Daughter of Han, on Confucian Values

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No matter what one's social status was, if one was born in China pre twentieth century, one would have at least rudimentary knowledge of Confucian gender values, whether through direct study or through traditions that were already soaked in Confucian ideology. In upper-class society, daughters are taught through study of classical Confucian texts and as a result most have a great understanding and following of those values; sons are likewise taught their role and are required to follow it if they desire to move up in society. In the lower social strata, it is a bit more difficult to tell how integrated Confucian gender values are because one can see from accounts by upper class scholars, artists, and during late-Imperial China, foreigners, that many of the lower class are in situations where the strict following of Confucian gender values would make it impossible to survive. Men had an easier time following their role according to Confucian values except when it came to coming in contact with women. This was because women themselves had a much harder time staying true to Confucian gender rules to the letter. Lower class women in many cases could not stay in the inner quarters out of sight of men, for most had to work outside those quarters to support their family. In A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Women, one finally gets a first-hand look at the life of a lower class woman in late-Imperial China. Through analysis Ning Lao T'ai-t'ai's life, I've come be believe that despite the unavoidability of women working outside their homes and the resulting occasional close contact with men outside the home, Confucian values were still a great and important part of the lower class population's own individual values, showing that until the era of Ning's granddaughter, which could be considered modern China, Confucian gender values truly were deeply disseminated into the minds of the lower social classes.

Most of Ning Lao T'ai-t'ai's pre-marriage experiences differ very little from those of girls from upper class families. She was allowed to play and be around other children regardless of gender till about the age of thirteen, when her hair was braided and she was taught to cook and sew—by fifteen she was married. As show in Precious Records by Susan Mann, this is the general routine for girls, regardless of class.1 During the time of her mother's death, Ning kept by her side and made sure she was properly prepared for her "journey" to the after-life. In the early years of her married life, despite the hardships she had to go through, she kept true to the Confucian gender code of women staying within the household. She states: "A woman could not go out of the court…We women knew nothing but to comb our hair and bind our feet and wait at home for our men"2.

As time moved on and she finally decided to go out and find work to support herself and her children, her life improved. Her experiences through those years till her family was finally established with the marrying of her son, the youngest child, are similar to those of another woman Gu Ruopu, who in "Letter to My Sons" in Mann's and Cheng's Under Confucian Eyes wrote about her toils and reasons for going through them3. Ning herself, in following Confucian beliefs on a primary duty of women, says: "It is the destiny of woman and her happiness to carry on the life stream"4. This was obviously accepted by women throughout China because most women ever since ancient times till the era Ning lived in have been pregnant at least ten times5.

Ning also knows about, although she does not follow herself, the rules regarding women staying within the household and matters of widow chastity. She herself was a chaste widow even though she does not make such a matter a big deal since her husband was not a very good man in her mind. In these experiences Ning recounts for us in her autobiography one can see that at least in the areas of family duties...
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