Tradition and Change in the Lives of Women in Rural China

In his lecture “Narrative Matters,” Richard Kearney said “there is no language that does not have a story” (Kearney 2005).  Indeed, language is the medium in which one person tells something to another person.  In Oneself as Another, Paul Ricoeur notes that “one language may make finer distinctions than another in some particular area, and this corresponds to the respective features of each natural language; what is common to all is individualization, the operation rather than the result” (Ricoeur 1992: 27). There are myriad stories of individual women’s lives in rural China, and the Chinese language is rich in nuance and metaphor.  In this essay, both historical traditions and movement away from traditional patterns will be examined.  This study will concentrate on the issues of societal norms, educational opportunity, and economic factors, which influence the lives of women today in the rural provinces of China.

In the dynastic period of China, a time frame spanning from 2100 B.C.E. through 1912 C.E., the birth of a female child was not an event to be celebrated (Hammond 2004: 170).  Traditionally, it was the male child who carried on the family name, inherited the family’s wealth, and supported the parents in their old age (Butterfield 1982: 164).  A daughter was viewed as having little value, as she would soon become an “outsider,” belonging to her husband’s family upon marriage (1982: 164).  The girl child was expected to be virtuous, docile, and obedient.  The girl had to defer to the authority of her parents in all matters.  Later, upon marriage, this absolute power transferred to the young woman’s husband and her parents-in-law; the mother-in-law, in particular, held a commanding position within the household.  Moreover, in traditional China, women were largely sequestered:                                                                

Women were expected to stay secluded inside the home and never venture out.  Before 1949 the very word for wife was neiren, ‘inside person.’  As the classic The Book of Rites put it, ‘A man does not talk about affairs inside’ the household, ‘a woman does not talk about affairs outside’ the home.  The Chinese ideogram for peace and harmony is a woman under a roof (Butterfield 1982: 164).

The quality of a woman’s life on a day-to-day basis would depend largely on the character and disposition of her mother-in-law.  A woman’s fate was out of her own hands.  Arranged marriages and conditions of the dowry were customarily brokered between her own family and the family of her future husband.    

Chinese women often endured both emotional and physical hardships in imperial China.  Urban households were generally more prosperous than rural households, so there would be more women to share in the domestic tasks of cooking, washing, cleaning, and caring for children.  The urban household frequently included servants, concubines, and sometimes other wives.  “Polygamy was acceptable, and though only one wife was considered the principal or legal wife at any one time, all offspring born in wedlock were legitimate and were ranked solely by seniority” (Hucker 1975: 11).  It was fully expected that a husband whose wife bore no sons would take a second wife into the family, should finances permit.  A woman’s status within the family could be displaced with the arrival of an interloper, namely a second wife. 

The vast majority of women resided in the countryside, which was less prosperous and more vulnerable to changes in climate, natural disaster, and other hazards.  In traditional China, “at least 80 per cent of the total population consisted of farming villagers” (Hucker 1975: 13).  People in the rural agricultural areas of China were “living at a bare subsistence level” (1975: 13).  In addition to other common chores, women in rural areas would often cultivate silkworms, weave cloth, and also tend to livestock (1975: 13).  There were periods of famine and disaster, and all were keenly aware of the precarious nature of life.  But none were more acutely aware of this fact than women, who witnessed female infanticide and realized that their own lives were highly subject to chance and circumstance.  Female infanticide was endemic to rural China in the dynastic period (Butterfield 1982: 164). 

A woman’s status in imperial China was ultimately determined by her ability to bear sons.  It was common belief that “a woman who has had a son is irreproachable” (Xue 2002: 67).  Of course, a woman had no ability to influence the gender of her child.  She could only hope that the child would be a male, and thus ensure her own security within the family hierarchy.  Perhaps the birth of a daughter was also secretly cherished, but it would not be proper to openly express such sentiment in a male-dominant feudal society.

The philosopher Confucius, or Kong Fu Zi, strongly influenced Chinese thought regarding virtue and appropriate behavior within society.  Confucius lived from 551 through 479 B.C.E. (Higgins 2001: 18).  Confucius “proposed his moral vision in a context of widespread warfare and chaos” (2001: 19).  People were quickly drawn to his ideas, which appeared to offer an ordered ethical system amidst seemingly random and chaotic events.  In particular, Confucius advocated a return to li, or ritual.  He also espoused a strong adherence to xiao, filial piety.  Yi, appropriateness, was yet another virtue held in esteem by Confucius.  Finally, the virtue ren, humanity, encouraged benevolence toward others.  “It is noteworthy that family relationships loom very large in the Confucian value system, and also that relationships fall generally into hierarchical superior-subordinate patterns” (Hucker 1975: 85).  Within the Confucian hierarchy, female members of the family were seen as holding the lowest positions of authority.  However, the family matriarch could have significant influence over the day-to-day affairs of the household.  In addition, as noted previously, a mother would be involved in deciding who her sons and daughters would marry.  The Western model of individualism is quite foreign to Chinese thought, as one’s identity is viewed from the perspective of reciprocal relationships within a familial and societal hierarchy. 

