Why is Son Preference so Persistent in East
and South Asia? A Cross-Country Study of
China, India and the Republic of Korea
MONICA DAS GUPTA, JIANG ZHENGHUA,
LI BOHUA, XIE ZHENMING, WOOJIN CHUNG
and BAE HWA-OK
Son preference has persisted in the face of sweeping economic and
social changes in the countries studied here. We attribute this
persistence to their similar family systems, which generate strong
disincentives to raise daughters – whether or not their marriages
require dowries – while valuing adult women’s contributions to the
household. Urbanisation, female education and employment can
only slowly change these incentives without more direct efforts by
the state and civil society to increase the flexibility of the kinship
system such that daughters and sons can be perceived as being
more equally valuable. Much can be done to accelerate this
process through social movements, legislation and the mass media.
Most societies show some degree of preference for sons, though mostly so
mild as to be virtually undetectable [Williamson, 1976]. However, son
Monica Das Gupta (corresponding author), Development Research Group, The World Bank,
Washington DC 20433, USA; Jiang Zhenghua, Professor and Honorary Director,
Interdisciplinary Research Center of the Academic Sciences of China, Professor, Population and
Economy Research Institute; Xi’an Jiaotong University, Xi’an, and Vice-Chairman, PRC
National People’s Congress; Li Bohua, Xie Zhenming, China Population Information and
Research Center, Beijing; Woojin Chung, Bae Hwa-Ok, Korean Institute for Health and Social
Affairs, Seoul. The authors are grateful for valuable comments from anonymous reviewers of the
Journal, Judith Banister, Pranab Bardhan, Shelah Bloom, Birgitta Bucht, Minja Kim Choe,
Mrinal DattaChaudhuri, Sonalde Desai, Tim Dyson, Alice Goldstein, Gu Baochang, Supriya
Guha, Gene Hammel, Ron Lee, Bob Levine, Li Shuzhuo, Li Yongping, Emily MacFarquhar, Jane
Menken, Mick Moore, and Arthur Wolf, as also for comments from participants at seminars at
Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, The London
School of Economics, Brown University, the Population Association of America, the United
Nations Population Division, the United Nations Population Fund, New York, and the Institute of
Economic Growth, New Delhi.
The Journal of Development Studies, Vol.40, No.2, December 2003, pp.153–187
PUBLISHED BY FRANK CASS, LONDON
402jds07.qxd 20/11/2003 10:07 Page 153
preference strong enough to result in substantial levels of excess female
child mortality is manifested in East and South Asia, including China, South
Korea and India. Excess female child mortality is a longstanding problem in
all three settings. In China and India the practice of female infanticide was
noted at least a century ago, and in Korea and India high juvenile sex ratios
have been documented since the first modern censuses were taken. By
contrast, there seems to be little son preference in South-east Asia or in most
other parts of the developing world (Map 1).
That these settings should be so similar in terms of son preference is
especially striking, given the wide differences between them in
industrialisation, urbanisation, and social development (Table 1). Moreover,
the reasons given for son preference also differ. In India the main cause is,
it is argued, the need to pay dowries for daughters. In the context of China
it has been suggested that stringent fertility regulation is responsible for
heightened discrimination against daughters. In South Korea, son
preference is attributed more to patriarchal family systems and low female
autonomy. In South Korea and China son preference is sometimes also
attributed to Confucian values.
We argue that the striking similarities in patterns of son preference stem
from commonalities in the kinship systems in these settings, and that the
local-specific explanations only serve to reinforce the exigencies of the
kinship system. A comparative approach also provides an opportunity to
examine the reasons for the persistence of son preference, and how we
might expect this to change as populations shift from living in largely
agrarian societies to the very different exigencies of the industrialised and
urbanised modern world.1
This article draws on our extensive fieldwork in these three countries
and on secondary sources, including published official data. We begin by
analysing the patterns, levels, and trends in child mortality in these
countries. We discuss the strong similarities in their family systems, which
marginalise women very effectively, and the resultant social and economic
pressures to bear sons. The kinship systems ensure that parents can benefit
little from daughters and have strong economic incentives to prefer raising
sons even if brideprice is paid rather than dowry, and even if adult women
are economically very active. Although older women can gain much status
and autonomy in the household, this can only be achieved at the cost of
marginalising the younger married women in the household. Finally, we
discuss how urbanisation and efforts by the state and civil society can help
reduce discrimination against daughters.
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RUNNING HEAD 155
JUVENILE SEX RATIOS IN AFRICA, ASIA AND LATIN AMERICA, 2000
Sources: UN Projections, 2000. (This map was produced by the Map Design Unit of The World Bank. The boundaries, colours, denominations and any other
information shown on this map do not imply, on the part of The World Bank Group any judgement on the legal status of any territory, or any
endorsement or acceptance of such boundaries).
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II. LEVELS, TRENDS AND PATTERNS IN THE PROPORTIONS OF
There are strong parallels between China, India, and South Korea in their
trends and patterns of discrimination against female children. Please note
that we use the word ‘discrimination’ for several phenomena that have quite
different ethical and philosophical meaning. We use the same word because
these phenomena are driven by the same underlying motivation, which is to
have sons rather than daughters. This motivation leads people to
discriminate between the sexes in very different ways:
•before conception, by continuing childbearing until reaching their
desired number of sons and stopping after that. This is reflected in
decisions to use contraception or to have an additional child, contingent
on the sex composition of the children already born. This may have
relatively little impact on the overall sex ratio of the population, since
families with no sons will tend to have several daughters.
•during pregnancy, through sex-selective abortion. This is reflected in
sex ratios at birth which are more masculine than the normal biological
range of around 105–106 boys for every 100 girls born.
•at birth, through sex-selective infanticide. This is often difficult to
distinguish empirically from sex-selective abortion, since a high
proportion of infanticide cases are unlikely to be reported as births. Thus
156 THE JOURNAL OF DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC INDICATORS, INDIA CHINA AND
THE REPUBLIC OF KOREA, 1998–99
India China ROK
GNP per capita (US$, PPP) 2,144 3,291 14,637
% poor (<$1 a day, 1997–98) 44.2 18.4 <2
% urban 28 32 81
% of GDP from agriculture 28 17 5
Total Fertility Rate 3.2 1.9 1.6
Female adult illiteracy (%) 57 25 4
Females as percent of labourforce 32 45 41
Infant Mortality Rate 70 31 9
Source: The World Bank, World Development Report 2000/1.
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this is also largely reflected in elevated sex ratios at birth, rather than in
sex differentials in recorded child survival.
•during early childhood, through neglect and other mechanisms, as
reflected in higher mortality of girls than boys during infancy and early
For the present analysis we use the word ‘discrimination’ for all of the
above, because they are all motivated by the same desire to have more sons
than daughters. They lead to an observed high juvenile sex ratio (that is, an
excess of male children relative to female children in a population), as
compared with populations without strong son preference.
There is a shift from postnatal discrimination to prenatal discrimination
as the accessibility of sex-selective technology improves [Goodkind, 1996].
The former is the method resorted to by people without physical or financial
access to sex-selective technology, and the latter is the method of choice for
those who have such access. South Korea today shows the highest level of
sex-selective abortion, since their access to such technology is the highest.
