20080225-women cooking u wash.jpg
Women cooking in the 19th century

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The Chinese are as practical a people as ever had a national existence, and we know of no reason to suppose that the Chinese ever had the least doubt that a substantial equality of the sexes in point of numbers is a condition of the continued propagation of the race. Certainly no race was ever more careful to keep itself propagated, or has ever met with greater success in the undertaking. Yet the Chinese are almost the only people boasting an ancient and developed civilization who despise their own daughters who are married into the families of others, and are by that process lost to their own because according to ancient custom they can offer no sacrifices for their parents when the latter are dead. It is for this reason that the popular saying declares that the most ideally excellent daughter (literally a daughter with the virtues of the eighteen Lo-hans) is not equal to a splay-footed son. This sentiment is endorsed by all Chinese consciously and unconsciously, in a manner to show that it is interwoven with the very fibres of their being. Its ultimate root is the same as that of so many other human opinions, pure selfishness. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg; Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang,a village in Shandong.]

Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““It was a saying of Geo. D. Prentice, a distinguished Kentucky editor, that man was the principal object in creation, woman being merely "a side issue." The phrase is a literal expression of the position of a wife in a Chinese family. The object had in view in matrimony by the family of the girl is to get rid of supporting her. The object on the part of the husband's family is to propagate that family. These objects are not in themselves open to criticism, except on the ground of a too complete occupation of the field of human motives. But in China no one indulges in any illusions on the subject. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“That which is true of the marriages of those in the ordinary walks of life, is pre-eminently true of the poorer classes. It is a common observation in regard to a widow who has re-married, that " now she will not starve." It is a popular proverb that a second husband and a second wife are husband and wife only as long as there is anything to eat; when the food supply fails, each shifts for him or herself. In times of famine relief, cases have often been observed where the husband simply abandons the wife and the children, leaving them to pick up a wretched subsistence, or to starve. In many instances daughters-in-law were sent back to their mothers' family to be supported or starved as the event might be. " She is your daughter, take care of her yourself." In other cases where special food was given by distributors of famine relief to women who were nursing small infants, it was sometimes found that this allowance had been taken from the women, and devoured by the men, although these instances were probably exceptional. -

“One man had a wife and several children, and after wandering far and wide, he had found a temporary abode in a village but a few miles from the one in which his aunt made her home. Having ascertained that his aunt was largely supported by the kindness of the neigbours, this affectionate nephew hastened to claim relationship, proposing to his aunt that he should come and live with her, that is live upon her. This offer she wisely declined. A few months later he departed for regions unknown, leaving his wife and children without support of any kind. They soon made their appearance in the aunt's village, and inserted themselves into her narrow d welling, reducing her to extreme grief and despair.

Good Websites and Sources: Women in China Sources fordham.edu/halsall ; Chinese Government Site on Women, All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) Women of China ; Human Trafficking Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in China gvnet.com ; International Labor Organization ilo.org/public Foot Binding San Francisco Museum sfmuseum.org ; Angelfire angelfire.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia

Seven Deadly Sins Inflicted on 19th Century Chinese Women

On what he perceived were the “Seven Deadly Sins” inflicted on Chinese women,Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China” in 1899: 1) Denial of Education:“Rare and unimportant exceptions aside, Chinese women are provided with no education. Their minds are left in a state of nature, until millions of them are led to suppose that they have no minds at all, an opinion which their fathers, husbands and brothers often do much to confirm, and upon which they then habitually act. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

2) Sale of Wives and Daughters. This comes about so naturally, and it might almost be said so inevitably, when certain conditions prevail, that it is taken by the Chinese as a matter of course. Except in years of famine it appears in some parts of the empire to be rare, but in other parts it is the constant and the normal state of things for daughters to be as really sold as are horses and cattle. There are sections of northern China in which it is not uncommon for a man who has contracted debts which he cannot otherwise pay, to part with a daughter as a last resort. But there are other districts where the practice cannot be exceptional, as is evident from the great number of girls who, one is told, have been procured from this region. If the Chinese themselves are questioned about the matter, the fact is always admitted, the custom is reprobated, but the universally conclusive inquiry is propounded: “What help is there for it?” In the present condition of the empire this interrogatory is unanswerable.

3) Too Early and Too Universal Marriages: A considerable part of the unhappiness caused by Chinese marriages may fairly be charged to the immaturity of the victims. To treat children as if they were adults, while at the same time treating them as children who require the same watch and ward as other children, does not appear to be a rational procedure, nor can it be claimed that it is justified by its results. That a new pair constitute a distinct entity to be dealt with independently, is a proposition which Confucianism treats with scorn, if indeed it ever entertains such a conception at all. The compulsory marriage of all girls forces all Chinese society into cast-iron grooves, and leaves no room for exceptional individual development. It throws suspicion around every isolated struggle against this galling bondage, and makes the unmarried woman seem a personified violation of the decrees of heaven and of the laws of man.

