Late last winter, I found myself standing among members of my extended family — almost all of them male — at the Zhou family graveyard. Perched atop a hillside interspersed with bare bushes and lean trees, this place holds the bones of generations of Zhous: It’s where my grandfather, his brothers, my aunt, and all my ancestors lie buried. The winter sun showered us with gold, dusty light, but the icy cold still cut to the bone. As we burned yellowish money and luxury cars made of joss paper, faded memories began to resurface amid the puffs of smoke — the pains of scars half-healed. In that moment, I realized I wasn’t just sad. I was furious.
I was angry because of one particular death, that of my aunt, who died of ovarian cancer in 2020, leaving two daughters behind, one in kindergarten and the other in primary school. Originally from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, she met my uncle when they were classmates in the same associate degree program. Deeply in love, she left her home and moved 2,000 kilometers south to become part of our family in the central province of Henan. Far from where she grew up, she didn’t find many friends in my hometown. Many people in my extended family still firmly believe that only sons count as descendants, and despite the love between my uncle and aunt, their marriage became strained after my aunt gave birth to their first child, a daughter. The pressure was especially intense because my uncle was the only son in his family.
Desperate for a son, my aunt listened to my uncle and his parents when they suggested she take “Chinese medicine” prescribed by a folk healer who claimed it could help her give birth to a son. A son, of course, was necessary to continue the family line, making this “medicine” all but obligatory. My aunt, a slightly chubby woman who always had a smile on her face, took it every day for over a year, only to be disappointed again when she gave birth to another girl. Almost immediately afterward, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Eventually, after a three-year battle with the disease, she died.
The timing of her diagnosis — and its relation to the medicine she was taking — stirred whispered discussions within the extended family. Some blamed her death on this supposed “son-giving” elixir; its role in her death has already entered the realm of family legend.
It was only after her death that I learned all my aunt had to swallow in life. But growing up in Henan, China’s most populous province — and one of its most conservative — I am used to hearing tales like hers. I understand the kind of pressure she was under, the same pressure so many women in my extended family and beyond have endured.
Also buried in that graveyard is my grandfather, who died a decade ago. He was a warm-hearted, well-respected village teacher who spent most of his time farming cotton, potatoes, and greens. He was admired by the other villagers and incredibly kind to me, taking me to climb mountains and teaching me how to swing on the parallel bars. I adored him, and he doted on me.
But not long after my mother gave birth to my little sister, he visited her bedside, handed her a pamphlet, and then left without uttering a word. The pamphlet — a mix of Chinese-style astrology and divination from the Book of Changes — purported to teach women how to get pregnant with a son by controlling the date and the timing of conception. “What he wanted he didn’t need to say,” my mother later told me.
Standing in front of the graves of my aunt and my grandfather, I watched as my uncle and his two daughters stared into the flames consuming our paper money offerings in tearless silence. My uncle’s eyes held the kind of emptiness and profound sadness that makes words vain. We could not look into his eyes without feeling the loss that haunted us all, without recalling the vivid, tender memories of this young woman so dear to us all.
In the moment, I could not help but wonder what I should feel. Yes, I was angry, but besides that anger, should I feel sorry for my uncle? What would I have done had I known what his wife was going through? Would I have the moral courage to take a step forward, to say it loud and clear, that the way she was treated was wrong?
As I learned from reading Immanuel Kant, using people as means to pursue an end is morally wrong. Yet, for as clear as this seems in black and white, the right thing to do, especially in the context of family dynamics, can be bewilderingly fuzzy. The gap between good intentions and their flawed outcomes, or the fear of not being able to make a difference, rendered me hesitant. It can feel like my education and opportunities to see the outside world have uprooted me from the people I grew up with. I no longer understand them. I no longer feel attached to them. Worse still, I no longer feel I know them. At certain points, as at the sight of my uncle standing in front of his wife’s grave, all I could feel was anger, pain, even repulsion.
But what could I possibly have done? After I learned about my aunt’s death, I cried. When my mother saw my tears, she told me I was being inappropriate. “You are grown up and you should not cry,” she said. If crying over my aunt’s death is shameful, then I am not sure what I could say, even if I ever had the opportunity. It seems that the only thing my family wants to do is to cover things up.
When my grandfather gave my mother that pamphlet on how to have a son, no words were needed. The preference for sons is applied to women in a muted, toned-down way, seeping through our daily lives, suffocating and silencing us. Such voiceless exchanges happen in families all the time; those who play the game understand the rules and the prices that must be paid.
Try, fail. Try harder, fail again. My aunt’s inability to have a son was not only a catastrophic defect on her part, but also an inexcusable fault for a woman, an inexorable duty unfulfilled, a disgrace for the Zhou family. Now, barely a year after her death, my uncle is planning to remarry so that he can have another chance to produce a son before he is too old to do so. My aunt’s death hasn’t changed anything, at least not when it comes to my uncle and his family’s desire for a son.
This is the ugly reality facing Chinese society. Although China’s overall sex ratio at birth has become more balanced over the years, there are still stark disparities in rural areas. In 2020, China’s sex ratio at birth was 111.3 males to 100 females. Demographers define a “normal” sex ratio at birth as between 103 and 107. The ratio gets more skewed after the first child, as parents react to the absence of prior male births, according to a 2021 commentary by Tang Mengjun of the China Population and Development Research Center.
This imbalance may be the most dramatic representation of gender discrimination, but oftentimes, gender preferences work in subtler, more obscure ways. Take my two cousins for example. Both of them are currently studying at vocational colleges. Yet, while my male cousin is given 1,000 yuan ($156) for his monthly expenses in addition to his tuition, my female cousin receives no financial support for her living expenses from her family and must spend her summer and winter breaks working in factories or at restaurants. My grandmother once even tried to ask her for money, believing that a young woman has an obligation to support her family, even while still in school. Needless to say, her older brother is free of such burdens.
Every time I go back to my hometown, I listen to stories like this with a heavy heart. I don’t have any good answers as to what I should do. I don’t even know what I can do. I think I have grown up enough to express my opinions to my family, but I worry it won’t change anything.
Still, I have made up my mind to start talking. It may be unrealistic to believe that they will give up their preferences for sons any time soon. It may not make any difference. But I have to say something.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Iryna Kras/VectorStock/People Visual, reedited by Sixth Tone)