The Changing Role of Women in Chinese History
Those familiar with Pearl S. Buck's classic novel of Chinese life The Good Earth will recall that when female children were born, they were referred to with contempt and disappointment as "slaves." In Chinese culture since ancient times, that term was not much of an exaggeration for the role of women. In a classic Chinese work from 2,000 years ago by court historian Pan Chao, it is written: "Let a woman modestly yield to others. Let her respect others. Let her put others first, herself last. Should she do something good, let her not mention it. Should she do something bad, let her not deny it. Let her bear disgrace; let her even endure when others speak or do evil to her. Always let her seem to tremble and fear....If a wife does not serve her husband, then the proper relationship between man and woman is broken." Many women throughout Chinese history functioned as concubines. Men were allowed to take multiple wives, with the wives falling into a hierarchy amongst themselves based on such factors as the order in which they had been married, and which was the current favorite of the master of the household. Perhaps the best known symbol of the place of women in Chinese society was the custom of crippling women starting in childhood by "foot binding," where the arch of each foot was broken, and the feet bound to keep them from growing. The result was women who could not walk, or could at most hobble awkwardly a few steps in great pain. If left unbound, in adulthood the feet could partly heal and limited mobility return, so generally the binding was continued until the end of their lives. Foot binding at first was a practice of the aristocracy, where rendering a woman less functional was a status symbol in that it meant that a household was wealthy enough to afford the luxury of having some of its members serve primarily ornamental functions. But it eventually became common below that level as well, as ordinary...
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