Those familiar with Pearl S. Buck’s classic novel of Chinese life The Good Earth will recall that when female children were born, they were referred to with contempt and disappointment as “slaves.” In Chinese culture since ancient times, that term was not much of an exaggeration for the role of women.
In a classic Chinese work from 2,000 years ago by court historian Pan Chao, it is written: “Let a woman modestly yield to others. Let her respect others. Let her put others first, herself last. Should she do something good, let her not mention it. Should she do something bad, let her not deny it. Let her bear disgrace; let her even endure when others speak or do evil to her. Always let her seem to tremble and fear….If a wife does not serve her husband, then the proper relationship between man and woman is broken.”
Many women throughout Chinese history functioned as concubines. Men were allowed to take multiple wives, with the wives falling into a hierarchy amongst themselves based on such factors as the order in which they had been married, and which was the current favorite of the master of the household.
Perhaps the best known symbol of the place of women in Chinese society was the custom of crippling women starting in childhood by “foot binding,” where the arch of each foot was broken, and the feet bound to keep them from growing. The result was women who could not walk, or could at most hobble awkwardly a few steps in great pain. If left unbound, in adulthood the feet could partly heal and limited mobility return, so generally the binding was continued until the end of their lives.
Foot binding at first was a practice of the aristocracy, where rendering a woman less functional was a status symbol in that it meant that a household was wealthy enough to afford the luxury of having some of its members serve primarily ornamental functions. But it eventually became common below that level as well, as ordinary Chinese adopted the practice in mimicry of their betters, to gain a little reflected status for themselves and to increase the chances of being able to sell their daughters into higher class marriages.
Non-aristocratic Chinese certainly could not afford the luxury of their women being unable to work, so ways were developed to keep the women “slaves” working as hard as ever on tasks that required little or no mobility. Women worked in the home at jobs such as spinning cloth, shucking oysters, and processing tea. When their labor was needed in the fields, they could still contribute a certain amount of work by crawling about.
Women with unbound feet were considered ugly and unworthy of marriage. These values were internalized to a large extent by women themselves, who generally cooperated in the crippling of themselves and the young girls in their family.
Even during the worst periods of inequality for Chinese women, there were individuals and customs that showed that women could still wield a certain amount of influence.
At times, when the Chinese throne passed on to a child too young to realistically lead, the child’s mother, as “Empress Dowager” was effectively the true ruler. The legend of Mulan indicated that at times women could even be warriors.
Marriages were most often arranged by an aunt or older female relative, which was a powerful role in that it determined which families would be allied by marriage and who would receive a dowry. In the Hunan region there was a longstanding custom of “sworn sisters,” where women were allowed to organize themselves into groups of seven lifelong friends. Often the sworn sisters developed their own private language and system of writing, which allowed them to safely communicate even dissenting statements amongst themselves.
In the 19th century, there were rumblings of discontent and calls for change in the status of women in Chinese society. But it was not until the short-lived Chinese Republic that significant progress was made.
Even then, women were expected to concern themselves primarily with tending to their household. But at least they had somewhat more access to education in the cities, and foot binding came under greater and greater disapproval.
The Communists under Mao turned much of Chinese society upside down, showing a willingness to spill whatever amount of blood was necessary to impose their vision of how things should be on the populace. One of their stated goals was to erase the inequality between men and women once and for all.
To some extent, they were successful. Though most Chinese women did not have a good life under the Communists, the misery they suffered tended to be more similar to the misery that men suffered than had been true in the past. So there was a move toward equality in that sense. More than ever before, women worked outside the home, obtained educations, and involved themselves in political matters.
The government’s sometimes persuasive, sometimes coercive, “one child” policy to deal with horrible overpopulation removed the traditional pressure many women had been under to keep having more and more babies to produce a sufficient number of sons.
With the death of Mao and the move toward more of a state capitalism economy, the government’s zeal to forcibly combat customs regarded as backward has lessened somewhat. There has been some reversion to traditional gender inequality in some respects, though the increasing influence of consumerism and Western cultural values makes it unlikely the traditional ways will ever fully return.
Foot binding itself became rarer and rarer over the course of the 20th century. It was vehemently denounced by the Communists and stamped out as much as possible. In present day China, it is virtually unheard of, with just a few scattered women, mostly very elderly, still following the practice.
L. Bacalso, “Traditional Role of Women in History.” eHow.
Caroline Baker, “Position of Women in Chinese History.” Bella Online.
Simon Montlake, “Bound by History.” Wall Street Journal.
Dr. Deborah Vess, “Traditional Views of Women’s Roles.” GCSU.edu.