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The social construction of identity through the life course: a study on the cultural themes in the narrative of Chinese women experiencing marital crises in China.

Abstract: Social identity refers to the common identification with a collectivity or social category which creates a common culture among participants concerned (Snow and Oliver, 1995). According to social identity theory (Tajfel 1981; Tajfel and Turner, 1979, 1986), an important component of the self-concept is derived from memberships in social groups and categories and it postulates that group processes and inter-group relationships impact significantly on individuals' self perception and behaviours. The groups to which people belong will therefore provide their members with the definition of who they are and how they should behave (Hogg, Terry, & White, 1995) in the social context in which they are embedded.


The authors have conducted research on Chinese women experiencing marital conflicts in Beijing with a view to understanding and identifying the cultural themes underpinning their deliberations during major life crises. Using a narrative approach (Cronon, 1992; Josselson & Lieblich, 1993; Lieblich, 1998; Riessman, 1993; Rosenwald & Ochberg, 1992), the authors found that the social identity of the women participants was strongly influenced by the cultural values and norms transmitted to them through socialisation processes and later reinforced by their significant others during their life course. Their social identity has in turn impacted on their beliefs and attitudes and has shaped their responses to marital crises and abusive marriages.

In this paper, the authors will discuss the social construction of identity of Chinese women through their life course and draw from actual cases to illustrate the processes in which the social identities of the women participants were socially constructed through their life course and the extent to which their social identities have impacted on their major life decisions. Implications on social work practice with Chinese women in abusive marriages will also be discussed.

Research methodology

The authors of this study conducted a comparative research between Beijing and Hong Kong on the cultural themes in the narratives of Chinese women undergoing marital crises in the Chinese context from 2002 to 2004. (1) A total of thirty three women were interviewed in this study, of which fifteen were from Hong Kong and eighteen were from Beijing. But the present paper will only focus on discussing the findings of the Beijing research and the cultural themes derived from this part of the study. (2)

The authors were particularly interested in understanding the impact of cultural values on human beliefs and behaviours and the ways in which these have impacted on their responses to marital crises. It was also hoped that the research could shed light on social work practice with Chinese women in marital crises and could facilitate the development of practice approaches which are gender-sensitive and cultural-sensitive and are congruent with the socio-cultural context of contemporary Chinese societies.

The authors adopted a narrative approach in our research process, encouraging our informants to narrate their personal accounts of their traumatic experiences. The narrative theory provided us with a framework to understand how the women interpret their lived experiences and how they construct their narrative identity. Mary Gergen (2001) suggested that a life course perspective could shed light on the social, cultural historical milieu in which individuals have developed their self identities and ways of coping with life challenges over time. In this study, we have adopted this particular theoretical perspective to facilitate us to develop a deeper understanding on how the women struggled through their marital problems and the reasons underlying the approaches that they have chosen to cope with their marital crises.

The authors chose to use the narrative approach in the interviews because personal narratives are essential meaning-making structures, which can be used to reconstruct the cultural meaning that the participants have attached to their experiences. The authors took the narrators into their past "world", and facilitated them to narrate their stories from their own perspective, using these stories as texts organised around critical events in their lives. The approach was based on the understanding that "How individuals recount their histories--what they emphasise and omit, their stance as protagonists or victims, the relationship the story establishes between teller and audience--all shape what individuals can claim of their own lives. Personal stories are not merely a way of telling someone about one's life; they are the means by which identities may be fashioned" (Rosenwald & Ochberg, 1992, p. 2). The authors did not set any guideline for the interviews in order to provide enough room for the narrators to speak for themselves. This kind of first-person perspective enhanced our understanding of the construction of the respondents' identity and the dilemmas they encountered in their relational networks and enabled us to gradually evolve conceptions which were grounded on the voices of the narrators (Yuen-Tsang, 2002).

In the Beijing study, eighteen Chinese women who have experienced marital crises were partly identified through a women's hotline operated by the China Women's College (3) and partly referred by local officials of the All-China Federation of Women in a Beijing community (4). These women, aged from twenty five to fifty five, were either divorced or separated, had children living with them, and had received the help of officials from the Federation of Women or hotline counsellors at some stage of their ordeal. While five of the informants were less than thirty five years old, five were between thirty six and forty five, and eight were between forty six and fifty five years old. The majority of those in the late forties had undergone the Cultural Revolution during their childhood or teenage years and some had been sent to the countryside to take part in mandatory labour while they were in their teens. Twelve of them were born in Beijing and the others came to Beijing through study, marriage, or work arrangements. Five of them had completed primary education; seven had received lower secondary education; four had completed high school; and two had completed University education. Those who had received lower secondary or primary education or below worked as semi-skilled factory workers or low-pay service workers; those who had completed high school mostly worked as cadres, supervisors or clerical workers; and the two University graduates worked as teachers prior to their marriage. All of the women informants stayed in their jobs after marriage because of the then national policy for all women to stay in jobs. The economic dependency of these women on their husbands was therefore much less acute than their counterparts in Hong Kong. Many of the women informants were living together with, or in close proximity to, their in-laws and relatives in the same neighbourhood, and had close interactions with their relatives in their everyday life.

