Women In China During ‘The Long Eighteenth Century’;
During the 18th Century women in China continued to be subordinated and subjected to men. Their status was maintained by laws, official policies, cultural traditions, as well as philosophical concepts. The Confucian ideology of ‘Thrice Following’; identified to whom a women must show allegiance and loyalty as she progressed throughout her life-cycle: as a daughter she was to follow her father, as a wife she was to follow her husband, and as a widow she was to follow her sons. Moreover, in the Confucian perception of the distinction between inner and outer, women were consigned to the inner domestic realm and excluded from the outer realm of examinations, politics and public life. For the most part, this ideology determined the reality of a woman’s live during China’s ‘long eighteenth century?’; This is especially true for upper class women.
The philosophical idea of yin and yang is found throughout Chinese culture, literature, and social structure. The idea is that the world is made up two opposite types of energy which must be kept in balance with one another. Neither is greater than the other, or more important than the other. In respect to gender, yin is female and yang is male. Yin is private life within the family and yang is public life outside the family. Men were to focus on public life and outside affairs and support the family while women were to focus on private life and support the men.
For many men resisting the pressures of scholarly careers, women appeared
as guardians of stability, order and purity. The woman’s quarters, secluded
behind courtyards and doorways deep in the recesses of the house offered
a refuge from world of flux, chaos, and corruption. Women nurtured and
tutored men when they were young, tended them when they became sick,
and cared for them when they grew old. When a man holding office faced devastating financial losses or difficult political decisions, only his wife’s disinterested advice and frugal savings could save his career. Although
a man might often be called away to duty or might die prematurely, he could
count on his wife or widow to care for his aging parents and his vulnerable children. (Mann 50)
Ideally, women and men were to share in a partnership with the ultimate purpose
of mutual support and prosperity for the family as a whole. From a modern American point of view this seems terribly unfair. The men work and are empowered to interact with the world, then return home to be taken care of. But this is not necessarily the way it was perceived by the Chinese. There were plenty of unhappy women. However, there were also men who thought that the private (inner) life of the family was more desirable than the public life which they faced.
For Hong Liangji and many leading social critics of the time, the ‘woman’s chambers’; (guige) were a haven in a complex, brutal world. Elite men faced
a daily confrontation with material corruption (the ‘dusty world,’; as they so
often called it); elite women were protected from it. Instead, women occupied
the still point around which men’s active lives were constructed. The image
of the woman’s apartments as a timeless realm shielded from the cares and
evils of the world, a retreat to which over stressed men might escape or retire,
is a powerful trope in writings by men about women during the eighteenth
century. (Mann 49)
Studying and academic pursuits were an important aspect means of gaining power in the public world. Women were not permitted to take the civil service examinations during the 18th century. However, women were not necessarily denied access to knowledge, to a large extent, they were educated. Many women were literate, and many women wrote poems and other literary works.
Handwork, especially embroidery, was considered the more appropriate
womanly activity, being productive and practical as well as aesthetically
pleasing. In addition, upper-class women in Qing times, even more than
their counterparts in the late Ming, read and wrote. Most studied biographies
of famous women, including long-suffering chaste widows and heroic martyrs
who committed suicide to preserve their chastity. Elite women practiced the
fine arts of painting, calligraphy, and music. They plucked classical stringed instruments. They wrote volumes of poetry. And in addition to learning the standard didactic texts for women, many studied the classics alongside their brothers. (Mann 58)
As you can see, the focus of their education was dramatically different from their brothers. Women did study the classics in order to tutor their sons and brothers. But the pressure was off since they were never expected to take the exams. Their focus was much more leisurely and pleasant, perhaps something to do to avoid the boredom of domestic life.
Life was broken up into stages of development for both men and women in Chinese society. However, for men there were several different paths to follow (political, academic, commercial, religious, etc.) For women there were few. A woman could become a wife, a concubine, or an entertainer, all of which were variations on the same responsibility: serving men. For upper class women marriage was only path of life available.
Daughters in upper-class households were reared for a single future: marriage
into another line. There was no comfortable, legitimate place in an upper-class Chinese family for a daughter who had passed marriageable age. Not only was
an unwed daughter a social anomaly; she was a ritual anomaly as well. Her
tablet could not reside on her natal family’s ancestral altar when she died; it
could be installed only in the ancestral shrine of another decent line, following betrothal and marriage. (Mann 54)
A legitimate woman was born into one family, but it was the family of her eventual husband in which she would spend the majority of her life. She made this shift when she was married. At this point her loyalty and allegiance shifted to her husband and his family. Initially this could be difficult since her new family were generally strangers to whom she was to care for and support.
Married women themselves rarely complained, for girls were reared to
understand that marriage was a lifelong commitment and that voicing
grievances to parents would merely magnify the suffering born of an
unhappy marriage. (Mann 62)
Nonetheless, respectable girls found ways to learn the arts of passion and to express their emotions. Hints about homosexual attraction among women, especially within the same family compound, suggest that it was not considered abnormal or unhealthy. Young girls might have an opportunity to observe
married women within the same household (wives or concubines) who were sexually attracted to one another; in fact, a wife might select a concubine for
her spouse with her own sensibilities in mind. (Mann 60)
An upper-class married woman in High Qing Jiangnan could expect to bear children throughout her fertile years. The risks and burdens of childbearing
may have made the advent of a concubine a source of relief rather than jealousy
or turned widowhood into a time of respite rather than loneliness. (Mann 62)
Stories and biographies of faithful widows remind us time and again that the learned woman who survived her husband must not celebrate her longevity.
She knew from her classical studies that she was the wei wang ren, ‘the person who had not yet died.’; Having survived her spouse, she was required to rear his sons and support his parents, but on no account could she revel in her
passage to old age alone. (Mann 67)