Dying for justice – Suicide in modern China

China has the highest rate of female suicide in the world, and one of the highest rates overall. While it’s not the most pleasant topic, understanding traditional ideas about suicide is critical to understanding why headlines like, “Worker suicides prompt probe,” appear so frequently.

In the traditional Chinese understanding of the afterlife, one’s ancestors require continued care for several generations. This included maintaining the grave, performing regular offerings of food and incense, and creating a small shrine within the home. Kept happy, the ancestor’s spirit was thought to provide advantages for the family.

Suicide on the other hand insured that one’s spirit would become a ghost, which is differentiated from an ancestor only in that it is a malevolent force. A ghost would be able to torment those who had “caused” the suicide. This conception leads to the belief that suicide is a means of revenge and exposing injustice.

Research by Wu Fei indicates that one of the leading causes of suicide in rural China is what  Wu dubs “domestic injustice.” This could be anything from spousal abuse or abuse by other family members, to failing to uphold filial duties like supporting one’s parents in old age. The underlying idea, which is made clear in several interviews, is that suicide would right these wrongs. What is less clear from the interviewees is whether or not this justice comes from supernatural sources or from the public shaming that comes from a family suicide.

These traditional values help to partially explain why rural suicide rates are three times more likely than urban ones, and why there is an increase in suicide in old age (China has the 3rd highest suicide rate among elderly people, behind S. Korea and Taiwan where Confucian values are also very strong). Many sociologists would point to the fact that many elderly are left uncared for in the countryside, and that it is depression that leads them to take their own life. The villagers though would likely see it very differently, that the person’s death was caused by the unfilial child not meeting their duties.

Student suicides are also higher than average in China, and it is one of the top causes of death for Chinese children between 15 and 19 years old. Studies estimate that somewhere between 6-10% of Chinese youth attempt suicide. One article from The Journal of Adolescent Health showed that family conflicts were the leading indicator of whether or not a child was likely to attempt suicide. Failing to meet parents’ expectations was less influential than suffering from poor family relations, which is contrary to what I expected considering the pressure placed on children to perform in school.

Additionally, in many of the cases of suicide reported in the Chinese media, the suicide note frequently points to individuals for “causing” the act. Frequently these suicides lead to further investigations, which reinforces the connection between suicide and justice.

When I was in Chengdu, a Chinese friend pointed to the square in front of one of the gov’t buildings and said in a hushed tone, “A few weeks ago, a man burned himself here to protest something. I tried searching for it on Weibo, but it was gone.” When I pressed him on what caused the suicide, he said he wasn’t sure, but it was probably related to losing his land. He went on to tell me that someone having been so wronged by the local gov’t that they were willing to die such a terrible death was something that was still bothering him. Thinking out loud he said, “Maybe now the Central gov’t will get involved and help these people protect their land.”

17 responses to “Dying for justice – Suicide in modern China”

  1. Woman says:

    “Failing to meet parents’ expectations was less influential than suffering from poor family relations, which is contrary to what I expected considering the pressure placed on children to perform in school.” I was surprised to read this. After teaching high school in a small city for six years, and hearing all sorts of stories from various students and teachers in other schools, and from my now students at the college, I have always boiled high school suicides to not meeting the insane amount of pressure placed on them by parents, society and their teachers- not to mention the competition between friends and boyfriends.


    I guess it is true what they say. You really do learn something new everyday!!!

  2. Lorin Yochim says:

    The book available here is a must read for anyone interested in these kinds of issues. It also puts the lie to the trope of the “passive Chinese” favoured by many in the blogosphere. There is a chapter specifically on the issue of suicide.

  3. James says:

    Whether or not the individual Chinese person is passive in a given situation depends on the person’s perception of ability to cause change to the situation.

    Checking into a hotel, the Chinese couple that came in after me were told that all the rooms were booked, even though they’d made a reservation. They were unhappy, but they left without a fuss – they were strangers to the town, and had no guanxi in the local social web.

    Buying fruit in a local market, the little old lady buying vegetables next to me started arguing stridently with the seller, castigating him for the quality and the price. I had seen them both there in the market, weekly, for years. She won, of course.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      The tension is apparent in the everyday, yes, although you and I have both seen the first situation result in monumental stink-raising. If you mean to point out a more universal human trait, you’ve succeeded this was part of what I was getting at. More relevant to my point, though, are the tens of thousands of protests that take place annually against larger-scale injustices. The kind of non-passivity I’m getting at is precisely the kind that is often said by expats not to exist, evidence of which is seen in even the most mundane and unrelated practices. In defence of the Chinese as passive crowd, one would be justified in pointing out that there is a kind of nihilistic resistance in many of these events, suicide being the best example possible. Similarly, in collective protest, resistance is often bounded by the appeal of the protestors to principles said to govern the actions of the powerful.

  4. du depp says:

    These are very sad figures indeed although i am seeing little connection between the justice system and the number of suicides that this blog seems to be pressing towards as the title suggests. excluding monk self immolation and injustice suicides, which probably only counts towards a small percentage, i believe the high suicide rate is better explained by the poverty stricken state of most chinese citizens. Meaning this is more of a socio-economic problem.