4) Infanticide of Female Infants: This is a direct, if not a legitimate result of the tenet that male children are absolutely indispensable, applied in a social system where dire poverty is the rule, and where an additional mouth frequently means impending starvation. In a chapter in her “Pagoda Shadows,” on “The Extent of a Great Crime,” Miss Fielde combines a great variety of testimony taken from several different provinces, in the following paragraph. “I find that 160 Chinese women, all over fifty years of age, had borne 631 sons, and 538 daughters. Of the sons, 366, or nearly sixty per cent., had lived more than ten years; while of the daughters only 205, or thirty-eight per cent., had lived ten years. The 160 women, according to their own statements, had destroyed 158 of their daughters; but none had ever destroyed a boy. As only four women had reared more than three girls, the probability is that the number of infanticides confessed to is considerably below the truth. I have occasionally been told by a woman that she had forgotten just how many girls she had had, more than she wanted. The greatest number of infanticides owned to by any one woman is eleven.” Infanticide will never cease in China, until the notion that the dead are dependent for their happiness upon sacrifices offered to them by the living shall have been totally overthrown.

5) Secondary Wives: Concubinage is the natural result of the Confucian theory of ancestral worship. The misery which it has caused and still causes in China is beyond comprehension. Nothing can uproot it but a decay of faith in the assumption underlying all forms of worship of the dead.

6) Suicides of Wives and Daughters. The preceding causes, operating singly and in combination, are wholly sufficient to account for the number of suicides among Chinese women. The wonder rather is that there are not more. But whoever undertakes to collect facts on this subject for any given district will not improbably be greatly surprised at the extraordinary prevalence of this practice. It is even adopted by children, and for causes relatively trifling. At times it appears to spread, like the smallpox, and the thirst for suicide becomes virtually an epidemic. As already mentioned, according to the native newspapers, there are parts of China in which young girls band themselves into a secret league to commit suicide within a certain time after they have been betrothed or married. The wretchedness of the lives to which they are condemned is thoroughly appreciated in advance, and fate is thus effectually checkmated. It would be wrong to overstate the evils suffered by woman in China, evils which have indeed many alleviations, and which are not to be compared to those of her sisters in India or in Turkey. But after all abatements have been made, it remains true that the death-roll of suicides is the most convincing proof of the woes endured by Chinese women.

7) Overpopulation: “However much we may admire the recuperative power of the Chinese people as a whole and individually, it is difficult not to feel righteous indignation toward a system which violates those beneficent laws of nature which would mercifully put an end to many branches of families when such branches are unfitted to survive. It is impossible to contemplate with equanimity the deliberate, persistent, and uniform propagation of poverty, vice, disease and crime, which ought rather to be surrounded with every restriction to prevent its multiplication, and to see this propagation of evil and misery done, too, with an air of virtue. It is this system which loads down the rising generation with the responsibility for feeding and clothing tens of thousands of human beings who ought never to have been born, and whose existence can never be other than a burden to themselves, a period of incessant struggle without respite and without hope.

Ill Fate of Girls in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“The Chinese girl when she makes her first appearance in the world is very likely to be unwelcome, though this is by no means invariably the case. The ratio in which fortune-tellers allot happiness is generally about five sons to two daughters. “Whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” With theories like those of the Chinese about the unavailability of daughters for the performance of ancestral rites, and with the Chinese nature as it is, it is not to be wondered at that the great pressure of poverty leads to the crime of infanticide upon an enormous scale. For aught that appears, this has always been the case. It is not that the Chinese conscience does not recognize the murder of girl babies as wrong, but that the temptation to such murder, especially the temptation to the disappointed and often abused mother, is too strong to be resisted by any motives which have the opportunity to act upon her. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Much has already been done by those who have had most opportunity to learn the facts, toward exhibiting the real practice of the Chinese in the matter of destroying female infants. Yet no more can be safely predicated than that this is a crime which to some extent everywhere prevails, and in some places to such a degree as seriously to affect the proportion of the sexes. It seems to be most common in the maritime provinces of the southern part of China, in some districts of which it is by the Chinese themselves regarded as a terrible and a threatening evil. Native tract societies publish books exhorting the people against the practice, and magistrates occasionally issue proclamations forbidding it, but it is evident that the nature of the offence is such that no laws can touch it, and nothing short of the elevation of the mothers themselves to a far higher point of view than they now occupy, can have any permanent effect upon Chinese female infanticide.

“Next to the destruction of the lives of female infants, the Chinese practice most revolting to our Western ideas is the sale of their daughters, at all periods from infancy up to a marriageable age. The usages of different parts of the empire vary widely, but the sale of girls, like infanticide, seems to flourish most in the maritime provinces of the south, where it is conducted as openly as any other traffic. That the parents are generally impelled to this extreme step simply by the pressure of poverty we are quite ready to believe. Yet the knowledge that the girl must be separated from her family at a later period, and that this parting is irrevocable, must tend to reconcile many Chinese parents to an anticipation, by a few years, of the inevitable. Of the miseries which girls who have been thus sold are likely to endure, it is unnecessary to speak in detail, but enough is known on the subject to lead us to regard the practice with horror. If the parents do not feel able to keep their daughter until she is old enough to be married, and yet do not wish to sell her, Chinese custom has invented another expedient, which is a compromise between the two. This is the well-known “rearing-marriage,” by which the girl is made over to the family into which she is to be married, and is by that family brought up, and married whenever their convenience dictates.

