Pragmatic Discourse and Gender Inequality in China


  • Xin He,

  • Kwai Ng

  • This research was funded by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Research Grant and the UC Pacific Rim Research Grant. Xin He also wishes to acknowledge the financial support from a GRF grant of the Hong Kong Government. Special thanks go to the Chinese judges who helped arrange our fieldwork investigations and those who kindly agreed to be interviewed. We are also grateful for the comments of the editors and anonymous reviewers of the Review.

Please direct all correspondence to Kwai Hang Ng, Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0533; e-mail: or Xin He, School of Law, City University of Hong Kong, Tat Chee Avenue, Kowloon, Hong Kong; e-mail:


Using courtroom dialogs from actual court trials in China as data, this article analyzes an emerging “pragmatic discourse,” deployed by judges to assist, but at the same time to constrain divorcing women. Through questions, statements, rebuttals, and other interactional devices, Chinese judges define the premises that underpin the law's understanding of gender equality and women's welfare. By looking at how discourses are deployed by judges and litigants, we link micro linguistic practices to more general social forces and processes. Despite their honest effort to protect women's rights, Chinese judges often inadvertently reinforce and reproduce the patriarchal norm. The data demonstrate how the hegemonic patriarchal order reasserts itself in an institutional forum that is meant to promote gender equality. The interaction of the discourses also highlights the tensions in Chinese society and displays the effect of changing social environment on the legal operation.