In the long history of Chinese Literature, the role of women has always been very limited to isolated cases only. These limitation and restriction refer of course not only to women fictionists, poets, and other writers but also to women characters in fiction, poems, and other writings. As a matter of fact, it is said that women’s literature has been badge by critics as inferior and mediocre in the context of a larger Chinese literary theory. This can be attributed to the many and varied restrictions imposed on women not only in mainstream and classic Chinese literature but also in Chinese society[i].
At the onset, China has been portrayed by both Chinese and foreigners as a country which is known to have observed two of the most women-biased practices in the world. First is a place where there is a palpable patriarchal family system where women are assigned and restricted to traditional domestic roles. Second is a place where 1949 revolution and post- Mao reforms has thwarted marriage and family life altogether[ii].
Traditional China is known to have a government that reserve officialdom and educational opportunities exclusively for men. Women would only have an opportunity to learn through family ties and clans. For the most part of the population such as the peasant, the artisans, and the merchants, most of the women would not even have an opportunity for education as opposed to the members of educated elite where women have a chance to at least learn little things like playing a musical instrument, learning how to paint, and learning how to play chess.
However, girls are only limited to learn such things as compared to their brothers who go to schools and taught by private tutors. This disparity is attributed to two reasons. First, there is no such thing as lure of wealth and fame for the family that accompanied girls’ involvement in civil service examinations and official career.
Second, the Chinese society dictates that the primary and foremost role of a woman is to fulfill her prescribed functions in the family as a wife, a mother, and a daughter-in-law. For the most part in the history of China, women’s lives have been devoted to the preparation for and actual undertaking of these traditional roles in their own nuclear family and most especially the family of their husbands[iii].
At an early age, young girls are undertaking an exclusive feminine training program. This is followed in a very strict manner from one family to another. At the age of seven, the girl must be separated from her brothers and other male relatives. She will then be send in her own apartment where her only company would only be her nurse, her maidservant, and the female members of the family like mothers and sisters.
At the age of ten, he will then be taught various and important domestic arts such as sewing, weaving, embroidering, and supervising household. In her middle late teens, her marriage will then be arranged by her parents and will have to devote her life to her husband, parents-in-law, and children[iv].
Marriage in China is not the kind of marriage that we know it today. It is an alliance of two families rather than an alliance of two lovers. The bride and the groom desires and choices were taken into consideration only if they are not contrary to the concern and interest of the family[v]. There is a high range of parental involvement in the marriage choices of their children. As a matter of fact, parents often initiate the matchmaking most especially in urban areas.
It is also said that mothers have exercised more influence in their children’s marriages than fathers as a general rule[vi]. Women have the greatest burden in them because they are expected to behave in certain fashion and to have the perfect qualities of a wife. In general, a bride is expected to have accomplished her three major responsibilities. It is believed that to fall short of these expectations would bring disgrace to herself, her parents, and to her clan.
First of these three obligations would be to perform domestic duties. This would include cooking, sewing, embroidering, taking care of children, and other domestic roles that she is taught and expected to learn and practice by heart and soul such as Mrs. Wenqing in A Posthumous Son by Ye Shaojun. Second of these obligations would be to attend to the needs and comfort of her husband and other elders. This is understood as not only doing domestic roles but also to be there for the husband in times of both physical and emotional needs. The third and the most important of all are the bearing and the raising of a male descendant[vii].
It is the fulfillment of the last obligation that a woman’s position and authority in the family is greatly hinged. It is believed that having a son is highly important because it is the only way to assure the continuity of the family line. If she can’t have a natural son, she would adopt from other family members and relatives.
The family could also hire a concubine where the father could bear a child with. The child will then become a member of the family with the first wife as the acting mother of the child. He will then be incorporated in the first family as an heir as if he is a natural son of the first couple. Throughout the lifetime of a married Chinese woman, she is totally confined within the sphere of her residence and her domestic roles. She can only have occasional trips to temples, scenic spots, and house of a relative but for the most part of her life she is confine in the four corners of the house of her husband[viii].