"There are manifest and grave objections to this practice, but there can be no doubt that it is far better than the custom of child marriages, which lead to so much wretchedness in India. In some instances the relations with the family of the girl are wholly broken off, when she is taken for a “rearing-marriage,” and in all cases it is regarded as a confession of poverty and weakness, which places the girl’s family at much more than their usual disadvantage, at best sufficiently great. When a girl is brought up in the family the son of which is to become her future husband, it is of course wholly out of the question that the parties should not have the fullest opportunities to become acquainted with each other’s disposition, however they may be forbidden by usage to speak to one another. There is and can be very little sentiment about Chinese matches, but anything which tends to make the parties to one of these matches better able to adapt themselves to the inevitable friction of after life, cannot fail to have its advantages. Whether the parties to a “rearing-marriage” are or are not on the whole happier than those married in the ordinary way, is a question which no Chinese would be likely to ask, for the reason that he has no associations connecting marriage with happiness, but rather the reverse, and if the question is proposed by a foreigner, he is not likely to be made much the wiser by the replies which he receives.

Limited World of 19th Chinese Women and Girls

Smith wrote: “A Chinese woman for many years employed in the writer’s family, remarked that for a long time after she was married she was never allowed to leave the narrow courtyard in her hamlet. The wife of a Tao-t‘ai told a foreign lady that in her next existence she hoped to be born a dog, that she might go where she chose! With the exception of such limited raids as she may have been able to make in early childhood, and occasional visits to relatives, most Chinese girls never go anywhere to speak of, and live what is literally the existence of a frog in a well.Tens of thousands of them have never been two miles away from the village in which they happened to be born, with the occasional exception of the visit to the mother’s family just mentioned, where they are not improbably regarded as terrible beings who cannot be exterminated, but who are to be as much as possible repressed. If the nieces on the mother’s side are numerous, as is often the case, there is some reason for dread of the visits, on the part of the bread-winners, for no Chinese mother can be dissociated from her flock of children, whose appetites are invariably several horse-power strong, and who, like their elders, are all excessively fond of enjoying the pleasure of eating at some one else’s expense. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“It is when the married daughters of a large family have all returned to their parents to spend a few days or weeks, that the most dramatic scenes of childhood occur. Self-control and unselfishness have not been a feature in the culture of any one of the numerous cousins thus brought together in a cluster which frequently resembles those on the inside of a beehive. Each of the young generation has the keenest instinct for getting as much of the best of what is to be had as any one else, and if possible more. This leads to occasional “scenes of confusion, and creature complaints,” in which each small participant publishes his or her version of the particular squabble in piercing tones, which soon summon the whole establishment to the scene of action. Judicious parents would punish the children all round for their complicity in such a quarrel, which is most often based upon alleged or supposed inequalities in distribution of food. But Chinese parents are seldom judicious, and the most that can be expected is that the mother will call off her child or children, and “yell” it, or them. “Yelling” a person is the act of proclaiming in a loud and piercing voice the disapprobation on the part of the “yeller” of the conduct of the “yellee,” often accompanied by reviling language, and frequently also with promises to “beat” and “kill” the said “yellee” in the event of further provocation. These remarks are interpreted by the “yellee” as a hint to stop, a feat which is at length accomplished after a period of more or less spasmodic and convulsive recrimination.

“But if, as often happens, each of the mothers feels called upon from a high sense of duty to take a firm stand for the rights of her offspring, the case becomes much more serious. Each of the mothers will then scream simultaneously, to the accompaniment of the wails, yells, and reviling of the whole half-dozen or more of her posterity, while above the general clamour may be distinctly caught the shrill shrieks of the grandmother, whose views, whatever difficulty they may have in getting themselves heard, must eventually prevail when peace once more reigns in the domestic teapot. After one of these family cyclones, the atmosphere gradually becomes cleared again, and things go on as before; but we have known a particularly spirited married daughter, who exhibited her dissatisfaction with the terms of settlement of a dispute of this sort by refusing to speak to her sisters for some days together.

Hard Life of Woman in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “A weary woman whose occupation of making meat dumplings for sale at the daily markets always obliged her to rise long before daylight, 'and who was not infrequently visited by her married daughters with their troops of little ones, some of whom spent the night in tumbling over their poor grandmother (because their mothers "could not take care of so many"), complained to the writer of the grievous nature of the burden. To the natural enquiry why she did not send them home when they became so troublesome, she remarked with evident sincerity, " / can't succeed in pushing them out/" When the daughter-in-law returns to her mother-in-law it is true of her, as the adage says of a thief, that she never comes back empty-handed. She must take a present of some sort for her mother-in-law, generally food. Neglect of this established rite, or inability to comply with it, will soon result in dramatic scenes. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

If the daughter is married into a family which is poor, or whiqh has become" so, and if she has brothers who are married, she will find that her visits to her mother are, in the language of the physicians, "contra-indicated." There is war between the daughters-in-law of a family and the married sisters of the same family, like that between the Philistines and the children of Israel, each regarding the territory as peculiarly its own, and the other party as interlopers. If the daughters-in-law are strong enough to do so, they will, like the Philistines, levy a tax upon the enemy whom they cannot altogether exterminate or drive out. A woman with whom the writer has long been acquainted informed him not long ago that for a year and a half she had been forbidden by the wives of her brothers from visiting her aged mother, who was blind and unable to travel the two or three miles necessary to go to see her daughter! The reason for this embargo was the deep poverty of the daughter, who was unable to bring a present when she came, albeit she should have taken a present back with her when she returned to her mother-in-law. In order to make the present which will render her visits to her mother's family agreeable all round, the daughter-in-law is sometimes obliged to steal something from the family of life mother-in-law. When this is discovered, it will result in an " unpleasantness.'' If it is not specifically discovered, it is suspected, and is called by the generic name of " leak-at-the-bottom," in allusion to the difficulty of detection, and to the seriousness, of its results if continued. It is a proverb that no family can stand the strain of a continued "bottom-leak." One of the facetice of the Chinese represents two old women as meeting after a long separation, and making enquiries as to each other's families. "How is your son's business?" says one, "and what kind of a daughter-in-law have you?" " My son's business is fairly good," was the reply, " but the daughter-in-law is bad — she steals from us to give to her mother." "And your married daughter,,how is it with her?" "Ah!" was the reply, " If it were not for the help we get from her,. we should not be able to get on at all!"

