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Women of the Late Ming-Qing Period of Imperial China

Info: 2873 words (11 pages) Essay
Published: 26th Oct 2021 in History

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Figures arising from the May Fourth Movement equated China's plight to that of the Chinese woman. Victimised, miserable, 'raped' and dominated by virile foreign powers.[1] Mao and followers of the May Fourth Movement thus promised to both liberate China and its women.[2] This political evocation of the Chinese woman, however, should not be taken as a reflection of reality. There certainly is some validity to this perspective, with patriarchal and inequitable Confucianism a defining characteristic of traditional Chinese society. However, this is at best a partial view of women's experience.

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Despite the many real constraints placed on women at the time, they nevertheless displayed enormous capacity for agency in many different areas of traditional Chinese society. I shall define agency as denoting individual capacity for free thought and action.[3] By examining bride-selling, literature, and courtesan culture, this essay seeks to discuss how women exercised their agency and desires during the late-Ming and Qing period.

May Fourth radicals invoked the practice of bride-selling as evidence of ''the victimised woman in old China'', holding it to stand for everything wrong with the ancient regime. [4] This was commonplace in Chinese society, especially among the poor, with impoverished men often selling their wives in order to survive. The commoditisation of Chinese women may appear superficially to further oppress women. However, most of the evidence about wife sales suggests something both more complex and more interesting than simple victimisation. [5]

Sommer's analysis of this practice builds on the revisionist insight that there was real scope for female agency within the constraints of the old gender order. A crucial aspect to note is that such transactions were not necessarily forced marriages, with phrases such as 'voluntary and acting of my free will'' (xin'gan qingyuan) common in bride-sale contracts. [6] This highlights that many such bride-sales were not yet another manifestation of misogyny in a highly patriarchal society, but rather presented women with the element of choice. Furthermore, such transactions were an area in which women demonstrated a real capacity for agency. Often, a bride-sale would work in a woman's favour, allowing her to exchange an impoverished man for greater financial security and living conditions. As a result, women would commonly be the initiators of such transactions.

This can be seen in the case of Liui Shi, who ''absolutely refused to continue suffering in poverty''[7] with her husband. As a result, she consistently quarrelled and repeatedly threatened suicide, even feigning an attempt at this, which forced her husband to sell her. [8] This demonstrates the agency possessed by this Shi during this period. By utilising what the May Fourth movement viewed as highly oppressive, she was able to execute this sale, thereby guaranteeing herself a more prosperous and financially stable life.

On the opposite end, many women did not want to be sold, and deployed various tactics to prevent their sale. In a 1774 case from Shaoyang County, Xu Shi refused to be sold by her husband Deng Tiangxiang, and fled to her natal family.[9] After a few days, Xu returned with her father who agreed with Deng's family that his daughter would not be married off, leading Deng to proclaim: ''after that, I didn't dare try to sell my wife in marriage again."[10] This further highlights the capacity for agency by women within such transactions.

Different behaviours and actions would yield different results, and many women would utilise this to their advantage in order to reach what they deemed to be a favourable outcome. We should however be careful of creating a binary, juxtaposing the May Fourth narrative against one where women were highly empowered and liberated, as this is simply ahistorical. While women did regularly exercise their agency within the bride-sale context, the overarching structures were nonetheless highly oppressive. The necessary tactics used belies the ultimately subjugated position of women. However, with an understanding of the overarching patriarchy in place, we can come to understand how such actions demonstrated women's desires and capacity for agency, subverting the previous narrative which did not see this as possible.

Women also expressed their agency during this period through literature, specifically poetry. Education as a discipline was strongly patriarchal, with women categorically barred from all access to a public career.[11] They lived in what one feminist critic refers to as ''a fundamental structure of exclusion''.[12] However, cultural historians like Ko and Mann have helped shed light on the ways in which women expressed their agency through literary works, by drawing on the poetry and other writings by Ming-Qing women as major historical sources. [13]

Grace Fong believes that, for many women (and men), a strong connection exists between writing and structures of desire and agency in imperial China.[14] The classical Chinese conception of poetry had a strongly embedded autobiographical element, [15] and this was utilised by women to achieve posthumous immortality. This can be seen through Gan Lirou's poetry collection, Yongxuelo gao, wherein we witness the capacity for agency for a woman through her poetry.[16]

Her autobiographical representation indicates her desire to carve out a place for herself in familial and cultural memory.[17] Furthermore, the structure of her work; navigating the various stages of the life of a woman, indicates a strong sense of subjective womanhood, and the lived experience of a woman, which further highlights Lirou's expression of agency.

Critical reflections on the literature of other writers was another expression of agency by Chinese women. Women were also able to transform this gendered critical space they had created into a communal site where they could connect with each other and express more gender-specific views on and concerns with writing. [18] The new conscious regard that women had for other women's literary efforts expresses a sense of themselves as belonging to a gendered community that transcends family, age, class, and region, however unevenly experienced.[19] This further highlights the use of literature as a medium for expressing agency among women. Despite the many social, psychological, and practical barriers,[20] through their literature Chinese women of this era were able to express both their individual desires and thoughts, as well as connect with a shared sense of womanhood.

