Might China Allow (or Order) Women To Have Multiple Husbands?

Photo credit Zhang Kaiyv
Photo credit Zhang Kaiyv

For thirty six years from 1981 through 2015, China’s Communist leadership forcefully limited couples to a single child. At the time, China’s population was exploding faster than its ability to feed itself. As a result it was highly vulnerable to famines such as the one that, by 1962, had caused thirty million Chinese people to starve to death and hundreds of millions more to experience unimaginable deprivation and hunger.

Unfortunately, China’s “One Child” policy was implemented in a deeply misogynistic society that not only treated women poorly but routinely engaged in a centuries-old practice of routinely murdering girls upon their birth.

The results were as horrifying as they were foreseeable: Tens of millions of Chinese families either murdered their baby girls upon birth, or sought in illegal sonograms followed by abortions if they learned their fetus was to be a baby girl.

This article in today’s Washington Post shines some light on further downstream consequences of these policies and practices. China now faces a gender imbalance of unimaginable proportions. It is home to 67 million boys and men under the age of 40, but only 33 million girls and women under the age of 40.

Putting this imbalance into context is not easy. In 2015, the Atlantic’s Richard Florida crunched the gender imbalance numbers for U.S. cities and found that New York had 1,072 single women per 1,000 single men. On the flip side, he found that there were 1,101 single men in San Diego for every 1,000 single women. A ten percent gender imbalance either way makes the dating scene very different between those two cities.

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In China, the imbalance in most cities is not 10% but rather more than 100%. There are approximately 500 single women per 1,000 single men nationwide. And because marriagble women are so scarce, and there is such fierce competition for their attention, as a practical matter there are millions of young Chinese men who have never experienced romance of any kind and likely never will.

A few years ago the Washington Post ran a heartbreakingly well-written article that profiled some of these young men. It is well worth reading their stories.

Which brings me back to today’s Washington Post article. Using the guise of a columnist asking a question on a Chinese news website, it asks whether the time has come for the Chinese to experiment with polyandry which means women having multiple husbands.

As with many interesting ideas, there is great risk in looking too closely at the messenger who brought the question forth into the public debate. This particular columnist seems to hold numerous offensive views about women. Amongst the least offensive things he suggests is that “making meals for three husbands won’t take much more time than for two husbands.”

Similarly, his view seems to be that men are entitled to sex and if they have to share a woman to do it that would be better than some going without. He seems uninterested in how the would-be wife feels about this, noting that it is “common for prostitutes to serve more than 10 clients in a day.”

If his attitude is widespread, a policy of polyandry would likely be a disaster for Chinese women.

I found several comments to the Washington Post article to be far more to my liking. One woman commenter said: “The problem here is ‘men sharing a wife.’ Now if I, as the woman, have two husbands doing the housework and satisfying MY urgent needs, then maybe we can discuss this. Until that societal change happens – yep – it’s sex slavery.”

A male commenter added his similar suggestion: “The solution for men who want partners is to be ‘domestic.’  My wife had never cared for an Infant. I had and knew how to take care of them. I can iron a pleated skirt, make a blueberry pie from scratch, fold a fitted sheet, repair a hem on a skirt, and know not to put bras in the dryer . . . My suggestion for Chinese men is that they learn how to make a home for a smart woman.”

Could this catch on in China?

Looking at the situation there now we see large numbers of young men taking the highest paying most dangerous jobs they can find because they feel certain that they need to buy a large house in order to attract a wife. In addition, they must earn enough money to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a woman’s family for permission to marry her.

Given the lengths that these men are going through, and the fact that more women in China are not only seeking but thriving in professional careers, it seems within the realm of reason that some segment of lonely Chinese men will experiment with putting women’s needs first.

If they do so successfully, could it lead to a cultural change that reverberates around the world?

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