Ancestral Worship and Gender Imbalance in China

Recently, the One Child Policy that had existed in China for the past thirty-seven years was lifted, and now allows for Chinese couples to have more than just a single child.  In light of this, this paper will be examining the events that led up to the enacting of this policy, and relating those events to how they had an effect on the ancestral worshiping practices in China.  It will then go into the ways that ancestral worshiping practice created a gender imbalance among the Chinese population that the country is still currently suffering from.  This analysis begins with Mao Zedong’s rule of China, and his establishment of the People’s Republic of China as the communist government in China.

The People’s Republic of China came to power as a result of China needing a strong central government to create order within the country.  The Communist beliefs of the government had an influence on the extent that religious practices were stressed by the Chinese population.  Karl Marx, the author of the Communist Manifesto, wrote in another one of his literary works that “Religion is the opium of the people”.  This reflects the communist belief that religion clouds people’s views of the world, and leads to people failing to achieve what is best for everyone.  Mao took this belief to heart when ruling over China because he was set on building the country into an economic powerhouse, and there was no room for religious practices.

Ancestral worship in China is a sacred practice that is passed down from generation to generation, and relies on a patriarchal lineage from fathers to sons for it to continue on.  The role of women in the religious practice is to honor their husband’s ancestors, and to provide a son that will honor herself and her husband once they move into the afterlife.  This results in China having a deeply rooted patriarchal society, and for parents to favor having a son over a daugher because they desire to be worshiped after death.  An example of these practices is the burning of incense and providing food offerings to wooden ancestral tablets that are inscribed with the names and dates of their deceased relatives.

Mao Zedong’s main focus during his rule of China was to establish it as a communist economic power, and to do this by building the country’s workforce.  His plan to accomplish this was to encourage families to have more children, and ban the use of contraception in the country.  This was then exponentially increased by the invention of modern medicine and sanitation.  Throughout his time as ruler of China, the country was consistently dealing with food shortages if not an outright famine, but the population continued to steadily increase despite it.  When Mao came to power in 1949 the country had just under 600,000 people, and by the end of his rule in 1976, the population was just shy of 1 billion people (Wulf 1949-1976).  In just over a quarter of a decade, Mao had achieved his goal of building one of the largest workforces of any country in the world.  The only problem with having such as large population was the inability to provide food for everyone, and it was one of the contributing factors to the famines in China.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the country was in a power struggle between keeping with Mao’s policies or to move on from them entirely.  Despite the chaos, the government in place created the One Child Policy in 1979, and released the letter to the public in 1980 that they will be limited to only a single child.  This policy led to a great disparity between the genders because of the patriarchal ancestral beliefs.  While there had already been an increasing number of males to females during Mao’s rule, the implementation of this policy insured it’s fate. The imbalance between males and females in China currently sits at 117.78 males for every 100 females (Guilford 2). While this doesn’t seem like an incredibly large difference, it becomes an issue when considering all the other gender issues that will be magnified by this.  Also while males will provide their parents with ancestral worship, many will be unable to find a wife to have a son that will further their patriarchal lineage.  This will result in many Chinese men remaining unwed, and these meaningful families lines to die out.

Ancestral worshiping has been greatly impacted by the communist regime because of the belief by the government that it would only hinder growth and provide the people with false hopes of the future.  This led to a declining the popularity of ancestral worshiping practice such as burning incense or providing food offering to their ancestral tablets.  Ancestral worship then impacted the population by the favoritism of boys in the patriarchal society creating a gender imbalance within the country.  This all culminated to create the gender disparity in modern day China, and has led to the magnifying of other gender related issues among the population.

One thought on “Ancestral Worship and Gender Imbalance in China

  1. Rachel Davies

    I agree that the patrilineal line in China has played a huge role in ancestor worship for centuries. When I was researching ghost marriages I noticed that families would often marry off their deceased daughters in order to keep their family line intact. A daughter isn’t considered to be a father’s child because she will marry into someone else’s household. That thought process has probably played a role in the importance of sons during China’s One Child Policy. Daughters could not be worshiped by their birth families if they died before married because of that reason. Families needed to have a son in order to receive offerings in the afterlife. It is interesting how this mindset has continued even when religion was not valued or was prohibited by the government.

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