As a teenager in China, anthropologist Lihong Shi was exposed to countless negative stereotypes about small-town life. The stories she heard painted rural areas as uneducated, backward, superstitious and prejudiced against women—seemingly worlds away from her cosmopolitan home of Shenyang, a city of 8 million people in the nation’s northeast.
“Traditional Chinese society is patrilineal and patriarchal,” she says. “Sons have historically been a status symbol for a family—their education and well-being come at the expense of daughters.”
Compared to their counterparts in urban areas, she notes, women and girls in the Chinese countryside have had limited opportunities for jobs and education. And the situation began to worsen in 1979, when the communist government, citing the need to control population growth, issued its controversial “one-child policy,” a law that forcibly restricted family size.
The policy, which stayed in effect until 2015, had immediate and unintended consequences, says Shi, who studies reproductive politics and gender relations in China. In a nation that reveres large families and multiple sons, it sent an already male-focused culture into overdrive. When faced with the prospect of having a daughter as their only child, many families abandoned their female firstborns, or chose to abort pregnancies on the basis of sex alone.
For Shi, the trend seemed inevitable: Since rural families preferred sons, daughters would always suffer. In 2002, however, while visiting a tiny rural hamlet called Lijia, she saw something that caught her off guard. Although the government had eased birth restrictions in the area—allowing families with a daughter to try again for a son—some couples were declining the offer.
“It was almost culture shock for me,” Shi says. “I started to see parents that had very close ties to their daughters. In some cases, they voluntarily chose to have just one girl, and poured everything they could into her education.”
The observations stopped her in her tracks. Why were these couples content with a daughter, especially when rural traditions had long valued sons? And why was this happening now, decades after the one-child policy went into effect?
As Shi would soon discover, the social norms of Lijia were undergoing a profound change—one that had as much to do with economics as with culture. Work opportunities and cultural expectations had begun to shift, leaving families favoring fewer children, even if those children were female. Over the following decade, Shi returned to Lijia repeatedly to uncover the reasoning behind this cultural evolution, conducting hundreds of interviews with both villagers and local government officials.
Shi hadn’t always envisioned doing this kind of intensive field research. As an undergraduate at China’s Liaoning University, she had studied English literature with a focus on women’s studies. At the time, no graduate programs in women’s studies existed in China, so she came to the U.S. to earn her master’s degree. When, in 2002, she returned to China and went to Lijia for the first time, she was planning to study gender relations for her thesis.
It was then that Shi noticed that some village families were choosing to have only one daughter. “I knew I was seeing something important,” she says. Her discovery prompted her to switch disciplines and devote herself to anthropology, where she knew she’d learn the skills needed to do immersive fieldwork. By 2004, she was back in Lijia.
Even with all of her training, Shi says, living in a rural setting required some adjustments. Village homes had no indoor toilets, no running water and no heat other than fires fueled by cornstalks. But it wasn’t only the material conditions in Lijia that Shi had to get used to.
“I basically had to learn to live like a farmer,” she explains. “Village life in China is very different from life in urban areas. We may speak the same dialect, but their way of life is very different. To understand it, I just did whatever my host family did—I would help them cook meals, eat with them, work in the fields with them or travel to visit with friends and relatives in other villages.”
Once she started conducting interviews, Shi’s skills were tested on a daily basis. “At the beginning it was awkward!” she says, laughing. “I didn’t feel comfortable, or people didn’t want to talk to me. Some of them thought I was an insurance sales agent visiting each family.” Fortunately, her grandfather, who was from the county seat, was able to ease her introduction to the community through his sister-in-law’s brother, and over the next several months, she slowly started gaining the trust of Lijia’s residents. “My relative would help me choose families he was close with. If I wanted to interview an elderly person, he would take me to a family with an elderly person; if I wanted to interview a younger family, he would ask his granddaughter for suggestions, and we’d branch out from there.”
During her longest stint in the village, Shi stayed with her host family for nearly 12 months, becoming close friends with many of the residents and gradually recording their stories. Yet even after her neighbors began opening up during their conversations with her, Shi says they still seemed somewhat bewildered by her pointed questions.
“A few of them said, ‘Why study us? What is there to study?’ I tried to explain that they were making certain choices, only having one daughter, and I wanted to understand why. They didn’t see anything important to study about their lives. A lot of the time, they were more curious about me—they wanted to know about the foods I ate in the U.S., whether my friends in the States celebrated Chinese New Year or even just how American farmers operated.”