A woman in an American court begged the judge to grant her a divorce, on the ground that she had been married seventeen years, and that all that time her husband had "jawed constant." Whether his meals were or were not ready, whether his buttons were or were not sewed on, whatever the conditions, he "jawed constant." This grave criticism is applicable to many homes in "nominally Christian lands," but to vastly more in China. Indeed the precise observation of the woman just quoted was made in the writer's hearing, concerning an acquaintance, who made the life of his daughter-in-law a burden. The occasions for this unceasihg "jaw" are as numerous as the objects and interests with which human beings have to do. Money, food, clothes, children and their squabbles, a chicken, a dog, anything or nothing, will serve as the first loop on which will be knit' a complicated tangle of quarrel, which will not go far without words of reviling which increase the fury of the disputants in a ten-fold ratio.

Life of a Young Chinese Wife

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:““The arrival of a first baby is, in the life of a Chinese wife, a very different event from the like occurrence in the life of a wife in Occidental lands. If the child is a boy, the joy of the whole household is of course great, but if on the contrary it is a girl, the depression of the spirits of the entire establishment is equally marked. In such a case, the young wife is often treated with coldness, and not infrequently with harshness, even if, as sometimes happens, she is not actually beaten for her lack of discretion in not producing a son. If she has had several daughters in succession, especially if she has borne no son or none which has lived, her life cannot be a pleasant one. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“It is one of the postulates of Chinese propriety that however much a wife may continue to visit at the maternal home, (and on this point the usages in some regions are very liberal), her children must all be born at their father’s house. This is a rule of such unbending rigour that a breach of it is considered a deep disgrace, and in the effort to avoid it women will sometimes submit to extreme inconveniences, and run the most serious risks, not infrequently, it is said, meeting in consequence with painful and humiliating accidents.

To the Occidental question as to the reason for this powerful prejudice against a confinement at a mother’s home, the Chinese are able to give no better reply than an affirmation that, if such an event should happen, the mother’s family may be expected to become very poor. This superstition is so strong that in some localities, if such an event has happened, it is customary for the family of the husband to harness a team to a plough, and, proceeding to the home of the girl’s parents, plough up their courtyard. The son-in-law must also cook a kettle full of millet or rice for his mother-in-law, by which means the dire extremity of poverty may be avoided. Perhaps, after all, the idea at the bottom of these singular performances is merely the thoroughly Chinese one that, if a married daughter and her children are to come upon her mother’s family for their support, poverty will be the certain result, a view which has in it some reason.

Hard Work and Labor a 19th Century Chinese Woman

Smith wrote:“In all lands and in all climes, “woman’s work is never done,” and this is most especially true of China, where machinery has not yet expelled the primitive processes of what is literally manufacture, or work by the hand. The care of silk-worms, and the picking, spinning, and weaving of cotton, are largely the labour of women, to which the girls are introduced at a very early age. The sewing for a Chinese family is a serious matter, especially as the number of families who can afford to hire help in this line is a very trifling proportion. But aside from this employment, in which a Chinese girl who expects to be acceptable to the family of her mother-in-law must be expert, girls can also be made useful in almost any line of home work to which the father may be devoted. In the country districts all over the empire, boys and girls alike are sent out to scratch together as much fuel as possible, for the preparation of the food, and this continues in the case of the girls until they are too large to go to any distance from home. It is not an unmeaning appellation, which is given to girls generally, that of ya-t‘ou, or “slave-girl,” used just as we should say “daughter.” To a foreigner, this sounds much like the term “n^^ger” applied to black men, but to the Chinese there is a fitness in the designation, which they refuse to surrender. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The life of the Chinese village woman is an apt illustration of the inherent impossibility that woman’s work should ever be done. Before her own children have ceased to be a constant care by day and by night, grandchildren have not improbably made their appearance, giving the grandmother little peace or rest. The mere preparation of the food for so many in the single kettle which must serve for everything, is a heavy task incessantly repeated. All articles of apparel, including shoes, are literally manufactured or done by hand, and so likewise is the supply of bedding or wadded quilts which like the wadded garments must be ripped open from time to time, cleaned and renewed.

“Women and girls take their share of watching the orchards and the melon patches, etc., by day, and sometimes by night as well. When the wheat harvest comes on, all the available women of the family are helping to gather it, and in the autumn harvest likewise every threshing-floor abounds with them, and their countless children. In cotton growing districts the women and girls are busy a large part of the time in the fields, and often earn the only pin-money which they ever see by picking cotton for others.

