Danke LI

For centuries women were educated in China to become good wives and devoted mothers. China passed a bill in 1922 to ensure women legal rights to education afforded to men, and female enrollment and literacy rates improved greatly by the mid-twentieth century. But women living in cities and coastal regions experience more progress than those in rural, inland areas, and gender inequality still exists in curriculum, limiting opportunities for women in employment, pay, and status.

For much of China’s history, women did not enjoy the same access to education and knowledge as men. Families and clans (especially the well-to-do) provided schooling for Chinese women, much of it geared to prepare women for marriage and child rearing, whereas many men had access to formal training geared to serving China’s imperial bureaucracies. Priorities for education changed with the forming of the republic in 1911, a law to ensure legal rights for education to both sexes in 1922, and as the Communists took control in 1949. Literacy rates for women and female enrollment at all school levels gradually and then greatly improved, especially after the reform and opening of China that began in 1978 and the compulsory education bill of 1986. But gender equality still exists, especially in rural inland regions.

Imperial-Era Educational Tradition

Although an active tradition of women’s learning (nǚxué 女学) existed throughout China’s long imperial history, Chinese women had less access to schooling than men. Women were not part of the civil service examination (kējǔ kǎoshì 科举考试), the formal educational system connected to social mobility and China’s officialdom. The limited educational opportunity women gained in imperial China was mostly a byproduct of the ruling classes’ desire to control female behavior. Based on the principles set forth in Ban Zhao’s 班昭 Admonitions for Women 女诫 during the Han 汉 dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), ruling elites in subsequent dynasties tried hard to mold women by teaching them according to prescribed norms. This type of learning, however, promoted and provided by families and clans, unintentionally allowed women, especially those from well-to-do families, some opportunities to become educated. In imperial Chinese history some elite Chinese women achieved not only literacy but also literary recognition, contributing to the development of China’s elite culture.

Late Qing and the Republic of China

Schools that provided formal and systematic modern education for Chinese women were established first by foreign missionaries after China’s defeat in the first Opium War in 1839. By 1876, the Protestant missions alone had established 121 girls’ schools in China with 2,101 students (Chen 1979, 73). Missionary schools not only introduced modern educational curricula that included science, social science, math, and physical education, but also trained the first generation of professional women in China, some of whom became leaders in medicine, nursing, and education. Given China’s population of roughly 400 million at the time, however, only a few Chinese women benefited from the missionary education.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some Chinese reformers began to push for women’s education in China. They saw that China’s weak position against Western imperialism was closely connected with the lack of modern education for Chinese women. China must train women to become good wives and devoted mothers, they believed, so that stronger future citizens could be produced and a stronger China could be built. Although the reformers’ intention was not really to empower women or encourage their self-development, such efforts promoted the improvement of women’s education. Meanwhile, China’s budding media and revolutionary organizations also began to advocate for women’s education; some became front-runners in this endeavor by establishing women’s publications and contributing articles to magazines and journals.

Under pressure, the Qing 清 government issued decrees to reform women’s education by officially accepting privately established schools for girls and launching public schools for girls and women as part of the building of a modern national education system in China. The government also allowed a few elite Chinese women the opportunity to study abroad. In general, during this period of government-sponsored reforms, co-education was not promoted and girls and women’s education developed slowly in comparison to new schools for boys and men. According to a government statistics, in 1907 there were 34,000 new schools for boys and men nationwide, in terms of Chinese-established, nonmissionary schools, yet only 428 schools were for girls and women, who made up 0.67 of the of the total student population in China (Zhu 1983, 649–672).Most schools for females provided elementary or vocational education, especially normal schools (i.e., schools that trained teachers); institutions providing general secondary and higher education for women were rare. In addition to gender inequality in educational access, during this period most of the new schools for Chinese women still aimed at educating girls to become good wives and devoted mothers and at preserving existing gender structures, not at promoting gender equality in education (a few schools established by anti-Qing Chinese revolutionaries to the exception). In spite of this fact some progressive and reformist elite, urban Chinese men and women did vigorously promote women’s education and women’s rights.