China presents a more mixed picture, with the bulk of discrimination taking
place either before or at birth, but still showing some excess female
mortality among reported births. India still has most of the discrimination
after birth, though a shift towards sex-selective abortion is indicated by
The availability of sex-selective technology may actually increase net
proportions of girls ‘missing’, rather than simply substitute for lower-
technology methods, by making it easier to discriminate against girls. This
is suggested by the fact that in both South Korea and China, sex ratios at
birth started rising sharply around 1985, when sex-selective technology
began to become widespread. This is also of note because this date does
not coincide with the enforcement of the one-child policy in China, which
began at the end of 1979.3Fertility decline and the availability of sex-
selective technology both work to raise discrimination against female
Levels of excess female child mortality are quite high in these three
countries (Table 2).4Some of this results from sex-selective abortion, and is
therefore not reflected in excess female child mortality after birth. In the
case of South Korea, for example, the mortality statistics show no difference
in survival by gender, although the juvenile sex ratios are excessively
masculine because of sex-selective abortion.
Excess female child mortality is substantial as compared with the 0–4
year mortality rate. How high it is relative to the 0–4 year mortality rate
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depends of course on the level of excess child loss resulting from
discrimination, as well as the level of 0–4 year mortality.
•South Korea. Child mortality levels are low and excess female loss is
high, so prenatal discrimination creates more than double the child loss
as child mortality.
•India. Child mortality rates are still very high, and son preference is
especially strong only in the North of this culturally heterogeneous
country. In India as a whole, discrimination accounts for about one-fifth
of child mortality.
•China. The estimates of discrimination vary depending on whether we
use the published sex ratio at birth for China from the 1990 Census or
the adjustment carried out by Zeng et al. . Thus the estimates of
child mortality due to discrimination lies between 49–75 per cent of the
0–4 child mortality rate.
Trends and Patterns
The juvenile sex ratio (ratio of boys to girls) has been rising steadily since
the 1960s in all three countries (Figure 1), showing that the manifestation of
son preference is rising, as fertility has declined and sex-selection
technology has improved. In all the three countries, juvenile sex ratios have
risen in recent decades. However, we do not find this phenomenon in
158 THE JOURNAL OF DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
NUMBER OF GIRLS ‘MISSING’ PER THOUSAND LIVEBIRTHS
China, South Korea, India,
1989–90 1992 1981–91
No. of excess deaths age 0–4, per 1000 female livebirths 113 – 36
No. of excess abortions per 1000 female livebirths 248–81 70 9
Total number of girls missing per 1000 female livebirths 61–94 70 45
Total number of girls missing per 1000 livebirths (m + f) 30–46 34 22
0–4 mortality rate, 1991 61 14–17 109–119
Notes: 1. Computed from the sex differential in recorded mortality, compared with West model
life tables for the prevailing life expectancy.
2. Computed from the recorded sex ratio at birth, assuming a normal ratio of 106.
Source: Das Gupta , based on:
(a) Sex differentials in mortality: Huang and Liu ; Sample Registration System
(b) Sex ratios at birth: 1990 Census of China (the lower estimates are based on Zeng Yi
et al.’s  recalculation of the 1990 figures); Park and Cho ; intercensal
estimates for India from Das Gupta and Bhat .
(c) Child mortality rate: Lin Liangmin et al. , Korean life tables (lower estimate)
and vital statistics (higher estimates); International Institute for Population Science
 report on NHFS survey in India.
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societies without strong son preference, such as in South-east Asia. Clearly,
fertility decline and the new technology are not causes of son preference –
they merely intensify the manifestation of gender bias where this bias is
When fertility levels fall in a society with strong son preference, there is
heightened pressure to remove daughters. For example in South Korea
between 1959 and 1991, the ideal number of children fell from five to two,
while the ideal number of sons fell from 3 to 1.2 [Choe and Han, 1994].
Although the proportion of sons desired remained constant, the number of
daughters that could be accommodated within these ideal family sizes
dropped sharply, from an average of two to 0.8 per couple. In fact, the room
for tolerating daughters dropped even more sharply, because the most
crucial requirement (both in the past and in the present) is to have at least
one surviving son. Having two instead of three sons was far easier for
couples in the past to accept than it is for couples today to accept having no
sons instead of one son. Thus the consequences of not meeting the full ideal
WHY IS SON PREFERENCE PERSISTENT IN EAST & SOUTH ASIA? 159
JUVENILE (0–4 YEAR) SEX RATIOS IN CHINA, REPUBLIC OF KOREA,
INDIA AND PUNJAB, 1950–2000
Note: The data for India are for the age-group 0–6. 1,351,350
Source: Official national censuses for each country.
China Republic of Korea India Punjab+Haryana
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number of sons are far more drastic when fertility declines – putting couples
today under much more pressure to avoid having daughters. The Korean
data indicate little evidence of a desire to have at least one daughter to
balance out the sex composition of the family [Larsen, Chung, and Das
The pattern of discrimination against female children is similar in the
three countries, in that it rises with the birth order of the child. The burden
of excess female child mortality is concentrated on higher birth order girls.
The sex ratio at birth in South Korea and China rises with birth order,
reflecting increasing removal of females at higher birth orders [Choe, 1987;
Park and Cho, 1995; Zeng et al., 1993]. In the case of China, data on sex
ratios at birth by family composition permit an estimate of excess female
child mortality by birth order, showing a pattern similar to that of Northwest
India [Das Gupta 1987; Zeng et al., 1993].
III. CULTURAL FACTORS IN SON PREFERENCE: THE ROLE OF
For all their other striking differences, Northern India, China, and South
Korea have strong commonalties in their kinship system, which is rigidly
patrilineal. Studies of son preference sometimes refer to patriarchy by way
of an explanation, but we need to sharpen our understanding of what exactly
this means and how it affects the way in which daughters are received in a
family. Many societies are patriarchal, or to put it more precisely, patrilineal
and patrilocal. Patrilineality includes passing on the main productive assets
through the male line, while women may be given some movable goods in
the form of dowry or inheritance. This constrains women’s ability to sustain
their economic level without being attached to a man. Patrilocality involves
a couple residing at the man’s home, which goes hand in hand with
inheritance – especially in peasant societies where land is the main
productive asset that is inherited.
This description would broadly fit many societies around the world.
Why then is strong son preference manifested only in some societies and not
in others? The answer to this lies in the extent of flexibility in the logic of
patrilineal kinship. In much of peasant Europe, for example, there was
considerable flexibility in the system. For example, women could
inherit land if their parents had no sons, and the daughter and her husband
would take over the property [Arensberg and Kimball, 1968; Sieder and
Mitterauer, 1983]. The household was thus reproduced, though not the
father’s lineage. This applied also in Japan [Nakane, 1967].5A fuller
comparison of these Asian and European kinship systems and their
theoretical and empirical ramifications has been developed in Das
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In China, South Korea and Northwest India, the logic of patrilineality is
very rigid. For example, it would be extremely rare for a daughter to inherit
land. A man without sons might adopt one from among the man’s male kin,
or take another wife or concubine. The driving motivation is to continue the
family line by whatever means possible. Belonging to a lineage confers
membership of society, so enormous importance is placed on the
maintenance of genealogies, carefully recording lineage ties between men
for generations on end. Of course, the kinship systems of these countries
have many local variations, but their broad organisational logic has a great
deal in common. Our focus is on the basic organisational logic of these
kinship systems, which lies at the root of discrimination against daughters.