“The preparation of this indispensable staple for use occupies the hands of millions of Chinese women, from its collection in the field — a most laborious work since the plant grows so low — to its appearance as garments, and its final disappearance as flat padding to be used in shoe-soles. The ginning, the “scutching” or separation of fibres, the spinning, the cording, the winding and starching, and especially the weaving are all hard and tiresome work, and that too without end in sight while life lasts. In some regions every family owns a loom (one of the clumsy machines exiled from the West a century ago) and it is not uncommon for the members of a family to take turns, the husband weaving until midnight, when the wife takes up the task till daylight, (often in cellars two-thirds underground, damp, unventilated, and unwholesome). Even so it is frequently difficult to keep the wolf away from the door. Within the past few years the competition of machine twisted cotton yarns is severely felt in the cotton regions of China, and many who just managed to exist in former days are now perpetually on the edge of starvation. This is the “seamy side” of “progress.”

Sale of Wives and Children in 19th Century China

Commenting on the increase of the practice after a famine. Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ The sale of wives and of children in China is a practice not confined to years of peculiar distress, but during those years it is carried on to an extent which throws all ordinary transactions of this nature into insignificance. It is perfectly well known to those acquainted with the facts, that during the early part of the current year, in many districts stricken with a famine only less grievous than those of eleven and twelve years ago, the sale of women and children was conducted as openly as that of mules and donkeys, the only essential difference being that the former were not driven to market. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

During the great famine of 1878, which extended over nearly all parts of the three most northern provinces, as well as further south, so great a traffic sprung up in women and girls who were exported to the central provinces, that in some places it was difficult to hire a cart, as they had all been engaged in the transportation of the newly purchased females to the regions where they were to be disposed of. In the cases to which reference is now made, young women were taken from a region where they were in a condition of starvation, and where the population was too redundant, to a region which had been depopulated by the Taiping rebels, and where for many years wives had been hard to procure. It is one of the most melancholy features of this strange state of affairs, that the enforced sales of members of Chinese families to distant provinces was probably the best thing for all parties, and perhaps the only way in which the lives both of those who were sold as well as the lives of those who sold them, could be preserved.

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“We have spoken of the sale of girls by their parents, and have now to refer to the more or less common cases of the sale of wives by their husbands. This is generally due to the press of poverty, and the writer is acquainted with a Chinese who, being deeply in debt, was thrown into prison from which he found deliverance hopeless. He accordingly sent word to his relatives to have his wife sold, which was done, and with the proceeds the man was able to buy his escape. The frequency of such sales may be said to bear a direct ratio to the price of grain. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“There is another method of selling wives, with which the Chinese are acquainted, which can be adopted whenever the pressure of life at home becomes too hard to be borne. The husband and wife then start off on a begging expedition toward a region in which the crops have been good. In a bad year, there are thousands of such persons roaming about the country, picking up a scanty subsistence wherever they can. The man who wishes to sell his wife represents her as his sister, and declares that they are forced by hunger to part company. He reluctantly makes up his mind to sell her to some one who is in need of a wife, and who can get one more cheaply by this process than by any other. To this arrangement the woman tearfully assents, the money is paid to her “brother,” and he departs, to be seen no more. After a few days or a few weeks in her new home, the newly married “sister” contrives to steal out in the evening with all of her own clothes and as many more as she can collect, and rejoins her “brother,” setting out with him for “fresh woods and pastures new.” With that keen instinct for analogy which characterizes the Chinese, they have invented for this proceeding the name of “falconing with a woman,” likening it to the sport of a man who places his hawk on his wrist, and releases it when he sees game in sight, only that the bird may speedily return. It is a popular proverb, that “playing the falcon with a woman” implies a plot in which two persons are concerned.

“An inquirer is told that in some districts this practice of “falconing” is exceedingly common, for the supply of gullible persons who hope to buy a wife at a cheaper rate than usual never fails. The Chinese ridicule any one who seems to be infatuated with a bargain in which a woman is concerned, but it is not improbable that under similar circumstances they themselves would do the same. An old fellow living in the same village as the writer bought a woman under what he considered exceptionally profitable conditions, and lest she should escape, he anchored her in the yard fastened to a peg like a donkey. His neighbours laughed at him, and he at them, until the woman suddenly disappeared, an event which reduced him to a more sober view of the “five relations.”

“Chinese public sentiment is altogether on the right side of this question, but Chinese practice is not under the guidance of sentiment of any kind. It is proverbial that a judicious man will never marry a woman who has a living husband, for the sufficient reason that he never can foresee the consequences, which are often serious. But the instinct of trying to cheat Fate is in all Chinese most vigorous. “Cheaper than an animal,” was the self-complacent comment of a Chinese friend of the writer’s in regard to his own second marriage where he had paid no money for his wife, but only an allowance for outfit. But when the elder sister-in-law had been heard from, this same individual was dissolved in tears for many moons, since his future peace seemed to have been wrecked.