In late 1911, an anti-Manchu revolution toppled the last Chinese imperial dynasty and China became a republic. The 1911 Revolution 辛亥革命 generated new enthusiasm among progressive elite men and women for advancing women’s education in China. In Shanghai and Nanjing, women’s suffrage organizations consciously made the improvement of women’s education their political goal and used their organizational power to petition the newly established republican government to pay attention to women’s education. In 1912, when Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培, a progressive educator, became the first Minister of Education of the Republic of China, he pushed for the establishment of a new national education system, trying to improve gender equality in education. The most visible accomplishment of this system was the installation of co-education in elementary schools. Permission was also given to build general, vocational, industrial, and normal secondary schools as well as higher normal universities for girls and women, thus greatly expanding the scope of women’s education in China. The total number of women’s schools in China increased from 2,389 (with 141,130 students) in 1912 to 3,766 (with 180,949 students) in 1915 (Chen 1979, 271–272). During the early republican era, women’s education began to shift from the private sector of family and clan to the public domain and responsibility of the state and society. General higher education was not opened to women, however, and female students were required to take gender-specific courses in sewing and home economics in addition to fulfilling the general course requirements for male students. China’s leading educators in the early republican period still envisioned women’s gender role as mainly domestic, and thus geared their schools make women better-educated homemakers.

In 1919, an anti-imperialist student protest reacted against British and European delegates at the Paris Peace Conference who voted to award former German-occupied concessions in Shandong to Japan instead of returning them to China. The protest spurred a nation-wide social and cultural phenomenon, the May Fourth Movement 五四运动, which lasted well into the 1920s. Educational equality for women featured prominently in this movement but differed from the previous debates and movements in at least two ways. First, unlike previous efforts aimed at producing better home makers, the May Fourth Movement connected women’s education with women’s liberation and declared education to be the pre-condition and foundation of women’s liberation and lasting gender equality in China on all fronts. Second, the May Fourth Movement challenged China’s educational philosophy to support the education of women independent human beings equal to men. It called for gender equality in co-education at all levels, including higher education, previously unavailable to women except in foreign missionary schools.

Many Chinese women participated vigorously in the May Fourth fight. The spring semester of 1920, with nine Chinese women auditing courses at Peking University, marked the beginning of women’s participation in China’s higher education system. In 1921, only 51 Chinese women attended nonmissionary Chinese universities and the number increased to 665 in 1922 and 973 in 1925 respectively (Shu 1985, 378). Although women constituted a very small percentage, about 4 to 5 percent of university students in China during this period, the entrance of female students to China’s higher education sparked the Chinese Ministry of Education to announce on 1 November 1922 the School System Reform Bill 学制系统改革令, which was modeled after the US school system and legalized co-education at all levels.

Although passage of the 1922 bill established precedent for subsequent education laws and regulations, giving women the legal right to education on paper did not guarantee that women actually enjoyed that equal opportunity in practice. Almost all power-holders, including the Nationalist government 中国国民党 (Guomindang, or GMD), the Chinese Communist Party中国共产党 (CCP), and the progressive US- and European-trained Chinese educators, expressed their belief that women’s education was important for China’s modern development, but during the 1920s a large gap existed in educational gender equality. For example, in 1922 and 1923, while 76.6 percent of Chinese counties had lower-level elementary schools, only 35.9 percent of counties had upper-level elementary schools, and most of them were located in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. During the same period, female students accounted for only 4.6 percent of the total student body in secondary education, and half of those female students were in the coastal provinces. In higher education, during the same period, female students constituted only 1.82 percent of the total enrollment. In Peking University, only 11 out of 2,246 students were women (Yu 1981, 367–371). In 1924, a Chinese scholar surveyed one hundred Chinese schools at all three levels and found out that among the surveyed schools, in lower-level elementary schools, there was an average of five female students in each school, four female students in each upper-level elementary school, and two female students in each secondary school (Yu 1981, 367–371).

