Choosing Daughters
Family Change in Rural China
Lihong Shi



In 1983, Wang Jing, a woman who was from Lijia Village and who married into a neighboring village, was targeted by local birth-planning officials for sterilization surgery because she already had two daughters.1 Her family lived next to the village government building, and she could hear it very clearly when the village head announced her name through the loudspeakers for education meetings, organized for women who were required to have sterilization surgery. Because her husband was the only son of his family, whenever they heard the announcement, her widowed mother-in-law would cry that the Lu family (her husband’s family) would be finished without a grandson. To fulfill her mother-in-law’s desire for a grandson and their own desire for a son, Wang Jing and her husband decided to defy the government mandate and have a third child. They had to run away from their village and move multiple times to avoid a confrontation with birth-planning officials, who were determined to prevent them from having an unauthorized birth. In 1985, after hiding in a town outside their province for a few months, they finally gave birth to a third child, a son. They sent a letter to her mother-in-law, with a photo of their son, to share the good news. But her mother-in-law did not believe them and insisted that they had lied to her to please her. Wang Jing and her husband returned home when their son was nine months old. The moment when they arrived home, her mother-in-law took their son, put him on bed, and opened layers of blankets and clothes. When she finally saw with her own eyes that the baby was indeed a boy, she was so happy that she burst into tears.

Around the same time, a very different story was taking place in Lijia Village. In 1980, when the one-child policy was initiated in the village, a couple named Li Liang and Zhao Yan gave birth to their first child, a daughter. Encouraged by the local government with incentives of an extra piece of land and a small amount of monthly monetary reward, they applied the following year for a one-child certificate (dusheng zinu guangrong zheng), a pledge with the government not to have a second child. In 1986, the one-child limit was relaxed to allow rural couples whose first child was a girl to have a second child. Li Liang and Zhao Yan were among the first group of Lijia couples who were granted a second-birth permit. Over the next few years, they seriously debated whether they should have another child. Eventually, to the surprise of other villagers, they decided not to take advantage of the modified policy and gave up their second-child permit. Li Liang and Zhao Yan were the first couple in Lijia Village who voluntarily chose to have a singleton daughter (only one child, a daughter) rather than take advantage of the policy. Following their example, an increasing number of young Lijia couples made the same decision to forgo the new policy and limit themselves to a singleton daughter. In 2006, twenty years after the implementation of the policy that allowed rural couples whose first child was a girl to have a second child, choosing to have a singleton daughter had become widely accepted in Lijia Village and the township area.

Wang Jing’s story reveals China’s long-standing tradition of preferring sons and the strong resistance of rural couples to the implementation of China’s massive and pervasive birth-planning policy (jihua shengyu zhengce), designed to limit family growth and consequently the opportunity to have a son. The stories of couples like Li Liang and Zhao Yan, by contrast, suggest significant shifts in reproductive preferences and the increasing appreciation of girls. This book offers a detailed ethnographic account of this emerging reproductive pattern in rural China, where a noticeable proportion of young couples have willingly accepted a singleton daughter rather than take advantage of the relaxed birth-planning policy to have a second child. The book focuses on the complex decision making of these couples in regard to their life goals and childrearing aspirations, changing family dynamics and gender relations, and parent-daughter ties, which have engendered the transformation of reproductive preferences.

The Birth-Planning Campaign and China’s “Missing Girls”

Control over population and reproductive activities has been a crucial component of state governance among modern nation states (Browner and Sargent 2011; Ginsburg and Rapp 1991; Greenhalgh 1994; Kligman 1998). But no population policy matches China’s birth-planning campaign in both the scope and intensity of policy enforcement. This unprecedented birth-planning campaign was strengthened in the 1970s, when the Chinese leadership was eager, after ending decades of political turmoil and international isolation, to develop the national economy and considered population growth an immense barrier to modernization. The profound threat of a large population size to economic growth legitimized the implementation of the most massive and stringent population policy in modern human history. Thus, in 1979 a nationwide one-child mandate was implemented in China (Greenhalgh 2008; Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005; Scharping 2003; White 2006), with exceptions applied to couples under certain circumstances (Shi 2017).

To enforce its ambitious and often unpopular policy throughout the country, the Chinese state introduced a set of enforcement measures, including building a multilevel birth-planning bureaucracy to enforce the birth limit, education campaigns targeting a deeply rooted childbearing preference for a large family with at least one son, provision of contraceptive services and mandatory contraception, close surveillance of couples who had not yet achieved their reproductive goals, monetary incentives and punishment that closely linked reproductive choice to an individual’s socioeconomic well-being and career advancement—and, when all these measures fail, the extreme measure of forced sterilization and abortion (Banister 1987; Greenhalgh 1994; Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005; Huang and Yang 2004; Potter and Potter 1990; Scharping 2003; Shi 2014; White 2006).

