Prior to the rise of feminism 1,
history concentrated on recounting the actions of individual men. In present-day
Feminist societies, the former approach to history has been heavily criticised
and supplemented by a form of history that recounts the social status of women
as a group and the actions of individual women as purported representatives
of their sex. I intend to look at the role of men as a social group in China,
since both above approaches have neglected this aspect of history. Since there
have been few, if any, books written on men (as a group) in China, I will
have to base myself on books about women in China and on general historical
works and resources on China.
In China, as in many other traditional societies, there has been a sort
of trade-off between the power and danger of a man's life, on the one hand,
and the lack of power and comparative privilege of a woman's life, on the
other. Nowadays, in China, men have retained most of the downside of their
traditional role, while losing most of their power to the feminist onslaught.
In this essay, I discuss what I see as the hypocrisy and pseudo-scholarship
of the China theorists whose work I discuss. This is not a failing of them
as individuals, but of feminists all over the world and throughout the 200
years that feminism can be said to have existed (i.e. since Wollestonecraft's
book appeared). As I point out in my book on feminism, feminism is a state
of mind that seeks to find disadvantages that women suffer from - and finds
them, needless to say. What simply does not occur to feminists is to look
for disadvantages that men suffer from.
So my methodology is to examine some feminist works that complain about
the disadvantages suffered by women in China, compared to men - and to point
out aspects of the issues they raise which show men to be disadvantaged relative
to women. Some of the topics I deal with are suicide, conscription, old age,
Feminism in China
China has been ruled by a professedly Marxist party since 1949, and Marxism
has been intertwined with feminism since its very beginnings. Engels, Marx's
closest collaborator, was a Feminist.
"Though nearly a lifetime theoretical collaborator with Karl Marx, it is
Engels that more often took up women's issues in his work, in particular,
Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which became very influential
to later Marxist writers such as Bebel and Lenin." http://marxists.org/subject/women/authors/engels/index.htm
With reference to the Chinese Communist Party, Harriet Evans mentions:
She is concerned to show that this formula was not a valid one, but my
aim in citing it is to demonstrate that the People's Republic of China incorporated
Feminism as part of its ideology, as did the Communist Party well before 1949.
Any group or individual that aims to achieve women's "emancipation" is using
the language of Feminism . Whether or not someone else considers that their
methods will achieve that goal is a separate issue, of course.
The following quotation also demonstrates the extent to which China has
become a Feminist society. 2
"At the risk of agreeing with the journalistic scaremongers who excel in
telling tales about 'the Chinese nightmare', we must accept that the family
may have been destroyed in China. If by family we understand a wife's submission
to her husband, a wife's isolation in the home, the absolute authority of
parents over children; if by family we designate that secluded 'haven of peace'
which is the ideal of all men and without which life has no meaning, that
little island over which the husband rules and for which he struggles, by
means of wit and cunning, alone against the problems of daily life - yes,
that family has all but disappeared!" "Women's Liberation in China," Claudie
As a final piece of evidence, I cite the following statement about China
and Russia, from a Northeastern University history course description :
The evidence is overwhelming that China was transformed by the ruling Communists
into a feminist society. The specific manifestations of this feminism are
of course different from those that characterise western countries, but they
are manifestations of feminism nonetheless.
Before I can make my case, I need to establish the concept that it is possible
for men to suffer disadvantages relative to women. This is because we live
in one of many countries (and this is true of China, as well as of New Zealand)
in which it is considered axiomatic that women are/have been oppressed, and
large amounts of resources are spent on researching and ending this state
Therefore, since I have researched feminism and Men's Rights in depth over
a period of years, I am bound to assume that the reader of this essay will
be largely ignorant of the intellectual background which I take for granted
- the fact of the hypocrisy and pseudo-scholarship that is Feminism, by and
The following section is largely taken from my article, "The Frontman Fallacy"
(in the New Zealand Men's Rights Association Newsletter Vol.1 No.1 1996, and
reprinted as a chapter of my Book, Sex, Lies & Feminism). "The Frontman
Fallacy" is a term I invented myself, to encapsulate the wrongheadedness of
a common Feminist assumption. This was the assumption that the fact that men
held most of the positions of power in the world meant that men ruled the
world principally for their own benefit; that is, they "oppressed" women.