During the dynastic era in China, the way for a woman to attain a place of status was through marriage and the ensuing birth of male heirs.  Thus, being attractive to a potential husband was paramount to the lives of women.  Traditionally, a light complexion and a slim, lilting figure were prized, since these attributes reflected qualities of the gentry class who did not toil the earth.  Bound feet, which were euphemistically referred to as golden lotuses, would also come to represent an aesthetic quality desired by men. 

The phenomenon of foot binding would last for approximately 900 years in Chinese history.  “It is generally accepted that foot binding began among the court and royal families roughly around the eleventh century, spread gradually to the commoners, 
flourished in the Ming dynasty, and reached its peak in the Qing” (Wang 2002: 34).  The practice of foot binding was limited to the Han women, whereas minority women generally did not follow this custom of the majority population (Wang 2002: 34).  The bound feet further subjugated women, who became deformed, sometimes to the extent that they had to be carried and could not walk.  Wang Ping hypothesized that foot binding “was designed to keep women chaste to meet the teaching of neo-Confucianism, yet simultaneously it was highly eroticized” (2002: 48).  Wang highlights the contradiction between the stated ideal of chastity and the actual practice of fetishism.             

Foot binding was torturous for the Chinese girl who underwent the practice.  Typically, the binding of feet began when a girl was “between the ages of five and seven, when their bones were still flexible” (Wang 2002: 6).  The bound feet were repeatedly wrapped, unwrapped, washed, and then wrapped tighter still.  The binding required that four of the toes be turned under the foot, and the arch crushed.  Bones were broken in the process.  Girls who underwent the binding ritual described the sensation in their feet as “burning” or “on fire” (2002: 9).  There was always a risk of infection; yet, this did not deter the mother who was anxious for her daughter to gain mianzi, reputation or prestige  (2002: 18).  The goal was mutilate the girl’s feet to be no more than three or four inches long.  The smaller the feet, the more desirable the girl was perceived to be.  Girls in more populated areas would almost certainly be forced to have bound feet.  But, girls in rural areas were also subjected to foot binding, as the practice could lead to a better marriage for the girl, and thus elevate the family’s position in society.

The shared suffering of boot binding created a bond between mothers and daughters.  The mother agonized over her daughter’s pain.  Yet, she also held the knowledge that her daughter’s very survival in society was contingent upon successful binding of the feet.  According to tradition, “a truly loving mother must teach her daughters how to endure pain physically, emotionally, and mentally” (Wang 2002: 19).  There was a “secret language/knowledge transmitted from mother to daughter during the months and years of the initial process of foot binding, a knowledge that teaches the daughter about the mapping and discipline of the female body in a patriarchal environment” (2002: 19).  The mother and daughter shared the common situation of being female and of enduring foot binding; so, each was not alone in her need to cope, adapt, and survive.

Prior to the end of dynastic rule, Chinese “women were largely illiterate” (Butterfield 1982: 164).  Rates of illiteracy were likely higher for girls in the countryside, as saving for the dowry was the primary concern, and not the girl’s education.  If there was a need for the girl to help with family matters, then this took precedence over any formal education.  There is one notable exception to the high rates of illiteracy in rural China.  In Hunan Province, women in the Jiangyong village “invented a secret language, written on fans, cloth, or paper” (Wang 2002:147).  This secret language was called nu shu, and through this language the women wrote of their loneliness and their suffering.  Local legend holds that a woman named Hu Yuxiu, who lived during the Song dynasty, 920-1279 C.E., created nu shu as a secret code.  And through nu shu writing, Hu was able to speak the truth of her plight to the female members of her family who lived outside of the Jiangyong village.  One example of nu shu is called “Song of Female Writing”:

For all our lives we suffer and bend,
No one has showed us any sympathy.
Only through female writing
Can our pain come out from the beginning

So much has been written on fans and paper,
Every word is soaked in blood.
If the tender-hearted read it,
They’ll all say ‘pitiful.’
If the ghosts and gods read it,
They’ll shed tears for our stories.
If soldiers read them,
The world will be in chaos.

(Wang 2002: 162).  The women of Jiangyong would meet, exchange letters, and sing their stories to one another, their life-long female friends (2002: 164).  A woman would often request that, upon her death, her poetry and writings be burned, so as not fall into the hands of men (2002: 166).  Therefore, few original articles of nu shu writing remain.   Clearly, the sharing of their stories had great importance to the women of Jiangyong. Richard Kearney said, “every life is in search of a narrative” (Kearney 2002: 4).  We all seek to tell our story, and in the telling we seek to be understood and to give meaning to our lives.

