Holding Up Half the Sky? (Part 2)—The Evolution of Women’s Roles in the PLA

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 16

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

Women are starting to have enter combat roles for the PLA in greater numbers. Despite their long history of service in the PLA, female officers (cadre) and enlisted personnel (approximately five percent of the overall force), have only recently taken on a range of new positions throughout the PLA Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and the Strategic Support Force, as well as the People’s Armed Police over the last decade (China Military Online, April 15, 2015). While the number of women joining the enlisted force and their acceptance into the PLA’s officer academic institutions remain restricted by informal and often even explicit quotas, PLA female officers and enlisted personnel have made notable contributions in a variety of roles, from aviation to special operations and missile launches. Since the PLA has never conscripted female enlisted personnel, all women in the PLA are recruited or volunteer.

While the first article in this series considered the historical trajectory of and context for the expansion of women’s roles within the PLA, this article reviews the recruitment process for women and examines in detail the multiple services, branches, and billets in which women have served throughout the PLA within the past decade or so. Such analysis not only offers an interesting comparison to the integration of women into combat roles in the U.S. and other militaries worldwide but also reveals an understudied dimension of the PLA’s efforts to recruit and retain an overall “high quality” (高素质) officer and enlisted force. This expansion of women’s roles in the PLA will likely continue, and a higher number of women might eventually advance to operational or support command positions. However, women seeking to enter the PLA often face a glass ceiling in the form of existing recruitment processes, and their opportunities for promotion have been likewise constrained. In most cases, women are part of an all-female subunit, instead of mixed subunits (e.g., squads, platoons, and companies). Looking forward, if it intends to take fuller advantage of the available human resources, the PLA might eventually alter existing restrictions on the recruitment of female officers and enlisted personnel.


As of 2016, there were approximately 115,000 female enlisted personnel and officers throughout the 1.3 million-member PLA. [1] Despite an expansion of roles, this total may decrease due to the ongoing 300,000-troop drawdown due to be completed by 2017 (China Brief, February 4).

Historically, the majority of women in the PLA have served in medical, communications, logistics support, and propaganda (e.g., song and dance troupe) roles. However, within the past decade or so, there has been a significant expansion in the roles of PLA females onto the battlefield. Increasingly, small, low-level female subunits often seem to have female leaders/commanders, and political officers (at the company level), but there have not yet been many instances of females leading all-female or mixed-gender organizations at higher levels.

Enlisted Force

Unlike men who are both conscripted and recruited, women are not conscripted into the PLA; however, women have been recruited in limited numbers to become enlisted personnel. According to China’s Military Service Law (兵役法), women can be recruited (征集) based on the “armed forces’ requirements” (军队需要) (全国征兵网, March 13, 2014). After the latest revision to the recruitment requirements for females, the age requirements were differentiated based on educational background, such that high school graduates aged 17–19, college students aged 17–22, the graduates of vocational schools aged 23 or younger, and college graduates aged 24 or younger were eligible to apply (MOD, October 10, 2009; MOD, November 6, 2009). Notably, when the PLA implemented its first Chief Non-commissioned Officer (士官长) system at the brigade, regiment, battalion and company levels in 2015, it included the first female (女士官长), which was characterized as an indication of the increasingly “important function” of women within the PLA’s Non-commissioned Officer (NCO, 士官) corps (People’s Daily, June 10, 2015; China Armed Forces, Vol. 1, 2015).