So the Frontman Fallacy is the mistaken belief that people (men, specifically)
who are in positions of authority use their power mainly to benefit the categories
of people (the category of "men", in particular) that they themselves belong
to. I use this concept as the point of departure for my discussion, because
it is a "given" of the culture of contemporary western universities, where
scholars (e.g. China specialists) typically work and where they have gained
their objective and subjective knowledge (if one can make such a distinction).
Kate Millett is a very important name in the intellectual history of modern
Feminism. I'd like here to examine Millett's basic assumptions a bit more
closely than she herself does.
"If one takes patriarchal government to be the institution whereby that
half of the populace which is female is controlled by that half which is male,
the principles of patriarchy appear to be twofold: male shall dominate female,
elder male shall dominate younger" (Millett, "Sexual Politics" page 25).
That is Kate Millett's definition of patriarchy. 3
The crucial point, as I see it, is the notion of "control".
What Millett means by this term is made clear as follows:
"...our society ... is a patriarchy. The fact is evident at once if one
recalls that the military, industry, technology, universities, science, political
office, and finance -- in short, every avenue of power within the society,
including the coercive force of the police, is entirely in male hands" (ibid,
It is a good rule of thumb that, if you want to look for the weaknesses
in someone's argument, you look for sentences starting with words such as
"evident", "evidently", "obvious", or "obviously". These are precisely the
weak assumptions that the writer/speaker needs to prop up with confident-sounding
In this case, the weakness is the fact of a large number of males in these
professions, which does not logically imply that they are "controlling" women
any more than they are controlling other men. Men make up the majority in
many very low-status occupations in both China and the West, as well as in
the high-status ones. More importantly, if the "coercive force of the police"
is directed mainly at women, why is it men who constitute the overwhelming
majority of those who are arrested by the police (in China, as well) ?
You could even argue that most countries are actually matriarchies, and
that male politicians are the paid servants of the Feminists. The litmus test
would then be whether the (mainly male) politicians enacted legislation that
favoured men's interests more than women's interests. And the history of the
last two hundred years - in both China and the West - is peppered - nay, iced
over - with examples of mainly male governments enacting legislation that
benefited women more than men.
It would be beyond the scope of this essay to list all these examples.
I will just mention the suffrage, property laws, family law (matrimonial property,
child custody and access), rape laws, employment laws, abortion laws, laws
relating to military service, and so on. It is my impression that the above
are relevant examples in both China and the West. The point is not whether
or not these can be regarded as "catch-up" laws. The point is that governments
composed mainly of men passed laws that, in themselves, benefited women more
than men -- and often at the expense of men's interests.
It is true that most decision-makers in society's political institutions
have tended to be men. But they have not usually acted solely in men's interests,
or solely to the detriment of women's interests. To the contrary -- they have
tended to act severely against men's interests, and in favour of women's interests
-- otherwise, for example, it would have been women who were forced to fight
in the trenches in World War I. 4
(I will not list further individual examples here, because each one would
require a lengthy explanation.)
For this there are two reasons; First, the male decision-makers are subject
to pressure from individual women (friends, family members, etc.), as well
as from female pressure groups.
As far as pressure groups are concerned, it must be remembered that Men's
Rights pressure groups are few and far between, so pressure groups in the
gender area have essentially been just women's pressure groups. So male decision-makers
receive an overwhelmingly one-sided tide of pressure in this area - and this
is just as true of China as it is of western countries. You only have to read
a few copies of "Women in China", and note the lack of any equivalent men's
magazine, to realise that.
Feminism has tacked itself onto the back of the Left in general, and Marxism,
in particular. This is the part of the political spectrum which loves to use
the word "oppression". It is certainly correct that various ethnic and social
groups "oppress" other ethnic and social groups all over the world to various
degrees, and in different ways.
But the relationship between men and women is a much more cooperative one
than the relationship between ethnic groups because men and women (still)
need each other to produce and raise families. Ethnic groups are not usually
so indispensable to each other. So applying the "oppression" model to male-female
relationships has only been feasible academically by bullying intelligent
men into acquiescence, that is, by making them fear for their careers or their
marriages if they disagreed publicly. So the field of Women's Studies has
been insulated from the usual pressures to maintain academic intellectual
Frank Zepezauer, in his column in "The Liberator" newspaper of March 1994,
listed many points of similarity between Feminazis and Nazis. I won't mention
all of the similarities that Zepezauer lists. One that is worth mentioning,
however, is the justifications these two groups of ideologues give for the
taking of human life - where specific categories of humans are concerned.
