The founding of New China put an end to the feudal marital and family system that had endured for several millennia. Independent marriage based on mutual love and a family life in which husband and wife are equal have become the main current in contemporary Chinese Society.
Women have gained the right of self-determination in marriage. In old China, over 95 percent of marriages were arranged and on a monetary basis. Over the last 40-odd years, the degree of freedom in choosing a partner has increased significantly. Sample investigations show that 74 percent of young couples make the decision themselves to wed or do so after consultation with their parents, and 80 percent of marriages of women under 40 years old are based on their own choice. Women's rights with regard to divorce and remarriage are also duly guaranteed. This fact has helped improve the quality of marriage and enhance family stability. In addition, it lays an emotional foundation for equality between husband and wife in the family.
Chinese women have gained the important personal right of being able to retain their maiden names. In old China, surnames symbolized the continuity of a clan. Most women had no formal name before marriage. They adopted their husband's surname after they wed and children used their father's surname. In New China, both husband and wife have equal right to use their own names and children do not have to adopt their father's surname as was the former custom. In cities, quite a few children take their mother's surname.
Women's economic independence has promoted their status in the family. In old China, family heads were predominantly men. In New China, women earn their own income through work. The share of women's earnings in total family income has risen from 20 percent in the 1950s to the present 40 percent. In some families, especially rural households which are headed by women and which specialize in certain areas of production, the money brought in by women makes up as much as 60-70 percent of the family total. As they have become economically independent, Chinese women have gained more management and decision-making power in principal family and economic matters. Sample investigations show that in over 58 percent of urban and rural families, major affairs are decided by the husband and wife together. This figure continues to climb.
Women enjoy the same rights of possession and inheritance of family property as men. In old China, family assets could only be owned and inherited by men. If a widow remarried, she could take nothing and a married daughter had no right to inherit anything from her parents. Nowadays, in the overwhelming majority of families, husband and wife jointly own family property and they have equal access to its use and allocation. It has become common practice for husband and wife to enjoy the same bequeathment rights and for sons and daughters to have equal rights as heirs.
Historical changes have taken place in family relationship. The traditional family characterized by the authority of husband and patriarchal system has gradually been replaced by the modern family mode, marked by equality and a democratic and harmonious atmosphere. In both urban and rural areas, the relationships between husband and wife and between parents-in-law and daughter-in-law are equal. There is social disapproval of ill-treatment meted out to wives and daughters-in-law. Women's personal dignity, their rights to education and work as well as their ideals and pursuits, are generally respected by their husbands and other family members. In the past, a wife took on all the housework. Nowadays, in most Chinese families, husband and wife share this task together. They support each other in their careers and help each other in everyday life. In China, such families with close emotional ties are emerging in large numbers.
China has 267 million families and every year about 10 million newlywed couples join their ranks. The Chinese government has consistently protected marriage and the family, emphasized equality between husband and wife, and fostered the Chinese national tradition of respect for the old, love for the young and harmonious relations in the family. Currently, the divorce rate in China is 1.54 per thousand. Because Chinese families are basically stable, family functions, such as living arrangements, child rearing and support for the elderly, are fully in evidence. Most of the elderly enjoy support and care from their children as well as society.
The Chinese government pays much attention to the building of families and considers family stability and progress to be the basis for social stability and progress. Governments at all levels list enhancement of family cultural levels in their overall planning for local cultural and ideological advance. Much effective work has been done in this regard. Associations for respect of the elderly and for fostering of morals, and wedding and funeral councils have been set up in many places, effectively improving the general family and village atmosphere. Over the years, campaigns to create civilized and fine families and various other related activities have been launched in urban and rural areas. They have helped improve the overall attributes of family members and promote family democracy and harmony, between husband and wife and among all members.