Mistrust of Women in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “A most significant illustration of the Chinese, and also Oriental, suspicion found in social life is to be seen in the theory and practice in regard to woman. What that theory is, is sufficiently well known. While Chinese women have incomparably more liberty than their sisters in Turkey or in India,* Chinese respect for women cannot be rated as high. [Source: “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Universal ignorance on the part of women, universal subordination, the existence of polygamy and concubinage — these are not good preparations for that respect for womanhood, which is one of the fairest characteristics of Western civilization. It would be easy to cite popular expressions in illustration of the views which the Chinese hold of women in general, and which may be regarded as the generations of long experience. She is spoken of as if it is her nature to be mean, short-sighted, and not to be trusted — she is considered to be an incarnation of jealousy, as in the phrase, " it is impossible to be more jealous than a woman," where the word "jealous" suggests, and is intended to suggest another word meaning "poisonous" which has the same sound. This theory is well embodied in a verse of ancient Chinese poetry, of which the following lines are a translation: "The serpent's mouth in the green bamboo, The yellow hornet's caudal dart; Little the injury these can do; More venomous far is a woman's heart."

“These views are incidentally exemplified with a fine and unconscious impartiality in the very structure of the Chinese language, in a manner to which attention has been often directed. An excellent scholar in Chinese in response to a request from the writer, examined with care a list of one hundred and thirty-five of the more common characters which are written with the radical denoting woman, and found that fourteen of them conveyed a meaning which might be classed as "good," such as the words "good," "skilful," and the like; of the remainder, thirty-five are bad, and eighty-six indifferent in meaning. But those classed as bad, contain some of the most disreputable words in the whole language. The radical for woman combined with that denoting shield signifies "deceitful, fraudulent, villainous, traitorous, selfish;" while three women in combination convey the ideas of " fornication, adultery, seduction, to intrigue."

Daughter-in-Laws and Mother-in-Laws in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“The fact that Chinese girls are married so young, and that they have not been taught those lessons of self-control which it is so important for them to learn, suffices to demonstrate the absolute necessity for the existence of the Chinese mother-in-law as an element in the family. A Chinese married woman must address her mother-in-law as “mother,” but for precision is allowed to refer to her as “mother-in-law mother.” A Chinese woman calling on a foreign lady asked the latter (in the presence of her husband) about her family in the homeland. The lady mentioned that she had “a mother-in-law,” upon which the Chinese woman in an awed whisper pointing to the foreign gentleman, inquired: “Won’t he beat you for saying that?” A great deal is heard of the tyranny and cruelty of these mothers-in-law, and there is a firm basis of fact for all that is so often said upon that point. But it must at the same time be borne in mind that without her the Chinese family would go to utter ruin. The father-in-law is not only unfitted to take the control which belongs to his wife, even were he at home all the time which would seldom be the case, but propriety forbids him to do any such thing, even were he able. In families where a mother-in-law is lacking, there are not unlikely to be much greater evils than the worst mother-in-law. Abuse of the daughter-in-law is so common a circumstance, that unless it be especially flagrant, it attracts very little attention. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

Smith wrote: in “Chinese Characteristics”: “A daughter-in-law is regarded as a servant for the whole family, which is precisely her position, and in getting a servant, it is obviously desirable to get one who is strong and well grown, and who has "already been taught the domestic accomplishments of cooking, sewing, and whatever industries may be the means of livelihood in that particular region, rather than a child who has little strength or capacity. Thus we have known of a case where a buxom young woman of twenty was married to a slip of a boy literally only half her age, and in the early years of their wedded life she had the pleasure of nursing him through the small-pox, which is considered as a disease of infancy. [Source: “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“Mothers and daughters who pass their days in the narrow confinement of a Chinese court, under the conditions of Chinese life, are not likely to lack topics of disagreement, in which abusive language is indulged in with a freedom which the unconstraint of every day life tends to promote. It is a popular saying, full of significance to those who know Chinese homes, that a mother cannot by reviling her own daughter make her cease to be her own daughter! When a daughter is once married, she is regarded as having no more relations with her family, than those which are inseparable from community of origin. There is a deep-seated reason for omitting daughters from all family register. She is no longer our daughter, but the daughter-in-law of some one else. Human nature will assert itself, in requiring visits to the mother's home, at more or less frequent intervals, according to the local usage. In some districts these visits are very numerous and very prolonged, while in others the custom seems to be to make them as few as possible, and liable to almost complete suspension for long periods in case of a death in the family.

“But whatever the details of usage, the principle holds good, that the daughter-in-law belongs to the family of which she has become a part. When she goes to her mother's home, she goes on a strictly business basis. She takes with her it may be a quantity of sewing for her husband's family, which the wife's family must help her get through with. She is accompanied on each of these visits by as many of her children as possible, both to have her take care of them, and to have them out of the way when she is not at hand to look after them, and most especially to have them fed at the expense of the family of the maternal grandmother for as long a time as possible. In regions where visits of this sort are frequent, and where there are many daughters in a family, their constant raids on the old home are a source of perpetual terror to the whole family, and a serious tax on the common resources. For this reason these ^ftsits are often discouraged by the father and the brothers, while secretly favored by the mothers. But as local custom fixes for them certain epochs', such as a definite date after the NewYear, special feast days, etc., the visits cannot be interdicted.

