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Commentary: ‘I almost lost my will to live’ – preference for sons leaves women in China exploited and abused

Popular Chinese television series in recent years – Ode To Joy (2016), All Is Well (2019) and I Will Find You A Better Home (2020) – have sparked renewed attention to the family discrimination and ill-treatment that many female children continue to endure in contemporary Chinese society.

Many of these women have taken to social media to discuss their situation. In my recent research, I studied some of the thousands of posts and video clips dedicated to the topic of son preference, posted on Chinese websites like Zhihu (a Q&A forum) and Bilibili (a video-sharing site). My findings show how difficult it is for women to break this exploitative relationship, even when they have grown up.

‘I ALMOST LOST MY WILL TO LIVE’

In families with strong son preference, daughters are moulded from birth to understand that they are unworthy receivers of family resources, forever indebted to their family for being born. This contributes to a deep sense of insecurity and low self-esteem and leads to a lifelong obligation to repay their “debt” by providing for the family.

A senior high school student commented on how her destiny is being shaped by expectations that she support her family financially. This has left her feeling worthless, unloved and even suicidal: “My mum has been very frank with me and keeps reminding me that, ‘I bring you up for old age security, you should give me how much a month later and you should provide for your younger brother and help with his studies financially.’ I have never felt loved, and I am always eager to be loved. I am insecure and I have very low self-esteem … I wanted to jump from stairs to commit suicide so that I could finally be happy.”

Another post highlighted how son preference is instilled even in young girls, through misogynistic and demeaning remarks: “When my auntie was pregnant and I was still little, my uncle told me that I must pray it’s going to be a little brother because only then we will get to eat chicken drumsticks. If it’s a sister, we will only eat chicken shit.”

One woman described the desperation she felt, being forced to provide for her family’s monthly living expenses. She wrote that during the Chinese New Year, she even gave the hongbao (a monetary gift) that she had received from her boyfriend, to her mother.

“The first few months when I had my first job, I was pestered by them so much for money, I almost lost my will to live. Even though I have a boyfriend now, I am prepared for a break up at any time. I wanted to know why when they knew I was a girl, they didn’t just strangle me to death.”

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