In traditional China, the lives of women may be characterized as lives of suffering and hardship.  First, women had no economic status in the home, as their work was not assigned a corresponding monetary value.  Second, females had almost no opportunity to 
receive an education, as learning for a male child held far greater value to the family.  Finally, women were seen as belonging to the husband’s family, and so there was often little sense of belonging within the family of origin.  She was always an “outsider,” for she often did not have a secure sense of belonging in her husband’s family either.  Only by delivering male children could a woman establish her eminence within the household.  The lives of rural women were particularly difficult, as poverty created an ever more precarious status for females. 

Jurgen Habermas asserted that human beings have “a critical interest in emancipation” (Roderick 1993: 18).  Habermas’ theory concerning fundamental human interests holds that none are free when some are held in bondage.  Certainly, Habermas’ view is relevant to Chinese society in the dynastic era.  There could be no emancipation while an entire class of people were ascribed a lower status and unequal rights within society.  Habermas brings to light the following question:  Has the status of women in  China progressed to the point of true emancipation?

In 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (Hammond 2004: 173).  Mao Zedong sought to liberate the peoples of China through Marxism-Leninism, and later through his own political theory, which may be termed Maoism.  At this point in time, the rate of illiteracy was estimated to be approximately 85% (Kaplan 1979: 217).  Mao did take steps to address the high rate of illiteracy.  The Chinese characters were simplified so that it was easier to study and learn the language.  Mao also established primary and secondary schools throughout the countryside.  By 1959, “about 50 million children were receiving preschool education; 92.6 million students (more than 80% of the school-age population) were said to be enrolled in primary schools; and 12 million students were attending secondary schools” (Kaplan 1979: 221).  However, curriculum was restricted.  Curriculum in all educational institutions had to conform to Mao Zedong Thought.  “Maoism was elevated from a philosophy that could be discussed and questioned to a religion whose pronouncements were sacrosanct” (Kwong 1988: 60). The literacy attained was not accompanied by freedom of thought.

During the height of the Cultural Revolution, 1966 to 1969, Mao’s own writings were often the only books available.  The works of foreign authors and the Confucian classics were banned.  It was during this time that scholars, artists, and others were attacked and labeled intellectual or counter-revolutionary.  “Intellectuals, suspected of holding anachronistic or subversive thoughts were subjected to systematic ‘reeducation,’ often in concentration camps, in which they were exposed to what has been aptly called ‘brainwashing.’  It was mental torture designed to break the spirit” (Pipes 2001: 129).  People were often forced to humiliate themselves publicly, and many were tortured and killed (2001: 131).  There was a tremendous schism between Mao’s utopian ideal and the reality of living this apocalypse. 

In the post-Mao era, there appear to be greater freedoms in the spheres of education and economic enterprise.  Schools now offer a varied curriculum, to include the study of foreign languages and technology-related subjects.  The overall economic gains seem impressive.  In the last twenty-five years, “China has moved 300 million people out of poverty and quadrupled the average person’s income” (Zakaria 2005: 32). Society has made gains.  However, Chinese women, rural women in particular, have gained disproportionately.  Moreover, the following contradiction persists in modern China:  Women are said to have equal status, but the lives of women belie this claim. 

Today, although their feet are unbound and they are no longer sequestered, women in rural China suffer many hardships.  A woman must work outside of the home, and also perform the domestic duties required in the home.  Without the benefit of modern appliances that are available in many cities, rural women still devote many hours to daily household tasks.  The education of girls still has less priority than the education of boys, as traditional modes of thinking persist.  It is still believed that a girl will eventually leave to join her husband’s family, and that there will be no economic benefit to her own family.  “Many parents consider it worthless to invest in their daughters’ education.  ‘Boys read books and girls raise pigs’ is a popular saying among parents.  Whenever there is a chance to make money, girls are always the first to be kept at home or taken from school” (Jing 1993: 34).  In accordance with Confucian tradition, it is expected that a woman will still defer decision-making to her parents and then to her husband.  The emancipation of women would seem to be elusive, and their lives incongruent with Habermas’ definition of a truly free being.

The women of rural China enter their world in an historical context that is both constraining and defining.  Paul Ricoeur said:  “We belong to history before telling stories or writing history” (Ricoeur 1998: 294).  We live at a particular point in time, and assume a place in that world.  Yet, who we are becoming is emergent, undefined.  We belong not only to a history of the past, but also to a history of the present, and to a future that has yet to become manifest (Ricoeur 1998: 295).  In some sense, as we are phenomenologically posited in the present moment, “there is only a history of the potentialities of the present” (1998: 295).  Sufferings, past and present, can not be obliterated.  However, the present is fecund and may give way to a new ontological reality.  It is hoped that the new way of being in the world would reflect a more inclusive society, where rural women have equal say and equal rights in the true sense of these words.