The pervasive and intrusive policy aimed at limiting family growth is, however, in direct conflict with the long-standing tradition of a preference for multiple children and for at least one son among Chinese families. In China’s patrilineal kinship system and the Confucian belief and practice of filial piety, a son is expected to offer his parents financial support and nursing care in their old age (Baker 1979; Freedman 1970; Hsu 1948). In addition, a son is essential to passing on the patrilineal family line and practicing ancestor worship. A daughter, however, joins her husband’s patrilineage upon marriage. Her filial obligation is thus transferred to her parents-in-law, and she is of no value to the continuity of the patrilineage of her natal family (Du 2011; Knapp 2005; Tan 2004; R. S. Watson 2004; Wolf 1972). Because a son is economically responsible for offering old-age support and culturally significant for continuing the patrilineage, producing at least one male heir has been one of the most significant life goals among Chinese families (Hsu 1948; Wolf and Huang 1980).

Consequently, when the strong desire for a son clashed with the pervasive state campaign to limit family growth, couples who had not yet achieved their reproductive goals persistently resisted policy enforcement. The strategies for resistance varied under different circumstances. The most defiant form was open confrontation with birth-planning officials, such as destroying crops on their family land and damaging their houses to retaliate and even engaging in physical violence (Greenhalgh 1994; Wasserstrom 1984; White 2003, 193–99). More evasive forms of resistance included fleeing and hiding during unauthorized pregnancies to avoid detection by birth-planning officials (Anagnost 1995; Croll 2000, 82–82; Potter and Potter 1990, 241–42; Shi 2014; White 2006, 173–77) and illicit removal of intrauterine devices (IUDs) (Greenhalgh 1994; Wasserstrom 1984; White 2003, 180). Some couples circumvented the policy by devising plans to have one more child, for instance, by bribing medical personnel to issue a false certificate of a child’s congenital defects so that they would be allowed to have another child and engineering a false divorce so that an unauthorized pregnancy would be allowed (Greenhalgh 1994; Shi 2017; White 2006, 179–81).2

Perhaps the most controversial form of resistance was the gendered practice of infant abandonment and sex-selective abortion. Hoping for a son, some couples adopted out an unwanted daughter and some even abandoned a female infant, so that they would be allowed to have another child (Johnson 1996, 2016; Johnson, Huang, and Wang 1998; Weiguo Zhang 2006). Since ultrasound technology became widely available as a way to determine a fetus’s sex and abortion became easily accessible in the 1980s in China, the hunger for a son under strict state reproductive control led to the most violent form of resistance—the abortion of female fetuses (Chu 2001; Murphy 2003; Zeng et al. 1993). This “unnatural selection” (Hvistendahl 2011) has caused a male-biased sex ratio at birth in China (Chu 2001; Murphy 2003; Zeng et al. 1993). According to the official statistics in China, in 2015 China’s sex ratio at birth was 113.5:100 (NBSPRC 2016). Although this ratio is much decreased from previous years, it is still beyond the normal range.

The long-term female deficit has led to growing concerns with China’s “missing girls” (or “missing women),” a term coined by economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (1990) to refer to a male-biased sex ratio in the developing world, notably India and China (Anderson and Ray 2010). Despite that the Chinese government has designed and implemented a series of measures to prevent sex-selective abortion and has even criminalized health practitioners who collaborate with couples in such practices, the long-term consequence of a male-biased sex ratio has created a marriage squeeze, resulting in millions of men who face the prospect of not being able to marry during their lifetime. The Chinese government has estimated that by 2020 the number of men between the ages of twenty and forty-five will be thirty million more than the number of women in the same age group in China (Jiang 2007). International observers are alert to the potential problems an imbalanced sex ratio can cause. Human rights activists are worried about an increase of trafficking of women and sex slavery, and some alarmists have even warned of the threat of a large number of unattached bachelors to domestic stability and international security (Hudson and den Boer 2005; Hvistendahl 2011).3

The increasing concerns with China’s “missing” and abandoned girls and the potential consequences of a female deficit have turned media attention and academic studies to searching for the roots of the problem. Inside China, continuing discrimination against girls in some regions has been closely associated with a lasting backward and rural preference for sons, whereas the international community has blamed the draconian state control over population for the suffering of Chinese girls (Loh and Remick 2015). While discrimination against girls, manifested by the practice of female infanticide in the past, had become a marker of a backward Chinese culture in the nineteenth century (King 2014), economic development, technological advances, and state governance in modern times have not improved the lives of Chinese girls; on the contrary, they have exacerbated the plight of these girls.

