Holding Up Half the Sky? (Part 1)—The Evolution of Women’s Roles in the PLA

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 15

Holding up half the sky or trapped under a glass ceiling?

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the evolving roles of women in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Part 1 examines the historical trajectory of and context for the expansion of women’s roles in the PLA. Part 2 will examine the recruitment and organizational representation of the PLA’s female officers and enlisted personnel in further detail.

The significant expansion of the roles of the PLA’s female officers and enlisted personnel might seem surprising, against the backdrop of the stagnation, even deterioration in women’s status in Chinese politics and society. However, the juxtaposition of these trends reveals an unexamined aspect of the PLA’s limited progression towards fuller utilization of the available human resources, in response to the requirements of modern “informationized” warfare.

Although Mao once declared, “women hold up half the sky,” women have traditionally been and remain underrepresented in leadership positions in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Red Army and its successor, the PLA. Throughout the CCP’s history, not a single woman has been selected to serve on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision-making body, and there are currently only two women on the twenty-five-person Politburo. [1] In fact, more women served on the CCP’s Central Committee in Mao’s time than today. [2] Symbolically, women’s representation on the National People’s Congress, a consultative parliamentary body typically seen as a powerless “rubber stamp” for the CCP, increased to a historic high of 23.4 percent at the 12th NPC in 2013, which was characterized by official media as an indication of “female power” (女性力量) (Xinhua, March 8). In recent years, there has also been a resurgence of gender inequality in China. The All-China Women’s Federation, which is responsible for protecting “women’s rights and interests,” has promulgated media content that stigmatizes unmarried women over the age of twenty-seven as “leftover women” (剩女) in its efforts to advance the State Council’s official goal of “upgrading population quality” (素质). [3] In March 2015, five feminist activists were detained on charges of “picking quarrels and causing a disturbance,” because of their plans to pass out stickers highlighting issues of sexual harassment on public transportation, resulting in an international outcry for the release of the “feminist five.”

In contrast to these trends, there have been a number of firsts for women in the PLA within the past decade or so. Although thousands of women fought with the Red Army during the Chinese Civil War (1927–1949) and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), until relatively recently women in the modern PLA predominantly served in support and logistics roles. While there had been a small number of high-ranking women in the PLA since 1949, their advancement had remained relatively uncommon. Today, beyond traditional non-combat specialties, women in the PLA have taken on a variety of combat roles, including in all four of the PLA’s services—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force—and probably also the new Strategic Support Force. While a high proportion of women in the PLA continue to serve in all-female organizations, women now more frequently train alongside men and to the same standard. The overall number or percentage of women in the PLA does not seem to have increased appreciably, and limitations on their recruitment and representation remain prevalent. However, women’s accomplishments are frequently highlighted in official PLA media—perhaps an indication of the PLA’s efforts to keep pace with international trends and improve its image. These mentions often present a mixed message frequently characterize female officers and enlisted personnel as “beautiful scenery” in the barracks or on the battlefield. Certainly, women in the PLA continue to confront a glass ceiling. However, the PLA’s efforts to recruit a more educated officer and enlisted force have motivated the expansion of the opportunities open to female officers and enlisted personnel.


The Historical Trajectory of Women in the PLA:

Although thousands of women served in a variety of combat and non-combat roles in the Red Army, women were later channeled into primarily support roles and demobilized in large numbers. An estimated 3,000 women took part in the 1934–35 Long March (PLA Daily, March 15). Subsequently, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while women remained actively involved in the PLA, the majority was limited to a smaller subset of more “traditional,” non-combat roles and had limited opportunities for advancement, despite the Communists’ ideological commitment to egalitarianism. When the PLA began reducing its force of three million by 23.3 percent in 1953, a significant percentage of those demobilized were women, totaling an estimated 764,000 (25.3 percent). [5] In 1967, the PLA resumed the recruitment of women at a rate of approximately 7,500 per year (Renmin Haijun, September 13, 2003).