Having identified the respondents with the help of either the hotline counsellors or the officials of the Federation of Women, and having obtained their consent, the authors conducted the interviews either at the participants' homes or in the district office of the Federation of Women. Most of the interviews took two to three hours to complete, and the respondents agreed to have the interviews recorded on tape. Verbatim transcriptions were made afterwards, and the analyses of the narratives were undertaken by the authors as a team. The authors did not have any preconceptions or prior hypotheses concerning the meaning and impact of the participants' experiences and preferred to let the narratives unfold and "speak for themselves".

In the data analysis process, the authors found that the identity of the women informants were being gradually moulded and socially constructed through their life course. We found that the socially constructed identity of these women has basically incorporated the values and norms held by their family, their peer groups and community members. Our informants were strongly influenced by the traditional familial and cultural teachings they received in their early years, and that these values and conceptions have been gradually internalised and have shaped their identity, their perceptions, as well as their approach in addressing their marital problems.

Self-identity and social identity

Identity refers to the various meanings attached to oneself by self and others, and locates one in social space through the relationships implied by the identity (Gecas and Burke, 1995). Identity theorists argue that the self consists of a collection of identities, each of which is based on occupying a particular role (Stryker, 1968; Stryker & Burke, 2000). Identities can be defined as one's answers to the question "Who am I?" (Stryker & Serpe, 1982). Many of the "answers" are linked to the roles we occupy, so they are often referred to as "role identities" and these role identities are said to influence behaviour since each role has a set of associated meanings and expectations for the self (Burke & Reitzes, 1981).

The concept of "identity salience" is important in identity theory because the salience we attach to our identities influences how much effort we put into each role and how well we perform in each role (Burke & Reitzes, 1981). According to Stryker (1968) who originated identity theory, the various identities that comprise the self exist in a hierarchy of salience, where the identities that are ranked highest are most likely to be invoked in situations that involve different aspects of the self.

Identity theory should not be confused with social identity theory, which emphasises group process and inter-group relations rather than role behaviour. While identity theory focuses on the self as comprised of the various roles an individual occupies, social identity theory posits that the groups to which people belong can provide their members a definition of who they are (Hogg, Terry, & White, 1995).

Social identity theory was developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and it postulates that an important component of the self-concept is derived from memberships in social groups and that group processes and inter-group relationships impact significantly on individuals' self perception and behaviours. Social identity theory involves three central ideas: categorisation, identification and comparison. Categorisation refers to the processes in which we try to understand the social environment through assigning people to categories which we could understand. Identification refers to our membership of groups and our perception that we belong to and identify with certain groups and share similarities with in-group members. The concept of social comparison refers to the tendency to evaluate and compare ourselves with similar others and to compare their groups with other groups in ways that reflect positively on themselves. According to Terry, Hogg and White (1999), when people define and evaluate themselves in terms of a self-inclusive social category, two processes usually come into play: (1) categorisation, which perceptually accentuates differences between in-group and out-group, and similarities among in-group members (including self) on stereotypical dimensions; and (2) self-enhancement which, because the self-concept is defined in terms of group membership, seeks behaviourally and perceptually to favour the in-group over the out-group. Social identities are cognitively represented as group prototypes that describe and prescribe beliefs, attitudes, feelings and behaviours that optimise a balance between minimisation of in-group differences and maximisation of inter-group differences.

According to social identity theory, there is a continuum between personal and social identity--shifts along this continuum determine the extent to which group-related or personal characteristics influence a person's feelings and actions (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). If a particular social identity is a salient basis for self-conception, then the self is assimilated to the perceived in-group prototype, such that self-perception, beliefs, attitudes, feelings and behaviours are defined in terms of the group prototype. Thus, group identities should influence behaviour through the mediating role of group norms and that people will be more likely to engage in a particular behaviour if it is in accord with the norms of a behaviourally relevant group membership, particularly if the identity is a salient basis for self-definition (Terry and Hogg, 1996; White, Terry and Hogg, 1994).

