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Women and Suicide in China
Suicide has long been seen by Western civilizations as a disease of the mind. It is understood by doctors and psychologists to be the tragic last act of people suffering from mental illness or depression. In China, suicide is traditionally viewed as a protest against unjust social order, not simply an affliction of the mentally anguished.1
China holds the unfortunate position of a country plagued by a higher female suicide rate than most countries. The rate of suicide for women in this country is so high that every four minutes in China, a woman kills herself.2 This equates to nearly 56 percent of the entire world’s female suicides, and 18 of every 100,000 deaths in China.3
Suicide is the number one cause of death among young women in the 15-34 year old age group. This problem is much worse in more rural areas in China, where the rate of female suicide is up to three times higher than in the cities. Why do so many young Chinese women feel compelled to take their own lives?
In Western cultures, most women are provided with opportunities for education and employment. They are encouraged to go to school and gain a literacy and knowledge of various academic and professional subjects, and are readily encouraged to participate in corporate and career-oriented positions. Western women are surrounded by countless public female role models who advocate positive messages toward women.
Unfortunately, women in China are not so well-equipped to deal with the mounting pressures of an increasingly powerful market economy. The beginning of the twentieth century in China paved the way for a rapid change from the rural, traditionally-rooted rural societies of the past to one of the most powerful capitalistic governments in the world.
The driving force behind female suicide in China can be traced to a variety of reasons, one of the most prominent being an easy availability of pesticides.
Pesticides are a common tool for farmers in rural villages used to keep crops safe from harmful insects. Studies show that of all Chinese suicides, both male and female, 58 percent use pesticides.4 It acts as a poison that instantly burns the mouth and throat and is extremely lethal.
Researchers have discovered that large numbers of female suicides in China are merely impulsive, whimsical acts with no premeditation or mental illness involved.5
Take, for example, the account of Zhao, a woman from the Sanshiliugunzi Village in China:
"Zhao wanted to sleep. Her husband wanted to watch TV. It was as simple as that. The poor farming couple in Hebei province had no history of quarreling, Zhao said. But on this warm September night, neither would compromise. So Zhao, 34, left the large bed she and her husband shared with their two young sons, walked outside and grabbed a bottle of pesticide from a windowsill. "I just drank a little bit, but it burned my throat and my mouth," said Zhao, who tends the crops, cares for her two boys, now 5 and 10, and runs a household of seven. "I took it without thinking anything deep. I just felt wronged, and I acted rashly. I never thought of the two children, not a bit. I thought of nothing." 6
Zhao’s situation is not unique. Millions of women in China struggle with a lack of self-worth because of their low position within their own families and in the grand scheme of Chinese society. Pesticides act as the catalyst that can turn rash, extreme decisions into reality.
A vast majority of the women in China who commit suicide come from poverty7, and this further illustrates the dichotomy between rich and poor in Chinese society and the pressures it contributes to this suicide epidemic. The government struggles to raise the standard of living in rural areas. Women not only face the pressures of poverty but the omnipresent fear of illness, disease and pollution. And, although arranged marriages have been deemed illegal by the government, the traditional attitudes of the past still prevail in many areas.
Women’s status in Chinese society is like unto livestock or dirt – sons take precedent over daughters, wives are subservient to husbands and children, and when women are married they must move into their husband’s home, away from their families and friends. This new environment creates many problems for young Chinese women. Xu Rong, head of the Suicide Prevention Project at the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women, explains this emotionally taxing situation so many Chinese women encounter:
“They have their father-in-law to deal with, their mother-in-law, various uncles, sisters-in-law and so on. She’s got to gain everyone’s acceptance. When there are conflicts, she’s the weakest." 8
Additionally, the husband can often sense the wife does not want to be with him, so resentment builds and quickly turns into arguments. Some of these arguments can get very violent, as it is quite normal for men in China to physically abuse their wives. “This is because there’s a saying among men that goes: ‘marrying a woman is like buying a horse - I can ride you and beat you whenever I like’” offers Xie Lihua, the editor of a prominent Chinese women’s magazine.9
It is believed that between 70-80 percent of all suicides are a direct result of a marital conflict.
Lack of Resources
Another factor that contributes greatly to the issue of increased female suicides in China is the general lack of social resources available to women to help them cope with their problems. In America there are helplines, Women’s centers and community programs to help emotionally or physically battered women cope with their problems and receive counseling.