In the 1930s, the number of female students in higher education increased significantly to about 12.3 percent of the total, a big increase from the 1.82 percent in 1923, but nevertheless roughly only one in a hundred thousand Chinese college students was female (Yu 1981, 367–371). In general, in the 1930s and 1940s over 80 percent of urban and 95 percent of rural Chinese women were illiterate, and the rate of enrollment among school-age female children was about 20 percent nationally (She 1995, 8).

From 1922 until 1949, Chinese educational development, especially women’s education, was highly uneven. Most of China’s schools for girls and women were established and most female students were concentrated in urban sectors of relatively more advanced coastal provinces. The majority of Chinese rural women did not have the opportunity for schooling. Most of the female students were from well-to-do families, evidence that education gender inequality intersected with social class. Even within the co-education system, gender gaps in process and in access to knowledge still existed. Female students were small in number and many schools still required female students to take gender-specific courses to become better marriage mates for men. In comparison with male students, in the 1930s and 1940s, Chinese female students not only lacked equal access to schooling and the same access to knowledge, but were also often subject to hidden gender discrimination. In some co-education schools female students were grouped to sit together in designated areas in classrooms to prevent easy interaction with male students. In most schools, women’s and co-ed alike, female students were under the careful watch of school administrators who monitored in-coming and out-going mail, and school personnel who chaperoned visits with guests.

Several factors contributed to the discrepancy between women’s legal rights on paper and educational equality in practice. The majority of Chinese people, including ordinary Chinese educators in society, did not internalize education gender equality and its relationship to China’s modernization. The 1922 reform bill and subsequent educational laws in China were designed and implemented by China’s male ruling elites, especially those educated in the United States and European; their goal in providing women’s legal rights for education was not to empower women to gain independence and freedom and become equal partners in the share of political power and economic and social development, but to indoctrinate women to become virtuous modern wives and good mothers for the purpose of “preserving the Chinese race and strengthening the nation” (bǎozhǒng qiángguó保种强国). Because China was suffering from constant internal conflict and foreign invasion, most Chinese were more concerned about everyday life and survival than gender equality in education. In the CCP-controlled areas, the educational system was geared to indoctrinate women students as solders of the Chinese Communist Revolution, not to empower them as feminist revolutionaries for a separate women’s liberation.

People’s Republic of China (to 1978)

After the CCP defeated the Nationalists in 1949, the new power brokers immediately paid attention to the reform of China’s educational system. In September 1949, before Mao Zedong 毛泽东 announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the top of the Tiananmen Gate, the CCP rallied its supporters and passed the Common Program 共同纲领 of the First Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In the general statement of the document, Chinese women were granted equal rights to politics, education, and participation in economic, social, and cultural lives. Chapter Five of the Common Program included a document on education that laid the foundation for subsequent educational laws and regulations during the PRC’s first seventeen years. Chinese education was to be “nationalistic, scientific, and for the masses” and the state was responsible for providing education to the Chinese people. The document stated the purpose of education: to improve the level of Chinese people’s literacy; to train the labor force for the construction of the modern state; to eliminate feudal, comprador, and fascist thoughts; and to promote the idea of serving the people. Educational goals were to be accomplished by combining theory and practice. Since women’s equal rights to education had been mentioned in the general statement of the Common Program, the document on education did not discuss gender equality in education, but at the end of the document it called for the protection of the health of mothers, infants, and children.

In December 1949, the Ministry of Education (MOE) held the first national conference on education. It launched reform intended to retain some of the pre-1949 educational system but draw more heavily on the educational experiences from the Red-base areas where CCP members had concentrated before the party came to power, and borrow as well from the advanced educational development of the Soviet Union. But Chinese education reform did not follow the blueprint laid out by this conference; it rejected the pre-1949 system and neglected a systematic research of educational experiences of the Red bases while copying the Soviet Union’s educational philosophy and theory, even those elements unsuitable for China. After 1957, the CCP intensified the educational reform. In two different speeches in 1957 and 1958, Mao defined the purpose of Chinese education and set the tone for Chinese education. In 1961, the MOE combined Mao’s speeches and formally announced China’s educational policy: “Education must serve proletariat politics, education must connect to production and work in order to enable the educated to have development in morality, intelligence, and physical strength and become laborers with socialist consciousness and knowledge.” Basically, the new China’s education was valued as a tool for indoctrinating the Chinese youth into communist ideology and values; gender equality in education was not part of the agenda. Instead, class awareness, political correctness, and commitment to Maoism were stressed throughout the school system.

