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Women throughout Chinese history have experienced the oppression their tradition and culture exert as well as the power only members of their sex can attain in their chosen domains. Although readers have been exposed to historical anecdotes relating foot binding and Man's superiority to women, there are also many stories relating their freedom and tenacity, whether they are wives, concubines, courtesans or prostitutes. The history of Chinese women is not necessarily limited to persecution and being dominated, it is also peppered with inspirational stories of women who have been able to find happiness, success and fulfillment within the parameters Chinese tradition and culture dictate.
In Chinese society, the positions women maintained were very indistinct (http://www.wm.edu/CAS/anthropology/faculty/hamada/Virtual_Classromm/wwwb.../208.htm,1)."In Chinese society, women as a category had a dependent status." (Watson, 1991, 232). Before a girl married, she was controlled completely by her father. After she married, this responsibility was transferred to her husband. If her husband passed away, and she had given birth to sons, the oldest son became responsible for controlling his mother. Once a woman married her husband, she severed all social links to her first family, but did not entirely join her husband's first family (http://www.wm.edu/CAS/anthropology/faculty/hamada/Virtual_Classromm/wwwb.../208.htm,1)."The bride is an outsider who serves the family of her husband but remains beyond its formal boundaries." (Watson, 1991, 232).
This oppression of women also came from Confucianism. "Pressured by unfavorable Confucian [philosophy, women are denied] the opportunities, benefits, and protection that are given to men." (West & Blumberg, 1990, 121). In fact, Confucius makes "everyone look down one someone else, [and] women [are] the lowest." (Tan, 1991, 123). Confucianism infers that the domestic responsibilities of the home should be shouldered by women (Loscocco & Wang, 1992, 121). Through ancient rules and traditions, Confucianism dictates Chinese society. Throughout history women were brought up to believe a "girl's eyes should never be used to reading, only for sewing." (Tan, 1991, 121). They are brought up to ignore indiscretions made by men. Chinese women are not meant to mind what men say around them. A "girl's ears should never be used for listening to ideas, only to orders... A girl's lips should rarely be used except to ask for approval or to express appreciation." (Tan, 1991, 121). Girls are brought up to "consider what [her] husband's opinions are [and that hers] do not matter." (Tan, 1991, 178). In addition to this, women should not criticize men or the society that controls them (Tan, 1991, 325). Women must also do their utmost to protect their husbands to ensure their own protection through the patronage of their husbands, and it is impossible for husbands to really hurt their wives (Tan, 1991, 207).
Arranged marriages are also an important part of this patriarchal society. Getting married is very much like a business. In China, a family usually looks for a rich family with a daughter and then selects a mediator who is experienced in the whole bargaining and negotiation process (Tan, 1991, 167). The daughter's opinion or wishes does not hold any wait in the negotiations and marrying for love is not even considered. Girls are taught that "falling in love means falling into disgrace." (Tan, 1991, 433). Since a daughter cannot inherit, (Jaschok & Miers, 1994, 47), her "bride-price, dowry and presents" (Jaschok & Miers, 1994, 47) are automatically the property of her husband and his first family. If a woman's husband dies, the family of her deceased husband may take all of her funds, property and children if they wish (Tan, 1991, 262). Another element of Chinese marriage in Chinese history is polygamy. A woman acquires a husband "only to become his second, third, fourth or even fifth wife." (Tan, 1991, 127). Even though marrying multiple time is another form of adultery, men are allowed to "pick up a woman, use her for a few weeks, then throw her away (Tan, 1991, 454). Although a man can take up many women, Chinese wives must only be faithful to one man in that man's lifetime (Sheridan & Salaff, 1984, 28). "Codes of sexual conduct for women [are] often harsh." (Jaschok & Miers, 1994, 30). These conditions are backed by physical threats and, in many cases, "the punishment of a woman's adultery [is] death." (Sheridan & Salaff, 1984, 29). Women who wish to leave abusive husbands must face heavy penalties. The woman would be "shunned by society... including her natal family" with no economic means of survival available to her (Jaschok & Miers, 1994, 5).
Other instances of persecution of Chinese women included the practice of foot binding, the evidence of which can only be gleaned from 19th and 20th century writings and paintings (Vento, 1998, 1). Women would endure "two years of agony after binding the feet and comments on the desirability of these feet, giving an indication of the popular suspicion of women, even by women, which the stereotypes of women would lead one to expect: 'A woman could not visit on the first or the 15th of any month. She could not, when visiting, lean against the frame of the door. She must not stand or sit on the doorstep or even touch it in crossing. To do any of these things might give her power over the family she was visiting and so ruin them. Women were not considered clean. No woman would be allowed in the presence of a person suffering from smallpox, for the same reason. There was a danger that she was not clean at the time, or that she had been lately with her husband.'" (Bennett, 2001, 4-5).
The role of wife and mother was considered the highest achievements a woman could accomplish. A woman "was nothing unless she was validated through kinship relations with a male - in the capacity of daughter, mother, wife, and so on." (Jaschok, 1988, 76). Although to the Western mind this appears to undermine Chinese women's power by limiting their choices, this actually empowers them as well. "The once ubiquitous stereotype of the long-suffering, meek, submissive Chinese woman as simply a victim of family interests, a vision of compliance and self-sacrifice, stands thus revealed for what it is - a stereotype in need of reappraisal and an empirical context." (Zohrab, 2000, 6). Their power lies in their control over the domestic finances and their selection of partners for their children. "The shrew and the henpecked husband are common characters in Chinese literature. Major as well as minor authors have dealt... with the theme of a husband controlled and terrorized by a strong, domineering woman, tyrannical to the point of cruelty... Certainly inside the domestic area, Chinese women were able to exert informal power which might enable them to discreetly assert their own will." (Paderni, 1999, 274). The authority of the wife should never be underestimated. "Principal wives were persons of consequence, with great authority within the household. This extended even to punishments such as whipping for other members of the household." (Bennett, 2001, 5).
However, despite the obvious power and authority women possessed concerning matters of domesticity, in the larger scale of things, their power was still controlled by that of men. "Sometimes women would be confined to the home, only to see their husbands on rare occasions." (http://www.chinavista.com/experience/old/beauty.html,1).Also, this level of oppression can be so ingrained in the culture that some women even justify their treatment. Women at an activism rally were questioned about their husband's opinions on their involvement. One woman replied, "Chinese wives are basically sensible. They take care of family business, their husbands, kids... The ones with the family troubles are usually the wild ones. They stay out all night playing mah-jong. I have my business and my husband has his own activities. If the couple don't like it, then they should just leave each other. I think the attitudes are more open these days. All those old ways of thinking, how much are they worth anyway? If men and women continue to hold onto those ideas, then they might well give up living!" Another woman answered, "To tell you the truth, my husband doesn't like what I'm doing. His thinking is quite conservative and traditional. He is a waiter in a Chinese restaurant and he sees my job as superior to his. He doesn't like that, and feels threatened. I think it's because he has a lot of self-pride, and at the same time, feels sorry for himself. I try to tolerate the situation for the sake of the kids. Being the wife, I try to leave enough time to take care of the house and not take work related problems home with me. It's not very easy!" (Teng, 1).
Prior to the May 4th Movement of 1919, women of any social status could only aspire to become part of a man's family, by being his wife or his concubine (http://www.chinavista.com/experience/old/beauty.html,1).A concubine is defined as being "a girl who had been transferred from her own family, either directly or through a third party, to another family with the intention that she...…[continue]
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