Popular Science Monthly/Volume 82/January 1913/The Position of Women in China




SOME sage has said "A nation stands as high as its women." In making up an estimate of China at a time when she is earnestly desiring recognition as a republic, it may not be out of place to consider the position of women with a view to judging the chances which the new government has for stability.

Every one is familiar with the story and the personality of the late Empress Dowager, who, for nearly half a century, swayed the destiny of China's 400,000,000 people at perhaps the most critical times in their country's history. It was during the first years of her regency that the formidable Taiping rebellion was finally put down, thus insuring the integrity of the empire from within. It was also during her term of power that China suffered many humiliating experiences at the hands of foreign countries, including Japan, but nevertheless China as an empire was left practically intact. During her last term of regency, the government committed itself to modern western education and to constitutional government. It was a powerful personality that could hold the empire to the old way when a vigorous young party was striving to uproot old customs and law, and in turn could bring the old conservative party to heel when the change to new ways was finally determined upon. This could not have happened where women have no rights, honor or privileges.

What the empress did in her exalted station, any strong woman can do in whatever station she may be born. We hear, therefore, of women occasionally becoming the head of a family or clan, for something of the old-style patriarchal family is the prevalent form in China and is composed of grandparents, married sons and their families, and perhaps also younger brothers or cousins. The three submissions of which one hears so much in the orient, means that a woman must submit to the authority of the head of the family, be he her father, husband or son. A woman does not usually become the head of a family unless she is the widow of the former head and she rises to this position only if she is the strongest personality by far in the group. The writer does happen to know a forceful young Chinese woman who is known all over the country side as "the Christian girl who runs a farm alone and is the head of a family." Before her, the grandmother had been the ruler of the clan and had been honored by the erection of a "pailow," or three stone arches, by order of the emperor.

But in the main it is due to her position as the mother and grandmother of sons that she is honored, and every Chinese woman prays for the gift of male offspring as Hannah of old must have prayed for Samuel. In reading the legends, biographies and anecdotes of Chinese life, one is struck with the respect paid to the mother as well as with the love rendered her by her children. In the works of the two great sages, Confucius and Mencius, love, reverence and obedience are enjoined as the due of both parents. The funeral rights of both parents are to be duly celebrated, and the ancestral tablet of the mother is always placed by that of the father and reverence is given to both.

In the history of China we read of several great empresses and empress dowagers who added to the luster of the renowned people of Han. In the ancient Book of Poetry, which is one of the great classics of the world, many women are celebrated in song for their piety and virtue, their wifely devotion, or motherly tenderness. There is a book of memoirs of distinguished women written about 125 B.C. and I know of no other book in any language at that time dealing with the greatness and goodness of women. Likewise the first book on the education of women is said to have been written in this language about two centuries later by a celebrated poetess and historian, Pan Chao, who for her learning and piety was appointed preceptress of the empress and honored by the emperor with the title of the Great Lady Tsao. Thus we see that in olden times the women of this country held a relatively high position, perhaps as high as the women in any pre-Christian civilization ever held.

But there is a somewhat darker side to be shown, when we come to speak of the modern Chinese woman as other than a mother. The childless wife of a rich man, or one who has borne him no sons, lives in fear lest he will take other wives. The presence of secondary wives, for according to law it is impossible for a man to have more than one legal wife, does not make for harmony in the household, especially if they succeed in alienating the affections of the husband. Divorce of the first wife is almost unheard of, and as the greatest crime a man can commit is to bear no sons, the practise of polygamy is defended on the highest ethical and religious grounds. The secondary wife is said to have no legal standing, but her children are considered just as legitimate as those of the first wife, to whom indeed they are said to belong. We have to picture to ourselves conditions somewhat as shown in the Biblical story of the patriarch Jacob and his wives and their handmaidens.

If the lot of the first wife is not always enviable, one can imagine that the concubines are not exactly happy. They are expected to be obedient to the headwife who rules the inner apartments, or women's quarters. In some cases they are little more than high-class servants and are often drawn from a class of society lower than the husband. Sometimes they are secured at brothels where they have captured the fancy of a rich man by their beauty and accomplishments. In some families, however, the wives are said to live in happiness and harmony, and it has been the writer's privilege to know a Chinese Christian lady who showed the greatest kindness to the wives whom her Confucian husband had brought home, although his conduct had almost broken her heart.

On the whole, Chinese women are raising their voices against polygamy, as are the modern educated young men. It is difficult to see how a radical change can be effected very rapidly without entailing great suffering on helpless women, for the organization of a government may be changed quickly, but not that of domestic life. With the greater education of women which will make them to a certain extent economically independent, and with the example of western life, which every year is making more impression on the people, we may confidently expect the ultimate decision of this oriental people will be in favor of monogamy. It is needless to say that Christianity will teach this, as the missionaries are committed to an uncompromising opposition to all secondary marriages.

As everywhere, perhaps, the great middle class are the happiest in their domestic relations. The husband is too poor to buy other wives and maintain them, so that a male child is often adopted, from the clan if possible, to carry on the ancestor worship and perpetuate the name. The wife among the very poor may be sold as a slave and the money taken to buy another wife. If left a widow without grown sons, she may be sold as a wife again by her husband's relatives before the grass has grown green on his grave. Nowadays, there is a law to prevent a woman's being sold against her will, but often among the poor there is no alternative.