The social construction of identity through the life course

Gergen (1991), one of the key proponents of social construction theory, postulated that the "self" does not exist objectively and independently. Rather, it is brought into being and shaped by relational networks. Individuals are created within relationships and are constantly reconstructed in accordance to the historical, cultural, and social milieu in which these relationships are embedded. Hence, individuals are not viewed as autonomous agents, but their construction of "self" is largely determined by others, particularly peer groups and significant others.

The social construction theory further enriches our understanding on the process in which social identities are being shaped and developed through continued reinforcement by social forces. In the following, we will present three cases, and will then examine the ways in which their identities were being socially constructed through their respective life course.

Madam Shi: the "five good family" prototype

Madam Shi, aged 49, was born and raised in a Beijing neighbourhood by her parents who were both school teachers. She had another younger sister and both of them were educated by their parents to respect Chinese traditional values including "obey your parents when young, obey your husband when married, and obey your son when old". The Cultural Revolution broke out when she was in her teens and she had to leave school to go to the countryside to work as a farmer. She stayed in the countryside for five years and was able to return to Beijing to work as a factory worker because of her parents' connections. She was introduced to her husband by her uncle and all her relatives endorsed the marriage and regarded her husband as a honest, hardworking and responsible person. She and her husband lived in a room constructed in the courtyard of her in-laws after their marriage and lived in the same neighbourhood as her parents. She gave birth to a daughter soon after marriage and her mother in-law helped to take care of her daughter while she went to work. She was diligent at work, respected her in-laws, loved her husband and daughter and got along well with her neighbours. Their family was awarded the "five good family" and had a plaque posted on their front door panel. Their family was not rich, but their family relationship was very harmonious and Madam Shi was proud of being a good wife and a good mother.

In the mid 1990s, Madam Shi's husband was invited by his childhood classmate to leave his factory job and to form their small business in Hainan , where his friend had good connections. Madam Shi encouraged her husband to go since she believed that "man should have his own career and women should support at his back". Her husband left home and only came back to Beijing twice a year during the Chinese New Year and during his father's birthday because business was not good and her husband had to save money on the one hand and did not want his parents and neighbours to know that he was not performing well in business. Madam Shi silently supported her husband and always told her relatives and neighbours that her husband was progressing well in Hainan and was too busy to come home.

Two years ago, Madam Shi was devastated to learn from a close friend whose husband also worked in Hainan that her husband had been co-habiting with another woman in Hainan. She did not tell her in-laws and daughter, fearing that the news would "ruin the image of her husband and bring bad name to the family". She kept the secret and she did not even tell her husband that she knew of this secret. She wanted to perpetuate the good image of her family in the neighbourhood and to keep the family harmonious.

Madam Li: the pride of the whole village

Madam Li, aged 43, is now a senior administrator in a renowned Beijing University and her husband is a professor in the same University. Both of them came from villages in the Sichuan province and "worked their way up from the bottom". They were able to attend Universities in Beijing because of their hard work and their sheer determination to excel and to "bring good name to the family". Madam Li proudly recalled stories that she had to walk for many hours before she could reach school and that she had to stand outside of the windows of the village school to listen to the teachers because of her parents' inability to pay school fees and book fees when she was young. The village school teachers were moved by her determination to study and paid for her school fees from their pockets. She was later able to attend secondary school in the county because of her excellent performance in school and the support of her relatives who pooled their money together to support her schooling. When Madam Li got excellent results in her University entrance examination and was granted a place in a renowned University in Beijing, the whole village came out and celebrated with gongs and fire-crackers. She has always been regard as the "pride of the village" and the example for all children in her village. Every time when she returned home for holiday, she would be welcomed by villagers like a hero.

Madam Li met her husband in University and they had mutual admiration for each other since both came from poor families in Sichuan villages and both had struggled hard to get into University. They married shortly after graduation and relatives from both sides were elated. Madam Li and her husband were assigned jobs at a renowned University after graduation. She was rapidly promoted to senior leadership in the administration and her husband was promoted to professorship at a relatively young age. They had a nine year old daughter who was very pretty and excelled in her school performance. Their marriage was regarded as a perfect match and their success stories became the legend in their respective villages.

Madam Li's husband was a "star professor" in the University because of his talent and his charisma. However, he was working under great pressure and he drank and smoked heavily in order to relieve his tension. Around five years ago, he developed extra-marital relationship with a young graduate student and he also developed the habit of beating Madam Li when he got drunk. Madam Li had tried very hard to persuade her husband to stop the extra-marital relationship and to get rid of his alcoholism, but had no success.

