Restricted to Half the Sky: Unwanted Girls, Battered Wives and Inglorious Women


The proverb ‘women hold up half the sky’ was created by the Maoist government 64 years ago in order to show that women in ‘New China’ have equal power and rights to their male peers. I selected three photographs for my FLaK zine and called them ‘unwanted girls’, ‘battered wives’ and ‘inglorious women’. To examine the relevance of the proverb in Modern China, I will discuss three women-related problems behind these photographs and analyse their cultural and legal causes. By doing so, I aim to achieve two purposes—first, to help the reader have a better understanding of the problems of women in the region where one-fifth of the global population lives, and second, to argue that seemingly gender neutral law and policy can produce new and greater restrictions on women’s freedom.

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  1. 1.

    Zines were created and distributed as part of the FLaK activities in the run up to FLS’s 25th anniversary year; see Accessed 5 September 2017.

  2. 2.

    This appears on the photographer’s personal blog and is used with permission. Accessed 8 January 2017.

  3. 3.

    The photograph is available from and is used with permission. Accessed 8 January 2017.

  4. 4.

    The photograph is available from and is used with permission. Accessed 8 January 2017.

  5. 5.

    While there are no national statistics about the famine, about 3 million people in Henan Province died because of the famine from 1942 to 1945 (for more information about the famines before the foundation of China, see Huang 2012).

  6. 6.

    Article 96 of the Constitution 1954 states that women in People’s Republic of China enjoy equal political, economic, cultural, social, and domestic rights with men. The 1954 Constitution was substantially revised in 1975, 1978 and 1982.

  7. 7.

    The Communist Party called the People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949, ‘new China’ to distinguish it from the China of feudal and republican eras.

  8. 8.

    Article 49 of the Constitution 1982 states that the abuse of women is forbidden.


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Many thanks are owed to Marie Fox, Julie McCandless, and Ruth Fletcher who invited me to the FLaK seminar, Harriet Samuels and Nikki Godden-Rasul for their helpful comments on the zine and earlier drafts of this paper. This study was funded by China’s Ministry of Education Project in Humanities and Social Sciences (project no.13YJC820002), China’s Ministry of Justice Research Project in Rule of Law and Legal Theory (project no. 16SFB3015), the Philosophy and Social Science Planning Funding Project of Hunan Province (project no. 14YBA104). The Collaborative Innovation Centre of Developing Rule of Law in Hunan and Regional Social Governance and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities also supported this work.

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Correspondence to Weiwei Cao.

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Cao, W. Restricted to Half the Sky: Unwanted Girls, Battered Wives and Inglorious Women. Fem Leg Stud 25, 365–373 (2017).

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  • Domestic violence
  • Gender equality
  • Son preference
  • The half sky
  • Reproductive burden