Kinship Systems and the Construction of Gender
In China, South Korea and Northwest India, the traditional social
organisation prevailing in the early decades of this century (and to a large
extent also today in rural areas) was one in which clans had their own
territories. Villages had their dominant clan (sometimes more than one), to
which the majority of men belonged. Strict exogamy was maintained by
these clans, so wives would be brought in from elsewhere. A strong sense
of clanship pervaded the village, making men from other clans feel like
interlopers. Such interlopers are referred to caustically as ‘wild ducks’ (as
opposed to home-grown ducks) in Northern China.6A man who lives as a
member of his wife’s home is subject not only to humiliation, but also to the
threat posed by other villagers who resent his usurping clan property.
Thus it is that only men constitute the social order, and women are the
means whereby men reproduce themselves. Women are the biological
reproducers, but it is through the father that a child acquires a social identity
and is incorporated into the social order. Since only boys remain in the
lineage, the significant social reproduction is that by the father of the son.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in a genealogical record or in an
ancestor worship hall: one can literally see each generation of men, and the
generations of men to whom they gave rise. Women are recorded, if at all,
only in the capacity of the wives of the men who gave rise to succeeding
generations of men.
Men are the fixed points in this social order, and women are the moving
points because lineages are strictly exogamous. When women marry they
leave their home and lineage, to be absorbed into their husband’s lineage.
Neither in their father’s nor their husband’s lineage can a woman ever aspire
to the central position which is the simple birthright of any male born into
When she marries, a woman is perceived to have been permanently
exported from the family: her ‘slot’ in the household ceases to exist, and a
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new ‘slot’ is created for incoming brides. In the rare cases when women do
return, they and their parents have to struggle to make it work, because other
members of the village resist the incursion on their property rights. This
makes it difficult, for example, for a woman in rural China to return to live
with her parents once she has been married and her land entitlement re-
allocated among village residents.7This is also illustrated by our case study
from Northwest India, which records the plight of a separated woman who
managed to live in her father’s home:8
Parmeshwari had serious problems in her husband’s home, and
returned to her own home. In another rare feat, she succeeded in
bringing her infant son with her. Her widowed father was keen to
protect his daughter, but his two sons disapproved of this and
separated from his household, leaving him with a small share of the
land for his own subsistence. He lived with his daughter and her baby.
She worked very hard all day, cultivating the land and keeping cattle
to make ends meet. A very energetic woman, she seemed never to rest
from her work, always striding from one task to another. Her father
looked after the child during the day.
Her neighbours, who were mostly her own relatives, were not
obstructive to her but never included her in their circle. They treated
her with some derision. What protected her was the fact that she
worked so hard (no one could accuse her of being a financial burden),
her loud and confident manner and readiness to defend herself and her
child if challenged, and above all, her father’s commitment to
protecting her. By the time her father died, her son had grown and
found a job, so his mother could have her son’s protection.
This is in sharp contrast to the more bilateral kinship systems of South-
east Asia, in which relationships through both the male and the female line
are recognised and actively used. As might be expected, there is little
evidence of gender discrimination in Southeast Asian countries (Map 1).9In
South India, women are freer to maintain mutually supportive relationships
with their parents even after marriage, which makes for lower son
preference by reducing the difference between the value of a daughter and
that of a son.10 This is reflected in regional differences in juvenile sex ratios
in India (Map 2).
The less rigid construction of gender in the kinship systems in South
India also makes it easier for women to act as independent social and legal
entities. This is illustrated by many ethnographic accounts, as also by one of
our case studies from the Southern State of Karnataka:
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WHY IS SON PREFERENCE PERSISTENT IN EAST & SOUTH ASIA? 163
JUVENILE SEX RATIOS IN PROVINCES OF CHINA AND STATES OF INDIA, 1990–91
Sources: Census of India, 1991; Fourth National Population Census of China, 1990.
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Lakshamma is the eldest of five sisters, they did not have a brother.
When Lakshamma’s parents died leaving three sisters still unmarried,
she moved back to her parents’ village with her husband. She sold
some of her parents’ land to pay for her sisters’ marriages, and divided
the rest between the sisters. When her second sister left her alcoholic
husband and came back to her parents’ village, she used some of her
share of the property to set up a teashop near the village bus stop. This
teashop has a flourishing business, and the sister has raised her
daughter and son well, sending them to school and seeing to it that
they studied hard.
The village as a whole was supportive of these women’s actions, treating
these women with respect and commending the eldest sister for her
evenhanded division of the property. Neighbouring households, who had
known these women from childhood, were especially supportive.
Similar regional differences exist in China (Map 2), where some of the
non-Han minorities with less rigidly patrilineal kinship systems show little
or no son preference. The Tibetans in particular have very balanced sex
ratios, having a kinship system in which females are not systematically
marginalised [Levine, 1988]. The ethnic minorities in Yunnan, sharing
cultural patterns with bordering societies of Burma and Thailand also show
less strong son preference [Hua, 2001], as do the Islamic groups in Western
China. Other minorities, such as those in Guizhou, show as strong son
preference as the Han, who constitute the overwhelming majority of China’s
Implications for the Position of Women and of Girls
Once women are left out of the social order, they become dispensable
essentially because they count for very little as individuals. When stresses
arise for the household, women are the ones who have to yield so that men
are protected from want. This is not to say that women are not valued in the
household: they have value as vessels of procreation and for their labour
contribution to the household.
Nor is there any simple relationship between the value of an adult
woman as compared with that of a female child. In societies in which
daughters are totally incorporated into the husband’s household, the value
of daughters to their parents can remain low, although adult women are very
valuable to their husbands’ families. If women’s earnings rise, this benefits
their husband’s families, not their parents. This creates a gap between
female children and women, in the way in which they are affected by recent
changes in living conditions. For example, in all three settings adult
women’s life expectancy has been rising steadily relative to that of men.
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Adult women have benefited from improvements in living conditions and
social development, including education, better opportunities for
employment and health care. At the same time, levels of excess female child
mortality have been rising, as parents seek to ensure having sons.
A daughter’s appropriate place is in her father’s home only until she
marries. Moreover, it is the norm for all girls to marry: there is very little
scope for a grown woman to find a socially acceptable role as a resident of
her family of birth, except as a visitor. Parents are under much social
pressure to ensure that their daughters marry, as evidenced by the negligible
proportions of women never-married in their thirties in the censuses of these
countries. Daughters must leave and make way for incoming daughters-
There are thus some critical points of similarity in the nature of marriage
between these three countries, which distinguish them from most other
cultures. For example, in large parts of rural Europe it was completely
acceptable, and even the norm, for grown daughters to remain single for
many years and look after their parents or work on someone else’s farm.11
Besides, marriage was a matter of the couple’s own choosing, not a pressing
responsibility of the parents as in these East and South Asian societies. Thus
in Europe a shortage of available grooms would be more of a personal
problem for a woman, not an intolerable situation for parents to avoid by
whatever means possible – including offering very high dowries and
marrying girls to undesirable grooms.
Shifts in Power over the Life-cycle
Women’s status changes dramatically over the life-cycle [Das Gupta, 1995].