Daughter-in-Law Suicides in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “The real position of any class of people may be learned by an examination of their ideals. One of the native Chinese newspapers a short time ago contained a notice of a young woman whose parents had betrothed her to a youth who turned out to be a profligate, and who squandered what little substance he had in rioting and debauchery. The parents of the girl desired to break off the, engagement, but this would, have been impossible if the young man had not waxed indignant and voluntarily returned the engagement papers. The parents of the girl were about to arrange for a more, eligible match When the girl, becoming aware of what was going on; burst Into tears, declaring that she had been betrothed to the young man, arid would either be his wife if alive or his spirit consort if dead; and would under no circumstances have another husband: When her parents refused to listen to her entreaties, she hanged herself at night by a strip of cotton cloth. The comment of the native paper is. significant, "!|5uch heroic fidelity and devotion are deservedly worthy of commendation, and esteem." This young woman, was a thorough-going Confucianist; her parents were only Confucianists, in part. Cases of similar behaviour on the part of Chinese girls do not appear to be uncommon. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“The governor of Horian, in a memorial published in the Peking Gazette a few years ago, showed incidentally that while there is responsibility in the eye of the law for the murder of a child by a parent, this is rendered nugatory by the provision that even if a married woman should wilfully and maliciously murder her young daughter-in-law the murderess may ransom herself by a money payment. The case reported was that in which a woman had burned the girl who was reared to become her son's wife with incense sticks, then roasted her cheeks with red-hot pincers, and finally boiled her to death with kettles full of scalding water. Other similar instances are referred to in the same memorial, the source of which places its authenticity beyond doubt. Such extreme barbarities are probable rare, but the cases of cruel treatment which are so aggravated as to lead to suicide, or to an attempt at suicide, are so frequent as to excite little more than passing comment. The writer is personally acquainted with many families in which these occurrences have taken place, and even while these lines are committed to paper, details of another instance are given by a mother, who wishes for sympathy in her trouble. In this case, the mother-in-law, whose family consisted only of herself, her son and her son's wife, exercised such a tyranny over the two latter, that they were never allowed to eat or to sleep together. If the son wished to please his mother, he did so by beating his wife. The latter being accused of having appropriated to her own use a skein of thread which did not belong to her, was so abused in consequence, that she threw herself into a well, whence she was rescued by her husband. Her mother brought her to the foreign home in which the mother was employed as nurse, and the daughter having passed a few days in this seclusion, remarked, with a bitter reference to her previous abode, that "it was so peaceful that it seemed like heaven I"

“The woes of daughters-in-law in China should form the subject rather for a chapter than for a brief paragraph. When it is remembered that all Chinese women marry, and generally marry young, being for a considerable part of their lives under the absolute control of a mother-in-law, some faint conception may be gained of the intolerable miseries of those daughters-in-law who live in families where they are abused. Parents can do absolutely nothing to protect their married daughters, other than remonstrating with the families into which they have married, and exacting an expensive funeral, if the daughters should be actually driven to suicide. If a husband should seriously injure, or even kill his wife, he might escape all legal consequences, by representing that she was "unfilial" to his parents. Suicides of young wives are, we must repeat, excessively frequent, and in some regions scarcely a group of villages can be found where they have not recently taken place. What" can be more pitiful than a mother's reproaches to a married daughter, who has attempted suicide and been rescued; "Why didn't you die when you had a chance?"

Fighting Back and Revenge Against Daughter-in-Law Abuse

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“It would be wholly incorrect to represent this as the normal or the inevitable condition to which Chinese brides are reduced, but it is not too much to affirm that no bride has any adequate security against such abuse. It assumes all varieties of forms, from incessant scolding up to the most cruel treatment. If it is carried to an extreme pitch, the mother’s family will interfere, not legally, for that they cannot do, but by brute force. In a typical case of this sort, where the daughter-in-law had been repeatedly and shamefully abused by the family of her husband, which had been remonstrated with in vain by the family of the girl, the latter family mustered a large force, went to the house of the mother-in-law, destroyed the furniture, beat the other family severely, and dragged the old mother-in-law out into the street, where she was left screaming with what strength remained to her, and covered with blood, in which condition she was seen by foreigners. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“These proceedings are designed as a practical protest against tyranny and an intimation that sauce for a young goose may be in like manner sauce for an older one also. One would suppose that the only outcome of such a disturbance as this would be a long and bitter lawsuit, wasting the property of each of the parties, and perhaps reducing them to ruin. But with that eminent practicality which characterizes the Chinese, the girl was carried off to the home of her parents, “peace-talkers” intervened, and the girl was returned to her husband’s home upon the promise of better treatment. This would probably be secured, just in proportion to the ability of the girl’s family to enforce it. In another case reported to the writer, similar in its nature to the one just mentioned, the girl was sent to her husband, after “peace-talkers” had adjusted the affair, and was locked up by the mother-in-law in a small room with only one meal a day. Within a year she had hanged herself.

“It is not the ignorant and the uneducated only who thus take the law into their own hands on behalf of injured daughters. We have heard of a case in which the father of the girl who drowned herself was a literary graduate. He raised a band of men, went to the home of his son-in-law, and pulled down the gate-house to the premises, and some of the buildings. In the resulting lawsuit he was severely reproved by the District Magistrate, who told him that he had no right to assume to avenge his own wrongs, and that he was only saved from a beating in court by his literary degree.

“A still more striking example was offered by an official of the third rank, whose daughter’s wrongs moved him to raise an armed band and make an attack upon the house of the son-in-law. This proved to be strong and not easily taken, upon which the angry Tao-t‘ai contented himself with reviling the whole family at the top of his voice, exactly as a coolie would have done. Wrongs which can only be met with such acts as this, on the part of those who are the most conservative members of Chinese society, must be very real and very grievous. In the very numerous cases in which a daughter-in-law is driven to suicide by the treatment which she receives, the subsequent proceedings will depend mainly upon the number and standing of her relatives. The first thing is to notify the family of the deceased that she has died, for without their presence the funeral cannot take place, or if it should take place the body would have to be exhumed, to satisfy her friends that the death was a natural one, and not due to violence, which is always likely to be suspected. A Chinese in the employ of the writer, was summoned one day to see his married daughter in another village, who was said to be “not very well.” When the father arrived, he found her hanging by her girdle to a beam!