Female enlisted recruits apparently face a more rigorous and selective process. There are differentiated requirements for the recruitment of female enlisted personnel into the PLA. Although the PLA does not administer a standardized aptitude test to conscripts and recruits, the 2009 “Female Enlisted Personnel Recruitment Work Trial Procedures” (女兵征集工作试行办法) introduced an assessment system that involved a physical quality assessment (身体素质评定) (with 70 points as a basis and deductions for those outside of the standard height, vision, and weight parameters); an academic background assessment (学历评定) (e.g., 70 points for vocational students or 85 points for undergraduate students), and an “interview examination” (面试考查) (with between 70 and 100 points awarded). The “comprehensive assessment” and final selection process used these three components while adding points based on age and Communist Party membership. Unusually, the interview included the criteria of having a “talent” or a “special skill” (才艺专长) for which points would be awarded included in the selection process (MOD, November 6, 2009). In practice, this meant that women seeking to enlist in the PLA, unlike their male counterparts, were required to perform in a “talent show,” often involving a song or dance routine, for their recruiters. Understandably, this requirement sparked debate and criticism at the time (China News, December 1, 2009). Although the latest female recruitment procedures (女兵征集办法) don’t explicitly include those requirements, there continues to be an unspecified “comprehensive quality assessment” (综合素质考评) (National Recruitment Network, May 27).

Although there is not an official maximum for the number of women recruited as enlisted personnel, certain implicit restrictions continue to limit their numbers. For instance, only 124 of the 20,000 total personnel who were conscripted and recruited from Hainan Province in 2016 were female, accounting for less than 7 percent of the female applicants (South Sea Online, August 12).

Officer Corps

The recruitment process for PLA officers (cadre) also appears to require higher standards from female applicants. According to the Ministry of Education, explicit “male to female admissions ratios” (男女生录取比例) are not permissible except in military, national defense, public security, and other “specialized institutes,” which presumably do establish and adhere to such set ratios (People’s Daily, September 26, 2013). The enrollment of female cadets in at least some of the PLA’s sixty plus academic institutions, including the National University of Defense Technology, appears to be limited (NUDT, August 6, 2015). Evidence suggests that there are few female cadets in officer academic institutions, and certain institutions and majors probably prohibit women’s enrollment altogether. In this regard, like unlike female students applying to China’s civilian universities, female applicants seemingly face different and often higher standards for acceptance (Caixin, October 13, 2014).

The National Defense Student (国防生) program, which was created in 1998 and is approximately equivalent to the U.S. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) similarly restricts the enrollment of women. Since a high proportion of graduates from the National Defense Student program go on to the special technical career track, the majority of female officers graduating from this program are unlikely to serve in operational or support command positions. Although there was initially a five percent maximum for the number of female students enrolled in the program, that restriction seems to be applied inconsistently across the civilian academic institutions involved in the program, or perhaps to have been relaxed somewhat since (Xinhua, December 24, 2007; China Brief, November 30, 2011). For instance, as of 2015, Peking University’s National Defense Student program limited the number of female undergraduate students to 10 percent and the number of female graduate students to 20 percent (北大, May 6, 2015).

Services, Forces, and Branches

The PLA’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and the Strategic Support Force, as well as the People’s Armed Police, all incorporate women into their officer and enlisted ranks. While the majority of female PLA officers and enlisted personnel have traditionally served primarily in medical, communications, logistics support, academic, and propaganda roles, women have increasingly taken on a variety of combat roles. In fact, as Chinese media pointed out after the U.S. officially opened all combat roles to women in 2015, the PLA considers itself to have been ahead of the U.S. by twenty years in this regard, since it established a contingent of female marines (海军女子陆战特遣队) in the late 1990s (Global Times, December 5, 2015). Since then, the PLA’s various services, forces, and branches (combat arms) have introduced a variety of female organizations.

Although PLA women have traditionally served in all-female organizations, there are several examples of mixed-gender organizations that have been established in recent years. The men and women of the PLA are increasingly training together and to the same standards, yet women may still receive differential treatment from their leaders in certain ways. The following section, while not fully comprehensive, offers an initial review of the range of combat roles that women have taken on throughout the PLA to illustrate the varied nature of their participation.