Not only are women depicted in this kind of roles and predicament in the society but also in literature. There are a lot of criticisms over the silencing of women not only in everyday life situations but also in literature[ix].
In particular, a Chinese household is represented primarily by a long string of ancestors that is traced back from one senior male to another senior male. This lineage is defined by the relationship of a father to his son and from brother to brother. In this sense, women are generally outsiders. They are only necessary for so long as they can reproduce sons and heirs. Otherwise, they are aliens in the husband’s family. After she is married to her husband, she is to retain her natal surname because she is expected to maintain links of her birth family to secure political alliances.
This is only for this purpose, other than this; she is also an alien to her birth family as well. This means one thing, the woman is only recognized as a member of the family and as a blood relative for so long as they are beneficial to the ties. In other words, she is really an outsider to their personal lives. Daughters are only considered as a temporary member of his father’s household because she is expected to be married to her husband. Moreover, daughter also does not have a share in her father’s land and other properties[x].
In the stories that will discussed in the next paragraphs, it is evident that the role of women in the domestic sphere and the positions that they occupy in the household and in the family results not only to their inferiority but also to their demise and fall. This pre-determined roles that they have which is both imposed by the society and defined by patriarchal ideologies is the very reason why women in traditional China ended up to their graveyards and their misfortunes. This is also true in literature, the prescribed roles that women have in the household outline their troubles, grief, and fate. The roles that they have to fulfill for the benefit of the family are seldom appreciated and were never enough for their male counterparts.
These demise and misfortune that they experienced and will experience could be explained not only because of their imposed traditional roles but also to their relationship with men especially their husbands. Women’s powerlessness coupled with men’s authority is the main reason why women’s lives fall apart. Because of these two factors, women are sent to their fall.
First, they are unable to decide for themselves because of the prescribed roles imposed by the society. Second, they are unable to defy the norms because of a patriarchal authority and power that they are made to succumb to. These two factors work hand in hand to oppressed women not only in the society but also in literature. The heroines in the four stories that are to be discussed next will contextualize the abovementioned claim that this paper is espousing.
At the onset, women are expected to accomplish all the three obligations that she is expected to have. The third and the most important one which is already mentioned earlier would be to produce an heir. In A Posthumous Son, the wife’s predicament started when she is unable to produce a son after several attempts. The first child was a daughter.
The second up to the seventh one is also a daughter which saddened the mother and angered the father. It is evident that the Chinese tradition dislikes daughters. In Mr. Wenqing’s opinion: “But the third one was also a girl. This was getting a bit irritating. We’re not gardeners, what can we do with all these flowers, even if they do look pretty; as far as keeping us company in our old age is concerned, we don’t need that many! And then the fourth one was also a girl!
I can’t help feeling that there must be something wrong with the way your body works, if it can only produce girls and nothing else. What’s the point in producing the same thing time after when what we need is some variety[xi]”. This quote suggest more than the dislike of daughters but also of attributing the entire fault to the woman. This statement by the father asserts his authority over the woman. Moreover, it also reasserts the responsibilities of the woman to produce a son.
It is evident that all throughout the story the only concern of both the mother and the father was to produce a son and nothing else. As a matter of fact, the mother has already compensated her attention towards her other kids because of her desire to produce an heir. However, this desire is not wholly for her sake but only for the sake of the husband.
It is evident that she is willing to undergo several pregnancies which are dangerous to her health just for the sake of fulfilling her obligation to her husband. “Nevertheless she did not give way to despair, since she retained her faith in her child-bearing capacity. Once more she pleaded him, ‘Please wait one more time, just this once! If there’s no change this time, I won’t stand in your way any longer. I don’t want to make things worse for either of us[xii]’”
Furthermore, this story also affirms the earlier assertion that the role of a woman is reduced to their abilities to accomplish the very important obligation of hers which is to produce an heir. Otherwise, they can be replaceable and will be considered as a stranger or an alien in the household. The husband has in fact considered replacing her and has replaced her with another woman which can give him a son.
