Shaping Citizenship: Chinese Family Law and Women

37 Pages Posted: 2 Dec 2003 Last revised: 15 Apr 2012

See all articles by Margaret Woo

Margaret Woo

Northeastern University - School of Law

Date Written: 2003


Current law-and-development literature overwhelmingly urges the privatization of the economy and the establishment of a rule-of-law system, which endows citizens with rights and obligations, with the expectation that democracy and equality will inevitably follow. My research interviewing female Chinese divorce litigants about their experiences in the Chinese court system capture a much more ambiguous effect of Chinese reforms on its citizens' sense of rights and entitlements. This article looks at China's recent legal and economic reforms through the eyes of male and female divorce litigants, and examines the kinds of citizenship rights that are being promoted through the Chinese court system. Are the changes occurring within the Chinese legal system encouraging a sense of citizenship rights and equality amongst its citizens? How has the Chinese court system benefited its most vulnerable citizens? Are Chinese legal reforms consistent with its citizens' conceptions of justice?

This article focuses on divorce litigation in contemporary China through, among other data, in-depth interviews with twenty-nine divorce litigants. These interviews provide a rich source of insight into how Chinese women view themselves and the divorce process, and how they were affected by recent changes in the legal system. The article considers the ramifications of legal reforms on conceptions of citizenship and the equality of citizenship rights for Chinese women in a changing economy.

It especially focuses on whether the increased use of the formal legal process has altered women's sense of entitlement and equality in Chinese society. The way Chinese women use the courts to enforce their rights also provides a lens into whether the law is being used as an instrument for citizen empowerment, and if so, how it is being used. For rule of law ideals truly to take root, the idea of legality and the use of legal instruments to settle rights and social problems must exist at the level of ordinary citizens.

Suggested Citation

Woo, Margaret, Shaping Citizenship: Chinese Family Law and Women (2003). Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Vol. 15, No. 1, p. 99-134, 2003, Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper , Available at SSRN: or

Margaret Woo (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States
617-373-3309 (Phone)

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