Over the past two years, so-called "Female Virtues classes" have become popular across China, particularly among the less-educated. The classes mainly promote antiquated ideas about how women should be submissive. It's obviously a shrewd businessmen's way of cashing in — but the fact that flocks of women attend them also demonstrates a certain deep-seated ethical confusion amidst China is swept up in an ongoing economic boom.
BEIJING — Even during the ancient era of the Xia-Shang-Zhou dynasties, spanning from 2,070 to 256 BC, China was already a patriarchal society. However, the strict requirements of what came to be known as "female virtues" probably didn't develop until the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD). Before this time, even if the customary ideas of human morality and proper conduct existed, Chinese society's constraints on females was relatively loose. From the aristocracy down to the common people, illicit sexual relations or elopement were not unusual.
The bedroom frolicking explicitly described in the Shijing — the "Classic of Poetry," the oldest Chinese collection of poems dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC — prompted this reaction from Confucius: "In one word, it’s natural." One of the princesses of the Emperor Jing of West Han (188-141 BC) even bluntly sought favors and a high position for her lover. One frequently discovers realistic and illicit sexual scenes inscribed on ancient Han tombstones. They are comparable to China's later development of erotic paintings. At that time, women had a certain social status and were entitled to a share of the family heritage. They were also consulted about whom they would marry.
After the Later Han, the situation started to change. Keeping women in line eventually became a virtual state ideology. Women were required to follow the “Three Obediences and Four Virtues” which were "to obey one’s father before getting married, to obey one’s husband once married, to obey one’s son if one’s husband dies, as well as to practice the four virtues of female morality, female proper speech, female appearance and manner, as well as female diligence."
The stress on women’s morality and virtue was upgraded to become a matter of great importance that could ultimately affect a country’s rise and fall. In her small book Lessons for Women, Ban Zhao, sister of a famous Han dynasty historian Ban Gu, further elaborated on the “Three Obediences and Four Virtues”. She wrote seven chapters guiding women in what they should abide by. In her opinion, the burden of society’s morals mostly lies with women.
Is that true? Certainly not. The point is that such words both please men and give them weapons to suppress women and maintain their own dominance in society.
Ever since these ideas spread, Chinese history has been written by and about men. Were women to appear, they were to be associated with some “disaster.” Famous beauties in Chinese histories such as Xishi, Diao Chan or Yang Yuhuan were blamed for the demise of dynasties. Their appearances in the history books were there only to carry the infamy of being responsible for a nation's subjugation.
A family's honor
From the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 AD) onwards, women's fate dramatically worsened. Foot-binding started to be promoted and enforced. In the beginning, foot-binding was aimed at creating sexual desire among men. But it was soon found that this was also a good way to prevent women from eloping. Even if they did, it would be very easy to get them back.
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This awful practice started off in the upper classes but soon spread to the bottom of society. Without undergoing the suffering of small feet, a woman's chance of getting married was reduced to zero — thus forcing parents to harden their hearts and wrap up and deform their daughters' feet at a toddler's age to stop their development.
To guarantee that women abided by the female virtues, the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1912) dynasties began major efforts to reward female paragons of chastity, including widows who did not remarry and even unmarried girls who lost departed fiancés. Role models could be awarded a memorial arch by the court in the name of the emperor, and the longer a woman buried her youth and future, the more recognized she was.
The perversity did not stop here. An honest woman subjected to rape was to commit suicide, as quickly as possible, by hanging herself or jumping into a well. Therefore, whenever bandits attacked or wars occurred, it was not uncommon for fathers to force their wives and daughters to kill themselves to save the family honor before the marauders even broke in.
Now, hints of this ugly past are returning to modern China. Over the past two years, "Female Virtues classes" have sprung up around the country. Despite often high prices, women have flocked in. One can stare dumbfounded at what these classes are promoting. It is exactly the same anachronistic dross of the Chinese tradition, packaged as the Four Principles: "Don't fight back when beaten, Don't talk back when reviled, get ready to conform to a husband's authority and never get divorced".
Though no more memorial arches are likely to be erected again for female paragons, alas, too many Chinese women remain convinced that any moral lapse of a society lies solely with the women.