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There is a clear sense that men and male children in particular were considered precious, and in many ways comparatively much more precious than women and girl children but this is in part because of women as the position of wife was subservient to the position of mother in law. The assurance that one day the wife would hold the household power of the mother in-law was only offered by a male child as female children when married left home for good and served their marriage family in direct orders of their new mother in-law. This is true of most classes but again was stricter in terms of the upper-class. (Mann 61) in other words if a female child is born she is expected in her lifetime to only contribute to her birth family for her childhood, and adolescence after this time the industry of her labour would benefit her marriage family, excluding the monies and goods obtained by the birth family from her marriage.
Along these lines the tradition of studying lamentations, a highly ritual and rare public expression by women during the period preceding her marriage and permanent residence in her marriage home, is paramount. In many cases in all classes and across regions the marriage ceremony is tied up in contradictions of feeling, as a daughter must successfully transition herself (with the help of her birth family and others) from a daughter to a dutiful wife. In doing so she has conflicting feelings of sorrow, for leaving her birth home and family as well as even possible joy and excitement, at transitioning into a new and exciting life with her husband's family. It is also postulated that even in arranged marriages most women have some choice with regard to their marriage partner and family, as most cultures have a tradition of many formal meetings with the new family. Lamentation are seen as a traditional allowance of the bride to express her feelings to the point of resolution. For example here is an insider's view of this very public display offered exclusively by women and to her whole community. McLaren & Qinjian quote an elderly Chinese woman who expressed the ideal of lamentations, which from an outside perspective express only grief and subjugation or assumed subjugation of women.
"…one laments to the point where the noxious influences are expelled. It is considered unlucky to go happily to the groom's home. Everyone must be very sombre, no one is allowed to laugh or smoke. If lamentations are powerful and effective they can get rid of the "hungry ghosts," the souls of those who die with a grievance and who in turn prey on the living. The bride must continue lamenting until the point where her married home is in sight. Here she must stop lamenting or else the noxious influences, pushed thus far along the route, will poison her new home.'?" The expression of grievance is arguably more communal than individual, more ritual than personal; nonetheless, the repertoire is sufficiently flexible to allow a woman various choices, depending on her own situation. (McLaren & Qinjian 210)
The development of lamentation studies began with the assumption, in the western view that the lamenting done by the bride was literal, in the sense that she meant the grief she was expressing to a large degree and felt the lowliness of her position. Yet, in truth the expression was not unlike many cultural traditions where say the evil eye is warded off by women spitting on a particularly comely child. The sentiment being that if the evil of the outside world is made aware that the child is beautiful then it will do it harm out of jealousy over its beauty. (Ruben 5) the analogy holds that the bride is venting to the world that her future marriage is one of hardship and toil and therefore she is protecting her future home and marriage from jealousy and therefore reproach or harm from outside forces. There is no sense that the bride really believed that she was entering into a fearful state of being, but simply that she was transitioning into a new phase of her life that needed to be protected. Though it is clear that she would obviously have conflicting feelings they are no more or less conflicting than they would be for any individual leaving the home of his or her parents and siblings and entering into the home of another family.
This essay does not claim that women and men were equals in 18th century China but it does challenge the idea that women were, across classes where wholly subservient to men and culture. There is no real question that the Chinese culture of the 18th century was very traditional and very patriarchal, yet it is faulty to assume that seeing the culture through western eyes alone or through biased observation will give anyone a sense of the real state of gender in the nation. It is also important to note that many other cultures, including the Western culture have examples of similar traditions of devaluing women and their contribution to society, as well as restricting their place in the public realm. Though this does not eliminate the real situation of women as underprivileged it does a great deal to stress the complexities of culture and the need to address culture with a clear view, rather than one the is prejudice and assumptive.
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McLaren, Anne & Chen Qinjian. The Oral and Ritual Culture of Chinese Women: Bridal Lamentations of Nanhui Asian Folklore Studies, 59, (2) (2000), pp. 205-238.
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