Women in Ancient China
Women in Ancient China
During the Song Dynasty (960–1279) in Ancient China, the gender in which a person was born as, changed their whole path of life. Their role in society, their education, their power in the household were very different depending on if they were male or female. A typical female had much less power compared to a man; they were considered the inferior gender. It was unfair, and to an extend, cruel, the way that women were treated compared to a man, but during that time in China, it was so normal that no one questioned it. The roles that each gender held were rigid, quite different, and clearly not equal.
As China gained power during this time and became more powerful, women were greatly downgraded by men because men were thought to be the ones doing all the work. Giving birth was a very important component in Ancient China, and most became a parent as early as a young teenager. Women were expected to have lots of children, especially to boys. They felt the pressure to have boys and believed themselves that boys were better than girls. “A girl gained more respect in her husband’s family if she gave birth to a boy. The birth of a boy was always celebrated more than the birth of a girl” (Liu).
A boy meant the continuation of a family, and a soon-to-be leader. A girl would not be able to continue a family legacy, as they are often married into another family to take care of their house. In severe cases, “if families were very poor, they would sell their daughters as servants to rich families” (Tsai) If a wife did not eventually give birth to a son, her husband often took other wives. This shows how much more respected and more important boys were to girls. It didn’t matter whether the girl was smart or talented, because their only role that they could have was to cook, clean, and take care of the family.
Although a woman could not choose whether they wanted a girl or boy, she would be disrespected if she gave birth to a girl. A marriage during the Tang and Song dynasty was extremely male-centered, meaning that the woman getting married barely had any say over whom she wanted to marry. A marriage in China was very carefully considered, and most of them were arranged marriages. Before a marriage, the parents of the children went to an astrologer. “The parents of the children to be married consulted an astrologer who referred to the birth charts of each child.
The astrologer would determine if, by the time and date of their births, the children were compatible”(Lay). When a woman was going to get married to a man, the first thing that the family did was examine her feet because the larger the foot, the more shame brought to the husband’s household. Once determined that they were compatible and her feet were acceptable, it was the father’s role to decide whether his daughter was to get married with the boy. “As a women’s thoughts and opinions were not considered important, the father’s word was final on who his daughter would marry” (Lay).
After getting married, the girl did not have the right to divorce, or much rather even complain about the marriage. They were to stay respectful and accept that her life now belonged to her husband’s family. “The morning after the marriage, the girl would bow and offer tea to her in-laws as a sign that she now belonged to her husband’s family” (Reese). Marriages were completely out of the female’s hand, as the only opinion considered important was the father from each family. After a marriage, it was expected that each person in the family had a specific role. These roles were rarely different from the expected.
The father in the family was usually the most important person, and “not only had disciplinary power over family members, but also had complete legal authority over them and the right to arrange his children’s marriages” (Tsai) They were expected to “lead” the family, and were often feared because they followed the Confucian model of a “stern and remote figure”. For a woman, in addition to their household chores, they had the responsibility to raise the children properly. “If children were not raised properly and ever broke with social decorum, the collectivist Chinese society considered not only the child, but the family as well, as fault. (Tsai)
The women had a large burden on their shoulders, because they were to single-handedly raise their children on their own, and properly, meaning that the boys were to know certain things and girls were to grow up knowing how to raise a family on her own. While most children had emotional connections with their mother, they had no bonds with their father, only viewing him as an “authoritative, strict disciplinarian. ” This was the way the family operated and changing it up was considered very odd and unnatural. The roles that men and women had in the family household were very different.
Men were respected in the family, as they were the source of income for them. They did not like women to have her own ambitions and believed that they were the only one to have a role outside of the house. “They were responsible for providing for the household and directly contributing to society through their careers. ” (Tsai) As mentioned previously, a woman’s role was quite different. “Females were simply expected to take care of the household, raise the children, and follow males all their lives: as daughters, females were expected to follow their fathers and brothers, as wives, their husbands, and as mothers, their sons. (Tsai)
They cooked and prepared food, cleaned, and looked after their children from the moment that they married. Women grew up learning how to do these tasks, and were put down whenever they mentioned anything about wanting a real job outside of the house. These beliefs about the roles did not come out of nowhere. Confucius, the teacher of the religion of Confucianism, taught that women’s roles were to look after the men in their families. Most did not question his teachings and continued to live with these “rules”.