Still, Shi kept returning to her questions, and over time she acquired a fuller understanding of how the rural families’ reproductive choices have been influenced not only by government policy, but also by economic and cultural forces in the new China. She will analyze the impact of these forces in detail in her upcoming book, Choosing Daughters: Family Change in Rural China, which will be published by Stanford University Press.
Ironically, in a nation that’s officially communist, Shi found that money is proving to be a major factor in the social fabric of Lijia. Over the past few decades, as manufacturing and global trade have expanded in China, material goods have become more and more available, even to citizens with modest incomes. As a result, a sort of consumer culture is emerging in the village.
“In the past, having a son was almost a marker for a family’s status,” says Shi. “Without one, they were considered ‘finished’ in the community. Today, though, wealth has become a new marker for family status.”
This focus on wealth has slowly begun to change family dynamics, she adds. Instead of choosing to spread an already modest income among several children, many parents prefer to stop with one child—even if it’s a girl—in order to devote more of their financial resources to her well-being. Ideally, Shi notes, the goal is to give their only child a comfortable lifestyle, complete with a cellphone, leisure time and an advanced education.
Residents of Lijia are quite open about this sort of thinking, says Shi. As one villager told her, a couple with only one child could afford to buy a motorcycle, whereas a larger family would have to save money in order to support its children. In this way, China’s growing market economy seems to be having a profound impact on reproductive choice.
Shi also found that the new emphasis on obtaining material comforts for one’s family does not end when the children become adults. As more “stuff” becomes the norm, social obligations like weddings grow in their scale and cost.
Parents are expected to provide lavish celebrations and gifts for a son’s marriage, arranging huge receptions and banquets, and in some cases even building a house for the newlyweds. Over the past 30 years, however, these expenditures have become increasingly extravagant. “When I gave birth to my son, 10,000 yuan [$1,500] was absolutely enough for a son’s wedding,” a Lijia resident told her. “Now it is so much more, and who knows how much more it will be when my son is ready to marry.”
By 2006, Shi says, the average price for a wedding had grown to more than 100,000 yuan [$15,000]. “That’s an astronomical sum for most of the families in Lijia, but there’s a lot of social pressure to pay for wedding expenses,” she explains. “That has trapped many families in severe debt.”
Financial pressure may be one reason Lijia’s residents are less inclined to value sons exclusively. But the uptick in wedding expenses is just one of many factors driving a change in village culture. Equally important, Shi notes, is a shift in the social contract between sons and parents.
It is customary for a son in rural China to take care of his parents in their old age, providing financial and other support. This ethic of filial piety, however, seems to be undergoing a significant transformation. In a communist society, collective farming—a communal effort to bring in a crop—has replaced traditional family-based farming, which was controlled by an elderly patriarch. Meanwhile, Shi says, an emerging market economy, largely powered by manufacturing, has given young villagers a new opportunity to earn a living on their own. As a result, Shi says, parental power has declined and intergenerational relations have been renegotiated.
“A son’s filial support can no longer be taken for granted,” she explains. “Parents often say that ‘If sons aren’t filial, it is no use having a son.’”
Instead of assuming they can rely on a son, an increasing number of couples have started finding alternative ways to prepare for their old age. They take out insurance policies, make investments and cultivate close ties with daughters, Shi notes.
“The majority of couples I interviewed believed that daughters exceeded sons in expressing intimate care, showing respect and providing financial and physical support to parents,” she reports. “There’s a saying in the region that ‘A daughter is like a little quilted vest to warm her parents’ hearts.’ Just as a vest offers warmth in a cold winter, a daughter shares an intimate bonding with her parents.”
Shi is quick to note that although her observations in Lijia are striking, they aren’t necessarily applicable to the entire country. Chinese society remains extremely diverse. In some areas, a strong preference for sons is alive and well, but in others, local cultures are clearly shifting away from patriarchal traditions. Shi has sought to illuminate this trend by documenting the experiences of individual families.
“I want to create a nuanced view of the impact that a market economy has on reproductive choice,” Shi says. “It’s a huge privilege to know these families and share in their stories. Now, I have the responsibility to tell others what their lives are like.”
David Levin is a freelance science and technology reporter based in Boston.