Women in Combat Roles in the PLA

PLA Army (Ground Forces)


Infantry Branch:
  • In 2014, the PLA’s first peacekeeping infantry battalion (维和步兵营), which included a female enlisted force infantry squad (女子步兵班) of 13 women, was deployed to South Sudan (Xinhua, December 22, 2014).
  • Female medics (女军医) previously participated in peacekeeping operations, including in the Congo, Lebanon, and Mali (e.g., China Military Online, May 19, 2015).
  • In 2015, within the Northern Theater Command’s 39th Group Army (陆军第39集团军) in Liaoning Province, the female enlisted personnel of an all-female Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) station (无人机站), established within a motorized infantry reconnaissance company (摩步旅侦察情报连), took on responsibility for battlefield reconnaissance, target positioning, directing artillery fire, and combat damage assessments (PLA Daily, October 28, 2015; China Military Online, July 28, 2015). The performance of these “seemingly weak females” in their first opposition-force live drill was characterized as “in no way inferior to male enlisted personnel” (丝毫不逊于男兵) (PLA Daily, October 28, 2015).


Armored Branch:
  • The Southern Theater Command’s 14th Group Army (第14集团军) in Yunnan Province includes an armored brigade (装甲旅) with a component group of female enlisted personnel (女兵群体), who were characterized as likely to prove themselves as “not at all inferior” to their male counterparts if a war were to break out, given their operational performance (China Military Online, April 29).


Artillery Branch:
  • An artillery brigade in the former Lanzhou Military Region included a female platoon (女兵排), which was praised for training “meticulously” to the same standards and thus “showing the spirit and style of new era female enlisted personnel” (China Military Online, March 26, 2014).
Air Defense Branch:
  • In the Northern Theater Command’s 40th Group Army (第40集团军) in Liaoning Province, a female missile company (女子导弹连) was established within an air defense brigade (防空旅) in 2014 (China Military Online, April 15, 2015). It subsequently was lauded for its “outstanding performance” and reportedly created a new record for its firing of a certain type of missile (CNTV, March 11).
  • A squad (班) of six female enlisted personnel from an air defense brigade (防空旅) in the Western Theater Command’s 47th Group Army (第47集团军) participated in the Shandan-A (山丹-A) part of the “Firepower 2016” exercise (Huoli, 火力-2016) (China Military Online, August 16).
Aviation Branch:


  • In 2013, the first female helicopter aviators were transferred to Army Aviation from the PLAAF. [2]
  • In 2014, Army Aviation’s first female armed helicopter pilots (武装直升机女飞行员) completed their training and assumed their billets (PLA Daily, October 31, 2014).
Special Forces:


  • In 2013, the former Beijing Military Region established the PLA’s first female special operations company (女子特种作战连) within the 38th Group Army in Hebei Province, which except for the male company commander (连长) was composed of only female officers and enlisted personnel (官兵), (Xinhua, March 30, 2013; China Military Online, April 15, 2015).
  • Female special forces operators have engaged in advanced parachute training and reportedly train alongside and to the same standards as their male counterparts (Xinhua, May 16, 2013; China Military Online, July 5).
  • During the Peace Mission (和平使命) 2014 multinational exercise, organized through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at China’s Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia, a female special forces company (女子特战连) participated in anti-terrorism exercises focused on urban combat, living and working alongside their male counterparts, yet also served as a member of the military “parade team” (阅兵方队) (China Military Online, June 11). Despite that additional decorative function, the female special forces subunits (分队) (e.g., battalion and below) involved were responsible for a variety of “combat oriented tasks” including reconnaissance, hostage rescue, and the interrogation of prisoners.

