Ancient China’s “Virtuous” Women

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by Sun Jiahui

“Female virtue schools” have been known to make headlines in China’s media. In the name of spreading Chinese traditional culture, they promoted “virtues” like “never quarrel with your husband”, “be submissive” and “don’t get divorced”. Outrage erupted as soon as these principles were exposed, because for any Chinese individual, these codes sound very familiar. They were exactly the fetters that Chinese women spent thousands of years trying to escape from.

Being a good woman in the feudal society could be super hard given the strict standards of being “good”. The basic requirements were summarized as “Three Obediences and Four Virtues (三从四德)”. The “Three Obediences” were “obey your father before marriage (未嫁从父); obey your husband when married (既嫁从夫); and obey your sons in widowhood (夫死从子)”.  And the “Four Virtues” were “Female virtues (妇德)”, “Female words (妇言)”, “Female appearances (妇容)” and “Female work (妇功)”.

Obey your father before marriage

For unmarried women, obedience to their parents was the most important sign of filial piety. From their daily lives to decisions about marriage, free will was never encouraged. If a girl talked back to her  parents or left home without the parents knowing, she would be regarded as being of poor stock. As for marriage, “making a marital decision all by themselves (私定终身)” was even immoral. People, especially women, who did that, were considered shameless and humiliated the whole family.

Daughters also needed to take good care of their parents. If something happened to them, they were encouraged to step forward or even sacrifice themselves for their parents. Like Ti Ying, from the Han Dynasty, who saved her father by writing a persuasive treatise addressed to the emperor on the ethics of punishment, and Cao E, who committed suicide by jumping into the river after her father drowned there, were all set as good examples of filial daughters.

Obey your husband in marriage

After getting married, the obedience was transferred to their husbands. Before the wedding, the mother of the bride would educate her daughter “not to defy your husband”.

It seemed that wives should be respectful all the time. Some clues could be found in the idiom “举案齐眉 (Holding the tray up to the eyebrows)”, which is used to describe the ideal relations between husband and wife.

The idiom originated in the Eastern Han Dynasty. A young scholar Liang Hong married a well-educated woman named Meng Guang. Every day when he came home, Meng Guang served him food with her head bowed and holding the tray up to her eyebrows to show respect for him.

Respect was just the first step. The “obedience to husband” also meant that the wife should be loyal to her husband, even after he died. Though a widow was allowed to get married again, people spoke highly of those who stay in widowhood. The value of chastity had huge influence on traditional women. “从一而终(be faithful to only one person until death)” was many people’s creed. Women who commit suicide after her husband died were praised as chaste women.

In the History of Song, there were 55 women recorded for not remarrying and “staying loyal” to their dead husbands. And the number raised to 178 in the History of Yuan and to 308 in the History of Ming. This kind of suicidal practice was regarded as honorable. In the Ming Dynasty, the government even regulated that if the woman became a widow before 30 and didn’t get married again, the servitude of the family could be exempted. So in many cases, even if the women themselves didn’t want to stay single, their family members would force them to. A particular piece of architecture called the “chastity memorial archway (贞节牌坊)” was sometimes built in honor of these dutiful women.

Obey your son in widowhood

After her husband died, the person they should obey changed again. In the male-dominated society, after the father died, the son naturally became the master of the family. Though the traditional morals also required the son to respect his mother, as for making a decision, it was the son’s call.

You may have found that the “Three Obediences” went throughout the whole life of a woman. There was not even a minute they could take control of their own life, unless all her male relatives died. But obedience was not enough. There also some specific requirements, the “Four Virtues”.

Female Virtues

In ancient times, “virtue (德)” was raised to a height superior to anything else, and sometimes put on the opposite of the concept of “talent (才)”. The book Female Precepts (《女诫》) clearly wrote that “A good woman doesn’t need any special talents” and the folk saying “A woman without talents is virtuous (女子无才便是德)” is still widely known today. Ironically, the author of Women Precepts, Ban Zhao was a very talented woman herself.

As society developed, the standards became more and more detailed. As a daughter-in-law, the woman should be submissive to her in-laws; as a formal wife, she should accept the concubines of her husband without jealousy; as a mother she should teach her children in the “proper” way and if she was a stepmother, she should treat her stepchildren the same as her own kids. If the family was poor, she should stay with her husband without complaints; but if they became rich, she should remain thrifty and diligent.

Female words

To some extent, Chinese people don’t value eloquence. They instead stress that careless talk leads to misfortune. When it comes to women, eloquence was never a merit. A certain term “long-tongue woman (长舌妇)” was created to describe women who talk behind people and stir up enmity, but there is not a counterpart term for men.

In any book related to females and speaking, you find that the only requirement was “don’t talk too much” or “talk properly”. By “talking too much”, it sometimes meant that a woman judged or criticized other family members in front of her husband, which was definitely unacceptable because it would break the harmony of the family. If a woman is believed to be “talking too much”, it’s lawful for her husband to divorce her.

Female appearance

According to Confucian beliefs, a man should care about his wife’s virtue instead of her appearance. So a woman shouldn’t pay much attention to her appearance. She just needed to be clean, neat and average-looking. If a woman is too beautiful, chances were that they could be combined with misfortune and evil.

In many stories, a decent man who married an ugly but virtuous woman is highly complimented. But there was an unsurprisingly popular guideline for men: Marry a virtuous woman as your formal wife; and marry a beautiful woman as your concubine (娶妻娶德,纳妾纳色).

Female work

In China, a good wife is called “贤内助”, literally meaning “great domestic assistant”. According to the traditional social division of labor, it was the wife’s obligation to manage the home affairs, including looking after the family members, cleaning the house, treating guests and preparing for the sacrifice ceremonies.

Ban Zhao said a housewife didn’t need to be too capable, “focusing on working and no distraction” was enough. But actually if a housewife was not efficient enough, she would be accused of being stupid or lazy, which would affect her reputation badly.

Thousands of years have passed. But even today, when people compliment a good woman, the word “贤妻良母 (a good wife and mother)” is frequently used, denoting that women are still evaluated based on their identity as a wife or mother instead of themselves. Of course, a lot of changes have happened, but we are still looking forward to seeing more.

theworldofchinese.com

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