As a young bride and young mother, a woman has little intrinsic source of
standing other than as the mothers of the future men of the lineage, as has
been discussed above. But in the later stages of the life-cycle, women’s
power and autonomy in the household rise, and women gain fuller access to
the household’s resources. Margery Wolf  has argued that in their old
age, Chinese women wield the main authority in the household, while old
men are relatively marginalised. Our ethnographic studies in North-west
India confirms this observation. Old men withdraw from household affairs
and become increasingly shadowy characters, while their wives become the
lynchpins of the home, managing their sons, their daughters-in-law and the
However, this rise in women’s autonomy in old age depends on having
the support of grown sons. Without this, women can be very vulnerable
[Cain, 1981; Rahman, Foster, and Menken, 1992]. This a powerful force
making for son preference, as well as to ensure that the sons are emotionally
attached to the mother, becoming her firm supporters as they themselves
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grow in household stature. Women are careful to bind their sons to
themselves through subtle webs of solicitousness and emotional
manipulation. This has been noted in North-west India:
The woman is careful to bind her sons to herself through various
measures. She can be solicitous of their needs, the gentle nurturer
who cooks foods they like. She can allow her sons to see how she
suffers at the hands of her in-laws and even her husband. She can
allow them to see how hard she works. She can be careful to
communicate that all her sacrifices will be rewarded if her sons have
successful lives, while also subtly communicating that she expects
unquestioning loyalty from them in compensation for her sacrifices
[Das Gupta, 1995].
Very similar strategies for forming a strong mother-son bond are noted
in China [Hsiung, 1993; Wolf, 1974]. This is also a powerful motivation for
marginalising the son’s bride, to ensure that the son’s loyalties are to the
mother above all. Unfortunately, the successful self-assertion of women in
a such a kinship system is at the expense of younger women, which helps
perpetuate the cycle of female subordination.
The Role of Ancestor Worship
In China and South Korea, ancestor worship adds another dimension to the
need to have male offspring. In both these countries there are elaborate and
explicit beliefs about the afterlife and the need for performing the rituals of
ancestor worship in order to ensure the welfare of the departed souls. One’s
entire afterlife is at stake: without sons, grandsons and great-grandsons,
one’s afterlife is insecure. Not fulfilling one’s filial duty to continue the
family line constitutes a major dereliction of duty, and the consequence is
that one’s own soul and that of one’s predecessors will become what in
China is called ‘hungry ghosts’. This is as important a filial duty as taking
care of one’s aged parents – indeed, caring for ancestors is in many ways
just an extension of caring for aged parents. To help ensure compliance,
there is also a belief that angering the ancestors through unfilial acts can
bring their wrath down on you in this life, bringing bad luck.
India has less elaborate rituals of ancestor worship, but male
descendants are central for ensuring one’s prestige during one’s lifetime and
after death, and also for performing a series of funerary rituals. Especially
in North-west India, it is very important to achieve immortality in the form
of having successfully left descendants to reproduce the social order and
carry on one’s family line. Without this, one is recorded in genealogies as
the loser whose line died out, or worse still, not recorded at all and therefore
condemned to oblivion.
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Not all societies that practice ancestor worship should necessarily be
expected to manifest son preference. It is important to distinguish which
forms of ancestor worship generate a need to continue the male line. In
China and South Korea, people worship their male ancestors in systematic
recognition of their dead kin, and the obligation to care for the ancestors
also falls systematically on their descendants. Other forms of ancestor
worship do not emphasise the continuity of the male line. Several sub-
Saharan societies fall into this category, since they worship ancestors on an
ad hoc basis, selecting those who appear notable or powerful. In Japan also,
people exercise choice as to which departed souls to care for [Smith, 1974].
Different Rules of Family Segmentation
One difference in the kinship system of South Korea compared with China
or North-west India makes for a more pressing need in South Korea to have
sons of one’s own. In both North-west India and China, sons are in principle
equal, though the eldest son is viewed as the senior and therefore second in
authority only to the father. They are expected to inherit equally. The
principle of equality of brothers introduces an element of flexibility, in that
it is possible for those without sons to be sustained in this life and the
afterlife by their brothers’ sons. If brothers co-reside, as is the ideal in the
joint family system, such maintenance takes place with little need for
adjustment within the family. Obviously it is far less preferred to be
supported by brothers’ sons, because the ties are more easily ruptured than
with one’s own son, but nevertheless the possibility exists.
By contrast, in South Korea brothers are not interchangeable. The
custom is that the eldest brother inherits the largest share of the property and
is responsible for taking care of the parents and ancestors. Therefore in each
generation brothers separate from each other and explicitly form a new
branch of the lineage. To receive support in this life and the afterlife, one
has to have one’s own son: a brother’s son will not do. This inflexibility
heightens the urgency of having a son of one’s own: without this, one is
destined to be a lost soul forever. This may help to explain why son
preference has remained very strong despite the extensive social changes in
The system is rigidly formal, requiring parents to be supported by the
eldest son even if they might be more comfortable with another son. It is
striking how much the eldest sons continue to be the main support for their
parents – despite the socio-economic transformation of the country, and
residential mobility as sons go to work in other cities – of those supported by
children, over half received support from the eldest son, while only two per
cent received support from daughters [Republic of Korea, 1995: 231]. In
some cases parents depend on another son, if for example if the eldest does
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not have a son or is living in another city, but this represents a departure from
the norm. Since the eldest son is supposed to be responsible not only for the
parents but also for the ancestors, this places an additional source of pressure
for them to have a son – and this is reflected in our analysis of survey data
which show that the eldest son’s wife has a significantly higher probability
than other women, of having additional conceptions if she has not yet borne
a son [Larsen, Chung and Das Gupta, 1998].
IV. ECONOMIC FACTORS INFLUENCING SON PREFERENCE
It is commonly argued that parents prefer sons because their perceived net
value is higher than that of daughters. The argument is that sons can help on
the family farm, and provide old age support to their parents – while
daughters have much less to offer and can even be a major economic drain
if their marriage expenses are high. These are the terms in which
discrimination against daughters has typically been explained, at least in
India and China. In India, discussion has focused especially on the high
costs of dowry, while also noting the low levels of female labour force
participation, the harsh realities of poverty, and the need for old age support.
When asked about the reasons for son preference, Chinese respondents
typically mention the fact that only men are strong enough to do the really
hard work in the fields, and that sons are needed for old age support. Korean
respondents take a less directly economic line of explanation, stressing
more the need for continuing the family line.
The advantage of doing a cross-country study is that it helps throw light
on which factors are basic to son preference and which are simply additional
factors. We discuss each of the factors in turn, and conclude that economic
factors serve only to add to discrimination and do not explain the underlying
reasons for discrimination. Moreover, we argue that these economic factors
are themselves culturally constructed, because they result from the logic of
the kinship system.12
Old Age Support
The question of old age support is a good example of how kinship systems
create economic incentives for son preference. Explanations of son
preference place much emphasis on the fact that sons can provide old age
support. It is certainly the case that in China, South Korea and India, sons
do provide old age support. The majority of the old live with married
children, and these are overwhelmingly sons. This would seem to be an
important economic reason for wanting to have sons. The Korean data, for
example, indicate that this factor is significantly associated with higher son
preference after controlling for many socio-economic factors [Larsen,
Chung and Das Gupta, 1998].
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Whether only sons or also daughters can support their aged parents is,
however, not dictated by economic considerations. It is a cultural construct,
as shown by data on patterns of co-residence in Taiwan and the Philippines
(Table 3). In both societies, parents live with unmarried children of both
sexes, or one could say that unmarried children are still living with their
parents. When it comes to living with married children, however, there are
strong differences between the two countries. In the Chinese society of
Taiwan (as in mainland China) it is rare to live with a married daughter,
while in the Philippines parents are equally likely to live with a married
daughter as with a son. Thus we have to go a step further back to understand
why in some cultures only sons can perform this role, while in others both
sons and daughters can do so.