Women in rural areas are generally not allowed to interact with many people outside of their husband’s family. it can be a very stressful and traumatizing situation, especially if the marriage is not a happy one, or if she is not liked by her husband’s family.
The Chinese also have an unusual tendency of announcing intricate details of female suicides through the media, pushing this subject further and further into the public eye:
"In rural China there are no telephone hotlines to counsel potential victims. Instead, news agencies broadcast psychological analyses of females who have committed suicide over the radio and loud speakers. There are also stories being published in magazines about women who have made a career by marketing their cooking and sewing skills to encourage rural women to cherish their lives. However, few women in China have achieved important leadership roles." 10
Women in rural villages largely do not have the tools they need to express themselves within their communities. Women are expected to work hard within the home, doing all the cooking, cleaning and sewing. Such strains can put serious pressures on young women who feel bewildered and abused in these situations.
One Child Policy
The One Child policy in China also contributes significantly to the phenomenon of so many women committing suicide. Families are allowed one child, and that child is expected to be a boy. If a woman gets pregnant again after having one child, she is faced with the very tough decision of either aborting the fetus, abandoning it at birth or moving to another country to have the child. Because families in rural areas are extremely poor and could never afford to travel internationally, women turn to abortion or abandonment. These practices undoubtedly lead to extreme emotional problems in women and most likely are a major source of impulsive suicidal decisions.
Absence of Social Taboos
A deeper dimension to this problem in China may lie in the fact that virtually no social or religious taboos exist against suicide.11 The Christian religions of Western cultures preach that suicide is an offense to God. Researchers believe that traditional Chinese philosophies could have a significant influence on the Chinese view of suicide. Confucius, a famous chinese thinker and the founder of Confucianism, taught:
“For gentlemen of purpose and men of ren while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of ren, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have ren accomplished.” 12
Mencius, a renowned Confucian scholar, wrote:
"Fish is what I want; bear's palm is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take bear's palm than fish. Life is what I want; yi is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take yi than life. On the one hand, though life is what I want, there is something I want more than life. That is why I do not cling to life at all cost. On the other hand, though death is what I loathe, there is something I loathe more than death. That is why there are dangers I do not avoid . . . . Yet there are ways of remaining alive and ways of avoiding death to which a person will not resort. In other words, there are things a person wants more than life and there are also things he or she loathes more than death." 13
Many Chinese people are strangely apathetic toward the concept of suicide. Dr. Phillips, the executive director of the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center, explains, “In some particular villages it almost becomes normalized. If a young woman is having trouble, this is one way she’ll express her displeasure.” 14
While this problem is quite massive in scale and not easily solved in a short amount of time, there are a few groups beginning to emerge in China who are advocating for suicide-prone women and girls throughout the country. I think women from outside societies need to look toward China and offer our assistance. We need to spread awareness of this issue in our own country so that China understands what an unacceptable situation it really is.
“Suicide is the last resort for those who believe they have no other alternative. With the influx of western values and more female role models among the Chinese, many rural women hopefully will realize that they are valued and that another woman or an overgrown tree are not food reasons to give up a healthy life.” 15
The history of women in China is so full of pain and suffering that the least we can do as a global community is work to ensure a brighter future for China’s mothers, daughters, sisters and wives.
Ji, Jianlin, Arthur Kleinman, and Anne Becker, "Suicide in Contemporary China: A Review of China's Distinctive Suicide Demographics in Their Sociocultural Context" Harvard Review of Psychiatry 9.1 (2001): 1-12.
Christopher Allen, "Traditions Weigh on China's Women," BBC News, Acecssed. 17 Apr. 2011, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5086754.stm.
Elaine Y. Wan, "Female Suicide in China," The Tech, accessed 17 Apr. 2011, http://tech.mit.edu/V119/N1/wan.1c.html.
Fan, Maureen, "In Rural China, a Bitter Way Out," The Washington Post, accessed 17 Apr. 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/14/AR2007051401506.html
Elaine Y Wan, “Female Suicide in China”
Fan, Maureen, "In Rural China, a Bitter Way Out"
“In Rural China, a Bitter Way Out”
Christopher Allen, “Traditions Weigh in on Chinese Women”
Elaine Y Wan, “Female Suicide in China”“Suicide blights China’s women,” BBC News, accessed April 18th, 2011, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/2526079.stm
Analects, trans. D.C. Lau, second edition, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1992, XV:9D
Mencius, trans. D.C. Lau, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1984, VI A:10
“Suicide Blights China’s Women”
Elaine Y Wan, “Suicide in China”