It was during the Sung dynasty, when Buddhism had been assimilated into the national philosophy of China, that its accompanying culture made its conquest, until that notorious saying “to die by starvation is a small matter, to lose one’s chastity is a great one” became a sacred commandment for the Chinese woman. It is true that this custom was never forced by law, but like many customs in China, it was made effective by the social opinion and moral force which are often much more deadly than the hands of the law.
And through the admonishment of scholars who have always been leaders in Chinese social opinion, this attitude toward a woman’s chastity was elaborated and exaggerated to such a ridiculous degree that on one hand, social life between men and women became entirely forbidden, so that the only men a woman was allowed to see besides members of her family were her cousins and brothers-in-law. On the other hand, the idea of preserving one’s chastity was so exaggerated that a little girl of five or six, or even younger, would sometimes be asked, if her boy fiance should have died, “Would you remain faithful to your ‘man’ or marry again?
“Of course,” her parents would continue to say, “we would not force you not to marry again, but what a great honor you would bring to our family as well as to his if you should keep your celibacy and go to live with his parents! ” The little girl, knowing nothing about life and the world, would naturally choose the path which her parents had chosen for her, thus dooming her entire life to a miserable and inhuman existence. The fear of women thirsting for power called forth men’s theories that further restricted what was meant by maternal duty and feminine virtue.
Roughly, they amounted to absolute obedience of women to men, contentedness in an ignorant and limited life, and utter self-abandonment in the service of the husband’s family. This tendency reached it highest in the Sung dynasty (960-1276), when the influence of Hindu civilization had been incorporated with Chinese culture, an influence that was rather detrimental to women’s development. The greatest moral authority for the last eight hundred years, Chu Hsi (1130 -1200), interpreted the Confucian classics in such a way that an entirely new meaning was put into the Confucian ideals of womanhood.
Chastity and absolute loyalty to one man was made the cardinal virtue of a woman. Everything else must be subordinated to it. According to him it was a small matter to die of starvation but a serious matter to lose one’s virtue by marrying a second time. Previous to his time, widows or divorced women marrying a second time were quite common and were recorded without any criticism. But the Sung scholars never let such a case pass without due censure. Great poetesses of the time such as Li Ch’ing-chao and Chu Shu-chen were condemned simply because they held different moral views.
Orthodox Neo-Confucianists would not even read their works. In general, the woman of the Southern and Northern dynasties was frivolous though accomplished; the woman of Sung was serious and narrow. However, the ideas of womanly virtue in the Sung dynasty did rescue her from her former position of a mere pleasure-mate to man. When a girl is unfortunately born in a poor family, apart from learning household duties, she has no chance of obtaining a decent education. If, however, she is fortunate enough to be a daughter of a well-to-do man, she is taught to read and to write under a governess or even a master.
She has to learn Confucian classics, poetry, embroidery, painting, and music, as well as household duties. Feet binding also divided men and women and upheld old Chinese beliefs. Foot binding kept women weak, out of power, and dominated by her husband. When women bound their feet, men could dominate more easily and not worry about women taking their power. The process took place so early, the young girl had no choice but to follow her family’s order and have her feet bound.
She was uneducated and considered foot binding necessary. Also, she was seen as an object to the men, to be observed and look pretty, therefore appealing to men mattered more to the girls than their health. The girl’s life went on without having much control over it. Chinese culture in general and Chinese philosophy in particular and had produced, by its union with Confucianism, the Neo-Confucianism of the Sung dynasty, its influence upon the life of the Chinese woman was decidedly that of an unmixed evil.
Two of the most deadly weapons for the oppression of a woman in China were either elaborated or had their origin in the Sung dynasty, and they have remained in power until recent times. The final destiny of the Chinese woman is always marriage. Unmarried women are almost unknown, unless the betrothed men should die before the marriage and the girls choose to become virgin widows; or when the girls renounce the world and take to the veil. The marriage is always arranged by the parents. In exceptional cases, the girl may be given a choice between two eligible young men.
It is not a marriage of mutual love between the young people themselves, but one of mutual esteem and friendship between the families. The girl is not only married to the man, but she is also pledged to his family, to serve its aged, to tend its young, and to care for its various relatives. The man’s family, that is, his parents and relatives, expect a great deal from the bride; so much so that the customary dowry has become a burden to the richer parents who have a marriageable daughter.
Yet they will cheerfully bear it, for they realize the importance of marriage to their daughter. For the man, marriage means the taking of a lifelong mate, the perpetuation of his family name, and the continuation of his ancestral worship. Important as it is, it is not to be compared with the case of the woman. To her, it is her one and only destiny, her completion of life, and her meaning of existence. Without marriage she has no status of her own in home or society.