Saturday, November 19, 2011


Throughout Chinese history there was a prominent principle of separation between the genders. It was even customary for husbands and wives to live at some distance from each other. Separation between men and women prevailed in the farm work as well. During the Spring Festival (the celebration of the New Year), boys and girls from the villages would go out to the fields to find a spouse.

The ancient Chinese imagined that women would become mothers simply by touching holy rivers. According to the same approach that links women to water, they believed that women had the power to make the rain fall. Seeing women as powerful in ancient times was also expressed through the then customary practice of passing on the surname of the mother to her children; hence, the word (xìng), meaning "family name" includes the character ()meaning "woman". In present-day China, however, surnames pass from father to children. Nevertheless, after marriage, women typically retain their maiden name.

The passage from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal one occurred during the feudal period (1086-771 BCE), when women were educated to obey a strict code of ethics, and were expected to be submissive, shy and selfless. Throughout their lives they would be controlled by men. During her childhood a girl would have to obey her father; after her marriage a woman would have to obey her husband; and after the latter's death she would have to obey her sons. Women submissively accepted their duties and their intellectual inferiority, and most of them remained illiterate. Hidden at home most of the time, they would learn to perform the household chores. Girls from noble families would be educated to become daughters-in-law in their husband's family. The higher status of men over women finds its expression in the word "Mister" (xiān)(shēng), literally: first-born.

In Chinese tradition, the relationship between men and women is conceived of as an analogy to yin and yang. Like earth, women were considered to be found in a low place as obedient and passive beings, as opposed to men, who were conceived of as active, dominant and strong like heaven. The passage from yang to yin and vice versa, as an analogy to men and women, is echoed in the Chinese saying, "A man, who is born as a wolf, when intimidated, will become a woman; a woman, who is born as a mouse, when intimidated, will become a leopardess".

In traditional China marriage[1] was the result of an agreement between two families, rather than an agreement between a man and a woman. The parents would decide upon the marriage without involving the young couple. The future husband and wife would rarely object to their parents' decision. The choices left for a woman who did not marry were difficult. She could become a slave, servant, prostitute, Buddhist nun or a concubine.

The familial role of the woman, as a daughter, wife, mother, daughter-in-law, grandmother, widow, or several of these roles simultaneously, determined her abode, lifestyle, the attitude towards her and how she would be mourned. A woman, though born to her father's family, was not considered as his family member. After marriage, she would move to her husband's family, and the door to her father's home would be closed to her. Her visits to her parents' home were determined by laws and customs. The name of a woman who had died before marrying would not appear on the family altar. As a wife who would give offspring to her husband, she would be willingly received by his family, but only after having children could she be sure of having a place on the altar of her husband's family. As long as her mother-in-law was alive, she would actually be a slave doing all the household work. The customs and the rules of ethics forced her to obey her husband's parents. 

Women in traditional China were occupied with housework, taking care of the children, preparing food, weaving, spinning, sewing and embroidery, while the men worked in the field. Women of the upper class were not allowed to talk to male visitors at home. 

Ban Zhao (bān) (zhāo) (45-116 CE), the most famous educated woman in Chinese history, wrote the book Lessons for Women ()(jiè), in which she explains that, 40 years after being married at the age of 14, she had decided to write down things that, in her view, would be useful for every woman. From her descriptions we can learn about the discrimination against women since birth. Ban Zhao herself reached exceptional achievements, serving as an historian in the court of Emperor He Di  ()() (ruled 88-105 CE) after the death of her brother, whom she replaced. Likewise, she served as political adviser to Empress Deng Sui  (dèng)(suí) (81-121 CE), who came to power as regent for her son in 106 CE.

 In her book, Ban Zhao writes that on the third day after a baby-girl is born, the Chinese practice a custom comprised of three elements: placing the infant under the bed, giving her a piece of broken cauldron to play with, and reporting her birth to the ancestors by giving them offerings. Ban Zhao explains that placing the baby under the bed marks her inferiority and weakness, and her initial duty to be humble and modest; the piece of broken cauldron represents the hard work that is expected of her throughout her life; and the report to the ancestors is intended to remind her of her obligation to serve the family ancestors.