The costs of daughters’ weddings are a major drain on household resources
in India, and there is growing evidence of dowry inflation [Rao, 1993].
Indeed, advertisements for sex-selective abortion sometimes state that
making a small expense on an abortion today will save a large expense on
dowry later. Although marriages entail some costs also for the groom’s
family, these are trivial compared to those for the bride’s family. In India,
dowry costs are indeed a major disincentive for raising girls.
However, this cannot be a complete explanation of why people prefer to
have sons and discriminate against daughters. In China and South Korea,
the net expenses of a son’s marriage are estimated to be three to four times
higher than that of a daughter’s marriage [Xie, 1997; Bae, 1996].
Williamson  reports that in Taiwan the costs were four to five times
higher for boys than for girls. The parents of the groom have to buy or
construct new housing for the couple, and bear the larger part of the other
WHY IS SON PREFERENCE PERSISTENT IN EAST & SOUTH ASIA? 169
PERCENTAGE OF MEN AND WOMEN AGE 60+ CO-RESIDING WITH CHILDREN,
BY GENDER AND MARITAL STATUS OF THE CHILDREN, PHILIPPINES 1984
AND TAIWAN 1989
Sex of the Elderly Unmarried Married
Son Daughter Son Daughter
Male 85 79 29 24
Female 77 75 28 34
Male 73 70 55 5
Female 69 58 63 7
Source: Casterline et al. .
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costs of marriage, including feasts. Traditionally, it has been the norm to pay
some brideprice as well. The bride’s family provides some clothes and
household items. If the bride’s family is very wealthy and wants to show off
their wealth, they can make more lavish outlays, but this is not a prerequisite
for marriage as dowry has become in India.
It is especially telling that brideprice has coexisted with discrimination
against daughters in India too. Brideprice has been prevalent in India in the
past,13 and there are reports that it is beginning to replace dowries again.14 In
an earlier paper, we had estimated that the cumulative effects of fertility
decline and excess female child mortality would result in a shortage of
potential brides for men born around 1980 onwards, which is consonant
with this reported beginning of a resurgence of brideprice in 2002 [Das
Gupta and Li, 1999]. If people have to pay substantially more for sons’
weddings than daughters’ weddings, they do not resent the expense because
they feel the money remains within the family. By contrast, even small
expenses on daughters feel like a net drain on household resources.
The need to pay high dowries cannot be an underlying cause of son
preference in India, but it does add to the existing disincentives in the North
for raising girls. Regional differentials within India suggest that the kinship
system plays an important role in mediating the effect of dowry payments
on the treatment of daughters. Although dowry is a heavy burden across
India today, levels of discrimination against girls continue to be far lower in
South India than in the North.15 This is because the kinship systems of the
South offer more room for give and take between a married woman and her
family of birth. This works to the advantage of both the parents and the
daughters: the parents can hope to receive some physical and other support
from their daughter, and the daughter can continue to receive support from
the parents in case of need.
Labour Force Participation: Paid Employment and the Value of Wives
The main form of female labour force participation in agrarian settings is
through women working on the family farm. However, data on this are
notorious for under-reporting the extent of their participation are notorious.
Women’s work on the family farm tends to be discounted as merely an
extension of their domestic work: little distinction is made between whether
the woman did the harvesting or the cooking. This is further complicated by
the fact that the extent of under-reporting is greater where women’s position
in the kinship system is more marginal. For example, official statistics show
that the State of Haryana in North-west India has an especially low rate of
female labour force participation, but in fact women do almost all the
manual labour on the fields through the whole crop cycle, while men spend
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short periods of time ploughing with tractors and operating tubewells [Das
Gupta, 1987]. Thus even if women are responsible for most of the actual
labour input into agriculture, the production is perceived to be that of the
men because they own the land and take the managerial decisions around it.
In this context, it is important to note that respondents in China mentioned
that serious efforts have been made to have families and communities
explicitly recognise the economic contribution women make through their
agricultural work [Xie, 1997]. For what the data are worth, there seems to
be little relationship between rates of female labour force participation in
different countries of Asia and son preference.16
Paid work is valued much more highly than work on the family farm,
and this may be especially important for ensuring recognition of women’s
economic contribution in societies in which women’s work tends otherwise
to be discounted. Having paid employment is widely recognised to increase
women’s decision-making power within the household. However, the fact
that adult women’s status improves or that their perceived contribution to
their household rises does not necessarily suggest that daughters will
become more welcome to their families. As long as adult women continue
to be rigidly part of their husband’s families, as they traditionally have been
in North-west India, China and South Korea, they can contribute little to
their parental family. Investing in daughters will continue to be perceived as
investing in another family’s daughter-in-law.
How rapidly the growth of women’s paid employment translates into
reduced son preference depends on the extent to which public policy
enables women to contribute to their parents’ well-being. In China, efforts
in this direction have generated a growing trend for women to contribute to
their parents’ family, especially when they participate in the growing
employment opportunities of the newly-industrialising market economy
[Xie, 1997]. This radical departure from tradition is part of a general effort
in Communist China to break long-standing age and gender hierarchies. By
contrast, women have participated extensively in paid work since the 1960s
in South Korea, but conservative public policies slowed the potential for
parents to benefit from daughters as well as sons.
There seems to be little evidence to support the hypothesis that the poor
discriminate more against their daughters than the rich – the hypothesis
being that sharper resource constraints force the poor to allocate resources
to the more valued males. Census data from India show that in North India
the higher castes (who tend to be richer) had more unbalanced sex ratios
than the lower castes [Miller, 1981; Das Gupta, 1987]. Similarly, district-
level data from India and household-level data from South Korea suggest
that if anything the rich discriminate more than the poor.17
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However, all these analyses look at the relationship between gender
discrimination and absolute economic differences between groups. There is
evidence that resource constraint affects discrimination in another way:
people increase the level of discrimination when they experience a
tightening of circumstances relative to their own previous position. When
people are impoverished by crop failure or other stress, they discriminate
more heavily against girls. For example, war and famine raised the level of
discrimination in China and South Korea in the middle of this century [Das
Gupta and Shuzhuo, 1999]. Of course, one would only expect to find such
an effect in a society with strong son preference not in societies whose
kinship systems make for more equal valuation of males and females.
V. THE EXPERIENCE OF SON PREFERENCE
Bearing sons is important in all three countries, for a woman to gain
standing in her husband’s household. A woman’s main source of standing in
her husband’s family is as the mother of the future men of the family. In
Northern India for example, a woman is called ‘X’s mother’. If the first is
not a son she will be renamed as soon as she bears a son, because being
called a boy’s mother is much more prestigious than a girl’s mother. For
men, too, having a son brings full membership of the society as he has now
performed the critical function of social reproduction.
Of the three countries studied, South Korean parents seem to be under the
greatest pressure to bear sons. Unlike China and India, in South Korea even
highly-educated professional people who have only daughters describe this
as a terrible tragedy. One senior academic has only two daughters, and has
told them that when he dies they should give him a simple burial, not even
troubling over his clothes. Since he has no descendants to tend him in his
afterlife, there is little point in fussing over his funeral. Besides, he
explained, daughters should not have to bear the expenses.
It is common for women to be mistreated if they do not have sons. The
husband might take to drinking and womanising, and maltreating the wife.
