Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Chinese Husbands' Participation in Household Labor

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Chinese Husbands' Participation in Household Labor

Article excerpt

Chinese Husbands' Participation in Household Labor*

A traditional saying in China is that "Men dominate the outside; women dominate the inside." The first part of this statement suggests that women are not expected to work outside the home; their husbands will take charge of external affairs. The second part indicates that men need not be concerned with housework; their wives will take responsibility for everything within the home. This statement did, in fact, reflect the ideology in China for over one thousand years. In the past, Chinese women seldom worked in the fields or factories, especially before 1911 when most women had bound feet and little education1. In addition, Chinese men rarely did any housework. It was, for example, a disgrace for men to wash clothes, especially women's clothes.2

How has this traditional ideology fared in modern China? Obviously, the first part has changed dramatically, especially within the last 50 years. Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the Great Leap Forward in 1958, many women have entered the labor force. Indeed, Marxists regard labor force participation as the key to women's liberation and gender equity (Stockman et al., 1995; Andors, 1983). Consequently, socialist China has one of the highest female employment rates in the world. In the early 1990s, 90 percent of urban Chinese women aged 16-54 were employed, compared to 67.5 percent of U.S. women in this age group (Riley, 1996; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990). Nearly all rural Chinese women work in the fields or participate in other economic activities (Riley, 1996). Clearly, the tradition that women seldom work outside the home no longer exists in today's China.

What about the second part of this tradition? Do Chinese men still not do any housework, like their predecessors, or has this also changed? Do urban and rural men differ in the extent to which they participate in household labor? What factors determine the extent of Chinese men's participation in household labor? Our research addresses these questions.


Compared to the United States, we know little about the division of household labor in China. Studies are few, and most are limited. Some studies limited their samples to "intellectual" families, those in which individuals hold professional and technical jobs (Zhang and Farley, 1995). Yet, in China, intellectuals comprise only a small proportion of the population--about 5.1 percent in 1982 (C. Li, 1986). Consequently, generalizations cannot be made about the larger Chinese society. In addition, most studies of the division of household labor use small samples, not more than 50 or 60 people. Finally, studies typically report descriptive findings rather than determinants of time spent in household labor.

A study by Zhang and Farley (1995) compared the division of household labor for a sample of female college professors and their spouses in China (N=34) and in the United States (N=85). Findings revealed that Chinese husbands did 24 percent of the cooking on average, 34 percent of the dish washing, 26 percent of the laundry, and 20 percent of the shopping. American husbands averaged 27, 31, 19, and 31 percent of these tasks, respectively. These comparisons suggest that husbands' contributions to household labor are about the same in both countries, at least among intellectual families.

A study of two rural Chinese villages divided its sample of 40 women and 10 men into three age groups. Researchers found that 55 percent of young husbands, 52 percent of middleaged husbands, and 51 percent of elderly husbands helped with housework. Although the survey did not define the meaning of "helped," the term denotes that responsibility for household labor rests with wives. Findings revealed that 26 percent of young husbands, 31 percent of middle-aged husbands, and 35 percent of elderly husbands never did any housework (remaining husbands in these groups said they "don't know" whether they help with housework) (All-China Women's Federation, 1993). …

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