Originally published in Dark Sky Magazine, edited by Kevin Murphy.
by Caleb Powell
The Chinese word for vagina is yīn dào. Though other words describe female genitalia: yīn hù — the door into shadow, zhì – a medical term, and yè qiào — sheath; yīn dào is a powerful metaphor. The first character, yīn, originally meant a place in the shade, but came to signify darkness, the negative, the feminine, and helps form the words for shadow and sewer. Yīn contrasts with yáng, the positive, light, and the masculine. The yīn and yáng, therefore, are the male and female principles, the sun and moon, or light and shade. Dào, the second character, is the way, the passage, the road, knowledge, and the Dao in Daoism. A literal translation of yīn dào, then, is the way of darkness. What about the male organ? The two most common Chinese words for penis use both yīn and yáng: yīn jīng, a shady stem, and yáng wù, a masculine object, and are less subject to hidden interpretation.
Most Chinese would not say yīn dào is a misogynist metaphor, rather, they might look at a single character that also means “vagina”, bī (屄 ), which combines the radical indicating a recumbent “body” with the character for “cave”. In an understandable use of political correctness the Chinese now write this character with an “X”. The Chinese language is one of the greatest achievements in human linguistics, but China’s history is also notorious for such things as concubines and the custom of binding women’s feet — a practice that continued until the early decades of the 20th century. Today the woman in China has more rights than ever, yet the womb of gender selective abortion remains an area of darkness.
In 1966 my mother taught Chinese at the Taipei American School while my father served one year as a US naval officer in Saigon. When my father’s tour ended he returned to Taiwan, went from active duty to reserves, and took a job as a civilian contractor with the military. Though my father did not care whether or not his first child had a penis, my mother wanted a son. And she gave birth to a healthy boy. Me.
A year and a half later my first sister was born, and my parents left Taiwan and moved to the state of Washington. They then had a second daughter. From early childhood my mother favored me, and my father reciprocated by favoring my two younger sisters. This caused occasional tension. My mother attended my sports events, and would howl my name when I stepped to the plate during a baseball game, yet she showed little or no interest in the softball and volleyball of my younger sisters. She paid for a couple of my speeding tickets, and kept them from my father. The insurance company, however, did not. Once she even forgot to send out birthday invitations, leaving my little sister confused and hurt as to the absence of friends on what should have been a special day. My sisters and I can now look with a sense of humor at our past, resigned as the laughter may be.
My wife and I have three daughters and now live in Seattle. I edit translated Chinese documents. Most are immigration papers, petitions for health care and other social services, but every now and then there will be an article from Xinhua News Agency, China Watch, BBC, or Amnesty International. China has many problems, political freedom, press censorship, overpopulation, education and health care for all, pollution, indigenous people in autonomous regions, laws concerning private property, Taiwan’s question of independence, and poverty. Gender selective abortion is one of many concerns, yet may get increasingly more attention.
In China in 2010 the crisis of gender imbalance, despite government control, has worsened. The natural conception and birth rate of males to females is approximately 103 boys for every 100 girls. In 2004, the Xinhua News Agency reported a birth ratio of 117 boys for every 100 girls. At that time President Hu Jintao’s government began implementing a plan to strictly ban selective abortion of female fetuses, and in an attempt to change cultural perceptions of females initiated a national Caring for Girls campaign. In 2007, an average of various demographic researchers stated that of those Chinese under the age of 14 approximately 145 million are male and 128 million are female. China’s goal was to reverse gender imbalance by 2010. According to an article in the March Economist, China, as well as India, now have a birth ratio of over 120 boys for every 100 girls.
My mother did not teach my sisters and I Chinese, thus we could count to ten and order food in Mandarin, but little more. In my high school years I had little interest in China, but this changed during and after college. I returned to Asia in 1996 to teach English in South Korea, and to Taiwan for a one-week vacation in January of 1997. There I fell in love with the Chinese symbols. These characters, common in South Korea, saturated the neon signs, the temples, the menus, the billboards; never had art and language combined to create such harmony, and through the pollution, noise, and cacophony of Taipei I knew I would return.
Most countries have either outright banned, or are in the process of banning, gender selective abortion and the practice of informing parents of their fetuses’ gender. They include China, South Korea, Taiwan, and India, and they all possess advanced technology and a well-educated middle class. Yet of abortions performed in each country, over ninety percent are of female fetuses. South Korea, as early as 1996, in an article reported by The Korea Herald, detailed the arrest of a doctor and a mid-wife who informed women of their fetuses’ gender. The article showed an astounding graphic from a study two years previous, revealing how couples desperate to have a son utilized selective abortion:
Ratio of male to female births in 1994 in South Korea
First child: 106 to 100 Second child: 114 to 100 Third child: 206 to 100 Fourth child: 237 to 100
Compare this with the findings of an article reported by CNN-IBN from India: In July of 2007, at the rural village of Bhubaneswar, plastic bags stuffed with tiny skulls and body parts were found in an abandoned well, the remains of up to 37 female infants and fetuses. Though India may have greater problems with poverty, the line between cultures that rid themselves of females may not be so great. And the question of a lesser barbarity becomes irrelevant. What must be noted is that both a man and a woman participated in the South Korean case. That some women are complicit by no means validates.
Among my Korean friends I had a student named Mr. Song. He worked for Hyundai, had two daughters, and a warm smile. Often I accepted his invitation to go hiking in the mountains, or to a night of Korean barbecue and soju. His nine-year old daughter had problems in school, and he complained about how he had to give gifts, or bribes, to the teacher in order for her to get the attention she needed. He also had a newborn daughter. I asked him about this, and he said his wife had had two abortions. When her fourth pregnancy also turned out to be female, she said this would be her last pregnancy. He only planned on having two children, he said, and thus why not try for a boy? I have fond memories of Mr. Song, and I do not doubt he loves his daughters.