For the past several decades, women have constituted approximately 5 percent or less of the PLA, and there were only limited positions and opportunities open to female officers and enlisted personnel, until relatively recently (China Military Online, April 15, 2015). [6] Since women have never been conscripted into the PLA’s enlisted force, all women serving in the PLA have chosen to join the enlisted force or officer (cadre) corps of their own volition. The vast majority had typically served in support roles, such as administrative personnel, medical personnel, communications specialists, and political and propaganda workers, including the PLA’s performing arts troupes.

Starting in the mid-1990s, a variety of combat roles has gradually been opened to women. [7] In recent years, the opportunities available to women in the PLA have expanded significantly, and there have been a number of firsts for female officers and enlisted personnel, including deployments with peacekeeping forces, serving on the PLA Navy’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, flying combat aircraft for the Air Force, and joining the Army’s special forces. The recent accomplishments of women in the PLA have often received high-profile coverage in official Chinese media, while also highlighted in popular culture, such as a Chinese TV show, “Phoenix Nirvana” (特种兵之火凤凰) that was nearly banned for being “too sexy” (Youku; China Daily, January 11, 2014). The multiple combat and support roles—including academic, research, and military representative positions overseeing defense industry research academies and factories—that have become available to PLA women will be discussed in further detail in the next article in this series.

The PLA’s Female Flag Officers

The PLA has had over fifty female flag officers over the course of its history, based on available reporting. Of them, the vast majority have been major generals (少将, 1 star), only three are reported to have been promoted to lieutenant general (中将, 2 stars), and none has yet received the rank of general (上将, 3 stars). The trajectory of their promotions over time offers an interesting indicator of the advances of women in the PLA. When the PLA introduced its first rank system in 1955, Li Zhen (李贞), formerly a deputy in the PLA’s Military Procuratorate, was the only woman who achieved the rank of major general until ranks were abolished in 1965. When the PLA reintroduced ranks in 1988, five females received the rank of major general, three of whom had a medical specialty. Since then, at least 45 more women have received the rank of major general. Notably, Nie Li (聂力), who had a science and technology specialty, became the PLA’s first female lieutenant general in 1993. The PLA’s second female lieutenant general, Xu Lili (徐莉莉), an officer in the PLA Navy and former vice president of the Academy of Military Science, was promoted to that rank in 2010. In 2003, the first PLAAF female was promoted to major general as a Guangzhou Military Region Air Force deputy chief of staff (China Brief, June 22, 2012). In May 2016, Cheng Xiaojian (程晓健), who had previously served as the first female air division commander, was promoted to major general (Toutiao, May 13).

The comparison of the careers of the PLA’s first female major general and three notable contemporary female flag officers offers an interesting illustration of the evolution of the roles of and opportunities open to women within the PLA over time. Li Zhen joined the CCP in 1927 and fought as a guerilla with the Red Army before becoming a political commissar for a female regiment (People’s Daily, November 11, 2011). Nie Li studied in the Soviet Union and then was assigned to the PLA’s first missile research unit, eventually becoming a deputy director and secretary-general of the Commission for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND/国防科学技术工业委员会) (Ministry of National Defense, May 17, 2014). Similarly known for her scientific expertise, Xu Lili had graduated from the prestigious Tsinghua University, later received a Master’s and PhD, and has engaged in cutting-edge research in biotechnology (Sohu, July 15, 2015). On the other hand, Cheng Xiaojian joined the PLA Air Force in 1981, as part of the fifth group of female aviator cadets. She flew multiple models of transport aircraft (China Military Online, January 20, 2015; China Brief, June 22, 2012). Notably, Cheng Xiaojian became the first female commander (师长) of a transport air division in the PLA’s history. She then served as a deputy chief of staff (副参谋长) of the former Chengdu Military Region Air Force, before her recent transfer to the same position in the Western Theater Command’s Air Force Headquarters, where she received her first star (Sheyuan, May 13; Sina, June 27).