An Emerging Reproductive Pattern of Choosing a Singleton Daughter

This book focuses on an emerging pattern of rural couples’ choosing voluntarily to have a singleton daughter. This choice is particularly surprising because the birth-planning policy, since the mid-1980s, allowed these couples to have a second child and thus a chance to have a son. More strikingly, these couples have shown great appreciation of and affection toward their singleton daughter and have supported that daughter in an unprecedented manner. This book does not attempt to deny the gender-biased reproductive practice that still persists in some regions in China. Instead, it tries to bring to light a critical yet largely overlooked reproductive pattern emerging in China’s demographic landscape. While discussing the diversity of reproductive behaviors in China, Judith Banister (1987) has stated: “A common problem in the study of huge countries like China is the tendency to deal only in the aggregate, ignoring the variety and complexity of subnational experience. Yet, better understanding of the regional and even the national picture can be derived from a look below the surface” (251). This book is thus an attempt to look “below the surface” of the diverse and complex reproductive choices in China to reveal the new pattern and transformations within rural Chinese families that have engendered the new reproductive pattern.

Rural families who have voluntarily chosen to have a singleton daughter are officially recognized as dunuhu (household with a singleton daughter), a phrase introduced by the state birth-planning bureaucracy. These families have decided to forgo the opportunity to have a second child that the policy provided for rural couples whose first child was a girl. This reproductive choice has been documented in Shandong Province (Liu and Ding 1993), Zhejiang Province (Xinmei Huang 1994; Rong Zheng 2004), and Jiangsu Province (Li 2009) in East China, Hubei Province in Central China (Ci and Tian 2004; Hong Zhang 2007; Zhou and Zhou 2001), and Liaoning Province (Mu et al. 2009) and Heilongjiang Province in Northeast China (Yan 2003). Along with this reproductive pattern, a low fertility rate and a relatively balanced sex ratio at birth have also been reported (Xinmei Huang 1994; Mu et al. 2009; Hong Zhang 2007; Zhou and Zhou 2001). Ethnographic studies on changing childbearing practices in rural China have mentioned the choice to have a singleton daughter. In Heilongjiang Province, a “new fertility culture” had emerged by the late 1990s, in which a large number of villagers willingly accepted only one child, and some couples were even content with a singleton daughter (Yan 2003, 200–203). Similarly, in Hubei Province in Central China in the early 2000s, as a feature of new fertility trends, some families had voluntarily chosen to have only one daughter (Hong Zhang 2007).

Recognizing and responding to this new reproductive pattern, the Chinese government in several provinces has recently begun to provide financial aid to elderly couples who have a singleton daughter. For example, in 2008, the government of Jilin Province in Northeast China initiated a pilot program to provide rural couples who had a singleton daughter with an old-age security fund (Jilin Provincial Government 2008). Several other regions—for instance, Hubei and Guizhou Provinces and the Chongqing metropolitan area (Huang and Zhang 2015; Tai and Li 2015; Zhao 2014)—have implemented a preferential policy in college admission for singleton daughters as rewards and incentives for rural families with a singleton daughter. In Hubei Province the policy was first enforced in 2009; in 2014, 15,862 singleton daughters from rural families had benefited from the policy (Huang and Zhang 2015).

The emerging reproductive pattern among rural Chinese couples who choose to have a singleton daughter reveals two distinct transformations of reproductive preference among rural Chinese families. First, instead of adhering to the large family ideal, these couples have chosen to have only one child. Second, and more strikingly, by voluntarily forgoing the opportunity to have a second child, a chance for a son, these couples have diverged from the long-standing belief that holds sons indispensable. The pattern of choosing a singleton daughter has emerged under massive and stringent state control over population growth. This choice thus coincides with rather than contradicts state-mandated fertility norms. Although state promotion of a small family ideal and the value of girls has played a significant role in the decision-making of young Chinese couples, acceptance of a singleton daughter is a grassroots choice, the result of their pursuit of a modern family, a successful child, and an intimate parent-child bond rather than a passive response to the draconian state reproductive governance.

The reproductive choice to have a singleton daughter involves a decision-making process. When young people reach the important life stage of married life, they learn to be wife and husband, daughter-in-law and son-in-law, and mother and father as their families grow and as they take on new family responsibilities. Meanwhile, these young people have to constantly adjust their desires and adapt to changes in the communal and societal environment, including rising consumption and changing gender dynamics. Their decision to have a singleton daughter is thus a consequence of continuous responses to their changing family responsibilities and transformed social, economic, and cultural environment—to “the diverse flows of conduct of which fertility is composed” (Carter 1995, 83). This book delves into the various forces behind the complex decision-making process of these couples to reveal a desire for a small family and a divergence from the long-standing tradition of son preference in China.


1. To protect the privacy of my informants, I use pseudonyms for the names of the village, the township, the county, and all of my informants.

2. According to the birth-planning policy, a couple whose child was certified to have congenital defects was allowed to have a second child. A couple who already had one child could divorce and arrange a marriage between the wife and a childless man. The birth-planning policy granted a couple a birth permit if one spouse did not have a child before the marriage. After the woman gave birth to a child, she could terminate her marriage and remarry her former husband. If the arrangement was not detected, the couple was able to have a second child without any financial penalty.

3. The alarmist argument has been critiqued as reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes and orientalist images of China (see Hartmann 2006; Ross 2010).