According to the book, a woman has to serve her husband, obey his parents, and refrain from confrontations with his family. She is expected to go to sleep late at night and arise early in the morning, in order to carry out her obligations. She should not refuse to perform her duties.

One piece of revolutionary advice given by Ban Zhao was that girls and boys should receive the same education until the age of 15. Her writings gained appreciation among scholars due to the moral values that she preached. 

During the Tang (táng) dynasty (618-907 CE) women's lives became more liberated than before. They could go out freely and it was no longer a disgrace for women of the upper class to divorce and remarry.

 The custom of foot-binding with silk bands began before the Tang dynasty among women dancers and concubines, to capture the emperor's eyes. During the Song (sòng) dynasty (960-1279 CE) the admiration for small feet expanded from the palace to women from the upper class, and from these to the entire population. The size of a woman's feet was reduced to half that of normal. Foot-binding was a living symbol of women's oppression. Most women would bind their feet, a process causing much pain, and which began when the girls were five or six years old, some even as early as at the age of two years. The feet would be tightly bandaged and the front joints, except for the great toe, would be bent inward. With the passing of time the bones would become broken and the feet become much shorter. Whereas a woman's face was considered a divine gift, feet bound improperly were conceived of as a sign of laziness and inadequate education. Mothers would bind their daughters' feet to improve their chances of a good marriage.

Small feet were considered erotic, especially in the eyes of men, and were called "golden lilies". There was a saying that "the smaller the feet the stronger the sex drive". This custom nonetheless made women handicapped and, thus, working in the field or just walking, caused them much pain. The more they were expected to work in the field, the less was the chance that this custom would be practiced.

About the life of women in traditional Chinese society we can learn from the writings of the biographer Liu Xiang (liú)(xiàng) (79-8 BCE), who wrote the biographies of admired women in ancient China - a collection of stories on their exalted deeds and philanthropic behavior. Each of these women embodied at least one virtue, such as loyalty to the ruler, self-sacrifice for the husband or father, and modesty. Thus, these stories reveal the qualities that were appreciated in women.

One biography describes the life of the mother of the philosopher Mencius (mèng)()   (371-289 BCE), to whom several virtues were ascribed. It recounts that when Mencius was a little boy he lived near a cemetery, and liked to play games, performing burial ceremonies and building tombs and mounds of graves. His mother, who thought that this place was not suitable for bringing up her child, moved to near a market place in the city. Here, Mencius would play games of buying and selling. This place also seemed to her inappropriate for raising her child, and again she moved elsewhere, to near a school. Here Mencius played at performing sacrificial rites to the ancestors and his mother decided to remain at this place. She said to her son that if he would not study, he would become a despised servant, never free of trouble. Defining the duties of women, Mencius' mother said that they should cook five kinds of cereals, heat wine, take care of their parents-in-law, and produce clothes.

About the attitude of men toward women during the Han  (hàn) dynasty (220-206 BCE), we can learn from a letter sent by Yan Feng to his wife's younger brother, explaining the reason for his divorce. He describes his wife as a woman whose behavior was worsening from day to day. She saw white as black, and wrong as right. Concerning himself, Yan Feng testifies that he is never wrong, not making the slightest mistake, unlike his wife, who tells lies about him and annoys him all the time. He remarks that since ancient times it has been considered a great disaster to live in a house controlled by a woman. Now, as he writes, this disaster has fallen on him. He should have sent her back to her parents' home a long time ago, but he has not done so, being concerned about the children and because, without his wife, there would be no one to work at home. Likewise, he expresses his fear that his children would become servants.

In his letter, Yan Feng also writes that according to the rules of conduct determined by the sagacious Chinese, a man must have a wife and concubines too. He remarks that a man from a poor and humble family would also desire to have concubines, and expresses his regret at reaching old age without having one, a regret that would follow him to his grave.

A woman named Yuan Zai from the 12th century CE describes women's problems. She writes that women do not take care of family matters outside the home, because proper husbands and sons are responsible for these. Bad husbands, in her view, are those who hide their deeds from their wives. Many of them are self-indulgent and gamblers. Some reach a situation in which they provide their land and even their houses as collateral, without telling their wives. Women are helpless, with no control over such situations.