Some of the programs of the educational reforms, however, did benefit Chinese women. For example, in the 1950s, as part of the new educational reform geared to politicizing the masses and preparing them for the socialist transformation, China launched a successful nation-wide campaign on the eradication of illiteracy. Although the campaign was intended to be gender neutral, it benefited Chinese women (the majority of the illiterate population) and contributed to narrowing the gap in gender illiteracy. Based on time-sequenced statistics documenting illiteracy rates as well as the percentage of Chinese women in secondary education, the new educational policy and reforms contributed to a significant increase in the number of female student enrollments in elementary, secondary, and higher education. Using China’s 1982 census data, in which women were asked to respond to question about their educational background, the US demographic scholar William Lavely and his team were able to show the rise in female education in China from 1915 to 1967. The findings below show the results from women born in five different years: 1922, 1940, 1949, 1959, and 1967. (See table 1.)

Table 1. Female Illiteracy and Secondary Education Rates, Selected Years
Between 1915 and 1967 women in China became increasingly literate, and greater numbers received secondary education. The percentages above (categorized by five different birth years) are based on questions about educational background included in China’s 1982 census.

Birth year Percentage illiterate (urban) Percentage

illiterate (rural)

Percentage with secondary education (urban) Percentage with secondary education (rural) Number of respondents
1922 69% 96% 8% 0% 3,337
1940 17% 67% 44% 6% 4,391
1949 3% 49% 68% 9% 7,159
1959 1% 33% 93% 38% 6.353
1967 1% 17% 92% 36% 5,068

Source: Table based on Laverly, Zhenyu, Bohus, and Freedman (1990, pp. 67-68).

Data from the MOE support the significance of advances made in the 1950s and 1960s: between 1950 and 1965, the percentage of females enrolled increased from 28 percent to 39.3 percent at the primary level, from 21.5 percent to 32.2 percent at the secondary level, and from 21.2 percent to 26.9 percent at the college level.

Comparing the improvement of Chinese women’s education in the 1950s and 1960s with that of Chinese men, however, gender inequality in education remained a factor. Lavely’s research team came up with the following results for literacy rates, which are also based on 1982 census responses from three age cohorts. (See table 2.)

Table 2. Illiteracy Rates for Males and Females, Selected Ages
In 1982, females consistently showed higher illiteracy rates than males in China.

Age in 1982 Male Female Gap
60 and over 60.9% 95.5% 34.6%
40–44 22.4% 57.3% 34.9%
15–19 4.2% 14.7% 10.5%

Source: Table based on Lavery, Zhenyu, Bohus, and Freedman (1990, p. 65).

Lavely and his colleagues discovered from the census sampling that among people in the group of thirty-five- to thirty-nine-year-olds born after 1949, 48.6 percent of males received a primary level of education, 28 percent received middle school education, and 7.3 percent received high school education, but numbers for women were 43.4 percent receiving primary, 37.1 percent receiving middle school, and 4.3 percent receiving high school education. For the age group of twenty years old and younger, women caught up with men at the primary education level, but lagged behind in middle and high school levels (Lavely et al. 1990).

The Lavely study also revealed a larger gap in gender inequality in education between China’s urban and rural populations. During the first seventeen years, most of China’s urban female population had gradually achieved literacy and received at least elementary and lower levels of secondary education, yet a large number of the rural female population remained uneducated or had only lower levels of elementary education. Despite Mao Zedong’s famous slogan that “women hold half of the sky” (fùnǚ néng dǐng bànbiān tiān妇女能顶半边天), women (especially in rural areas) did not enjoy equal benefits in education, nor did they have an equal opportunity for schooling. But as schools that had been closed during the early Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) reopened in the middle 1970s, some clear increases occurred in the percentage of female enrollments at all education levels.

