“Women can also become heroes” – changes in birth control in China

Autorin: Haoling Zhang, M.A.  

A woman is close to delivery. She is so traumatized that she tells her husband firmly, “Don’t get intimate with me ever again. I’d rather have no son in my life than do that business again.” Her husband replies, “I’m at your command (lit. I will just respectfully follow your orders).” After a baby girl is born, the couple discusses how to name it. The wife says, “Just call it Zhaodi (zhao, to call for; di, younger brother, i.e. calling for a younger brother). [1] 

While this is a joke recorded in a jestbook in China in the 18th century, to this day, there are still many girls in China named Zhaodi (zhao 招 calling for; di 弟 a younger brother). The parents name their daughters in this way as they are trying to summon a boy into existence. In times past, couples with son preference were able to continue having children until they finally bore a son as the joke indicates, but under birth control policies which have been introduced in China since the 1950s, they “increasingly trade(d) daughters for sons” through different sex-selective practices, such as sex-selective abortion, abandonment, and in vitro fertilization. [2] 

As the latest national family planning program – the Three-Child Policy – was formally introduced in May 2021 to replace the Two-Child Policy (2016-2021) and the earlier One-Child Policy (1979-2015), son preference still persists to varying degrees, represented by the skewed sex ratio at birth: around 111 males to 100 females. [3] Although the status of women has significantly improved, the social structures that favor and depend on sons, namely patrilineality, patrilocality and patriarchy still need to be transformed. Therefore, measures against son preference have been an integral part of the family planning policies. Stressing the benefits of having daughters was closely related to the aim of women’s emancipation in China which has started in the 1910s and has been an important part of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies. 

The first national birth planning policy – “Later, Longer, Fewer” (wan 晚, xi 稀, shao 少) – was promulgated in 1973. Population targets were quantified in these words: “later” meant that minimum marriage ages of 23-25 for women and 25-28 for men were prescribed; “longer” meant that four to five years spacing between children was required; “fewer” meant that a maximum of two children would be allowed. Therefore, in the 1970s, the model families in posters, brochures, and lantern slides normally featured two children who were mostly females. Moreover, compared to the women in the earlier propaganda, the mothers in these later pictures were freed from household chores as the following illustrations show. [4] 

Illustration 1: Wei Yingzhou 魏瀛洲,爸爸上工 我们上学 (Daddy goes to work, we go to school), October 1954, 53,5×77.5 cm, Shanghai huapian chubanshe. Source: https://chineseposters.net/posters/pc-1954-005.

Wei’s painting was published in Shanghai in 1954It depicts a scene of a family in the morning. As the title indicates, the father is going to work while the children are going to school. The four childrenprobably two daughters and two sons, look healthy and dress neatly and their mother is cleaning their hands. There is breakfast on the table in front of the window and through the mirror we can see that the bed is made. In the middle of the painting is a piece of silk banner on the wall featuring four red words – “Production Model” (生产模范 shengchan mofan). It is probably referring to the father as he is going to work.

Illustration 2:劳动生产最光荣 妇女也能当英雄 生男生女都一样 移风易俗创新风 (Labor and production are the most glorious, women can also become heroes, giving birth to boys or girls is all the same, transforming customs and creating a new atmosphere), ca. 1972, 77×53 cm, Nanjingshi jihua shengyu weiyuanhui. Source: https://chineseposters.net/ posters/e15-377.

Illustration 3:计划生育好处多 (Family planning has many advantages), ca. 1974, 77×53.5 cm. Source: https://chineseposters.net/ posters/e13-796.

The two other illustrations were published by municipal family planning committees in the early 1970s. Compared to the painting from 1954, all families have two daughters. [5] Moreover, women are no longer confined to household chores. Instead, as the second illustration shows, they can be tailors, pilots, scientists, doctors, athletes, etc. The red slogan strengthens these images of working women: “Labor and production are the most glorious, women can also become the heroes” (劳动生产最光荣 妇女也能当英雄). Son preference is presented as an old custom that should be transformed to create a new atmosphere, namely “giving birth to boys or girls is all the same” (生男生女都一样).  

The advantages of family planning are shown in the third illustration in which women’s roles in labor are again emphasized. In many other family planning propaganda materials from the 1970s, birth control was directly linked to “the thorough emancipation of women” (妇女的彻底解放). [6] Women are no longer “Zhaodi” who are born to call for a brother. Rather, they “can also become heroes”. However, in these images, women are still responsible for taking care of children. In other words, despite the hyper discourse of gender equality and women’s liberation, without transformation of family structures that discriminate females, women bore a double burden of work and unpaid domestic labor, while son preference continues to this day. 



[1] Yingsheng (营生 business) here refers to sex and reproduction. The wife does not want her husband to get close to her (to have sex with her), so she will not have to give birth again. 

[2] Elisabeth Croll, Endangered Daughter (London and New York: Routledge 2001), p. 35. 

[3] Major Figures on 2020 Population Census of China (Beijing: China Statistics Press 2020), p. 92. 

[4] More illustrations can be found on the website Chineseposter.net. https://chineseposters.net/. 

[5] As the Two-Child Policy was nationally implemented in 2016, we can see a similar phenomenon in the propaganda materials as well as commercial advertisements in which a family has normally two children. 

[6] Jihua shengyu xuanchuan shouce 计划生育宣传手册 (Family Planning Propaganda Booklet) (Beijing: Renmin weisheng chubanshe, 1972). Jihua shengyu gongzuo jingyan huibian diyiji, 计划生育工作经验汇编第一辑 (A Compilation of Family Planning Work Experience, the First Series), (Beijing: Renmin weisheng chubanshe, 1974). Jihua shengyu wenyi xuanchuan cailiao huibian diyiji 计划生育文艺宣传材料汇编第一辑 (A Compilation of Literature and Art Propaganda: Source Materials on Family Planning, the First Series) (Beijing: Renmin weisheng chubanshe, 1974). 


Haoling Zhang is doing her PhD in Transcultural Studies at the University of Heidelberg. Her dissertation is on the issue of son preference under the family planning policies in China. Her research interests include gender studies, family planning, propaganda, and transcultural studies. 

Diesen Artikel zitieren: Haoling Zhang: “Women can also become heroes” – changes in birth control in China, in: Zeit mit (Groß-)Vätern. Elternschaft nach dem Boom, https://grossvater.hypotheses.org/, 03.05.2022, (abgerufen am: Datum).

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