The Nazis thought that certain categories of people (homosexuals and the
physically and intellectually handicapped) were unworthy of life. Most Feminists
believe that all unborn children who are unwanted by their mothers are unworthy
of life. Feminism has so raised the status of women in many societies that
they can successfully assert that their right to "choice" overrides a baby's
right to life. This issue is brought into sharp focus whenever Feminists complain
about the selective aborting of female children in China and South Asia, and
when one realises that the signature of the father is not required on the
abortion consent form.
The final heading in Zepezauer's list of similarities is "Holocaust II".
These are his concluding remarks under this heading:
At the last count, which ended about 1960, the victims of the Nazi Holocaust
numbered about eight million of whom six million were Jews. So far, since
the inception of legalized abortion, about thirty million unborn children
have been sacrificed to maternal choice. And we are still counting. (ibid,
Abortion is just as central to Chinese feminism as it is to western feminism.
In most such countries, the aim is to free women, as much as possible, from
the housewife-mother role, by allowing them to prevent the birth of children
that would keep them tied to the home and out of the paid workforce. In China,
however, the need to restrict population growth is an even more important
motivation for freely available abortion.
Women in China
From the above, it will be seen that I consider it highly naïve to
assume simply, because men may hold, and have held, most of the high decision-making
positions in a country such as China, that they generally discriminate against
women. Suppose there were a country where, one was told, people of a certain
type (e.g. the elderly) were allocated a government ration of 100 grammes
of meat per month. One might think that this was a very small ration. But
if one then learned that this was in fact twice the ration accorded to the
rest of the adult population, then one would realise that that group was in
fact relatively privileged, rather than being discriminated against.
I don't want to appear sarcastic, but Feminist analyses never seem to develop
even this somewhat rudimentary level of sophistication in their argumentation.
Books such as Croll (1983) talk glibly about the "emancipation of women in
China" (page i), but there is not the slightest attempt in any such book that
I have seen to list the relative disadvantages of the male role in China,
and to demonstrate that the disadvantages of the female role were significantly
more serious. Thus the superficiality of these Feminist arguments seems almost
to justify the feeling that women are not intellectually on a par with men,
which is common in societies where Feminism has not taken root.
Wolf (1975) is an apparent exception to the above generalisation, in that
she does compare men and women with respect to the issue she is discussing
- suicide. But hers is an academic essay, not overtly Feminist in tone. Nevertheless,
she exhibits the customary Feminist narcissism and callous disregard for any
problems that men might experience, for example (from her concluding paragraph):
"One of the weakest parts of the Chinese social fabric is the insecurity
of the life and happiness of woman...." (ibid, p. 141)
This is not a rational statement, because no attempt was made in the article
either to quantify or to compare the relative security of the life and happiness
of women, men and children. It is purely an a priori assumption which is carried
through from the beginning to the end of this Feminist article, without touching
on any facts in the course of its travels. It is difficult not to feel contempt
for such "scholarship," and for the people who publish, disseminate, and uncritically
Wolf states that the media gave an exaggerated impression of the frequency
with which young Chinese widows committed suicide in public in the 19th century.
We are acquainted with this phenomenon in our own times, when the international
media hype up the problems of women and children and leaves men to cope with
their own problems in obscurity. However, Wolf goes on to say that:
"... it made a strong statement about the status of women."
In a sense it certainly did that, but it did not come close to giving a
balanced picture of the relative status of men and women, which is what Wolf
actually means. It is typical of the television news culture in which we live
that a "strong statement" can so easily be treated by an academic as an adequate
substitute for a broad and deep analysis.
Wolf only mentions male suicide "by way of contrast". She makes the point
that, in most countries, the male suicide rate is much greater than the female
rate, whereas in China the male and female rates have been much more similar.
Wolf attributes this fact to the social pressure on Chinese widows to commit
Her statistics cover roughly the first forty years of the 20th century,
and during that time the male suicide rate in China grew from 20.9 (per 100,000
of each sex over 15 years of age) in 1905 to 33.5 in 1940, whereas the female
rate declined from 28.5 in 1905 to 22.4 in 1940. In both cases, the change
from year to year sometimes went in the reverse direction to the trend as
a whole (upward for male suicide and downward for female suicide).
