The People's Republic of China and its predecessors have a history of female infanticide spanning 2000 years. Worldwide, the practice of infanticide has been practiced since antiquity for the purpose of population control. It is an unsanctioned method of family planning that has been condoned for centuries in the area until recent times. The phenomenon is also referred to as female gendercide; however, the word gendercide can be used for both sexes.
The practice of female infanticide was far from wholly condoned in China. Buddhists wrote that the killing of young girls would bring bad karma, conversely those who saved a young girl's life either through intervening or through presents of money or food would earn good karma, leading to a prosperous life, a long life and success for their sons. However the Buddhist belief in reincarnation meant that the death of an infant was not final as the child would be reborn, this belief eased the guilt felt over female infanticide. The Confucian attitude towards female infanticide was conflicted. By placing value on age over youth, Confucian filial piety lessened the value of children, whilst the Confucian belief of Ren led Confucian intellectuals to support the idea that female infanticide was wrong and that the practice would upset the balance between yin and yang.
When Christian missionaries arrived in China in the late sixteenth century, they witnessed newborns being thrown into rivers or onto rubbish piles. In the seventeenth century Matteo Ricci documented that the practice occurred in several of China's provinces and said that the primary reason for the practice was poverty. The practice continued into the 19th century and declined precipitously during the Communist era, but has reemerged as an issue since the introduction of the one-child policy in the early 1980s. The census of 1990 showed an overall sex ratio of 1.066, a normal sex ratio for all ages should be less than 1.02.
During the 19th century the practice was widespread, readings from Qing texts show a prevalence of the term ni nü (to drown girls), and drowning was the most common method used to kill female children. Other methods used were suffocation and starvation. Leaving a child exposed to the elements was another method of killing an infant, the child would be placed in a basket which was then placed in a tree. Buddhist nunneries created "baby towers" for people to leave a child. In 1845 in the province of Jiangxi, a missionary wrote that these children survived for up to two days while exposed to the elements, and that those passing by, would ignore the screaming child. Missionary David Abeel reported in 1844 that between one third and one fourth of all female children were killed at birth or soon after.
In 1878 French Jesuit missionary, Gabriel Palatre, collated documents from 13 provinces and the Annales de la Sainte-Enfance (Annals of the Holy Childhood), also found evidence of infanticide in Shanxi and Sichuan. According to the information collated by Palatre the practice was more widely spread in the southeastern provinces and in the Lower Yangzi River region.
In 1930, Rou Shi, a noted member of the May Fourth Movement, wrote the short story A Slave-Mother. In it he portrayed the extreme poverty in rural communities that was a direct cause of female infanticide.
A white paper published by the Chinese government in 1980 stated that the practice of female infanticide was a "feudalistic evil". The state's official position on the practice is that it is a carryover from feudal times, and is not a result of the state's one-child policy. According to Jing-Bao Nie, it would be "inconceivable" to believe there is no link between the states family planning policies and female infanticide.
On 25 September 1980 in an "open letter", the Politburo of the Communist Party of China requested that members of the party, and those in the Communist youth league, lead by example and have only one child. From when the one-child policy was first proposed there were concerns that it would lead to an imbalance in the sex ratio. Early in the 1980s, senior officials became increasingly concerned with reports of abandonment, and female infanticide, by parents who were desperate for a son. In 1984, the government attempted to address the issue by adjusting the one-child policy to allow couples whose first child is a girl to have a second child.
Many Chinese couples desire to have sons because they traditionally carry on the family name and provide support and security to their aging parents later in life. On the contrary, a daughter is expected to leave her parents upon marriage to join and care for her husband’s family. In rural households, which as of 2014 constitute almost half of the Chinese population, males are additionally valuable for performing agricultural work and manual labor.
A 2005 intercensus survey demonstrated pronounced differences in sex ratio across provinces, ranging from 1.04 in Tibet to 1.43 Jiangxi. Banister (2004), in her literature review on China’s shortage of girls, suggested that there has been a resurgence in the prevalence of female infanticide following the introduction of the one-child policy. On the other hand, many researchers have argued that female infanticide is rare in China today, especially since the government has outlawed the practice. Zeng and colleagues (1993), for example, contended that at least half of the nation’s gender imbalance arises from the underreporting of female births.
According to the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), the demographic shortfall of female babies who have died for gender related issues is in the same range as the 191 million estimated dead accounting for all conflicts in the twentieth century. In 2012 the documentary It's a Girl: The Three Deadliest Words in the World was released. It focused on female infanticide in India and China.
As a result of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion combined, there are an estimated 30–40 million more men than women in China today. This female deficit is expected to generate a wide range of adverse social, political, and economic consequences.