife should live with the husband’s family. Replacing it is a new and modern family model composed of the couple and their unmarried children. In traditional society, marriage increases the number of the husband’s family members in a short time. To ensure that a large family runs smoothly, the older generation would hand over power within the family to the oldest son after his marriage. This practice, which carries on the family line and ensures support for the elderly, has been passed down through generations and laid an institutional basis for patriarchy.

As urbanization advances, the younger couples more often live separately from their parents after marriage, which makes the handover of authority by the elder generation unnecessary. Though modern society still requires children to support parents, regulations that require males to inherit the family responsibilities no longer exist. Also, the size of a family is becoming smaller, and women are playing a more significant role in a family. All these factors are transforming Chinese gender norms.

Preference for boys is a distinct characteristic of Chinese fertility behaviors and the main reason for the nation’s abnormal sex ratio at birth. However, social and economic development is presenting opportunities for curbing the usually high ratio. The transformation of the mode of production and more approaches to materials and resources brought by urbanization have reduced people’s reliance on land and are overturning the organizational and operational ways of traditional social groups.

In this context, the traditional preference for boys is left without a leg to stand on. Urbanization is becoming one of the important forces for reversing the gender imbalance in China.


Zhao Jinbo is a lecturer from the Department of Psychology of the School of Education at Heilongjiang University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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