Her statistics also show that the decline in the female suicide rate over
all was caused by a decline in the suicide rate amongst young women. It seems
likely that social changes may have lessened the pressure on young widows
to commit suicide. If we consider that the first forty years of the 20th century
were ones of frequent warfare involving China, it seems likely that the pattern
was one of large numbers of war widows committing suicide, although Wolf does
not raise this issue at all.
An intelligent and non-sexist author would have asked where all these young
widows came from, all of a sudden. If they were the result of men being killed
on the battlefield, why didn't Wolf decry the fact that it was only men who
were killed on the battlefield ? Wouldn't that have been a "strong statement"
about the status of men in Chinese society ?
The increase in the overall male suicide rate was caused mostly by an increase
in the suicide rate in males in the older age-groups. Wolf points out that
old men in Chinese extended families often feel isolated. If they are retired,
they are likely to be at home more than they used to be, and the home is the
female's domain, where the male has few traditional functions to perform.
So, whereas suicide by widows had been categorised as an evil and has consequently
greatly decreased in frequency, no one has seemed to worry about the problems
of older men, and how their suicide rate kept on climbing.
Ahern (1975) is interesting to me, in that it mentions a form of female
power which I have thought much about, but which I have never before come
across in someone else's writings or speech: the power of gossip.
"The women's community ... is most visible when women gather to wash clothes
or do chores together. Much information is exchanged in this setting, some
of it about the affairs of men. Because, according to tenets accepted by everyone,
to be talked about is to lose face, women affect men's behaviour merely by
talking about them." (op. cit, 201)
Actually, it is not as simple as this. The mere fact that women are talking
about someone is less important than the fact that they are almost bound to
be saying something negative, which will affect the way that that person is
treated by the other members of the community - because only bad news is interesting,
on the whole.
Women gossip more than men do and they are more interested in the details
of personal relationships than men are. If the washerwomen (or their modern,
urbanised equivalents) turn against a man, he will find the dice loaded against
him - in Western societies as well as in China. In a way, the domination of
Feminist television by anti-male lies in the area of domestic violence, etc.,
is just an extension of this phenomenon.
Women have probably always had more power in China than Feminist and other
Western stereotypes would have us believe. As Jaschok and Miers put it:
The once ubiquitous stereotype of the long-suffering, meek, submissive
Chinese woman as simply a victim of family interests, a vision of compliance
and self-sacrifice, stands thus revealed for what it is - a stereotype in
need of reappraisal and an empirical context. Jaschok and Miers (1994)
Paderni (1999) refers to their management of the household economy, to
their choosing spouses for their children, and to the institution of uxorilocal
The shrew and the henpecked husband are common characters in Chinese literature.
Major as well as minor authors have dealt ... with the theme of a husband
controlled and terrorized by a strong, domineering woman, tyrannical to the
point of cruelty.... Certainly inside the domestic area, Chinese women were
able to exert informal power which might enable them to discreetly assert
their own will. Paderni op. Cit., 274)
I don't know of any examples of this myself, because I am not interested
in literature (Chinese or otherwise). I cite this author's opinion as something
that might be researched into by someone interested in the topic.
Men in China
Because of the scholarly neglect of men as a group, one has to read between
the lines of books about general history or about the history of women. Moreover,
it is hardly possible to address this essay topic without mentioning the "women's
issues" which receive a lot of media coverage, academic teaching and research
attention, and government attention via legislation and regulation in western
countries such as New Zealand and, increasingly, in United Nations agencies.
For example, when one reads in a Feminist book about China:
" ... the sums paid to the girl's family at betrothal and marriage. Running
through the conversation like a brightly coloured thread on a plain ground
was the clear indication that, for the menfolk of the villages, these transactions
amounted to sales." (James Hayes, p.62),
one realises that one is supposed to be horrified at this phenomenon
yet no one is horrified at the fact that men with money are and always
have been universally more attractive to women than men of modest means.
There are even (non-human) animal species where the male establishes a territory
by fighting with other males, and then waits for the females to come along
and vie for the attentions of the male with the prime real estate ! In China,
as elsewhere, a man with little money had to be satisfied with an unattractive
or crippled wife or no wife at all. That is the other side of the coin,
which will never be found in any Feminist book.
Similarly, on reading that:
"To the Chinese the transfer of females was an integral part of the legitimate
sphere of patriarchal privilege: the right to dispose of a daughter as dictated
by her family's needs" ( Jaschok and Miers (1994), p.18),
one marvels at the Feminist narcissism that enables the writer to overlook
the fact that the family or the State often required sons to go on forced
labour or military service, which often resulted in incapacitation or death.
