Female infanticide in China

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China has a history of female infanticide spanning 2,000 years.[1] When Christian missionaries arrived in China in the late sixteenth century, they 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 practice continued into the 19th century and declined precipitously during the Communist era,[4] but has reemerged as an issue since the introduction of the one-child policy in the early 1980s.[5] The 2020 census showed a male-to-female ratio of 105.07 for mainland China, a record low since the People's Republic of China began conducting censuses.[6]


Burying Babies in China (p.40, March 1865, XXII)[7]

19th century[edit]

Chinese anti-infanticide tract circa 1800[citation needed]

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][9] Exposure to the elements was another method: 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.[10] 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.[11] Missionary David Abeel reported in 1844 that between one fourth and one third of all female children were killed at birth or soon after.[12]

In 1878 French Jesuit missionary, Gabriel Palatre, collated documents from 13 provinces[13] 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 collected by Palatre the practice was more widespread in the southeastern provinces and the Lower Yangzi River region.[14]

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.[15]

A white paper published by the Chinese government in 1980 stated that the practice of female infanticide was a "feudalistic evil".[b] The state officially considers the practice a carryover from feudal times, not a result of the state's one-child policy. According to Jing-Bao Nie, it would be "inconceivable" to believe there is "no link" between the state's family planning policies and female infanticide.[16]

On September 25, 1980, in an "open letter", the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party requested that members of the party, and those in the Communist Youth League, lead by example and have only one child. From the beginning of the one-child policy, there were concerns that it would lead to an imbalance in the sex ratio. Early in the 1980s, senior officials became increasingly concerned with reports of abandonment and female infanticide by parents desperate for a son. In 1984, the government attempted to address the issue by adjusting the one-child policy. Couples whose first child is a girl are allowed to have a second child.[5]

Current situation[edit]

Roadside sign in Danshan, Yanjiang District, Ziyang, Sichuan, which reads "It is forbidden to discriminate against, abuse or abandon baby girls"

Many Chinese couples desire to have sons because they provide support and security to their aging parents later in life.[17] Conversely, a daughter is expected to leave her parents upon marriage to join and care for her husband's family (parents-in-law).[17] In rural households, which as of 2014 constitute almost half the Chinese population,[18] males are additionally valuable for performing agricultural work and manual labor.[17][19]

Birth sex ratios have dramatically changed in China since the implementation of the One-Child Policy.

A 2005 intercensus survey demonstrated pronounced differences in sex ratio across provinces, ranging from 1.04 in Tibet to 1.43 in Jiangxi.[20] Banister (2004), in her literature review on China's shortage of girls, suggested that there has been a resurgence in the prevalence of female infanticide following the introduction of the one-child policy.[21] On the other hand, many researchers have argued that female infanticide is rare in China today,[20][22] especially since the government has outlawed the practice.[23] Zeng and colleagues (1993), for example, contended that at least half of the nation's gender imbalance arises from the underreporting of female births.[22]

According to the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), the demographic shortfall of female babies who have died for gender related issues is in the same range as the 191 million estimated dead accounting for all conflicts in the twentieth century.[24] 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.[25]

According to China's 2020 census (the Seventh National Population Census of the People's Republic of China), the gender ratio of mainland China has improved, with the male-to-female ratio reaching a new record low of 105.07.[26] This is the most balanced gender ratio since the PRC began conducting a census in 1953.[27]

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."[8]
  2. ^ "Infanticide through drowning and abandoning female babies is an evil custom left over from feudal times."[16]


  1. ^ Mungello 2012, p. 144.
  2. ^ Milner 2000, pp. 238–239.
  3. ^ a b Mungello 2012, p. 148.
  4. ^ Coale & Banister 1994, pp. 459–479.
  5. ^ a b White 2006, p. 200.
  6. ^ "China's latest census reports more balanced gender ratio - Xinhua | English.news.cn". 2022-07-05. Archived from the original on 2022-07-05. Retrieved 2022-07-05.
  7. ^ "Burying Babies in China". Wesleyan Juvenile Offering. XXII: 40. March 1865. Archived from the original on 14 March 2020. Retrieved 1 December 2015.
  8. ^ Mungello 2008, p. 17.
  9. ^ Mungello 2008, p. 9.
  10. ^ Lee 1981, p. 164.
  11. ^ Mungello 2008, p. 10.
  12. ^ Abeel 1844.
  13. ^ Harrison 2008, p. 77.
  14. ^ Mungello 2008, p. 13.
  15. ^ Johnson 1985, p. 29.
  16. ^ a b Nie 2005, p. 50.
  17. ^ a b c Chan, C. L. W., Yip, P. S. F., Ng, E. H. Y., Ho, P. C., Chan, C. H. Y., & Au, J. S. K. (2002). Gender selection in China: It’s meanings and implications. Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, 19(9), 426-430.
  18. ^ National Bureau of Statistics of China. (2014). Total population by urban and rural residence and birth rate, death rate, natural growth rate by region [Data set]. Retrieved from China statistical yearbook 2014 Archived 2015-11-26 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 2 October 2019
  19. ^ Parrot, Andrea (2006). Forsaken females : the global brutalization of women. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 53. ISBN 978-0742545793.
  20. ^ a b Zhu, W. X., Lu, L., & Hesketh, T. (2009). China’s excess males, sex selective abortion, and one child policy: Analysis of data from 2005 national intercensus survey. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 338(7700)
  21. ^ Banister, J. (2004). Shortage of girls in China today. Journal of Population Research, 21(1), 19-45.
  22. ^ a b Zeng, Y., Tu, P., Gu, B., Xu, Y., Li, B., & Li, Y. (1993). Causes and implications of the recent increase in the reported sex ratio at birth in China. Population and Development Review, 19(2), 283-302.
  23. ^ Female infanticide. (n.d.) Archived 2019-11-21 at the Wayback Machine BBC Ethics guide. Accessed 2 October 2019.
  24. ^ Winkler 2005, p. 7.
  25. ^ DeLugan 2013, pp. 649–650.
  26. ^ "China's latest census reports more balanced gender ratio - Xinhua | English.news.cn". 2022-07-05. Archived from the original on 2022-07-05. Retrieved 2022-07-05.
  27. ^ "China's latest census reports more balanced gender ratio - Xinhua | English.news.cn". 2022-07-05. Archived from the original on 2022-07-05. Retrieved 2022-07-05.


Further reading[edit]