Madam Li did not tell any of her friends, relatives or colleagues about her ordeal. She wanted to preserve the good image of her family and she worried that the disclosure of her marital problem would "ruin the family name" that she and her husband had worked so hard to build up. She was also worried that her daughter would be discriminated by her peers. For fear that her family members in the village might discover her marital problem, Madam Li dared not return to her village for at least three years and she kept on telling her parents that she and her husband were too busy and therefore could only send back money and gifts as compensation. She was lonely and disheartened, and her only source of support was the volunteer counsellor at the women's hotline whom she had never met.

Madam Wu: the capable entrepreneur

Madam Wu, aged 38, originated from Hunan Province and had received only primary education in her village. Despite oppositions from her parents, she came all the way from Hunan to Beijing to seek medical treatment for polio. She was an extremely determined person and since she was short of money, she begged all the way from Hunan to Beijing. She was fortunate to be admitted to a good hospital where she received good treatment and was able to improve on her mobility and physical functioning after treatment. Since she could basically function quite independently after the treatment, she decided to stay in Beijing to seek employment after receiving medical treatment. She worked as a clerical worker for a construction company responsible for buying and distributing construction materials.

Madam Wu met her husband in the hospital where she received treatment. Her husband was physically handicapped and had to rely on wheelchairs for travelling. She was attracted to her husband because of the sense of sympathy that she had for him and the strong will of her husband to overcome his handicap. Despite opposition from her parents, who preferred her to get married to a physically able person, she decided to marry her husband because he was a very affectionate person and made her feel loved. Her husband was very aggressive in the courtship process and they had pre-marital sexual relationships prior to marriage.

Madam Wu and her husband got married in the marriage registration office without the presence of any relatives. They lived in a small room in the community and enjoyed their marriage life. Madam Wu believed that "man should have his career" and decided that she should help her husband to establish his small business. She borrowed money from her friends and started a small business buying and selling construction materials. Initially, she operated from her home and her husband was keeping the accounts while she did the running around.

In order that she could concentrate on the business, Madam Wu performed five abortions within the first three years of their marriage. The small business grew and within five years, they have become famous in their circle and their financial situation gradually improved. She was a very traditional woman who believed that the husband should be the head of the family and that the women's position should be at home. Therefore, she used the name of her husband to register the company and her name did not appear in any official documents. She also asked her husband's brothers from Beijing to join the company and to take charge of the operation of the company. Madam Wu was able to bring money and gifts back to her village after many years of departure, and her parents were extremely proud of her achievements and felt that she had "bring face" to the family.

After a few years of honeymoon period, Madam Wu suddenly found that her husband was having extra-marital relationship with the secretary of their company. The relationship started when she was once tied up with business transactions in Beijing and had to ask her husband to go to Fuzhou to look at the accounts. Her husband and the secretary of their Fuzhou liaison office developed extra-marital relationship and the secretary was co-habiting with her husband openly. Madam Wu was devastated when her husband told her about his extra-marital relationship with the secretary and that he wanted to divorce her. Madam Wu was totally shattered since she always regarded her husband as the head of the household and had trusted him all along. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to force her husband to leave the secretary, Madam Wu decided to have a deal with her husband in that she would allow her husband to continue with the extra-marital relationship, but they would not reveal this secret to both sides of their family. This compromise would allow them to "save face" and to save the family from breaking up. But deep down, Madam Wu was devastated and suffered from constant depression since she felt that her husband had betrayed her love and loyalty.

The social construction of identity through the life course

From the above cases, it is evident that the identity of the women informants has been socially constructed by their socialisation processes and by the life experiences that they have gone through. Their identity has in turn impacted on their feelings and responses to their marital crises. In the following, we will use the three cases to analyse the ways in which the identity of the women informants was being socially constructed through the life course.

(1) Family socialisation and value formation during formative years

The three women informants were brought up in traditional Chinese families and were strongly influenced by traditional values. They were educated to believe that women should "obey your parents when young, obey your husband when married, and obey your son when old". Moreover, they believed that "women's place is in the family" and "husbands' place is outside" and therefore they should try their best to facilitate their husbands to succeed in their career. They were also socialised into a culture which emphasised heavily on "face" and the preservation of the "name of the family", sometimes even at the disadvantage of their own welfare and happiness. These patriarchal beliefs and practices were entrenched among these women and they have developed a prototype of what constituted a harmonious family and a fulfilling life. They would try their utmost to preserve the cohesiveness and harmony of their families at all cost. In terms of "identity salience", these women have incorporated these traditional family values into their identity configuration and the importance of the family and the preservation of its harmony have been accorded top priority in the hierarchy of salience for these women.

