CHAPTER VIII. THE WOMEN OF CHINA

Y.B.A.

The schools for native girls at Foochow and Yen-ping interested us greatly, even when we first came to China, but we could not appreciate then as we did later the epoch-making step toward civilization of these institutions.

How much the missionaries are able to accomplish from a religious standpoint is a question which we do not wish to discuss, but no one who has ever lived among them can deny that the opening of schools and the diffusing of western knowledge are potent factors in the development of the people. The Chinese were not slow even in the beginning to see the advantages of a foreign education for their boys and now, along the coast at least, some are beginning to make sacrifices for their daughters as well. The Woman's College, which was opened recently in Foochow, is one of the finest buildings of the Republic, and when one sees its bright-faced girls dressed in their quaint little pajama-like garments, it is difficult to realize that outside such schools they are still slaves in mind and body to those iron rules of Confucius which have molded the entire structure of Chinese society for over 2400 years.

The position of women in China today, and the rules which govern the household of every orthodox Chinese, are the direct heritage of Confucianism. The following translation by Professor J. Legge from the Narratives of the Confucian School, chapter 26, is illuminating:

    Confucius said: "Man is the representative of heaven and is supreme
    over all things. Woman yields obedience to the instructions of man and
    helps to carry out his principles. On this account she can determine
    nothing of herself and is subject to the rule of the three obediences.

    "(1) When young she must obey her father and her elder brother;

    "(2) When married, she must obey her husband;

    "(3) When her husband is dead she must obey her son.

    "She may not think of marrying a second time. No instructions or orders
    must issue from the harem. Women's business is simply the preparation
    and supplying of drink and food. Beyond the threshold of her apartments
    she shall not be known for evil or for good. She may not cross the
    boundaries of a state to attend a funeral. She may take no steps on her
    own motive and may come to no conclusion on her own deliberation."

    The grounds for divorce as stated by Confucius are:

    "(1) Disobedience to her husband's parents;

    "(2) Not giving birth to a son;

    "(3) Dissolute conduct;

    "(4) Jealousy of her husband's attentions (to the other inmates at his
    harem);

    "(5) Talkativeness, and

    "(6) Thieving."

A Chinese bride owes implicit obedience to her mother-in-law, and as she is often reared by her husband's family, or else married to him as a mere child, and is under the complete control of his mother for a considerable period of her existence, her life in many instances is one of intolerable misery. There is generally little or no consideration for a girl under the best of circumstances until she becomes the mother of a male child; her condition then improves but she approaches happiness only when she in turn occupies the enviable position of mother-in-law.

It is difficult to imagine a life of greater dreariness and vacuity than that of the average Chinese woman. Owing to her bound feet and resultant helplessness, if she is not obliged to work she rarely stirs from the narrow confinement of her courtyard, and perhaps in her entire life she may not go a mile from the house to which she was brought a bride, except for the periodical visits to her father's home.

It has been aptly said that there are no real homes in China and it is not surprising that, ignored and despised for centuries, the Chinese woman shows no ability to improve the squalor of her surroundings. She passes her life in a dark, smoke-filled dwelling with broken furniture and a mud floor, together with pigs, chickens and babies enjoying a limited sphere of action under the tables and chairs, or in the tumble-down courtyard without. Her work is actually never done and a Chinese bride, bright and attractive at twenty, will be old and faded at thirty.

But without doubt the crowning evil which attends woman's condition in China is foot binding, and nothing can be offered in extenuation of this abominable custom. It is said to have originated one thousand years before the Christian era and has persisted until the present day in spite of the efforts directed against it. The Empress Dowager issued edicts strongly advising its discontinuation, the "Natural Foot Society," which was formed about fifteen years ago, has endeavored to educate public opinion, and the missionaries refuse to admit girls so mutilated to their schools; but nevertheless the reform has made little progress beyond the coast cities. "Precedent" and the fear of not obtaining suitable husbands for their daughters are responsible for the continuation of the evil, and it is estimated that there are still about seventy-four millions of girls and women who are crippled in this way.