Perspectives on PLA Women’s Contributions and Recruitment:

This significant shift in the promotions of and specialties open to women raises the question of what factors have contributed to such a change. Certainly, the PLA recognizes and has followed the expanding roles of women in other militaries worldwide, especially the U.S. military. In this regard, its efforts to highlight the accomplishments of its own female enlisted personnel and officers may be a matter of image and prestige. However, the expansion of the opportunities available to women in the PLA also seems to result from recognition of the changing nature of warfare, such that women can contribute more equally and may possess certain inherent advantages. The available literature from the discipline of national defense demography (国防人口学) and on female officers and enlisted personnel presents a number of arguments regarding their recruitment and perspectives on their potential contributions to the PLA.

In the discipline of national defense demography, the recruitment of women is recognized as relevant to the PLA’s efforts to build an educated, “high quality” force and address potential human resources challenges. Prominent PLA demographer Ding Xuezhou, from the PLA Logistics College’s All-Military Family Planning Management Cadre Training Center (全军人口计生管理干部培训中心), argues that the PLA should “progressively expand the proportion of the female population participating in national defense labor” in light of “the requirements of national defense construction and the development of modernized weapons equipment.” [8] Ding and other Chinese defense demographers recognize the long-term issues for the PLA’s human capital that will result from demographic and societal trends, including rapid aging and poor health. In addition, due to the attractiveness of private sector opportunities, potential recruits have become less willing to serve, especially China’s “singletons” (i.e. only children), who are solely responsible for supporting their aging parents. Beyond this pragmatic rationale, Ding has also recommended the recruitment of women for reasons unrelated to their potential contributions to its human resources, including in order to elevate the social status of women and to improve PLA’s external image. [9]

The PLA’s expansion of the roles available to female enlisted personnel and officers is also influenced by the recognition that technological changes enhance the ability of women to contribute to modern warfare. For instance, Ding argues that, given the “unceasing development of science and technology,” future informationized warfare “will probably require that more and more females participate.” [10] Similarly, another scholar, from the PLA’s Information Engineering University, has observed that the increased automation of modern combat has made the differences in the average physical strength of men and women become “no longer an important factor that influences participation in warfare.” [11] Rather, in information-age warfare, the perceived strengths of women relative to men—including their “superiority in thinking ability,” language ability, interpersonal ability, management ability, and patience—all become more critical. [12]

However, this recognition of the increased potential for women to contribute in future warfare has not necessarily corresponded with calls to increase their recruitment beyond current levels. Given the size of China’s population, there is no urgent need to increase the recruitment of women. In addition, doing so would presumably also come into conflict with the CCP’s focus on “upgrading population quality” and increasing the birthrate to contravene rapid aging through ensuring that “high quality” women have children, as reflected in official policies and propaganda. [13] In practice, the overall number of women in the PLA does not seem to have increased significantly, and various explicit and implicit restrictions on their recruitment have persisted, as will be discussed further in Part 2 of this series. Looking forward, the ongoing downsizing of the overall force by 300,000 could also disproportionately affect women (China Brief, February 4). For instance, one of the first cuts announced was the abolition of a performing arts troupe from the former Nanjing Military Region (MoD, January 22).

Obstacles to Women’s Advancement in the PLA

Certain stereotypes about women and traditional gender roles also pervade the literature and reflect strikingly retrograde perspectives. A surprisingly high number of articles allude to women’s “personal psychology” and “traditional mentalities” that undermine their abilities to succeed in certain roles, while emphasizing the need for them to overcome perceived “psychological obstacles,” such as a lack of confidence and irresolution. [14] So too, allusions to about the unavoidable “contradiction” that female officers face between “love” and “career,” given women’s disproportionate responsibilities to care for the family, remain prevalent. [15] Perhaps partly as a result of such attitudes, women’s opportunities for advancement within the PLA have traditionally remained constrained. One PLA scholar admitted, “traditional mentalities of gender discrimination seriously obstruct the pace of the development of female officers’ human resources.” [16] The result of retrograde attitudes has been an environment with a lack of respect for female officers, which has a negative effect on their morale. [17] Since an implicit glass ceiling remains, the “inherent potential” of female officers had yet to be realized, yet that might be starting to change gradually. [18]

Although the available literature does not directly address concerns over issues of discipline or professionalism that might arise as women become more integrated throughout the PLA, it is likely that women in the PLA receive differential treatment from their leaders. For instance, one PLA guide for company commanders urged them to “point out [female soldiers’] beauty” and “educate them about handling themselves correctly” in order to prevent the “simple crudeness” of stereotypically “female” behavior, such as crying when criticized. [19] Female enlisted personnel and officers probably continue to be regarded and treated quite differently than their male counterparts, while typically serving in smaller, all-female sub-organizations. Although the PLA’s men and women might more frequently be training to the same standards for certain specialties, the obstacles resulting from these dynamics could nonetheless persist.