(2) Reinforcement through family and peer group influence

The strong familial identity internalised through the socialisation process in their formative years was further reinforced by external forces throughout their life course. The significant others of these women and their external environment served to reinforce their strong identification with their family and their excessive concern with "face" and their "family name".

Madam Shi's case is a good example of the importance of the "family name" on her social behaviour. The good reputation that she and her family has developed in the local community and the positive reinforcement to her when awarded the "five good family" has reinforced her determination to preserve the name of the family. In order that her family could continue to be positively regarded by the community and that her daughter could continue to take pride in having excellent family relationship, Madam Shi decided to ignore the extra-marital relationship of her husband so that her family could remain intact. Her case is a clear illustration that family harmony was regarded as the most salient identity for her and that her personal welfare was regarded as secondary.

Similarly, Madam Li's strong familial identity was also socially constructed through external forces throughout her life course. The struggles that she had gone through in her childhood and the support that she got from her family members and her villagers in her study process had inculcated in her a strong sense of identification with her family and her clans. The pride that she derived from the respect she gained from her family and clans further reinforced her sense of identification with her kin. Indeed, family and clans has become very much a salient and inseparable part of her self identity and therefore she could not afford to disclose her marital conflicts to her kin.

Madam Wu's decision not to divorce was also a result of her strong familial identity. She had developed a strong sense of pride through her business success and she had laboured to establish the "family name" through such efforts. Her identification with the family and the name of the family had become a salient identity and she would try her utmost to preserve this identity, even at her own disadvantage.


Through the theoretical lenses of social identity and self identity, the authors attempt to point out the reasons why our Chinese women informants experiencing marital difficulties chose to take a rather passive and ineffective approach to address the intractable marital relationship problems. Identities are socially constructed in life course, that the Chinese women informants were strongly influenced by their socialisation process and had internalised the traditional Chinese values such as submission to husbands, respect family cohesiveness, preservation of face and family name, and children's welfare as their primary concern. The preoccupation with these values has become part of their identity. As such, they relied on these values in guiding their decision making concerning the ways in which they managed their marital crises because these concerns had become an integral part of their identity. Similarly, their responses to abusive marriages were influenced by these concerns.

The above findings have significant implications to social work practice. The first is a call for promoting Chinese women to develop a new self identity which will give them a new sense of meaning to their roles as a woman and a wife. It demands for a gender-sensitive and cultural--sensitive approach to woman's identity evolvement. Under such a practice framework, social work practitioners needs to engage these women in a critical reflection process in order to facilitate them to identify their habitual patterns of subjugating themselves to the traditional Chinese beliefs and how these beliefs formed their core identity which in turn reinforced the women to remain in an abusive marital relationship. Another most challenging task for social workers is how to develop a supportive milieu in which the women can reinvent a different social identity in which their selfconcept is no longer dictated by the membership in social groups and that group processes and inter-group relationships shape their self-identity. This requires the social work practitioners to position the women in such a way that they can appreciate in what specific way these social groups impact on their self perception and their coping in marital crises. This appreciation will encourage them to think of a different way to arrange their relationship with these social groups, such as not to blindly subject themselves to the domination of these social groups for the purpose of maintaining an unequal distribution of conjugal power between husband and wife. In order to promote women's development of social identity, the practitioners also have to actively work with the significant others of the women to raise their awareness of the negative consequences of their loyalty toward certain Chinese cultural beliefs and how that greatly impacts on the women's suffering from the abusive marital relationship.


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(1) This research was funded by the Hong Kong Polytechnic Central Allocation Research Grant. Researchers of the study include the authors and Prof. Zhang Lixi, Zhu Dongwu and Li Hongtao of the China Women's College.

(2) A separate paper on "The social construction of concealment among Chinese women in abusive marriages in Hong Kong" by the same authors will be published by Affilia in August 2005; 20: 284-299. The paper focuses on the findings of the Hong Kong study.

(3) The China Women's College in Beijing ran a women's hotline, providing counseling service for women with marital conflicts and other personal and family problems.

(4) The community was located in the western part of Beijing and consisted of a population of around 300,000. The All-China Federation of Women has local branches in all local communities and the officials provide services to women in the community including hygiene and health services, family mediation, women's rights and career placements etc.

* Angelina Yuen-Tsang, Professor & Head, Department of Applied Social Sciences, Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Email:

* Pauline Sung-Chan, Associated Professor, Department of Applied Social Sciences. Email:
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Author:Yuen-Tsang, Angelina; Sung-Chan, Pauline
Publication:Women in Welfare Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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