The feet are bandaged between the ages of five and seven. The toes are bent under the sole of the foot and after two or three years the heel and instep are so forced together that a dollar can be placed in the cleft; gradually also the lower limbs shrink away until only the bones remain.

The suffering of the children is intense. We often passed through streets full of laughing boys and tiny girls where others, a few years older, were sitting on the doorsteps or curbstones holding their tortured feet and crying bitterly. In some instances out-houses are constructed a considerable distance from the family dwelling where the girls must sleep during their first crippled years in order that their moans may not disturb the other members of the family. The child's only relief is to hang her feet over the edge of the bed in order to stop the circulation and induce numbness, or to seek oblivion from opium.

If the custom were a fad which affected only the wealthy classes it would be reprehensible enough, but it curses rich and poor alike, and almost every day we saw heavily laden coolie women steadying themselves by means of a staff, hobbling stiff-kneed along the roads or laboring in the fields.

Although the agitation against foot binding is undoubtedly making itself felt to a certain extent in the coast provinces, in Yuen-nan the horrible practice continues unabated. During the year in which we traveled through a large part of the province, wherever there were Chinese we saw bound feet. And the fact that virtually every girl over eight years old was mutilated in this way is satisfactory evidence that reform ideas have not penetrated to this remote part of the Republic.

I know of nothing which so rouses one's indignation because of its senselessness and brutality, and China can never hope to take her place among civilized nations until she has abandoned this barbarous custom and liberated her women from their infamous subjection.

There has been much criticism of foreign education because the girls who have had its advantages absorb western ideas so completely that they dislike to return to their homes where the ordinary conditions of a Chinese household exist. Nevertheless, if the women of China are ever to be emancipated it must come through their own education as well as that of the men.

One of the first results of foreign influence is to delay marriage, and in some instances the early betrothal with its attendant miseries. The evil which results from this custom can hardly be overestimated. It happens not infrequently that two children are betrothed in infancy, the respective families being in like circumstances at the time. The opportunity perhaps is offered to the girl to attend school and she may even go through college, but an inexorable custom brings her back to her parents' home, forces her to submit to the engagement made in babyhood and perhaps ruins her life through marriage with a man of no higher social status or intelligence than a coolie.

Among the few girls imbued with western civilization a spirit of revolt is slowly growing, and while it is impossible for them to break down the barriers of ages, yet in many instances they waive aside what would seem an unsurmountable precedent and insist upon having some voice in the choosing of their husbands.

While in Yen-ping we were invited to attend the semi-foreign wedding of a girl who had been brought up in the Woman's School and who was qualified to be a "Bible Woman" or native Christian teacher. It was whispered that she had actually met her betrothed on several occasions, but on their wedding day no trace of recognition was visible, and the marriage was performed with all the punctilious Chinese observances compatible with a Christian ceremony.

Precedent required of this little bride, although she might have been radiantly happy at heart, and undoubtedly was, to appear tearful and shrinking and as she was escorted up the aisle by her bridesmaid one might have thought she was being led to slaughter. White is not becoming to the Chinese and besides it is a sign of mourning, so she had chosen pink for her wedding gown and had a brilliant pink veil over her carefully oiled hair.

After the ceremony the bride and bridegroom proceeded downstairs to the joyous strain of the wedding march, but with nothing joyous in their demeanor - in fact they appeared like two wooden images at the reception and endured for over an hour the stares and loud criticism of the guests. He assumed during the ordeal a look of bored indifference while the little bride sat with her head bowed on her breast, apparently terror stricken. But once she raised her face and I saw a merry twinkle in her shining black eyes that made me realize that perhaps it wasn't all quite so frightful as she would have us believe. I often wonder what sort of a life she is leading in her far away Chinese courtyard.