Courtesans were uniquely able to express agency, especially during the late-Ming period, due to their indispensable integrative function in society, bringing together the public and private lives of the male elites, as well as the oral and visual arts favoured by the urban commoner and the scholar-gentry's literary tradition. [21] By moving in the same cultural universe as privileged men,[22] many courtesans developed extensive networks and expansionary worldviews. This allowed them to express their agency in ways not possible for gentrywomen or non-courtesans generally.

Liu Rushi is a strong example of this. By utilising the resources available to her, she was able to play an important role in the southern-Ming insurrection against the Qing. Not only did Liu aid clandestine plotters of Ming restoration in the late 1640s and 1650s, but she also convinced her husband Qian to join her. [23] Furthermore, she helped coordinate sympathisers under the guise of poetry parties.[24] Through these actions, Liu Rushi demonstrated that political activity was not the exclusive concern of public men, but rather another means through which women could express their agency. Paradoxically, despite enjoying many more freedoms than most women, they were still highly dependent on men. [25]

Ultimately, it was powerful men that gave power to courtesans, which highlights that these women were still subjugated by patriarchal structures. Courtesan system was a mechanism pitting one woman against another in competition for men's attention, which damaged the sense of solidarity and collective womanhood.[26] Nevertheless, the increased opportunities afforded to courtesans did allow these women to push the boundaries, and focus on their self-expression.

When attempting to determine how much agency women possessed in this period, we must be careful not to create binaries. Woman as the perennial victim, or woman as the unrestricted agent, are both too simplistic views of the situation. The truth rather lies somewhere in-between.

By examining these 3 aspects of Chinese society; bride-selling, literature, and courtesan culture, we witness the various ways in which women acted as agents and expressed their own desires. However, in each of these instances, we also witness the ways in which these same mediums were systematically biased towards women.

Bride-selling was still slanted against women, literature did not allow women to bypass restrictions on public careers, and the power of courtesan culture was reliant on powerful men. Despite this, women still expressed a high degree of agency wherever they could. We can conclude that the broader structures in place were repressed women, but within these structures women were able to carve out a place for themselves. Despite the limitations placed on Chinese women, they consistently found ways to express themselves and determine their fate from within these confines. "The victimised woman in old China" may be downtrodden, but she is not compliant.

Bibliography

Dorothy Ko, Teachers of the inner chambers : women and culture in seventeenthcentury China, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).

Ankit Panda,The Legacy of China's May Fourth Movement, Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2015/05/the-legacy-of-chinas-may-fourthmovement/ (Accessed: 15 November 2019).

Steve Bruce, Steven Yearley, Agency and Structure in The SAGE Dictionary of Sociology, Available at: http://0-sk.sagepub.com.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/reference/the-sage-dictionary-ofsociology/n35.xml?term=agency (Accessed: 12 November 2019).

Matthew H. Sommer, Polyandry and wife-selling in Qing dynasty China: survival strategies and judicial interventions, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).

Grace S. Fong, Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008).

Matthew Sommer, Sex, law, and society in late imperial China , (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).


[1] Dorothy Ko, Teachers of the inner chambers : women and culture in seventeenth-century China, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 2.

[2] Ankit Panda,The Legacy of China's May Fourth Movement, Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2015/05/the-legacy-of-chinas-may-fourth-movement/ (Accessed: 15 November 2019).

[3] Steve Bruce, Steven Yearley, Agency and Structure in The SAGE Dictionary of Sociology, Available at: http://0-sk.sagepub.com.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/reference/the-sage-dictionary-ofsociology/n35.xml?term=agency (Accessed: 12 November 2019).

[4] Matthew H. Sommer, Polyandry and wife-selling in Qing dynasty China: survival strategies and judicial interventions, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), p. 211.

[5] Sommer, Polyandry and wife-selling pp. 211

[6] Sommer, Polyandry and wife-selling pp. 142

[7] Sommer, Polyandry and wife-selling pp. 217

[8] Sommer, Polyandry and wife-selling pp. 217

[9] Sommer, Polyandry and wife-selling pp. 223

[10] Sommer, Polyandry and wife-selling pp. 224

[11] Grace S. Fong, Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), p. 1.

[12] Fong, Herself an Author pp.1

[13] Fong, Herself an Author pp.2

[14] Fong, Herself an Author pp.4

[15] Fong, Herself an Author pp.9

[16] Fong, Herself an Author pp.11

[17] Fong, Herself an Author pp.13

[18] Fong, Herself an Author pp.122

[19] Fong, Herself an Author pp.122

[20] Fong, Herself an Author pp.122

[21] Ko, Teachers of the inner chambers pp. 255

[22] Ko, Teachers of the inner chambers pp. 257

[23] Ko, Teachers of the inner chambers pp. 281

[24] Ko, Teachers of the inner chambers pp. 281

[25] Ko, Teachers of the inner chambers pp. 274

[26] Ko, Teachers of the inner chambers pp. 260

 

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