20 June 2011

Women in 19th Century China

A few months ago, I read a book called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, leant to me by a friend. I learned fascinating things about 19th century Chinese women's culture.

There were really detailed accounts of foot-binding. I never knew that the toes were curled under the foot until the toe bones broke and then further until the foot bones broke. The girls started around 7 years of age at the latest, 3 at the earliest, when they were kept in the upstairs "women's room" and made to walk around with their blood and pus-filled bandages. Who knows if the number is correct, but the book said one in ten girls died of complications of foot-binding. Who even came up with such a painful tradition and how in the world did it spread?

Chinese Footbinding

I also heard the first I'd ever heard about nĂ¼shu, a script created by and known only by women. Cool. This writing is the most simplified written form of Chinese ever concocted--it is phonetic instead of having each symbol stand for something. Women made contracts with friends so they would be committed to each other for life, and they wrote back and forth to each other.

Nu Shu

It was interesting to see how much of women's lives were directed by religion and traditions that seem rather old-fashioned and superstitious coming from my perspective--so much was based on numbers, for example.

And to close, here are some favorite quotations:

  • "I am old enough to know only too well my good and bad qualities, which were often one and the same." (3)
  • "We women are expected to love our children as soon as they leave our bodies, but who among us has not felt disappointment at the sight of a daughter or felt the dark gloom that settles upon the mind even when holding a precious son, if he does nothing but cry and makes your mother-in-law look at you as though your milk were sour? We may love our daughters with all our hearts, but we must train them through pain. We love our sons most of all, but we can never be a part of their world, the outer realm of men. We are expected to love our husbands from the day of Contracting a Kin, though we will not see their faces for another six years. We are told to love our in-laws, but we enter those families as strangers, as the lowest person in the household, just one step on the ladder above a servant. We are ordered to love and honor our husbands' ancestors, so we perform the proper duties, even if our hearts quietly call out gratitude to our natal ancestors. We love our parents because they take care of us, but we are considered worthless branches on the family tree. We drain the family resources. We are raised by one family for another. As happy as we are in our natal families, we all know that parting is inevitable. So we love our families, but we understand that this love will end in the sadness of departure. All these types of love come out of duty, respect, and gratitude. Most of them, as the women in my county know, are sources of sadness, rupture, and brutality." (59)
  • "But the love between a pair of old sames is something completely different. As Madame Wang said, a laotong relationship is made by choice. While it's true that Snow Flower and I didn't mean all the words we'd written to each other in our initial contact through the fan, when we first looked in each other's eyes in the palanquin I felt something special pass between us--like a spark to start a fire or a seed to grow rice. But a single spark is not enough to warm a room nor is a single seed enough to grow a fruitful crop. Deep love--true-heart love--must grow. Back then I didn't yet understand the burning kind of love, so instead I thought about the rice paddies I used to see on my daily walks down to the river with my brother when I still had all my milk teeth. Maybe I could make our love grow like a farmer made his crop to grow--through hard work, unwavering will, and the blessings of nature. How funny that I can remember that even now! Waaa! I knew so little about life, but I knew enough to think like a farmer." (60)
  • "'I am thirty-eight years old,' Aunt said, not with sympathy but with resignation. 'I have lived a miserable life. My family was a good one, but my feet and my face made my destiny. Even a woman like me--who is not so smart or beautiful or is deformed or mute--will find a husband, because even a retarded man can make a son. Only a vessel is needed. My father married me to the best family he could find to take me. I cried like you do now. Fate was crueler still. I could not have sons. I was a burden to my in-laws. I wish I could have a son and a happy life. I wish my daughter would never marry out so that I would have her to hear my sorrows. But this is how it is for women. You can't avoid your fate. It is predestined.'" (78)
  • "Uncle Lu was the ultimate master, but I secured my place by being the first daughter-in-law and then by giving my husband his first son . . . For these reasons I have told the young women who have married into the Lu family, and the others I eventually reached through my teaching of nu shu, that they should hurry to have a baby boy. Sons are the foundation of a woman's self. They give a woman her identity, as well as dignity, protection, and economic value. They create the link between her husband and his ancestors. This is the one accomplishment a man cannot achieve without the aid of his wife. Only she can guarantee the perpetuation of the family line, which, in turn, is the ultimate duty of every son. This is the supreme way he completes his filial duty, while sons are a woman's crowning glory. I had done all this and I was ecstatic." (151)

1 comment:

  1. I've read that book too, and while I was appalled at a lot of the practices (eg foot binding, painful hairstyles) and poor treatment of women I couldn't help feeling sympathetic and admiring of the close-knit bond the women shared.