Not only the fact that they believed women were inferior to men and should stay at home, “people believed that women were both morally and intellectually inferior to men and thus needed men’s control and guidance” (Tsai). While men were valued for their hard work and getting the money, women were disparaged because they “couldn’t live” without a man’s work. A Chinese woman with bound feet during the late Song dynasty Beauty of a woman was very important to men because it often showed wealth. Footbinding was a cruel way to show a woman’s beauty in Ancient China, especially during the Song dynasty.
It is thought that foot binding began in around 900 AD during the Tang dynasty and continued until 1911 when it was finally banned. “The practice of binding feet was originally introduced about a thousand years ago, allegedly by a concubine of the emperor. Not only was the sight of women hobbling on tiny feet considered erotic, men would also get excited playing with bound feet, which were always hidden in embroidered silk shoes” (Wild Swans) Footbinding was considered very attractive and was very common. Many times, a girl who did not have bound feet were rejected by suitors, thus making it hard to get married by a nice, rich man.
Soon enough though, foot binding grew increasingly common, spreading throughout all social classes. The spread of footbinding throughout the classes “put great pressure on poor families who needed all members of their family to work. Some peasant families were so poor that the women continued to work in the fields with their bound feet. As they were unable to stand, they had to work on their hands and knees” (Lay) Footbinding began at the ages to 6 or 7 because the girls were still young and the arches of their feet had not fully developed.
They would break the toes and bandages were tightly wrapped around the foot to pull the toes back, preventing the foot to grow. “My grandmother’s feet had been bound when she was two years old. her mother, who herself had bound feet, first wound a piece of white cloth about twenty feet long around her feet, bending all the toes except the big tow inward and under the sole. The she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony and begged her to stop. Her mother had to stick a cloth into her mouth to gag her. My grandmother passed out repeatedly from the pain.
The process lasted several years. ” (Wild Swans) The only reason why a woman had to go through all this pain was to impress the man whom she was going to get married to. A picture of a foot that went through the painful process of footbinding during the Song Dynasty. The articles of clothing that a woman wore also indicated the wealth of the husband. “Clothing was important in ancient China as it became symbolic of status. ” People from the higher classes wore very fine fabrics, whereas poorer people “wore cheaper fabrics that were rough to the touch” (Reese).
An average woman would wear very long tunics with belts. They wore their hair long, as it also was a symbol of wealth. Hair was also considered a gift from their parents, and was considered disrespectful to cut. They could not choose their clothing or the length of her hair because it was thought that women could not make decisions as simple as that. Unlike women who had to cover up with long tunics, men wore short tunics usually with jackets. They also always walked around with headwear. The material in which the tunics were made showed how rich the family was.
Education was a key role for a male growing up, but was barely mentioned to a girl. Boys were educated since a child because they believed that the only people who need education were males. It was because they were the ones who made the money and got a job when they got older. On the other hand, most girls did not receive education. “The ancient Chinese did not think it was important to educate women” (Reese). They did not need to learn math or history or science in order to work at home. They only needed the teachings from their mother or other female figures to learn how to do household chores.
Their only roles were to cook, clean, give birth, and take care of the family so they did not get the chance to get educated. They were not allowed to take exams either, which prevented them to be allowed to enter into government service. Women scholars were extremely rare. While most boys went to school or got home-schooled, most girls did not. Without education, women did not know much. With all these exact expectations of what a woman should do, women also barely had any secrecy and very rarely had the chance to complain about their lives. Although this was the case, there was one secret that women held, a language called Nushu.
Women learned a secret language called Nushu meaning “women’s writing”, because they were not allowed to be educated (Keong). The language of Nushu was not shared with men, meaning that the only people who understood the language were a certain community of women. “Knowledge of Nushu was passed down by grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and great aunts and was never shared with men. For many women it was comforting to be able to secretly share their feelings with other women. ” It was the only thing that a woman could have that they could share among themselves.
From footbinding to education to clothing, the average woman’s life in Ancient China was very inflexible and unfair. They barely ever made decisions, even small ones such as how they wanted their hair to look. They were degraded by their husband and his family, and were humiliated if they had goals in life. A woman was considered very similar to a mannequin, as they showed how important and wealthy the husband was. Although it was cruel and wrong, it took them a long time to realize how vile these rules were because this sexist way of life was considered the norm.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 19 November 2016
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