Chinese Women Traditional Chinese society was patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal. In this male dominated society, sons were preferred to daughters, and women were expected to be subordinate to their fathers, husbands, and sons. Because marriages were arranged, young women and men had virtually no voice in the decisions on their marriage partner, resulting in loveless marriages. Once married, it was the woman who left her family and community and went to live with her husband's family, where she was subordinate to her mother-in-law.
In some cases, female infants were subjected to a high rate of infanticide, or sold as slaves to wealthy families. Men were permitted to take as many wives as they wished and bound feet, which were customary even for peasant women, symbolized the painful constraints of the female role. Chinese women were considered second-class citizens and were subject to the wishes and restraints of men. The basic unit of Chinese society, the family, was male dominated. The oldest living male ruled the patriarchal Chinese family. As the head of the family, the grandfather or father decided whom the children and grandchildren would marry.
Because the Chinese practiced a patrilineal system, ancestry was only traced through the male side of the family. When a woman married in the patrilocal system, she was no Delaney 2 longer a member of her own family and was sent to live with her husband's family. Her mother-in-law was to be considered her own new mother and her authority was absolute (Major 107-109). "Her rule could be benevolent but, far more generally, is reported to have been harsh and autocratic in the extreme, leading at times to suicide (T regear 120). Daughters, whose long-term contribution to their families was limited, were valued much less than sons. Traditional Chinese philosophy was that, "raising daughters is like raising children for another family" (Major 109).
After O-lan delivers her first daughter, in the novel The Good Earth, she says to her husband Wang Lung, "It is only a slave this time - not worth mentioning" (Buck 65). Sometimes daughters were sold as servants or prostitutes, or even killed in order to give sons a better chance for survival in times of stress or prolonged famine. During a time of great famine, O-lan, wishing to do what is best for husband, suggests selling their daughter, "If it were only I, she would be killed before she was sold... the slave of slaves was I! But a dead girl brings nothing. I would sell this girl for you - to take you back to the land" (Buck 118).
Bearing much emotional suffering, O-lan offers to sell her daughter into servitude, which she had been forced to endure, to help her husband return to his homeland in the north (Buck 65, 118-120). In General, Chinese marriages were arranged by a go-between overlooking love as a requirement. In most cases, the bride and groom met for the first time on their wedding day. The purpose of marriage was to provide a male heir to continue the family line. Hence, men and women were thrown together without consideration for their desire to join in matrimony (Major 131). Delaney 3 In China, the practice of taking a concubine was fairly common.
This custom was originally introduced to increase the population, and was the excuse used by Chinese men to alleviate tension between themselves and their wives. Wang-Lung's wife is ugly so he searches for love and beauty elsewhere. He finds it in his concubine, Lotus (Buck 202-210). Some men take concubines because their legitimate wives do not provide them with a son. In this case, the man will dismiss the concubine as soon as she bears him a male child. However prostitution and concubinage were rampant due to the lack of love and romance in arranged marriages (Grosier 25-26).
It was considered socially acceptable for a man to keep mistresses. Keeping one or more mistresses symbolized wealth, high status and authority. This institution probably arose because marriage was a means of perpetuating the family line and thus within the marriage, interaction between a man and woman was confined. Respectable men and women were not permitted to associate with each other in a friendly manner, inspiring men to turn to concubines for entertainment and emotional fulfillment. A wife however, was not allowed to indulge in extra-marital affairs. A wife's adultery was a criminal offense and constituted grounds for divorce (Grosier 26).
Men never thought about how their affairs affected their wives. "Some women will even hang themselves upon a beam with a rope when a man takes a second woman into the house" (Buck 202). Wang Lung attempts to convince himself that he has not done anything wrong. He tells himself that all reputable men take concubines and, therefore, it is acceptable to do so (Buck 204).
Another practice that mistreated women was foot binding: Delaney 4 Footbinding was the act of wrapping three- to five-year old girls feet with binding as to bend the toes under, break the bones and force the back of the foot together. It's purpose was to produce a tiny foot, the "Golden lotus," which was three inches long and thought to be both lovely and alluring. (Vento 1) These tight wrappings were maintained until the girl's foot had stopped growing. Men found these tiny misshapen feet physically beautiful and were essential if a girl was to marry well (Vento 2). Footbinding crippled women and made walking painful and difficult.
The foot was compressed so tightly that women usually had to lean on a wall or another person for support. Complications such as ulceration, paralysis, and gangrene were not uncommon to women with bound feet. An estimated ten percent of women did not survive the "treatment" that went along with this custom (Vento 3). The main reason for foot binding was that it physically prevented women from moving about freely and unchaperoned. This made it almost impossible for a woman to "succumb to infidelity" (Vento 2). An important part of Chinese culture was female chastity.
By limiting mobility, the means by which a woman could make contact with the outside world was radically decreased. Women were supposed to be wholly dependant on the male members of their family and bound feet was a way to physically manifest this concept. Women were expected to acquire considerable control over their pain even though they spent many wakeful nights dealing with the agony and sometimes they could not bear to apply any pressure to their feet at all (Vento 4). Delaney 5 Chinese men find the gruesomely crippled foot as an object of seductive pleasure and use their superior social position to coerce women to conform to a standard of beauty that is both deformed and grotesque.
When Wang Lung first notices how ugly his wife is he muses over her feet. "It seemed to him that she was altogether hideous, but the most hideous of all were her big feet in their loose cotton cloth shoes" (Buck 170-171). Later, in his first encounter with Lotus he observes her bound feet "If one had told him that there could be feet like these, little feet thrust into pink satin shoes no longer than a man's middle finger, and swinging childishly over the bed's edge - if anyone had told him he would not have believed it" (Buck 181). Wang Lung finds a distorted beauty in his women's feet and associates small feet with attractiveness and sex (Buck 169-180). Chinese women had no choice but to comply with this torture. "It was a social convention of long standing and a girl was disgraced if she came to maturity with unbound or large feet" (La tourette 84).
When a girl reached the marriageable age, she had better hopes of marrying well if she had bound feet. It was seen to be a reflection on her parents' ability to raise her properly. Mothers told their daughters that a woman's attractiveness resided more in her character than in her face or body. Bound feet showed discipline and respect for the Confucian idea of a "mindful body." Furthermore, small feet showed refinement and class, which reflected back on a woman's family (Vento 4).
The disgusting display of sexism in China has been immensely reduced by the Communist regime. However, the situation is still far from ideal. Although concubinage and foot binding have been outlawed, the woman's role is still considered to be in the Delaney 6 home. As Soren Kierkegaard once said, "the present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased." With a little luck, the cure will be discovered soon.