But the burden of all China's poverty seems to me to rest most heavily on the young girl. As an infant, if there are too many mouths to feed, her life is snuffed out in its first hours. In times of poverty and stress of famine, the first resort is to sell the little girls. If not as a wife, then as a slave or concubine. It does not require much imagination to picture what a little slave girl may suffer if her owners are unkind and she is sold about from one to another. On the other hand, she may come into a good family and occupy a useful and honorable position. There is a law that no maid slave shall be denied the right of marriage, and if she is attractive it may be to one of the men of the family. If the little girl is sold as a child wife, her lot may be very unhappy, for her mother-in-law is likely to make her the drudge of the family, and her husband, if he feels any affection, is never supposed to interfere in her behalf, as that only makes matters worse. The birth of a son is the great alleviating factor, for then a woman has performed the chief function in life.

One is not to suppose that the evils here mentioned, such as infanticide and girl slavery, denote any particular cruelty of nature on the part of the Chinese people. Nearly all nations at some time in their history have practised infanticide, and slavery has not long been banished from our midst. The factors which have combined to keep up these practises may be traced back perhaps to the religion of the country which is that of ancestor worship. To this is due the over-population of the country in part; to this is due the marked preference for male rather than female offspring, as it is only through the former that the ancestor worship may be maintained; to this is due the early child marriages and secondary marriages, both of which tend to crush the young girl. It is knowing these facts, which impell the thinking people of Christian lands to feel the burden of sending to non-Christian countries those apostles who shall preach a religion of the spirit which knows no distinction of sex, or class, or race. To the teaching of a spiritual religion must be added the teaching of modern science and economics, for the practical mind of the Chinese can sometimes be reached by scientific laws and cold statistics where prayer and preaching fail.

The life of the daughter of the rich is not so bad, aside from the suffering of that ridiculous and antiquated practise of footbinding. So far as I know, no explanation has ever been found of this cruel custom and, besides the real suffering which the child undergoes, the individual is maimed for life and suffers not only the inconvenience of crippled feet, but also in general health from lack of exercise. In some families the daughters are given a little education in books as well as music and embroidery and, since the desire for the modern learning is spreading, it is said that every palace and official residence in Peking is filled with girls and women anxious to learn and who are studying as best they can.

It is certainly true that the educated women of China are making a name and a place for themselves and are working hard to better the condition of women as a whole. A visitor to that country to-day will find Chinese women as the heads of hospitals and in some cases also conducting nurses' training schools. They are principals of large government or private schools for girls, and many of them are doing excellent work. A few young women have graduated from American colleges, but the majority of principals and teachers are the products of mission or government schools. The very wealthy of course have private tutors and some of the most zealous women in founding schools for girls have been from princely families.

The ladies in their homes are also working for reforms and thousands signed petitions sent to England protesting against the opium trade which that country forces on China. They are forming anti-cigarette leagues and holding meetings at which some of them preside and speak with great intelligence and dignity. They are zealous in the anti-footbinding societies and take an active part in church and philanthropic work if they are Christians. Nor should one forget to speak of the women in the church who go about as teachers of the Bible or on errands of mercy to the poor and suffering. Some of these are ladies of fine families and great learning, while others are poor country women, whose chief qualifications are a tender heart and a sympathetic mind rather than literary attainments.

During the late revolution the women bore no inconsiderable part. They were active in plotting and many women dedicated their fortunes and their lives to the dangerous work of propagating revolutionary doctrines or smuggling in arms from foreign countries. Young women everywhere were determined to enlist as soldiers, and in a few places "Amazon corps" were formed. Many others offered their services as nurses and the trained nurses and Bible women are said to have done effective work. Public meetings were held in all the large cities at which women spoke in behalf of the revolution, and wealthy women pledged their jewels to raise the much needed funds.

One of the most hopeful signs of all is the fact that the government promises to provide educational advantages for all girls in the same schools with the little boys until the age of ten, and afterwards by a separate system which is to end for the present in a higher normal school for girls. There seems to be a really awakened conscience on the matter of the education of women and there is something pathetic in the pleas which the educated young men of China are making that their wives and sisters may be educated. With their modern education, they are beginning to realize what it means to a man to have an uneducated woman for a wife or as the mother of their children. They are not ambitious therefore for an education which shall fit women for public positions so much as for good home makers. They realize that in China's present condition woman's greatest work lies in establishing new ideals of home life.

China has always been a moral rather than a religious nation, which means that the family rather than the individual sense has been developed. This may militate against the rapid growth of freedom for women in public life, but in the end will give her a secure and honored position. Perhaps the greatest problem in that country at present is the struggle which is on between family loyalty and individualism. It is hoped that this agitation will not so shake the moral foundations of the people that it will bring on a demoralization before it has had time to adjust itself to that broad socialism which is founded on individualism rather than is opposed to it. In the trying time that is coming, we believe that the women may hold the power to regulate the pace of the change which is inevitable. For the women of China are strongly moral, and the power of women in moral things has been recognized by the Chinese. One writer says: "Purification of morals, from the time of creation until now, has always come from woman."