In pre-Communist China, as has been the case almost everywhere in the world,
and at almost all times in history,as far as I am aware, women had a lowly
status, but a privileged role. Their lowly status was shown by the tradition
that a girl baby was placed at the foot of the bed. Conversely, men had higher
status, but a less pampered, more dangerous life. Wolf (1975) points out that
the high status of older males was no guarantee of happiness:
"... in old age, a man may find himself as isolated as any new bride, perhaps
even more frustratingly because the isolation occurs in the midst of familiars
and from the perspective of high (if token) status." (Wolf, op. Cit., 132).
Western historians, Communists, and Feminists have written a lot about
foot-binding. Foot-binding only affected wealthy families, because most women
were expected to do physical work, which bound feet would have prevented them
from carrying out. It is not rare in Asia for some sign to be cultivated by
the middle classes, to show that they are wealthy enough not to have to carry
out manual labour such as the practice, in some cultures, of growing
the nail of the little finger to an extraordinary length.
The privileged role of women was reflected in the fact that they were not
conscripted into the armed forces. I have read, for example, of a Chinese
man who cut off a limb to escape being conscripted and sent to certain death
in a frontier war. Women were expected to lead a restricted life, mostly at
home. However, it was a much safer lifestyle than that of men. All other types
of restrictions pale in comparison with the restrictions involved in being
dead. It is obviously preferable to be a low-status living being -- even with
bound feet -- than to be a high-status corpse ! When I mention women with
bound feet as being of "low-status", I mean that they were of low-status in
comparison to men of their own class -- not in comparison with other women.
It was not surprising to read that Chaste Woman Shi
(Ebrey 1993, p. 165) managed to get a man executed, and herself awarded 100,000
cash by falsely alleging that he tried to rape her. That shows how dangerous
it was to be a man in China women might get raped, but men might get
killed if some woman claimed that they had raped her. It is clear that being
a live rape victim is preferable to being a dead victim of a false accusation.
I was interested to read that a Chinese woman had to use the argument (Ebrey
1993, p. 165) that her ex-husbands current partner was a prostitute,
in order to get custody of her child in the divorce court. From that, one
can infer that men were usually awarded custody of their children on divorce.
Men had rights, in the Chinese equivalent of the Family Court, that their
modern New Zealand counterparts can only dream of !
During the Song period, men could remarry if their wives died, but women
could not remarry when their husbands died, and this, in itself, can be seen
as a double-standard that favoured men. However, since a man was liable to
be conscripted and to die on the battlefield or in forced labour, there would
have been many more widows than widowers, and -- to my mind, at least -- being
a live widow(er) is preferable to being a married corpse.
How should one evaluate the comparative power and welfare of men and women
in China ? Ideally, one would have access to statistics covering these issues
throughout Chinese history. Then one could systematically compare men and
women - not only with respect to such traditional Feminist issues as employment,
education, income, formal status, foot-binding, and so on, but also as regards
such routinely overlooked issues such as health, longevity, suicide, conscription,
conviction rates, custody of and access to children following divorce, inherited
capital, and purchasing decisions. Nowadays, in the West, women are claimed
to possess more actual wealth than men, because they outlive their male spouses
and inherit their wealth - as well as obtaining a high proportion of the joint
assets in divorce. Women are also considered to do most of the family purchasing,
which makes advertisers target women, and which, in turn, makes the media
pander to women.
In pre-Communist China, there was a sort of trade-off between the power
and danger of a man's life, on the one hand, and the lack of power and comparative
privilege of a woman's life, on the other. Nowadays, men have retained most
of the downside of their traditional role, while losing most of their power
in the face of the political successes of the Communists and the Feminists.
1. I define Feminism as the application of the victim of oppression model
to the situation of women in society, without applying it equally to the position
2. I define a Feminist Society as a society where Feminism is taken for
granted as a true and valid world-view. In Feminist societies, legislation
and regulations have been implemented with the avowed intention of "improving
the status of women", or using other rhetoric of that kind. Perhaps best way
to explain to someone living in 21st Century New Zealand what a Feminist society
is is to contrast it with a society such as that of Iran, which is clearly
3. Kate Millett's work has been very influential. I am not concerned whether
or not some particular current of Feminist thought at some time (e.g. the
present) accepts or rejects her positions on issues.