“Only girls, never anything else! You can’t blame me, I’ve been as patient as any man could be, I’ve got no choice but to get another woman.[xiii].” This suggests that the relationship of husband and wife in the Chinese household is really all about having an heir and never about love and support. This is also true in the story Slaves’ Mother in which the father hired a concubine. Moreover, he was even willing to spend a fortune just for him to have a son with the second mother.
This responsibility outlines the worth of the woman. In which case, it depresses her when she cannot fulfill them because this responsibility is equal to her life and her survival. As a matter of fact, it is evident that in the story she was likewise devastated as her husband when she found out that she cannot produce anything else but daughters. When she was still unable to produce a son, she was so sad that she wept almost always. Finally, when she was able to give birth to a son, it was believed that she was able to restore her dignity. Together with this, she has also restored her position in the household as a wife replacing the concubine’s role.
“The senior’s wife dignity was from this point on restored, and all were unanimous in her praise. ‘Fortune’s caught up with her now,’ they agreed. She herself was very clear and now she was fully entitled to make demands[xiv].”This means that the fulfillment of the obligation is the only factor why she enjoyed that position. When the son died, she went back to her original demise. The death of the son even further caused the demise and the fall of the entire family when her husband died or committed suicide in the river. In this kind of situation, the woman’s reason for living is reduce to her functions and not to her essence as a living being.
The story is a commentary of two things. First, women’s roles in the household are always upheld to the extent that it becomes the very essence of her existence. Second, the man can do whatever he pleases and can alienate the woman as long he wanted provided that she is unable to fulfill her responsibilities. The demise of the woman will have to result to the fall of the whole family which is a reaffirmation of the secret power that the woman has in the family which is seldom appreciated and recognized.
Another story entitled the Slaves’ Mother by Rou Shi as mentioned earlier is also a commentary on how a woman is expected to fulfill her responsibilities both as a wife and a producer of an heir. However, the story added another element to the role of the woman, that is, breadwinning. But everything still boils down to her obligation to provide an heir to another man. The wife’s predicament in this story is different from the first story in the sense that she is not fertile to produce nothing but daughters.
Her demise lies in the fact that her husband cannot earn a living because of his disease. This shifts the burden of breadwinning to the wife which was likewise left without a choice. This story is a commentary on the role of the wife to the household as different to the prescribed as far as it is in relation to his original husband.
Instead of just being a wife, the woman is attributed a different role, that is, to earn a living for the husband and the child. In the words of the husband: “There is nothing for it. If we go on this way we’ll even be selling our little cooking pots before long. Looks as though you’ll have to provide the solution. No use your staying and starving with me.[xv]” This is a blunt admission on the part of the man that he can no longer support the family which is supposed to be his responsibility. In this sense, the role of the woman is uplifted to a higher level than the man but is still hinged unto the main obligations that a woman should take part in as the society.
But this does not last for very long because the woman was still restricted to her traditional role as a wife in her second husband’s household. She was still expected to produce a son which she was able to accomplish. However, even with this, she was still brought to her failure by losing both sons away from her. When she gave birth to the second son, she was longing for the first. When she was finally with the firs son, she was longing for the second.
This can be explained through the previous line of thought already mentioned earlier. The very essence of a woman’s role has become the very essence of her existence. Without the fruits of his responsibilities which are her sons, she cannot survive. Her worth is measured through her ability to produce an heir. In the story, even if the woman has successfully undergone the responsibility in an easy manner, still she lost both sons. The firs son was lost because she was not able to take care of him due to her being away from her. The second son was lost because he was simply not destined to be hers since she was just a second wife.
Secondly, the authority of the first husband is also evident as she was unable to defy his orders when he ordered she had to be sold to another man for the family to be able to eat. This is another factor to the fall of the woman in the story. It is evident that everything the husband told her is a matter of compliance on the part of the wife. She was willing to leave her two-year old son just to fulfill the orders of the husband. She was willing to endure the pain of giving birth to another child because her husband told her so. Even at the end of the story, the husband was still very authoritative. “Neither she nor her husband spoke. As night fell his drooping head straightened up and she said: ‘Cook us a meal’[xvi].”
Courtney from Study Moose