His parents might put pressure of their own, and in the past they would ask
their son to take a concubine, threatening if necessary to disinherit him if he
did not have a son. Such stories abound in the interviews we conducted. Nor
did one son suffice in the past, as illustrated by the story of a woman now
in her seventies:
Although my first child was a son, my mother-in-law was very angry
with me because the next three were daughters. Although I cooked
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rice for the family, my daughters and I were allowed only to eat millet.
Feeling very guilty about bearing three daughters in a row, I felt I
should be very obedient to my mother-in-law. I would wake up very
early and do all the domestic work, work on the rice fields, feed the
animals, and then weave until late into the night. I served my mother-
in-law carefully, making sure never to sleep until she was comfortably
asleep and could not need anything further. After my second daughter
was born, she sent me off to work in the kitchen and the rice fields
within days of the birth, not allowing the normal period of rest. My
third daughter died. Later I had another son, but by then my mother-
in-law had died.
When pressed as to why people did not want daughters, she said it was
not because they were unproductive or needed dowries to get married:
No, women did a lot of hard labor in the fields and their marriage cost
virtually nothing. People don’t want daughters because they are not
helpful to the family – they leave the family when they marry.
Daughters are useless! Unworthy! It is sons who are able to inherit
assets and keep the rituals of ancestor worship.
These forms of maltreatment are still common, though to a lesser extent
than before. For example, it is now rare to take a concubine.
It is crucial for a daughter-in-law to keep her mother-in-law on her side,
to minimise maltreatment if she is unable to have sons, and for domestic
harmony as a whole. Sometimes mothers-in-law can be supportive, as
illustrated by the following account given by a old woman of her daughter-
in-law, who is in her forties now:
My daughter-in-law had six daughters in a row, and came close to
being thrown out of the house by my son. When the third daughter
was born, he removed the protective string placed on the threshold to
repel evil spirits, and placed no further strings for subsequent
daughters. I tried to reason with him, saying that a woman who can
bear daughters can also bear a son. When the fourth daughter was
born, he began to drink heavily and have relationships with other
women. Though he did not actually beat her, he punished her by
ordering her to resume cooking three days after giving birth. She cried
every day. At the fifth daughter, he laughed harshly and said nastily:
‘Another daughter? Feel free to eat more, help yourself, take good
care of yourself.’ The sixth daughter died three days after birth: he
made no attempt to take her to a doctor, just as he paid little attention
when the other daughters fell ill.
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I tried various rituals to help her bear a son, but to no avail. Finally I
found a shaman, who took her up a mountain to pray for a son, and
that night she became pregnant and had twin sons.
It should be added that this woman was bearing these children before the
spread of sex-selective abortion. Now people can avoid bearing a long
string of daughters.
Both men and women suffer terribly in the absence of sons, though for
somewhat different reasons. Men suffer private grief at their lineage coming
to an end, a sense of having let down the ancestors, and fear of being
untended in one’s own afterlife. Thus it is not unusual for old men
(comfortably supported in this life by their own savings and pensions) to
visit clinics and ask nurses for information on how their daughter-in-law
could bear a son. No amount of savings in this life can assure well-being in
the next, in the absence of a son to carry out the necessary rituals. Aside
from the grief and fear, there is also considerable public humiliation for men
who do not have a son. It was commonly reported that other men taunt
them. It is also said to be humiliating to appear in public places such as a
public bath without a son.
For women, the suffering involves fear of rejection and mistreatment by
the husband. Moreover, they feel terribly guilty not to have borne a son. As
a woman doctor told us:
Every woman in Korea wants to have a son. Even though a lot of
people are aware that the sex of the child is determined by the father,
women still feel that if their husband had married some other woman,
he might have had a son. A woman’s domestic life is often badly
affected if she does not have a son.
Until the recent change in the Family Law, even women who could afford
to sue for divorce could not do so without losing custody of their children.
Ethnographic accounts from China,18 as well as our own interviews,
show that in earlier decades women were subject to considerable stress
within their family of marriage. In most ways women’s position in the
household was much like that in South Korea. A crucial difference,
however, was that it was acceptable to adopt a son, preferably from the
father’s lineage [Hsu, 1949] reducing the stress to all of not giving birth to
Like their counterparts in China and South Korea, young married women in
North India have to wake up before anyone else in the household and start
all the domestic chores [Das Gupta, 1995]. They, too, have to serve their
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mother-in-law well, being careful not to incur their wrath or dissatisfaction.
At the end of the day the mother-in-law must be tended before going to
sleep. Even after the advent of electric grinding of wheat, many households
continued to demand that their young wives wake up long before dawn to
grind flour by hand, just to make sure that they understood their position in
Here too it is very important for a woman to have a son to give her
standing in the household and community. As a young woman she will have
limited bargaining power vis-à-vis her mother-in-law and others in the
household, and as an old woman she will be vulnerable without a son to
offer his protection. It is unusual for men to take a second wife if their wife
does not have a son, but if this happens the first wife’s position in the
household is relegated to that of domestic help.
Yet the pressures to bear a son are softened by the fact that a man’s
brothers’ or cousins’ sons can substitute for his own, as shown in our case
study from North-west India:
Shortly after I was married, I had two daughters spaced three years
apart. After that it was thirteen years till my next birth. This turned out
to be a boy, and my husband’s family celebrated greatly, distributing
a lot of sweets and presents. Even now, if the boy is sick his father
stays up all night fanning him. Five years later I had another daughter,
and that was my last birth.
My husband was certainly very anxious to have a son, and I tried
many medicines to bear one. But no, he did not maltreat me although
for a long time it seemed that I would never have a son. His brother
had two sons, and that gave him a lot of satisfaction. Some of the
neighbors teased me sometimes, but it was alright because I was not
childless after all … They called me the mother of my eldest daughter.
Now, of course, they call me the mother of my son, and my status is
transformed as a consequence.
VI. FORCES OF CHANGE
To reduce discrimination against girls, it is critical to have policies that raise
the value of girls to their parents, relative to boys. It is not enough to hope
that policies aimed more generally at raising the status of women will be
equally effective at reducing discrimination against girls. As long as
daughters continue to be totally absorbed into their husband’s home and
cannot contribute to their parents’ welfare, son preference will continue to
persist even though adult women are integrated into education and formal
employment. For example in China, there has been much emphasis on
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gender equality, but far less effort to alter the fundamentals of the family
system in order to make daughters and sons more equally valuable to their
parents. In fact, it has been useful for the state to encourage the continuation
of those aspects of the kinship system which assure stable customary family
residential patterns, with clear expectations that women will care for their
husbands’ parents, their children and other family dependents – thereby
helping maintain social stability and relieving the state of the burdens of
caring for the old, the young, the sick and the unemployed.19 Thus the
situation of women has improved but discrimination against girls persists.
This is especially evident from the experience of South Korea, where the
emphasis has been on raising incomes (including that of women), and
relatively little effort has been spent on ensuring gender equality for its own
sake. Women’s lives have thus improved dramatically in material ways but
their position in the family has changed very much less. Standards of living
have improved, along with technological innovation in domestic work. In
terms of health women have benefited enormously from rapid improvement
in maternal and child health, as well as general health care which has given
them among the greatest longevity in the world. Education is virtually
universal (Table 1) and women’s participation in formal sector employment
has also risen steadily (Table 4).
There are, however, some important forces of change at work, which
increase flexibility in the kinship system and thereby help equalise the value
of sons and daughters.