The Reform Era

After 1978, China’s reform and opening up policies brought significant changes to the educational system. In 1986, China passed the Compulsory Education Law 义务教育法, which formally laid the legal and structural bases for gender equality in schooling. According to national statistics on education, female enrollments increased over time at the elementary, secondary, and college levels of schooling. By 2009 the percentage of female students had reached 46.77 percent of total enrollment at the primary level, 47.32 percent at the middle school level, 48.20 percent at the general high school level, and 48.89 percent at the higher education level. At the college level, although the statistics showed setbacks in the years 1960 (due to the great famine) and 1980 (due to drastic structural change accompanying the launch of the economic reforms), during the economic reform years, the percentage of female student enrollment has shown a gradual improvement from 30 percent in 1985 to 48.89 percent in 2009 (MOE 2010, 5).  However, the gap between male and female enrollment at all levels of education still exists in China.

But the 1986 law was not implemented equally throughout China, and national statistics on education do not reflect the gender gap between urban sectors and rural sectors, and between the more developed coastal regions and the less developed hinterland. In more developed cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the gap in gender inequality in education has narrowed significantly since 1978. While the one-child per family policy enabled most urban girls to enjoy better schools and qualified teachers, as well as their parents’ full financial and emotional support for their education, their rural sisters were not so lucky The Chinese government designated 2000 as the year when compulsory education would be universalized, and some urban areas beat the deadline at the high school level. But in 2004 at least 10 percent of rural regions in China had not universalized the required compulsory education, and some areas had not even met the deadline for universalized primary education. Many impoverished rural schools, especially in minority regions, were poorly funded and lacked qualified teachers. Some operated in unsafe buildings. Most of the school-age children left out of the educational system were females in poor and rural areas. Even if they could attend school, in most cases they could only go to the poorly funded and staffed schools. (In 2008, 60 percent of Chinese live in the countryside.)

Evidence of education gender inequality can be seen during the reform years as a result, in part, of the decentralization of education finance, which placed extra burden on already fiscally-stressed municipalities to support the infrastructure and the human resources for schools. Many of these municipalities, of course, existed in rural inland regions, where even parental spending on education gave preference to boys. Similar regional disparities occurred in the dropout rates, which are higher for females than males, especially outside urban and coastal areas. (Wang and Zhou 1995).

Achieving gender equality was also (and still is) a problem among the children of migrant workers. Since the 1990s the transformation of China’s economic structure from central control and planning to market-orientated and industrialized has pushed and pulled over 150 million migrant workers from the countryside to various urban centers in China. Educating migrant workers’ children became a new challenge to the Chinese government and society. While some migrant workers brought their families with them to the cities, most of them left their children behind and created a new social category in Chinese society—the stay-behind children. According to the fifth national census (taken in 2000), the number was 20 million strong. Recent studies done by Chinese scholars show that most of the stay-behind children of the migrant workers were girls. Because of the lack of parental supervision and because most of the girls had to carry out additional household chores left by the absence of their parents, the stay-behind girls were more likely to drop out, and the ones who stayed in school performed poorly as a result and rarely moved beyond the compulsory education level.

Women’s access to knowledge, especially in secondary education curricula, has also been unequal. In many Chinese general high schools students are placed in a two-track system. In most cases, the humanities and social science track traditionally enroll more female students and the sciences track enrolls more male students. In addition, in vocational schools at the secondary education level, female students mostly study the “female” professions such as office clerk and hotel receptionist, while male students normally take courses in “male” fields like computer and electronic appliance repair. Studies have shown that majoring in non-humanities and non–social science fields afforded better future job opportunities and pay, therefore women’s access (of lack of access) to knowledge is directly connected to female students’ future opportunity for employment, pay, and status in Chinese society. Even when both sexes have the same college major, female college graduates still lag behind their male counterparts in employment and pay.