Before I returned to Taiwan I traveled and taught in the Middle East and South America. When I lived in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates I met a number of Chinese nurses from the mainland, over thirty worked in the local hospitals, and thus I continued my studies of Chinese. Some were married. They all lived detached from family. Congming had a husband from an arranged marriage. Gaojun hardly knew her eight-year old son who lived with a husband she hated and would not return to, even if it meant being away from her child. Meili somehow got an education, though she had grown up as an orphan without mother, father, sisters, or brothers to love. Xuan dated a jealous Tunisian professor. They did not worry so much about the future of women in China. They were concerned about themselves as women in a strange world. They worked seventy to eighty hours a week, lived in dorms, almost as serfs. They did complain, but felt fortunate to be there. These women preferred the Middle East to their homeland.
Modern female infanticide, or gender selective abortion, is often associated with China’s one-child per family policy. The dynamics of this method of population control are complicated. There are exceptions: some of the indigenous non-Han peoples are exempt, a second child may be had if the first is disabled or dies, rural areas are not subject to as intense government scrutiny, and penalties that are given to families that break the one-child rule may be relaxed if the two children are female. China, in some areas, is even now giving financial incentives to families that have two daughters, and thus allaying the fears of parents who worry they will have no son to provide or help them as they age. In urban China, where there are more educated people, the preference for men is dissipating, yet in rural areas the desire for sons may be growing, despite the fact wealthier city men are taking brides from the countryside. Extra children are not always reported, and the census is unreliable. Homosexuality is becoming an option for more men as conservative China becomes modern.
After the Middle East I went to South America. There the debate concerning the right to choose involved liberal against conservative, often Catholic, elements of society. Though the Jivaro and Yanamamo tribes of the Amazon have been known to practice female infanticide, and might still today in the jungles of Peru and Brazil, selective abortion is not an issue in Latin America. South America has a healthy ratio of men to women.
As I much as I enjoyed living in Brazil and Argentina the Chinese language drew me back across the Pacific. In the spring of 2002 I moved to Taiwan to teach English and study Chinese at the Taipei Language Institute. On a trip back to the United States during this period I met my future wife. I stayed in Taiwan until the fall of 2004.
In mainland China abortion is generally accepted as a form of birth and population control, and thus not a charged issue. The abortion of a fetus too often has nothing to do with the mother’s right to choose, her health being in jeopardy, or the result of a sexual violation. The decision is provoked solely because the fetus lacks a male organ.
The subsequent lack of women in Asian societies is creating a younger generation with a lopsided male population that will enter a world with less opportunity to have a family. Males who are rich in China or Korea have greater chances to marry, often taking the women from the uneducated, poor, and rural demographics. Those with wealth do not necessarily have to look within the borders of their own countries, as seen with the influx of Vietnamese brides in Taiwan. Women are gaining value as a result of their lack in numbers, with potential wives becoming objects to be won by the highest bidders.
I met Sally Wu at a Chinese restaurant in Seattle. She has a daughter living in a small town near the Mongolian border. She left her with her sister, and came to the United States hoping to find work in her profession, dermatology. Her lack of English kept her working in restaurants in New York City. After three years she came to Seattle, but only to find more of the same, employment as a waitress. Her English has improved considerably, and she has paid off all the money she borrowed in China in order to come to the United States. Yet she has not returned or seen her child in over five years, though she talks to both her and her sister regularly by phone. She sends money when she can. She is divorced, a modern Asian phenomena, and talks little about her ex-husband. At almost forty years of age she realizes greater opportunities exist for women in China. She even considers returning. “In China,” she says, “Woman very expensive.”
My daughters currently attend the Washington International School, an institute offering bilingual education and day care, run by Chinese. The teachers call our girls “three petals golden flowers”. The students learn spoken and written Chinese, along with the alphabet and English. Parents vary in ethnicity: both Chinese, one Chinese parent, or without Chinese blood. Foreign adoption of Chinese babies is becoming common, and most couples that go to China to adopt come back telling stories of orphanages with over ninety percent girls. The boys that need adoption usually have special needs.
Winnie Zeng, a housewife in Bellevue and mother of two girls left China with her husband for North America in 2001. She says, “I disagree with those people who abort girls. Most Chinese are the same. I like girls. My parents wanted a boy, but they are happy to have me.” Her two young girls play often with our daughters. Along with her husband, Min Zeng, an employee of Google, they are content, and have no desire for a third child.
The Zengs happened to be in China visiting their parents in May, 2008, when the earthquake in Sichuan province devastated thousands of families. Many lost their only child, and the sadness struck the heart of the nation. Winnie told me that when she was a child her parents would sometimes pass, on the streets, an abandoned baby girl wrapped in a blanket. Like the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, she says, this is a part of the past. Now the Chinese people are capable of tears, they know right from wrong. Throughout modern China signs read: “Times change, boy and girls are equally good.”
I live in a country where a woman may one day become president. Although, as my wife reminds me, things are not perfect: We have never had a female leading the country, unlike the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Pakistan. She is certain that she would be making ten percent more at her job if she were male, and who am I to disagree? Yet sometimes, as I lay in bed with her and our three daughters, amidst giggling and laughter, I think about having a son. But if we have no more children, well, once again, who am I to complain?