Women in China in the 20s-50s of the 20th century

At the celebration of the First Centenary of the mission in Shangqiu (1924-2024), it could not lack a look back at the feminine world, traditionally so vulnerable and violated in the great Asian country, currently so technologically advanced.

When the first Spanish missionaries arrived at the Kweiteh mission (=Shangqiu) in 1924, they suffered many impacts of different nature; some positive ones, others negative. But perhaps the hardest impact was seeing girls abandoned to their luck, wandering the streets, either half-dead or already deceased. For this reason, bringing to the memory of those women and girls from China is a way to fight for the equality of women with men in society and for their full development as a person.

The Recollect missionaries from the beginning, and the Augustinian missionary nuns as soon as they arrived at the Mission, perceived the socio-cultural scourge of infanticide, the abandonment of girls, and the lack of appreciation of women, especially in the depressed layers of society.

Monsignor Javier Ochoa, bishop of the diocese of Kweiteh in his letter of August 3, 1924, tells the following:

There is also a photograph of a girl that we found abandoned and dead, without doubt by her parents. She was in a fairly busy and visible place, which indicates that for each one we find in this way, hundreds will be buried so that no one sees them.

In this information, we discovered the low esteem that was held in that culture for girls and the various forms of subjugation of women since they girls were abandoned, sold, and bought to do hard work, marry, be concubines, or prostitutes, especially in rural areas of China.

Until 1949, the status of Chinese women was characterized by a series of restrictions: the decision to divorce was entirely up to the husband, although in theory they could also get divorced; they had no rights over family property, although they could be sold. Legal status was similar to that of a minor; already adults, remained under the authority of the husband and, if he had died, they remained under the authority of a son. If a woman remarried or divorced, she lost control of her children, and even access to them. There were some regional differences, but the common characteristic was female submission to male domination.

The first European writings brought to light the devaluation suffered by women. Missionaries exposed Chinese women in the late 19th century and early the XX. The main objective was to fight for women’s equality and civilize China.”

Faced with this terrible reality, Monsignor Ochoa, in a letter dated August 28, 1925, writes to the prior provincial of the Province of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, who resided in Manila, and proposes:

the convenience of sending a couple of sisters from Saint Rita, so that little by little young women we have here were being trained, who will later be our best help as women’s catechists. I understand that there will be difficulties and that there may not be any willing to come to China.

In this way, all forms of violence against women and girls could be eliminated against girls: trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

The bishop perceives the need to become aware of the importance of empowering women in all settings, protecting their rights, and ensuring that they can reach their full potential and thus end the Chinese patriarchal system in which infanticide, submission, and servitude were taken as normal.

It was the missionaries who, with so much effort, managed to build a house to welcome those girls and give them a home so that they could live and fulfill themselves as people. Ochoa, in 1924, barely arriving at the mission, was dreaming when he said:

I think we should do something to collect these unfortunate creatures. If the mothers knew we had a place for them, they would undoubtedly bring them here before killing them”; “How good it would be to be able to collect them in the mission, baptize them, and educate them in our holy faith; “One day they could be mothers of many Christians.

In 1931 the contemplative Augustinian Recollects sisters arrived at the Shangqiu mission coming from Spain, three brave women, Esperanza Ayerbe, Ángeles García, and Carmela Ruiz, to take care of the abandoned girls. Such was the concern of Javier Ochoa, who said,

they must be mothers for their orphaned girls, who were abandoned by the fact of being women; “They will take care of them with love and tenderness and educate them in the faith.