176 THE JOURNAL OF DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
WOMEN WORKERS AS PERCENT OF TOTAL WORKERS IN EACH OCCUPATION
GROUP, SOUTH KOREA 1993
Occupation group Per cent
Legislators, senior officials and managers 5
Professionals and technicians 32
Sales and service 58
Agriculture and fishery 46
Plant and machine operators 23
Source: Korean Women’s Development Institute [1995: 163–5], based on National Statistical
Office, Annual Report on Economically Active Population Survey (1993–95).
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The organisation of urban life differs enormously from that of rural areas,
reducing the centrality of sons in their parents’ lives. Customary rules of
inheritance are most inflexible regarding immovable clan assets such as
land, and customary rules of post-marital residence are most inflexible in
rural areas where clan exogamy is typically synonymous with village
exogamy. By contrast, urban parents and their daughters can give each other
much more financial, emotional and physical support. Sons-in-law also
interact with them and can sometimes be called upon for assistance.
Moreover, sons’ employment may take them to a city other than that of their
Whether urban parents derive support from a child often depends more
on who lives in the same city and the nature of their relationship, than on
the sex of the child. This is critical to making daughters less of a drain and
more of an asset as compared with sons. Besides, older people in urban
areas have typically worked in jobs that give them pensions and health care
coverage, reducing their need for financial support from their children.
Going against this trend is the continued need for sons to support them in
their afterlife – as no earthly pension system can take care of this need.
Decades of urbanisation with concomitant social change, as well as
female education and employment seem to be having some impact on the
pressure to have sons. This is evidenced in South Korea by the decline in
the child sex ratio between the 1990 and 2000 censuses. The interviews
there indicate that a small but growing proportion of husbands are accepting
of their wives even if they do not bear a son:
My husband’s youngest sister was supported by her husband although
she had only two daughters. They decided to get sterilized because
they felt they could not afford to raise more children. The husband’s
parents were terribly angry about this, but they could not say anything
much since it was their son who took the decision. A few young
couples now are able to bear the pressure of not having a son.
In the metropolis of Shanghai, the sex ratios have become fairly normal, in
stark contrast with evidence of heavy discrimination against females around
1900 [Xin, 1989].
The market reforms in China since the early 1980s may have reduced the
disincentive to have daughters. Girls can now earn wages, and while they
are unmarried their earnings contribute to their parents’ household expenses
and their wedding expenses. If they continue to earn wages after marriage,
they are also better placed to help their parents even after leaving home.
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However, the market reforms may also be contributing to reinforcing
women’s marginalisation. First, women in the new market economy are not
protected as they were before, and are vulnerable to being terminated when
they marry or have children. Secondly, the boom in commerce and trading
has revived traditional ways of forming business networks and contacts
through family and personal connections. Women are consequently
disadvantaged, because they lose their father’s lineage networks when they
marry, and it takes time for them to develop new connections based on their
husband’s family connections.
Government officials and villagers whom we interviewed in the
economically booming coastal province of Zhejiang pointed out other ways
in which the new market economy has contributed to increasing the
manifestation of son preference. Clans have begun to function once again as
organisations which provide their own with protection and assistance in
exploiting the newfound business opportunities. And of course subscribing
to clan ideology puts a heavy premium on having sons to perpetuate and
strengthen the clan. They also said that when people become richer they
become more concerned with having a son to pass on their wealth. In the
collective farming period, clan and kinship ties were of relatively little
Social and Legal Reform Movements
In China and India, the early twentieth century was a period of intense
questioning of many aspects of the social order. Gender hierarchies were
one focus of this rethinking, as reflected in social movements and literature
written for raising social consciousness in the early decades of this century.
Like Tagore and his contemporaries in India, major literary figures such as
Lu Xun wrote explicitly about the problems generated by the family system,
especially for women. In India, this process was incorporated into the
popular movement for independence, helping disseminate the radical social
messages very widely. As a result, the concept of gender equality is firmly
established in civil discourse, and women’s movements have flourished as
a major force of change. While the gains to women from these efforts are
not as dramatic as those achieved through state intervention in East Asia,
the fact that they emanate from civil society means that they are also less
subject to reversal.20
In China, the process of social change was interrupted by the civil wars
and invasions which dominated the first half of the twentieth century. After
1950, the Communists’ ideological commitment to gender equality resulted
in much effort to improve the situation of young women vis-à-vis their
mothers-in-law and husbands. The difference between the sexes was de-
emphasised, even in clothing. Women gained much freedom of movement
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and visibility in local official positions. Women’s contribution to
production, even in agriculture, was explicitly recognised. It is instructive,
though that these changes take a long time to effect: in rural China the
authorities are still emphasising the importance of women’s contribution to
production. During the decades of strict Communist control, they also
sought to eradicate ancestor worship – but many people continued to quietly
leave some food in their home for their ancestors, and as soon as the control
was loosened people went back to more public manifestations of their
The thrust of these efforts was to make people aware, as Mao put it, that
‘Women hold up half the sky’. By this we assume that he meant that women
should be perceived as having a social and legal persona, so that they could
be full-fledged social actors and have their social contribution formally
recognised. Yet for all his efforts at raising the status of women, Mao did
not alter the basic rules of kinship. The rules of residence in rural areas
continued to be that men stayed in their father’s village, and women went to
their husbands’ homes at marriage. Even today village land is allocated
according to these rules, deleting a daughter’s share of land on her marriage
and granting her a share in her husband’s village. Thus although women’s
situation is enormously improved in modern China, girls continue to be
marginal to their parents’ family and their birth continues to be unwelcome.
In urban areas, where the exigencies of life break these traditions, gender
discrimination has decreased.
Especially in rural China, it is still a tragedy for people if they do not
have a son. A woman without a son is vulnerable to terrible taunts by others
in her community, for example in the course of an altercation, and she
suffers much loss of face as a result. Nevertheless, very considerable
improvements have been achieved in women’s position in the household.
As a result, women who fail to bear a son are likely to be subject to far less
maltreatment today than their counterparts in South Korea. This is
illustrated by the following story of a man now in his early fifties:
When my child was born and it turned out to be a girl, I was so
disappointed that I flung my cigarette out of the window. I did not dare
to tell my father about it, though of course he guessed the truth from
my silence. My wife was so upset that she did not want to care for the
child, and I had to persuade her to nurse it. I always regretted not
having a son. Some years later, my cousin sister found a boy from my
home area for me to adopt, but my wife would not hear of it. She said
she was too busy with her work to be bothered to look after a small
child again. My father has become resigned to this now, and so have I,
but when I got my first personal computer I said ‘This is my son’.
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Legal changes can be highly effective in increasing women’s voice. In
India, for example, women have become much more active in public fora
since the recent legislation requiring that one-third of panchayat (grassroots
administration) positions should be composed of women. In China too, the
state has striven to bring women into the public sphere and reduce their in-
laws’ hold over them, as illustrated by the case study of a woman who was
married shortly before the revolution:
My mother-in-law was a very harsh woman … I had to serve her hand
and foot. In the morning I had to wake up and begin work before she
woke up. I also had to empty her chamberpot in the morning. Then I
worked all through the day, and could only go to sleep after she did … .
My first child was a son, but she would not let me hold him. She
insisted that I just lie him flat on the bed and leave him alone all day
while I worked. She would not let me eat rice, only inferior grains… .