The Work Ahead

Although the gap in access to formal education for males and females has narrowed significantly at the national level since 1950, and especially since 2000, China’s educational development—like its overall social and economic development—has been uneven. Educational disparities between urban and rural areas, coastal regions and the hinterland, and men and women have existed since the 1920s, with gender inequality being most persistent in poor and rural regions. Rural women in poor regions are unlikely to secure economic well-being, have access to political power, or gain respect from society due to their limited educational credentials. Even though much has been achieved in eliminating gender inequality in access to schooling nationally, substantial gender inequality remains, especially in access to different courses of study and in the resulting socioeconomic and political outcomes. Further efforts need to be made to promote gender equality in both education and noneducation sectors.

Further Reading

Chen Jingpan. (1979). Zhongguo jindai jiaoyushi [History of modern Chinese education]. Beijing: People’s Education Press.

Fong, Vanessa L. (2002). China’s one-child policy and the empowerment of urban daughters. American Anthropologist, 104(4), 1098–1109. doi:10.1525/aa.2002.104.4.1098

Guo Congbin; Tsang, Mun C.; & Ding Xiaohao. (2010). Gender disparities in science and engineering in Chinese universities. Economics of Education Review, 29(2), 225–235. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2009.06.005

Hannum, Emily. (2003). Poverty and basic education in rural China: Villages, households, and girls’ and boys’ enrollment. Comparative Education Review, 47(2), 141–159. doi:10.1086/376542

Hannum, Emily, & Adams, Jennifer. (2009). Beyond cost: Rural perspectives on barriers to education. In Deborah S. Davis & Wang Feng (Eds.), Creating wealth and poverty in postsocialist China (pp. 156–171). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lavely, William; Zhenyu, Xiao; Bohua, Li; & Freedman, Ronald. (1990). The rise in female education in China: National and regional patterns. The China Quarterly, 121, 61–92. doi:10.1017/S0305741000013515

Lei Liangbo; Chen Yangfeng; & Xiong Xianjun. (1993). Zhongguo nüzi jiaoyushi [History of women’s education in China]. Wuhan: Wuhan Press.

Li Danke. (2002). Gender inequality in access to knowledge in China. China Review, 2(1), 121–147.

Li Danke, & Tsang, Mun C. (2003). Household decisions and gender inequality in education in rural China. China: An International Journal, 1(2), 224–248. doi:10.1142/S0219747203000153

Ministry of Education (MOE). (2010). Zhongguo jiaoyu nianjian, 2009 [Educational Yearbook of China, 2009]. Beijing, People’s Education Press.

She Jinhuan. (1995) Zhougguo nüxing jiaoyu de kua shiji sikao [Reflection on a century of Chinese women’s education], Educational Science. 3, 8–11.

Shu Xiaoling. (2004). Education and gender egalitarianism: The case of China. Sociology of Education, 77(4), 311–336. doi:10.1177/003804070407700403

Shu Xincheng. (1985). Zhongguo jindai jiaoyushi ziliao [Historical sources of modern Chinese education]. Beijing: People’s Education Press.

Wang Xiaoping, & Zhou Jian. (Eds.). (1995). Reports from the frontline of girls’ education, Gansu. Beijing: Ministry of Education.

Yu Qingtang. (1981). Sanshiwu nian lai zhi Zhonguo nüzhi jiaoyu [Women’s education in the past 35 years] In Li Youning & Zhang Yufa (Eds.), Zhongguo funüshi lunwenji [Collected essays on Chinese women]. Beijing: Shangwu Books.

Zhu Youhuan. (1983). Zhongguo jindai xuezhi shiliao [Historical sources of modern Chinese school systems]. Shanghai: East China Normal University Press.

Source: Li Danke. (2012). Gender inequality in Chinese education. In Zha Qiang (Ed.), Education in China: Educational history, models, and initiatives. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.