Female infanticide in China

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China has a history of female infanticide spanning 2000 years.[1] Infanticide has been practiced worldwide since antiquity for the purpose of population control, but what was unique in China is that an overwhelming majority of the victims were girls.[1]

When Christian missionaries arrived in China in the late sixteenth century, they noticed the practice of female infanticide, and witnessed newborns being thrown into rivers or onto rubbish piles.[2][3] In the seventeenth century Matteo Ricci documented that the practice occurred in several of China's provinces and said that the primary reason for the practice was poverty.[3]

The census of 1990 showed an overall sex ratio of 1.066, a normal sex ratio for all ages should be less than 1.02.[4] The reason for the discrepancy is female infanticide and sex selective abortion.[4][5]

During the 19th century female infanticide was practiced in the majority of China's provinces. The practice declined precipitously during the Communist era,[5] but has reemerged as an issue since the introduction of the one-child policy in the early 1980s.[6]


The practice of female infanticide was far from wholly condoned in China. Buddhism in particular was quite forceful in its condemnation of it. Buddhists wrote that the killing of young girls would bring bad karma, conversely those who saved a young girl's life either through intervening or through presents of money or food would earn good karma, leading to a prosperous life, a long life and success for their sons. However the Buddhist belief in reincarnation meant that the death of an infant was not final as the child would be reborn, this belief eased the guilt felt over female infanticide.[7]

The Confucian attitude towards female infanticide was conflicted. By placing value on age over youth, Confucian filial piety lessened the value of children. The Confucian emphasis on the family led to increasing dowries which in turn led to a girl being far more expensive to raise over a boy causing families to feel they could not afford as many daughters. The Confucian custom of keeping the male within the family meant that the money spent on a daughter's upbringing along with the dowry would be lost when she married, and as such girls were called "money-losing merchandise". Conversely the Confucian belief of Ren led Confucian intellectuals to support the idea that female infanticide was wrong and that the practice would upset the balance between yin and yang.[8]

19th century[edit]

Chinese anti-infanticide tract circa 1800

During the 19th century the practice was widespread, readings from Qing texts show a prevalence of the term ni nü (to drown girls), and drowning was the most common method used to kill female children. Other methods used were suffocation and starvation.[a][10] Leaving a child exposed to the elements was another method of killing an infant, the child would be placed in a basket which was then placed in a tree. Buddhist nunneries created "baby towers" for people to leave a child, it is however unclear as to whether the child was being left for adoption or if it had already died and were being left for burial.[11] In 1845 in the province of Jiangxi, a missionary wrote that these children survived for up to two days while exposed to the elements, and that those passing by, would ignore the screaming child.[12] Missionary David Abeel reported in 1844 that between one third and one fourth of all female children were killed at birth or soon after.[13]

In 1878 French Jesuit missionary, Gabriel Palatre, collated documents from 13 provinces[14] and the Annales de la Sainte-Enfance (Annals of the Holy Childhood), also found evidence of infanticide in Shanxi and Sichuan. According to the information collated by Palatre the practice was more widely spread in the southeastern provinces and in the Lower Yangzi River region.[15]

20th century[edit]

In 1930, Rou Shi, a noted member of the May Fourth Movement, wrote the short story A Slave-Mother. In it he portrayed the extreme poverty in rural communities that was a direct cause of female infanticide.[16]

A white paper published by the Chinese government in 1980 stated that the practice of female infanticide was a "feudalistic evil".[b] The state's official position on the practice is that it is a carryover from feudal times, and is not a result of the state's one-child policy. Jing-Bao Nie argues however that it would be "inconceivable" to believe there is no link between the states family planning policies and female infanticide.[17]

On 25 September 1980 in an "open letter", the Politburo of the Communist Party of China requested that members of the party, and those in the Communist youth league, lead by example and have only one child.[18] From when the one-child policy was first proposed there were concerns that it would lead to an imbalance in the sex ratio, but although these concerns were not recognized by state officials, the concerns were proven to be well founded. Early in the 1980s, senior officials became increasingly concerned with reports of abandonment, and female infanticide, by parents who were desperate for a son.[6] In 1984, the government attempted to address the issue by adjusting the one-child policy to allow couples whose first child is a girl to have a second child.[6]


The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) wrote in their 2005 report, Women in an Insecure World, that at a time when the number of casualties in war had fallen, a "secret genocide" was being carried out against women.[19] According to DCAF the demographic shortfall of women who have died for gender related issues is in the same range as the 191 million estimated dead from all conflicts in the twentieth century.[20] In 2012 the documentary It's a Girl: The Three Deadliest Words in the World was released. It focused on female infanticide in India and China.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "As soon as the little girls are born, they are plunged into the water in order to drown them or force is applied to their bodies in order to suffocate them or they are strangled with human hands. And something even more deplorable is that there are servants who place the girl in the chamber pot or in the basin used for the birth, which is still filled with water and blood and, shut away there, they die miserably. And what is even more monstrous is that if the mother is not cruel enough to take the life of her daughter, then her father-in-law, mother-in-law, or husband agitates her by their words to kill the girl."[9]
  2. ^ "Infanticide through drowning and abandoning female babies is an evil custom left over from feudal times."[17]


  1. ^ a b Mungello 2012, p. 144.
  2. ^ Milner 2000, pp. 238-239.
  3. ^ a b Mungello 2012, p. 148.
  4. ^ a b Milner 2000, pp. 239-240.
  5. ^ a b Coale & Banister 1994, pp. 459–479.
  6. ^ a b c White 2006, p. 200.
  7. ^ Mungello 2012, p. 145.
  8. ^ Mungello 2012, pp. 146–147.
  9. ^ Mungello 2008, p. 17.
  10. ^ Mungello 2008, p. 9.
  11. ^ Lee 1981, p. 164.
  12. ^ Mungello 2008, p. 10.
  13. ^ Abeel 1844.
  14. ^ Harrison 2008, p. 77.
  15. ^ Mungello 2008, p. 13.
  16. ^ Johnson 1985, p. 29.
  17. ^ a b Nie 2005, p. 50.
  18. ^ Nie 2010.
  19. ^ Mashru 2012.
  20. ^ Winkler 2005, p. 7.
  21. ^ DeLugan 2013, pp. 649–650.


Further reading[edit]