    Suicide is caused by acute depression, and as rural life in china is quickly deteriorating due to mass resettlement to the cites, shrinking villages, small chage in minimal wage and sharp cost rises of food etc., i feel that the main problem is to do with the one child policy and the dramatic social pull towards modernisation (like screw farming, i want to work in the city or move to austrailia).

    i believe this is the bigger problem that village communties face becoming sparse and more isolated, village areas have never been great but i used to feel they were relativly comfortable living, with high family numbers within a small radius. When i went to china last year in comparison to when i went 15 years ago, there was a dramatic fall in the number of schools and businesses, only one secondary school was used to accommodate something close to a 10 mile radius.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      If I can offer a respectful and hopefully constructive critique of your comment, du depp, you seem to contradict yourself somewhere in between paragraphs 1 and 2. Probably this is just the result of the imprecise use of the word “caused,” but in paragraph 1 the cause is poverty, and in paragraph 2 it is depression. Unless we are going to say that poverty causes depression (no doubt they are related in some cases), there are two competing explanations.

      Having said this, I’m sympathetic to the idea that poverty is part of the problem, but perhaps an expanded definition of poverty would help. Working purely from what Tom has posted, there is an impoverishment generated by the destruction (or diminishment) of familial relations, which is obviously related to material poverty and/or the promise of material advancement through migration. Inequality itself is also likely part of the equation, as this relates to poverty in relative rather than absolute terms. You also bring up an important point about the more general diminishment of rural life and the traditional way of life (not to mention the destruction of the socialist infrastructure). Clearly there is a lot to be considered. Finally, cultural explanations has some appeal. It’s not the case that poverty causes suicide, so we ought to consider cultural resources drawn upon to support the particular action of suicide in the face of whatever social and material conditions confront people. This seems especially important given the unusually high rate of female suicide in China (as Tom points out). This is a point dealt with in one of the chapters (Suicide as Resistance in Chinese Society) of the book I link to above.

  5. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  6. […] Chinese suicide. “Research by Wu Fei indicates that one of the leading causes of suicide in rural China is what  Wu dubs ‘domestic injustice.’ This could be anything from spousal abuse or abuse by other family members, to failing to uphold filial duties like supporting one’s parents in old age. The underlying idea, which is made clear in several interviews, is that suicide would right these wrongs. What is less clear from the interviewees is whether or not this justice comes from supernatural sources or from the public shaming that comes from a family suicide.” [Seeing Red in China] […]

  7. […] Dying for justice – Suicide in modern China (seeingredinchina.com) […]

  8. Taf says:

    Having lived in China for more than a decade, I have been fortunate enough to gain some insight into the thinking of one specific subgroup of the population: the now :thirty-something”-aged women from the countryside. Many of them took a familiar path: finished school at age 16, left the village for factory work soon thereafter, and spent their late teens/early twenties helping to build the Chinese economy of the past decade, one 12-hour shift at a time.

    They married young–early twenties, at the latest–and a child arrive. They left the factory towns of the south and headed north to Shanghai where different opportunities arose.

    For many of these women I am their only foreign friend, and this has provided me with unique access into their lives: I somehow dance on that usually stark contrast between those “in” and “out” of people’s “circles” of obligation. From this perspective I have noticed an unfortunate trap for women who are going through difficult time. Their role in the family (to preserve harmony and maintain positive appearances) prevents them from airing their unhappiness within the group, and to expose these issues outside the family would reflect badly on her (as well as provide fodder for the rumor mill that lurks outside that inner circle). This lack of outlet, I think, puts women in a position where they feel trapped, alone, isolated, and without an outlet for sharing their pain.

    The presence of social media has allowed one outlet, fortunately, but access to that is limited to those with the training and ability to tap in.

    Many of these women have mentioned suicide–and the fact that, if not for her child, she would have no barrier to ending her life. I shudder to think about the road ahead, when the child has moved away and these women grow older.

  9. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Taf: Your comment is very interesting. I would like to read more. I think you have a very good story to tell. As a woman, I always like to have the female perspective. I read Lesley Chang’s “Factory Girls” and found it fascinating. I think women get a raw deal in China

    • Taf says:

      Thanks, Meryl. Interesting to note that a female friend of mine just shared news that she caught her husband cheating on her. Though she is the same age as the “factory girl” demographic of many of my friend, her road has been different: college-educated, part owner of a travel company.

      It was interesting to hear her version of things–and her thoughts about the road ahead for her and her family: she can’t share this with her parents, she doesn’t want her son to be in a divided family, and there is no real outlet for her, aside from a small handful of friends who can merely listen and provide a bit of support.

      In the end, it’s this sense of isolation that these women feel that is so heartbreaking, both for the women and their friends.

  10. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Taf: I have provided the safe listening role for several Chinese friends – I am the older laowai friend they can email. One friend caught her fiance cheating on her with her best friend. She broke it off with him and moved – got a transfer to another city with her job. But when she returned to BJ after a year away, they got back together and eventually married. What saddened me though was the fact that she never told her mother as she did not want to worry her. Her mother often visits her and I met her last time I was in BJ. Mother and daughter are obviously very close but still daughter cannot confide in her.

  11. […] Duanwu Jie, in this light, is the commemoration of an honest man in an age of corruption who committed suicide as a way of protesting injustice. […]

  12. […] Dying for justice – Suicide in modern China (seeingredinchina.com) […]

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