The Chinese government has made significant efforts to promote social welfare undertakings and accelerate the socialization of housework. The state encourages and supports efforts to expand community services. Handy help networks have been set up in large numbers, and efforts are made to develop branches that are closely related to daily life -- foodstuffs, vegetables, commerce, gas and light industrial products. Currently, various housework service facilities are surging in urban and rural China. There are 450,000 nurseries and kindergartens nationwide. The entrance rate to these reaches 70 percent of pre-school age children in towns and 32 percent in the countryside. Convenience foods and electrical household appliances are finding their way into families. As a result, the average time women spend on housework daily has generally decreased. In cities, professional women put an average of 3.75 hours into household chores. This is almost equivalent to the time spent on such tasks by their female counterparts in developed countries.
Women's rights to decide whether or not to bear children are duly protected. In old China, women were just childbearing tools, and they were often persecuted by their parents-in-law or abandoned by their husbands because they were unable to provide any offspring, let alone a son. In New China, women are in control of their own child bearing and they can discuss with their spouses whether or not they will go through with a pregnancy. Historically, Chinese women were victims of early marriage and burdened by excessive numbers of offspring. They display great enthusiasm for the state's family planning policy and the overwhelming majority of them are willing to marry late and have children late, and to have fewer children so as to guarantee a better quality of life for them. The contraception rate among married women reaches 83 percent in the country as a whole, and over 90 percent in some places. In 1992, the birth rate for the Chinese population was 18.24 per thousand and the natural population growth rate was 11.6 per thousand, representing respective decreases of 45.4 percent and 55 percent over 1970. In the same period, the gross fertility rate fell from 5.81 to about 2.0.
Maternal health is protected by the state. In old China, since there were no maternity and child care centers, countless women died from pregnancy complications or other gynaecological complaints. New China has devoted much efforts to developing health care for women and children. Governments at all levels have special functional departments in charge of maternity and child hygiene. Health centers in this regard have been set up at all levels in both urban and rural areas. By the end of 1992, China had 346 maternity and children's health care centers, 2,841 clinics and 34 pediatric hospitals, initially forming a national health network for women and children. At present, 98 percent of pregnant women in urban areas and 70 percent in rural areas can receive prenatal examinations. Modern methods are adopted for 84.1 percent of deliveries in China. Compared with the early days after the founding of New China, the mortality rate for pregnant and lying-in women has dropped from 1,500 per hundred thousand to about 94.7 per hundred thousand, and the infant mortality rate has fallen from 200 per thousand to 31.42 per thousand. Some common ailments and frequently-occurring diseases that threaten female health have effectively been prevented or put under control. Every year close to 40 million women receive preventive health checks. In the light of the poor hygienic and medical conditions and high incidence of disease in ethnic minority areas, the state has attached great importance to developing women's health care facilities there. Enormous efforts have been put into popularizing modern delivery methods, health care for women and children, prevention and control of frequently-occurring diseases and elementary knowledge of hygiene and sanitation. Much has been done to train midwives and gynecological and pediatric medical workers. In addition, authorities at all levels often organize mobile medical teams to visit farming and pastoral areas and other ethnic communities. Free medical care for women is provided in Tibet and other regions.
Thanks to all these efforts, the average life expectancy of Chinese women has risen from 36.7 years in old China to the present 72 years. This is three years above the figure for Chinese men and seven years higher than the average life expectancy of 65 years set as a goal by the United Nations for the women of the world by the year 2000.
However, in spite of all these achievements, the influence of feudal concepts and regional imbalances in economic and cultural development continues to show their effect. The bad habits of arranged and mercenary marriage linger on in some rural areas, especially in the outlying and backward spots. Cases of drowning and abandonment of female infants and trafficking in women occur from time to time. The Chinese government is paying close attention to these problems. It is vigorously advocating the equality of the sexes and educating women to use legal weapons to defend themselves. Strong measures have been adopted against unlawful cruel treatment of women to ensure that their legitimate rights and interests are not infringed upon.
(White Paper on Women)