What gender do Chinese couples prefer for a first child? I must admit that until now I had assumed the conventional wisdom of the international media: traditional Chinese couples, especially in rural areas, prefer a boy first. Indeed, such an image suggests they will go to the extent of seeking illegal abortion if they know that the embryo will be a girl. Or, if they do have a girl first, they can have another baby in the hope that it will be a boy. The reason: the family’s name, tradition and inheritance passes down through the male line, so a boy is the pride of a couple – given that traditional Chinese society is hopelessly patriarchal

Recently, I heard a somewhat different perspective from a woman who grew up in the countryside, where traditional practices have a greater hold.

‘A couple prefers a girl first’, she said.

‘What?’ I said. ‘I thought a boy was more desirable’.

‘No,’ she said. ‘The birth of a girl is a great relief for the couple in question, especially if they are of modest means’.

‘Why?’ I said.

‘If a boy is born’, she said, ‘the parents already have nightmares about the costs involved’.

Now I was truly puzzled. ‘Do Chinese boys demand more?’

She laughed. ‘Not in that way’, she said. ‘If a boy is born, then the parents know that later they will have to pay for a wedding, if not a house for the couple. It can cost quite a lot’.

‘So they prefer a girl first’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘Then they can relax a little’.

‘What about the second child?’ I said.

‘Well’, she said. ‘If they have a boy first and then decide to have a second child, then they worry endless whether it too will be a boy’.

‘That would clearly be too much’, I said. ‘So they sweat out the possibility of the second child also being a boy’.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘But what if they have a girl first?’ I said.

‘Then there is less worry’, she said. ‘If a boy is born then, then that is manageable’.

‘And a girl for the second child?’ I said.

‘That is the easiest’, she said.