PLA Navy


Surface Branch:
  • In 2010, the PLAN’s first female crew (女舰员) started to train within the North Sea Fleet and eventually became its first female enlisted sailors (女水兵) (PLA Daily, February 18, 2013). From approximately 2012 onward, the PLAN has regularly deployed female enlisted sailors and officers onto ships alongside their male counterparts in a variety of roles, including navigation and sonar (e.g., China Military Online, August 11; China Military Online, March 10; China Military Online, April 15, 2015).
  • In 2013, eight female enlisted sailors (女水兵) deployed aboard the Type 052 Luhu-class destroyer Harbin to take part in its escort mission in the Gulf of Aden (PLA Daily, February 18, 2013). Eleven women also deployed on the Peace Ark, China’s military hospital ship (China Pictorial, June 10, 2013).
  • Such long-term deployments of female enlisted sailors and officers have evidently become routine, and a PLAN escort fleet’s deployment to the Gulf of Aden in 2016 included twenty-four females (China.com, August 11). Notably, five percent of the total PLAN personnel on the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, are women (China Military Online, April 15, 2015).
  • In 2014, the first 20 female “ship command specialty” (舰艇指挥专业) cadets graduated from the Dalian Naval Ship Academy (大连舰艇学院). One of them will probably become the PLAN’s first female vessel commander (舰长) (People’s Daily, July 12, 2014). Among them was the PLAN’s first Uighur female officer, who previously served on the Liaoning (People’s Daily, July 14, 2014).
Subsurface Branch:
  • There has been no mention of women serving with the PLA’s subsurface forces. Although there does not appear to be any women in some other PLA branches, such as the PLAAF’s antiaircraft artillery branch, the PLAN’s submarine force is reportedly the only combat arm of the PLA to maintain an outright ban against recruiting women (QQ, June 14).


Aviation Branch:


  • The PLA Navy has not yet had any female aviators.




  • The history of the PLAN’s female marines reportedly dates back to the late 1990s, when the Marine Corps’ recruitment of female officers and enlisted personnel first started. [3] The initial such contingent was established (女子陆战特遣队) under the aegis of the South Sea Fleet (China.com, May 22, 2009).
  • The PLA’s female marines reportedly train intensively and to the same requirements as their male counterparts (PLA Pictorial, June 5, 2007; China Military Online, June 30).
  • In 2016, the PLA’s female marines traveled abroad for the first time, when a female reconnaissance platoon (两栖侦察女兵队) deployed on the Changbaishan landing vessel as part of the multinational exercise “Blue Attack” (“蓝色突击”) in Thailand (PLA Daily, July 6).
Coastal Defense Branch:
  • There are female enlisted personnel within the PLAN’s coastal defense (海防) combat arm, including those stationed in Fujian (China Military Online, May 15, 2014).



Air Force


Aviation Branch:
  • Since 1951, the PLA Air Force has recruited and trained over 500 female aviators (女飞行员), which includes all crewmembers (China Brief, June 22, 2012).
  • In 2010, a group of female first lieutenants became China’s first female fighter pilots after graduating from a 44-month training program (Xinhua, June 28, 2013; China Air Force Network, January 12).
  •  The PLA’s female fighter pilots have also completed overwater parachute landing training (China Military Online, April 29, 2014). Four of these female fighter pilots flew K-8 Advanced Fighter Trainers over Tiananmen during the September 2015 military parade and are now part of the PLAAF’s J-10 Bayi Flight Demonstration Team (Xinhua, September 11, 2015).
  • New female aviators will be recruited every three to five years, not every seven or eight, and will be chosen from sixteen different provinces, rather than twelve (Global Times, November 23, 2014).
  • See “China’s Air Force Female Aviators: Sixty Years of Excellence” for a more detailed account of their history and progress (China Brief, June 22, 2012).
SAM Branch:


  • In 2014, a female missile company (女兵导弹连) responsible for operating short-range surface-to-air missiles was established in the former Shenyang Military Region Air Force, (

China Military Online, April 15, 2015).

AAA Branch:


  • There are no available references to female enlisted personnel or officers serving in the antiaircraft artillery branch.
Airborne Branch:


  • The PLA’s first female paratroopers unit (女子空降队) was established in 1991, and there is already a “considerable” number of female paratroopers in the PLAAF’s 15th Airborne Corps. (Air Force World, June 2).
  • The first female airborne reconnaissance guide team (女子侦察引导队) to enter the PLA’s airborne forces completed its training in 2016 (PLA Daily, May 31).
Radar Branch:


  • In 2001, the first twelve female cadets graduated from the PLAAF Radar College (空军雷达学院), becoming the PLA’s first radar specialty female officers with a bachelor’s degree (PLA Daily, July 13, 2001). There continue to be a number of female enlisted personnel and officers within the radar branch (e.g., Xinhua, May 22, 2015).