When the Communist youth meetings began in the village, I attended
a couple of them. They made me feel as though I had some group to
which I belonged which was outside my husband’s household. But my
mother-in-law forbade me from going to any more meetings, and I did
not dare oppose her.
Persistent efforts to bring young women out of their homes to participate in
these meetings bore fruit in the face of resistance, and helped transform
women’s lives simply by allowing them to function as part of a large group
Korean feminists recognise the need to alter the position of women in
the family, and they place much emphasis on the need to revise the Family
Law. After many years of debate, some changes were made in the Family
Law in 1989. These changes open up the possibility of women being able to
have custody of children after divorce; encourage equal inheritance of sons
and daughters; allow the eldest son to relinquish family headship; and allow
recognition of blood ties up to the same generational distance on both the
mother’s and the father’s side. The nature of the changes may seem bizarre
to Western feminists, but for Korean feminists the main point is to increase
the recognition of women as social actors. Their case for gender equity was
strengthened by the state’s concern about the potentially negative social
repercussions of a shortage of women.
The Role of the Mass Media
The mass media can be a powerful tool of social engineering, within the
context of a broader process of social and legal reform.21 The state-run
television and radio in India and China has sought to use this to raise
awareness of the problems and constraints facing women, and to project
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images of women who are able to take charge of their lives at home and at
work. They have also sought to use the media to disseminate information
about women’s legal rights and how to try to enforce them. In addition to
these efforts at bringing about greater gender equity in social values, much
more can be done to reduce son preference by tackling the more specific
issue of making sons and daughters more equally valuable to their parents.
For example, soap operas can be used to portray women (and also their
husbands) helping her parents, emphasising that this is socially acceptable.
Parents can be shown dividing inheritance equally between children of both
sexes The fact that the relationship with a daughter is often emotionally
more rewarding can be emphasised, and parents can also be portrayed living
with married daughters.
What factors are responsible for son preference, and why is it so persistent
in the face of sweeping economic and social changes? Why does a highly
urbanised society such as South Korea manifest the same patterns of gender
bias as the more agrarian societies of China and India? To understand this,
a cross-country comparison is very useful because it indicates which factors
are central to the problem. These three settings have strong similarities in
their family systems, which are strongly patrilineal. Women are effectively
marginalised in the social order. This is one of the most fundamental aspects
of their culture, capable of persisting despite rising incomes, education and
We have argued that despite local variations on the ground, these kinship
systems have a common organisational logic which generates son
preference. It is interesting to note that variations in the kinship systems
confirm the theoretical implications of their common organisational logic.
For example, South Korea has different rules of family segmentation
from China and North-west India, placing the burden of continuing the
family line more squarely on the shoulders of the eldest son, and this is
reflected in the eldest son empirically manifesting stronger son preference
than other sons.
These kinship systems generate a critical dichotomy between the value
of a girl to her parents and her value to her husband’s family. As long as the
custom persists for women and their future productivity to be totally
absorbed by their in-laws, parents are likely to perceive daughters as a drain
and prefer to raise sons. Women can contribute little to their parents’
welfare, so even when levels of women’s education and formal-sector
labour force participation increase, the fruits of these go to her husband’s
home. Even though women can gain considerable power in the household
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in their old age, this depends on having sons who support their mother’s
voice in the household at the expense of their own wives. In short, the
vulnerability of women in these settings is well-designed for reinforcing
and perpetuating itself with little need for direct reinforcement from the
male world. This is a vicious twist to what Kandiyoti [1988, 1998] has
termed the ‘patriarchal bargain’.
We also argue that the economic pressures for son preference are
culturally induced. If people have to pay large dowries to get their daughters
married, this is just an additional factor in the equation – the levels of
‘missing girls’ are high even when brideprice has been the norm, as in
China and South Korea today and in North-west India in the early twentieth
century. In fact, having to pay a brideprice to obtain a wife is consistent with
the shortage of brides generated by discrimination against daughters. Many
studies indicate that the surge in dowry payments in India is related to an
unusual configuration of demographic forces, which are no longer at play.
Population projections indicate that a shortage of brides and brideprice will
begin to manifest itself again in Northwest India in the early twenty-first
century [Das Gupta and Li, 1999] and this is already being reported in the
Similarly, the fact that sons have economic value as the main source of
old age support is clearly culturally determined. There is no intrinsic reason
why parents cannot seek such support from their daughters as they do
elsewhere in Asia. Nor can adequate pensions and savings offer peace of
mind for one’s old age, as long as people believe that they will be ‘hungry
ghosts’ in the afterlife unless sons provide the necessary rituals.
Increasing female education and paid employment clearly gives women
greater ability to function independently and offer support to their parents.
However, the speed with which this will reduce son preference can be
greatly accelerated if measures are also taken to make it socially acceptable
for daughters to help their parents. What is required is to reduce the
incentive to discriminate against girls by making daughters and sons more
equally valuable to their parents. This can be left to take place naturally with
the cumulative effect of decades of urbanisation on family arrangements –
as in South Korea – but for societies like China and India which are still
heavily agrarian this would be a very slow process. Fortunately, much can
be done to accelerate the process of reducing son preference through social
movements, legislation, and the mass media.
final revision accepted December 2002
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1. Croll  has also discussed various quantitative and qualitative aspects of son preference
in these countries.
2. See, for example, Booth, Verma and Beri  and Premi .
3. It has been argued that China’s family planning programme may have exacerbated son
preference. Accelerating the speed of fertility decline reduces the time for parents to become
accustomed to the idea of having fewer sons when they have fewer children. Strict limits on
the total number of children also increase the risk of remaining sonless. Yet when fertility
decline is more obviously voluntary, as in South Korea, the sex ratios at birth are as high as
in China, emphasising the fact that son preference is not caused by a specific kind of family
4. We can derive the proportion of female births missing from the sex ratio at birth, given an
assumed ‘normal’ sex ratio at birth of 106 males per 100 females. We have estimated this for
China and South Korea. In the case of India, data on the sex ratio at birth are not available,
so we have estimated it indirectly. This was done by estimating the number of female
children missing during the intercensal period 1981–91 whose deaths are not explained by
changes in recorded excess female mortality after birth [Das Gupta and Bhat, 1997].The
extent to which these estimates consist of sex-selective abortion or female infanticide is
difficult to judge, since a case of infanticide is not likely to be reported as a birth. To this
estimate we have added the recorded excess female child mortality after birth, to derive a
total estimated excess female child mortality per 1,000 females (and per 1,000 children of
both sexes) who would have been born had the sex ratio at birth been normal.
5. Also Carl Mosk and Emiko Ochiai, personal communication.
6. Xie Zhenming, personal communication.
7. This is dramatically illustrated in the case of the kidnapped woman discussed in Zhang and
8. Das Gupta, fieldwork in Rampur, 1975–92.
9. See also Wongboosin and Ruffolo , Soeradji and Hatmadji .
10. Dyson and Moore , Karve , Kolenda , Saavala .
11. See, for example, Sieder and Mitterauer , Arensberg and Kimball , and Das
12. Kandiyoti  has made the same argument in the context of Islamic societies.
13. Imperial Gazeteer of India [1908: 285], Bhat and Halli , Rao .
14. John Lancaster .
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, Hu ; Hsu ; Wolf ; and Wolf and Huang .
19. See Das Gupta et al.  for a fuller discussion of this.
20. The role of public policy in shaping women’s autonomy is discussed further in Das Gupta et
21. For an analysis of the powerful effect of the mass media on values and perceptions regarding
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