Kong Demao  (kǒng)()(mào), a modern-day member of Confucius' family, and whose family tree dates back to the time of the famous philosopher, tells in the 20th century about her life and the lives of women in the mansion of the Kong family in Qufu ()(), the home town of Confucius in Shandong (shān)(dōng) . According to the rules of conduct of the mansion, women were not allowed to take part in sacrificial rites. Their participation was considered an insult to the ancestors to whom the sacrifices were offered. The prevalent belief was that women might silence the music in the Confucian temple. Tradition has it that once the music suddenly stopped during a sacrificial ceremony, and it was revealed that a Buddhist nun had attended this ceremony. Only after she was thrown out were the sounds of the bells heard again.

Even obedient women in traditional China were inferior to men, but the fate of adulteresses was worse. In medieval China it was customary to strike adulteresses on their bare buttocks and, in serious cases, they would be stripped completely naked before being struck.

The attitude toward women significantly changed after the Communists came to power in 1949. Whereas the Confucians had stressed the hierarchy in which women are inferior to men, the Communist party strove to minimize the differences between the genders and abolish the hierarchy in favor of equality. In 1949, when Mao Zedong 毛泽东(máozédōng)(1893-1976), the Chairman of the Communist party, announced in Tian An Men (tiān)(ān)(mén) square in Beijing that the Chinese people, a quarter of the world's population, had arisen and stood up, he meant women as well as men. Women were considered as an equal half of the population. They were conceived of as half the sky; that is, as half the sun and half the moon too. The phrase "half the sky" became a slogan expressing the new future for women, one that had moved away from the traditional attitude, according to which there is a clear distinction between men and women, heaven and earth, sun and moon. Traditionally, "Heaven" (yang) served as a synonym of "the domain of men", but following the Communists' rise to power, women were called to enter this domain.

One of the expressions of equality between men and women following the establishment of Communist China, was that of addressing them both as "comrade" (tóng)(zhì). Inside the family the term "nei ren" (nèi)(rén) (literally "person inside"; meaning "inside the house"), which referred to "wife", was replaced by "ai ren" (ài)(rén) (literally "loved person"), which refers to both men and women.

The traditional Chinese woman, who would be occupied with weaving or embroidering in the internal courtyard, was replaced by a strong and self-confident woman working alongside men in factories, driving tractors, and receiving equal pay for equal work. The message was that women were an active element in the revolution, just like men.

During the Cultural Revolution (1967-1977) foot-binding was banned, as a result of the desire to free women from the heritage of inequality.

Literally: Marries a rooster follows a rooster, marries a dog follows a dog.
(Dream of the Red Chamber (hóng)(lóu)(mèng) ,chapter 81).
If a woman marries a rooster, she will remain with a rooster and if she marries a dog, she will remain with a dog. 
 This refers to the life of women in traditional China, where a married woman was obliged to remain with her husband forever.
Literally: Women can lift half the sky.
Women can do everything that men can do.
A Communist slogan, frequently used by Mao Zedong.
Good men do not fight women
Literally: A smile of a thousand pieces of gold. 
The smile of a beautiful woman is worth a thousand pieces of gold.
A daughter who has married is like spilled water
(Dream of the Red Chamber, chapter 8).
This describes the situation in traditional China, where a woman who married was severed from her parents.
When the wife is virtuous, few disasters will befall her husband
Without the landlady the house will collapse
Usually said after the death of a housewife.

Literally: Three obeyed [and] four virtues.
This refers to the expectations from a woman throughout her life, in traditional China. She would have to obey three male family members;  before her marriage, she would have to obey her father (zài)(jiā)(cóng)() (literally: at home, obeys father); during her marriage, she would have to obey her husband (chū)(jià)(cóng)()  (literally: leaving home, obeys husband) ; and as a widow she would have to obey her sons ()()(cóng)() (literally: husband dead, obeys sons).
There were four virtues expected of women. The first one was moral behavior ()(), meaning that they should know their place in the world and follow the rules of conduct expected of them. The second was external beauty ()(róng), meaning that they should adorn themselves in order to please men. The third virtue was "talking appropriately" ()(yán), meaning that they should not talk too much and that they should not bore their listeners. The fourth is that they should do their work ()(gōng) properly, carrying out their housework and efficiently sewing and embroidering.

[1] See also the chapter on love and marriage.

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