Rocket Force


  •  The Rocket Force, which was formerly the Second Artillery Force, established its first female missile launch company (女子导弹发射连) in 2011 and then a second such company in 2012, both of which were responsible for the operation of tactical ballistic missiles (China Military Online, April 15, 2015). The first female missile launch company, which is subordinate to the PLARF’s 1st Conventional Missile Brigade under the aegis of Base 52 in Anhui Province, was officially incorporated as a combat unit in 2014 (Huojianbing Bao, April 9, 2014). The first female commander of this missile launch company had previously served as a non-commissioned officer (Huojianbing Bao, October 12, 2013).

Strategic Support Force


  • Relatively limited information is available about the Strategic Support Force at this point, but its personnel presumably include female officers and enlisted personnel who were previously associated with the former General Staff Department’s (GSD) Third (3PLA/Technical Reconnaissance) and Fourth (4PLA/Electronic Countermeasures & Radar) Departments, as well as those affiliated with certain former GSD Research Institutes and various other budui transferred to the SFF (China Brief, February 8). For instance, female enlisted personnel from a particular communications terminal long-distance platform (通信总站长途台), which may have been part of the former GSD Informationization Department, are now associated with the SSF (Global Times, September 26).




This organizational overview illustrates that female enlisted personnel and officers have been increasingly serving in a range of combat roles throughout the PLA, in addition to more traditional roles, such as medical and communications personnel. Based on the available information, women in the PLA are only formally prohibited from serving on submarines, and there are still a small number of combat arms that do not yet seem to have established female units. While most PLA women seemingly still serve in all-female subunits, there has been some progression toward integrated training, including for the PLAAF’s female aviators. Although only a few PLA female officers have taken on operational unit command positions, there are indications that a small number of women, including in the PLAAF and PLAN, are starting to take on and could eventually advance in these roles.

Although women still constitute only about five percent of the PLA, this expansion of their roles could eventually result in an increase in their numbers and impact. However, for the time being, restrictive recruitment policies continue to limit the entrance of and often impose higher standards upon female applicants. In this regard, the PLA is presently failing to adequately take advantage of all of the available human resources. There are indications that attitudes are starting to change, and policies may eventually follow (e.g., PLA Daily, July 3). Looking forward, the PLA’s ability to integrate women effectively into the operational force and to confront attitudes that have historically imposed a glass ceiling upon their advancement also offers a metric of its ability to adapt its prevailing organizational culture in response to new conditions.

While women in the PLA continue to be characterized as “beautiful scenery in the barracks” (军营一道亮丽的风景), the PLA has gradually progressed to recognize their potential contributions and impact in future informationized warfare (China Military Online, April 15, 2015). Evidently, the PLA has also realized that changes in the nature of warfare as a result of technological trends will require a different type of force, and it has appreciably altered its approach to recruitment in an effort to attract educated, “high quality” personnel. However, the PLA’s future expansion of the recruitment of and opportunities for women—a pragmatic military imperative—might continue to be constrained by prevailing societal dynamics and attitudes.



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


Kenneth W. Allen is a Senior China Analyst at Defense Group Inc. (DGI) and concurrently a Senior China Analyst with the USAF’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). He is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, whose extensive service abroad includes a tour in China as the Assistant Air Attaché. He has written numerous articles on Chinese military affairs. A Chinese linguist, he holds an M.A. in international relations from Boston University.



  1. No detailed statistics are available. See also: Mady Wechsler Segal, Xiaolin Li, and David R. Segal, “The Role of Women in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.”
  2. Kenneth Allen, “PLA Air Force, Naval Aviation, and Army Aviation Aviator Recruitment, Education, and Training,” Jamestown Foundation, 2015.
  3. Li Faxin, The PLA Marines, China Intercontinental Press, English version, January 2013, pp. 100–112.