Too Many Men Again

There’s an article about China making the rounds: “Too Many Men” ; “In China and India, men outnumber women by 70 million. Both nations are belatedly trying to come to grips with the policies that created this male-heavy generation.” By Simon Denyer and Annie Gowen

This is the kind of reportage that comes up every couple of years: the gendered effects of the one-child policy have been a topic of discussion since I started studying China, at least, and similar discussions of Indian sex-selective abortion have been going on for at least fifteen years that I can recall. Literally 13.5 years ago I wrote:

China’s”One Boy Policy”…. sorry,”One Child Policy” has resulted in gender ratios for recent births of 117 (105 is normal): classrooms full of boys; orphanages full of girls. India has pockets of similarly skewed demographics. A student asked me about the causes of this, and I said”sexism and technology,” particularly cheap ultrasound and safe abortion in strongly patriarchal regions. Some people have suggested that this could lead to women having greater social power and freedom as they become rarer commodities (Frank Herbert’s apocalyptic novel The White Plague takes this tack, after all the death and suffering are over)… but I tend to agree with those who argue that it will strengthen the patriarchal controls on women who are already seen as commodities. Though, as my wife points out, all those Chinese girls growing up in the US (many of them, in our circles, being raised by lesbian families) may find themselves in a particularly strong position, and, having been raised in the US, more likely to take advantage of it. China, ironically, had a serious oversupply of males in the 19th century as well, which contributed greatly to the instability of the late Qing era, but that went away as polygamy was eliminated. Now it’s back.

Now it’s been going on long enough that we can actually measure some of the social effects, but there’s some very ahistorical elements to the discussion that bother me: China and India have had polygamous marriage systems for centuries, millenia even, and one of the known effects of allowing powerful and wealthy men to have multiple wives and concubines is that it creates a shortage of marriagable women for men who are low in social status or resources. This has been going on for a very long time; only in the last century or so has it changed. Excess populations of unmarriagable men have been cited as problems in Chinese uprisings in the 19th century. Excess mortality in male workers, especially in systems of indenture and migrant workers, have often helped redress some of the imbalance otherwise, but nobody really cared about their quality of life or emotional fulfillment.

1 Comment

  1. Ha!. I just finished teaching about this. In Intro to Asian Studies one of the books we read was Maggie King’s An Excess Male, which is a near-future book assuming that China ends up with something like a strong version of the social credit system and a new form of polygamy, since there are all those extra guys around. I thought it was an interesting book, and at least some of the students got into it.

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