The History of Chinese Career Women

  • November 1, 2011
  • Editor: Sun Xi
  • Change Text Size: A  A  A

A serving girl at work in a late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) restaurant. [tupian.hudong.com]

A serving girl at work in a late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) restaurant. [tupian.hudong.com]


Married and single women in China have been going out to work and carving out careers for themselves for the past three or more decades. Their first forays into working life constituted an unprecedented sociological event of enormous significance in China's modern history.

The Feudalism Reform Party formed in the 1890s explored all possible means of strengthening China and protecting it from foreign incursions. To this end its members sought to mobilize Chinese men and women alike. They first raised the argument, "Women's total liberation demands economic independence," hence metaphorically opening the door to women's social participation through work.

But women joining the workforce was not a direct consequence of this enlightened view, rather the inevitable result of the commercial and industrial development of modern capitalism.

It was in the early 1870s that opium dens in the Shanghai concession first began to employ young women to wait on customers and prepare their pipes. The innovation marked the start of Chinese women's hilly road to professional occupations. As opium dens charged lower prices than brothels, they became the haunts of people in the lower income bracket, such as small traders, salesmen, hired laborers and rickshaw pullers.

These young serving women workers drew large numbers of customers and so generated considerable profits. Other opium dens consequently followed suit. A form of women's work that did not necessarily entail paid sex thus came into being.

As the Chinese public generally condemned any kind of work to do with opium, both these workers and their job soon disappeared. Intellectuals decried the practice, calling it an ensnarement of young innocents into opium addiction. A band of business men also signed a letter demanding that women be banned from this type of work, their main concern that it threatened Shanghai's commercial development.

Shanghai governmental officials and British, American and French consular officials eventually issued a notice on March 3, 1873 banning the employment of women in opium dens.

In contrast to the traditional female occupations of maidservants, street entertainers and prostitutes who had no personal liberty, waiting work gave Chinese women their first-ever chance to work outside their home as independent identities.

It was around this time that industrial sectors first began to employ women. In 1872, overseas Chinese businessman Chen Qiyuan set up a filature factory in Nanhai, south China's Guangdong Province that employed six to seven hundred workers, the majority of them women.

Women working in industry, however, also provoked public outrage. Families of women workers at another filature factory owned by a wealthy business man surnamed Zhang raised strong objections to their employment outside the home.

"Women who work alongside men in factories ruin their reputations and risk moral corruption. They are a bad influence and threaten social morals," is one historically recorded opinion.

But as women workers, generally from poor families, were cheaper, biddable and both more efficient and conscientious, employers were happy to take them on.

Consistent with the laws of economics and historical rationality, therefore, moral condemnation did not prevent women from entering industry.

By 1881, there were 11 filature factories in Guangzhou whose main workforce was women.

In 1881, Shanghai businessman Huang Zuoqing founded the Gongheyong Factory of 100 filature machines operated mainly by women. Their numbers grew in tandem with the factory's expansion in 1887 to 900 machines.

Around 1888, tea and silk depots in Shanghai started to hire women workers to select teas and assort cocoons, thus broadening the scope of women's paid work.

Women also began to work in cotton, match, paper, and cigarette factories.

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  • The History of Chinese Career Women2011-11-01   Editor: Sun Xi

    A serving girl at work in a late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) restaurant. [tupian.hudong.com]

    A serving girl at work in a late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) restaurant. [tupian.hudong.com]


    Married and single women in China have been going out to work and carving out careers for themselves for the past three or more decades. Their first forays into working life constituted an unprecedented sociological event of enormous significance in China's modern history.

    The Feudalism Reform Party formed in the 1890s explored all possible means of strengthening China and protecting it from foreign incursions. To this end its members sought to mobilize Chinese men and women alike. They first raised the argument, "Women's total liberation demands economic independence," hence metaphorically opening the door to women's social participation through work.

    But women joining the workforce was not a direct consequence of this enlightened view, rather the inevitable result of the commercial and industrial development of modern capitalism.

    It was in the early 1870s that opium dens in the Shanghai concession first began to employ young women to wait on customers and prepare their pipes. The innovation marked the start of Chinese women's hilly road to professional occupations. As opium dens charged lower prices than brothels, they became the haunts of people in the lower income bracket, such as small traders, salesmen, hired laborers and rickshaw pullers.

    These young serving women workers drew large numbers of customers and so generated considerable profits. Other opium dens consequently followed suit. A form of women's work that did not necessarily entail paid sex thus came into being.

    As the Chinese public generally condemned any kind of work to do with opium, both these workers and their job soon disappeared. Intellectuals decried the practice, calling it an ensnarement of young innocents into opium addiction. A band of business men also signed a letter demanding that women be banned from this type of work, their main concern that it threatened Shanghai's commercial development.

    Shanghai governmental officials and British, American and French consular officials eventually issued a notice on March 3, 1873 banning the employment of women in opium dens.

    In contrast to the traditional female occupations of maidservants, street entertainers and prostitutes who had no personal liberty, waiting work gave Chinese women their first-ever chance to work outside their home as independent identities.

    It was around this time that industrial sectors first began to employ women. In 1872, overseas Chinese businessman Chen Qiyuan set up a filature factory in Nanhai, south China's Guangdong Province that employed six to seven hundred workers, the majority of them women.

    Women working in industry, however, also provoked public outrage. Families of women workers at another filature factory owned by a wealthy business man surnamed Zhang raised strong objections to their employment outside the home.

    "Women who work alongside men in factories ruin their reputations and risk moral corruption. They are a bad influence and threaten social morals," is one historically recorded opinion.

    But as women workers, generally from poor families, were cheaper, biddable and both more efficient and conscientious, employers were happy to take them on.

    Consistent with the laws of economics and historical rationality, therefore, moral condemnation did not prevent women from entering industry.

    By 1881, there were 11 filature factories in Guangzhou whose main workforce was women.

    In 1881, Shanghai businessman Huang Zuoqing founded the Gongheyong Factory of 100 filature machines operated mainly by women. Their numbers grew in tandem with the factory's expansion in 1887 to 900 machines.

    Around 1888, tea and silk depots in Shanghai started to hire women workers to select teas and assort cocoons, thus broadening the scope of women's paid work.

    Women also began to work in cotton, match, paper, and cigarette factories.

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