Next, New Roles for PLA Women

The progressive expansion of the combat and support roles open to the PLA’s female officers and enlisted personnel reflects a pragmatic human resources rationale, against the backdrop of attempts to recruit and retain an educated, skilled force, and perhaps also considerations of image. However, traditional views on gender roles and persistent sexism have historically persisted and may continue to constrain women’s advancement within the PLA. Nonetheless, as PLA females increasingly take on new combat roles, there may be further opportunities for their promotion to higher levels. The next article in this series will review the increasing representation of women in multiple branches and billets throughout the PLA.

Elsa Kania is a recent graduate of Harvard College and currently works as an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group.


  1. The two women currently on the Politburo are: Liu Yandong, a Vice Premier, and Sun Chanlan, head of the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee. See: Alice Miller, “Projecting the Next Politburo Standing Committee,” China Leadership Monitor, no. 49, March 1, 2016, Hoover Institution. Zhao Sile, “The Inspirational Backstory of China’s ‘Feminist Five,‘“ Foreign Policy, April 17, 2015.
  2. Whereas women constituted 7.6 percent of the Central Committee in 1969, the Central Committee as of the 18th Party Congress in 2012 incorporated only 4.9 percent women. There are 33 women among the CCP Central Committee’s 376 full and alternate members, constituting 8.8 percent (Xinhua, November 15, 2012). However, 23 of those women are alternates who lack power and voting rights (Xinhua, November 14, 2012), and only 10 are among the 205 full members (Xinhua, November 14, 2012).
  3. See: Leta Hong, Fincher, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, Zed Books,
  4. Mady Wechsler Segal, Xiaolin Li, and David R. Segal, “The Role of Women in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,” Minerva 10, no. 1 (1992): 48.
  5. All-China Women’s Federation, Study Materials for the History of the Women’s Movement, Beijing, 1986. Li, Xiaolin. “Chinese Women Soldiers: A History of 5,000 Years.” Social Education 58, no. 2 (1994): 67-71. Mady Wechsler Segal, Xiaolin Li, and David R. Segal, “The Role of Women in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,”
  6. Roger Cliff, China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities, Cambridge University Press, 2015. Mady Wechsler Segal, Xiaolin Li, and David R. Segal, “The Role of Women in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.”
  7. Li, Xiaolin. “Chinese women in the People’s Liberation Army: Professionals or quasi-professionals?.” Armed Forces & Society 20, no. 1 (1993): 69-83.
  8. Ding Xuezhou [丁学洲], “Research on the Development of Long Term Balance for the National Defense Population” [国防人口长期均衡发展研究], Demographic Research [人口研究], 第38 卷第5 期2014 年9 月.
  9. Ding Xuezhou [丁学洲], National Defense Demography [国防人口学], National Defense University Press, 2014.
  10. Ding Xuezhou [丁学洲], “Research on the Development of Long Term Balance for the National Defense Population” [国防人口长期均衡发展研究].
  11. Xue Xiaomei [薛小梅], “Several Reflections on the Construction of the Female Officer Contingent” [女军官队伍建设的几点思考], China Urban Economy [中国城市经济] 11 (2010): p. 257.
  12. See: Leta Hong, Fincher, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.
  13. g., Yu Lan [喻岚], Wang Jingxiu [王靖秀], “Overcoming Female Officers’ Psychological Barriers, 1996, Air Force Political University” [女军官” 心理障碍” 排解], Journal of the Air Force Political Studies Institute [空军政治学院学报] Vol. 4 (1996): 016.
  14. Xue Xiaomei [薛小梅], “Several Reflections on the Construction of the Female Officer Contingent” [女军官队伍建设的几点思考].