Corpse Inquests and Deterrents Against Daughter-in-Law Abuse Lawsuits

Smith wrote: “In cases of this sort, a lawsuit is exceptional. There are several powerful considerations which act as deterrents from such a step as sending in an accusation. It is almost always next to impossible to prove the case of the girl’s family, for the reason that the opposite party can always so represent the matter as to throw the blame on the girl. In one such instance, the husband brought into court a very small woman’s shoe, explaining that he had scolded his wife for wearing so small a one, which unfitted her for work. He alleged that she then reviled him, for which he struck her (of which there were marks), whereupon she drowned herself. To a defence like this, it is impossible for the girl’s family to make any reply whatever. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The accusation is not brought against the husband, but against the father-in-law, for practically the law does not interfere between husband and wife. It is only necessary for the husband to admit the fact of having beaten his wife, alleging as a reason that she was “unfilial” to his parents, to screen himself completely. We have heard of a suit where in reply to a claim of this sort, the brother of the girl testified that she had been beaten previous to the alleged “unfilial” conduct. This seemed to make the magistrate angry, and he ordered the brother to receive several hundred blows for his testimony, and8 decided that the husband’s family should only be required to provide a cheap willow-wood coffin for the deceased.

“Another even more efficient cause deterring from such lawsuits, is the necessity of holding an inquest over the girl’s body. This is conducted with the utmost publicity, upon the Oriental plan of letting the public see how the matter really stands. A threshing floor is turned into an official arena, a set of mat-sheds are put up, and the whole village soon swarms with yamên-runners. The corpse of the deceased is laid uncovered on a mat exposed to the sight of every one, before and during the inquest. In order to avoid the shame of such exposure, and the great expense, the most bitter enemies are often willing enough to put the matter in the hands of “peace-talkers.”

Settlements and Funerals for Chinese Daughter-in-Laws Who Committed Suicide

Smith wrote: “These represent the village of each of the principals, and they meet to agree upon the terms of settlement. These terms will depend altogether upon the wealth or otherwise of the family of the mother-in-law. If this family is a rich one, the opposite party always insist upon bleeding it to the utmost practicable extent. Every detail of the funeral is arranged to be as expensive to the family as possible. There must be a cypress-wood coffin, of a specified size and thickness, a certain variety of funeral clothes, often far in excess of what the coffin could by any possibility contain, and some of them made perhaps of silk or satin. A definite amount is required to be spent in hiring Buddhist or Taoist priests, or both, to read masses at the funeral. It is considered disgraceful to compound with the family of the mother-in-law, by receiving a money payment, instead of exacting all this funeral show, but doubtless such compositions are sometimes made. As a business arrangement merely, it is evidently more to the interest of all parties to pay the girl’s relatives say two hundred strings of cash, rather than to expend a thousand strings on a funeral which can do no one any good. But Chinese sensitiveness to public sentiment is so extreme, that such settlements for a mere transfer of cash must be comparatively rare. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

The wedding outfit of a bride is often very extensive, but in case of her suicide none of it goes back to her family. We have heard from eyewitnesses of many cases in which huge piles of clothing which had been required for the funeral of such a suicide from the family of the mother-in-law, have been burnt in a vast heap at the grave. We know of one instance in which all the wedding outfit, which had been a large one, wardrobes, tables, mirrors, ornaments, etc., was taken out upon the street and destroyed in the presence of the girl’s family. The motive to this is of course revenge, but the ultimate effect of such proceedings is to act as an imperfect check upon the behaviour of the mother-in-law and her family toward the daughter-in-law, for whom while she lives the laws of the land have no protection.

“When the funeral actually takes place, under conditions such as we have described, there is great danger that despite the exertions of the “peace-talkers” from both sides, the dispute may break out anew. At sight of the girl’s livid face, the result of death by strangulation, it will not be strange if, excited by the spectacle, her family cry out “Let her be avenged! Let her be avenged!” To keep the women of the girl’s family quiet at such a time, is beyond the power of any collection of “peace-talkers,” however numerous and respectable. If the respective parties are restrained from mutual reviling and from a fight, the funeral is regarded as a successful one. The girl’s family complain of everything, the coffin, the clothing, the ornaments for the corpse, and all the appointments generally. But they are soothed by the comforting reminder that the dead are dead, and cannot be brought to life, and also that the resources of the family of the mother-in-law have been utterly exhausted, the last acre of land mortgaged to raise money for the funeral, and that they are loaded besides with a millstone of debt.

“It is an ancient observation that one-half the world does not know how the other half lives. It is quite possible to dwell among the Chinese for a long time without becoming practically acquainted with their modes of settling those difficulties to which their form of civilization makes them especially liable.

Image Sources: 1) Historical photos, Lotte Moon and University of Washington; 2) Posters, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; 3) Village woman, Beifan 4) Urban woman, cgstock.com http://www.cgstock.com/china ; Wiki Commons

Last updated September 2021

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