Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

1. Agricultural development and the changing status and roles of rural women in China

In old China, agricultural productivity was very low, and the small scale peasant economy was basically a combination of traditional farming and handicraft industry. Under the feudal ownership system, most of the land belonged to a handful of landlords, while the majority of peasants had little or no land. They toiled all year round but seldom had enough to eat or wear. With men constituting the main labour force on the farm, women mostly did supplementary jobs at home such as doing chores, raising poultry, and weaving. Only in certain parts of the country did women do the bulk of farm work. In feudal times, men in China were usually subject to the rule of three authorities: political, clan, and religious authorities. Women, in addition to the three authorities, were dominated by male chauvinism. Under the rule of male chauvinism, a woman was doomed to obeying the rule of the man in her life - her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her son after the husband's death. These four authorities were the embodiment of the feudal patriarchal system. Under the feudal rule of men's superiority, women's labour was not recognized by the society. Though they worked all the year round, women were considered dependents supported by their husbands, who controlled the family financial resources. They were viewed as appendages of men and tools to carry on the family tree.

After New China was founded in 1949, along with the social changes in the rural areas, women's status gradually changed. From 1949 to 1957 China conducted two social changes of far-reaching significance. First, land reform was carried out around 1950 and the feudal system of land ownership was abolished nationwide. Rural people men and women. who had had little or no land got their equal share, and women's economic status began to change. All this pounded at the feudal tradition of male superiority. On this basis, the Chinese government began to transform the small-scale peasant economy along the socialist line by establishing public ownership of the basic means of production and the socialist cooperative economy. At the same time, the government organized peasants to conduct large scale water conservation projects and improved agrotechnology, giving a big boost to agricultural production. During the period of agricultural cooperation, land was owned by the collective. Peasants had only some small farming tools, while larger means of production such as machines and draught animals and equipment were owned collectively. Peasants were paid according to the work points they earned. (But often the points did not accurately reflect either the quality or the quantity of work.) Hundreds of millions of rural women came out to participate in collective labour, which greatly increased their activities and broadened their horizon. Now that the women had their own income by taking part in collective production, they began to realize that they, too, could become income earners instead of depending on men for a living. As a result, their economic status, their political consciousness, and their status in the family and society gradually improved in varying degrees.

But after 1957 inexperience and mishandling of economic affairs put a damper on agricultural growth, and rural development underwent a tortuous path. Grain production was unduly emphasized to the exclusion of other crops; land tillers had little say in planning production; and distribution followed an egalitarian pattern. Everyone was eating from the same "big rice bowl" whether he or she worked hard or not. Vestiges of feudal ideas prevented the implementation of the principle of equal pay for equal work between the sexes. After working a full day, men usually got ten working points while women got eight, in some areas only five or six. And women had additional obligations. While they shared the same lot with men in long hours of low-efficiency farming year in and year out for little material gain, they also had to do heavy household chores, including making clothing and shoes for themselves and other members of the family. Besides, they had to process the grain, because there was no food processing industry in most rural areas, and, even if there was, most farmers could not afford it. This situation lasted until the end of the 1970s.

After summing up its past experience and lessons at the end of 1978, China began to undertake structural agricultural reform by introducing a contract responsibility system, with remuneration linked to output. That is to say, while collective ownership of the land was maintained, peasant households or individuals became responsible for production in particular areas of farmland, hills, fishponds, or poultry farms, and, after selling their produce to the state according to the quota called for in their contracts, could keep the surplus for themselves. The new economic policies effectively boosted the farmers' enthusiasm for work and raised cost efficiency in agricultural production. In addition, forestry, animal husbandry, sideline occupations, and fishery developed alongside farming. The revival of open markets, reform of the system of state purchase of farm products, and decontrol of farm-product pricing have further promoted a commodity economy and economic activities in the rural areas. At the same time, China's village and township enterprises in the fields of industry, commerce, transportation, construction, and service trades have developed rapidly. These enterprises mainly engage in processing agricultural produce, manufacturing and repairing small farm machines, making clothes, and producing components and spare parts for larger factories. The development of rural enterprises has provided employment to surplus labour in rural areas, women included. Thus, farm dwellers can now work in non-agricultural fields without leaving the rural areas.

Since the implementation of economic reform, rural women enjoy more leeway. They can arrange jobs according to their own age, physical ability, special skills, and other conditions. Nowadays work and household chores are shared rationally by family members, giving full play to women's potential. As women play an increasingly important role in production, their status in society and at home has been steadily enhanced.

China's total agricultural output value amounted to 394.7 billion yuan in 1986, as against 32.6 billion yuan in 1949 and 156.7 billion yuan in 1978 (at prices for the respective years).* The income of farmers has greatly increased. The per capita annual income of farmers (i.e. rural inhabitants) was 44 yuan in 1949, 134 yuan in 1978, and 424 yuan in 1986. During the 29 years from 1949 to 1978, the per capita annual income of farmers increased at an average annual rate of 3.9%. Rural economic reform began in 1978, and between 1978 and 1986 the per capita annual income of farmers increased at an average annual rate of 13.1%. In these eight years, 4.9 billion m2 of new housing has been built in rural areas nationwide, an average of 600 million m2 completed every year. In 1978 the average floor space per capita for rural inhabitants was less than 8 m2; it went up to 17 m2 in 1986.

*All figures for the national and provincial economies in this report are from the State Statistical Bureau.

The present research deals mainly with the impact of rural economic reform on rural women's education, occupation, family life, and concepts.

Contents - Previous - Next