Yin and Yang
The fraught issue of gender in imperial China. And a little note on time!
Back to School!
My learning journey at Stanford continued in the late spring with a class on gender issues in Imperial China. What follows below is based on the class and my term paper (so it reads a bit term paper-y, but hopefully still interesting!). But before we get to that, I will digress for a moment and touch on the issue of time.
In other words: where is the time for such things in my insanely busy life (specifically Amasia, for which I am in “always on” mode)?
At one level, the answer is simple: time has not expanded, and I have the same number of hours in the day, so doing this program takes the place of something else. And what disappears during a course is virtually any leisure reading. I used to have a lot of that, sniff.
What also disappears during a course is the idea of a “vacation” — I take very few of those in any case. Also, what is this “weekend” concept that people speak so highly of?
At another level, the MLA program, as it has unfolded in my case, is a live example of the truths in the notion that the liberal arts, and specifically the humanities, make you a better human being, and make you better at the *other* things in your life. It has made me a better writer; a better thinker; and a better analyzer.
I might be at the point where I am ready to make the case that this learning journey has made me a better VC. This is interesting because received wisdom might suggest I’d be better off taking a course in, say, machine learning. Or AI. Or any of the other myriad trends of the moment. Something to think about, as they say.
And there is surprisingly direct relevance to business issues. In this example: to understand modern China, it stands to reason that one needs to understand historical China.
Suppose you are someone who wouldn’t know (for instance) what a Qing emperor was even if one were to spontaneously materialize and bite you in a sensitive part of your anatomy. In that case, you’ll want to fill this gap if China’s doings affect your business.
Now back to gender issues in Imperial China!
The course had two parallel threads: one involving historical and sociological inquiry and the other encompassing works of art — fiction and film. Here I want to talk about the latter.
What are these works? Well, there are literary ones, such as The Peony Pavilion and Six Records of a Floating Life, written in the late Ming and mid-Qing, respectively. In these, we find women asserting personal autonomy and acting differently than one would expect from the historical record (such as it is).
We were also lucky enough to watch and analyze a group of films, the best known of which was Raise the Red Lantern. The films revealed turbulence and complexity in women’s lives during the Revolutionary period — not quite imperial China but the interregnum that came after.
In my view, all these works aren’t just mirrors of the Chinese society within which they were created. They do not simply add ornamental heft to what we can glean from historical archives. Rather these works of art contested the prevailing norms of their time and possibly helped alter perspectives on gender roles.
In autocratic societies, art of this sort, in the hands of authors or auteurs willing to challenge the status quo, is a means of subversion. Perhaps it is so in all societies; but it takes on a particular edge in societies where this sort of subversion can result in death.
A bit of background is helpful. Well-defined and entrenched gender roles have been fundamental to the societal structure in China. A deep-rooted patriarchal system, built upon Confucian ideology, ensured men were viewed as superior to women in most aspects of life.
This is, of course, not specific to China at all! Gerda Lerner, for instance, is writing about Western civilization when she tells us that “patriarchal concepts are, therefore, built into all the mental constructs of that civilization in such a way as to remain largely invisible.”
In China, the state itself imposed and reinforced male dominance. Awards were given for virtue and morality — honors of this sort were essential in defining what qualified as female virtue and served to celebrate patriarchal norms. The state perpetuated these norms, constrained women into tightly defined roles, inherent inferiority, and lack of agency.
Revisionist scholars have argued against a monochromatic view of Chinese society and have sought to show agency on the part of women. These arguments have merit, but the limited agency did not change the realities of the system.
The imperial era produced enduring literature; those we covered in our course each took on different concerns about gender norms.
Tang Xianzu’s Peony Pavilion subtly — but clearly — argues for female autonomy. Du Liniang (or “Bridal Du”), the main character, acts in ways that suggest independence of thought and action rather than passively accepting fate.
She dies of lovesickness, with the concept of enduring love in itself an act of rebellion against how Chinese marriages were typically arranged. She dreams of pre-marital sex with Liu Mengmei (the hero). She argues with, and ultimately overcomes, her father (“Prefect Du”). While Liu is unquestionably the catalyst and driver in recovering Bridal Du from the underworld, Bridal Du is hardly a passive character to whom things are done.
Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life presents a view of marital relationships that pushes against the grain of tradition. Shen Fu’s bond with his wife, Chen Yun, is built on mutual respect and equality that contradicts the accepted narrative of Chinese marriages.
He wants her to sleep more, but she demurs; in response “so every morning I got up early with her, and from that time on we were inseparable, like a man and his shadow.” He also highlights Chen Yun’s interests in the arts and intellectual pursuits rather than exclusively celebrating her domestic and household roles.
For us in the here and now, this might seem like little. But for that place and time, this was all extraordinary behavior. One proof point is that authorities noted and acted upon the variance from norms. For instance, Peony Pavilion and The Story of the Stone were banned in the Ming and Qing.
The authors of these works took on significant risks in writing as they did — and in imperial China, that could mean death.
The 20th-century works of literature we studied concentrated on a transition period — the late Qing and then the Revolutionary era, including the time of the May Fourth movement. By this time, in part catalyzed by male feminists looking to drag China into modernity, the position of women was beginning to change.
Works from the imperial period are necessarily subversive in presenting challenges to gender norms. On the other hand, literary works from the revolutionary period appear to be much more overt in taking on Confucian patriarchy and even pushing beyond to issues and views that we view as relevant in our own time.
For instance, Ding Ling’s “Miss Sophia’s Diary” presents a story that could have easily been placed in a contemporary Western setting. Sophia wants “a man who would really understand me.” She is remarkably explicit throughout about her sexual desire for Ling Jishi, and sexual desire in general, as when she chides Yufang about her and Yunlin’s self-imposed abstinence.
Sophia is in a position to act as she chooses throughout the story and does so right to the end when she decides “to take a train south, somewhere where no one knows me.”
We are told that Ding Ling “ransack[ed] Flaubert’s Madame Bovary” in writing this story and that “May Fourth feminists looked to Western literature for models of modern behavior.” This in no way reduces the power of Ding Ling’s portrayal of Sophia as independent, autonomous, free of societal constraints, and comfortable with sexuality.
In other words, almost the precise opposite of what Confucian norms would dictate for a young single woman.
The films were made in 1991 and 1986, respectively. Societal norms had, by then, changed very dramatically. Yet there is still much to be learned about how the lives and roles of women in the Revolutionary period are now viewed.
In Red Lantern, Songlian’s character exemplifies a category of young women caught in a genuinely excruciating bind — partially educated but then forced into a traditional marriage for economic reasons.
The entirety of the arrangement is portrayed as a terrible injustice — the husband is a negative character, the dynamic between the four wives diminishes each of them in different ways, sexuality is presented as a male prerogative, and the one other central female character, a maidservant, also comes to a tragic end.
In Girl from Hunan, we have a happier ending in that most of the characters do not reach the horrible ends we find in Red Lantern (the miserable deaths of the third wife and the maidservant, and insanity in the case of Songlian). That is a modestly hopeful sign of accepting changing mores for women.
While the character of Xiao Xiao does not have the same independent mien as Songlian, the general tenor of the family setup, and reactions to violations of norms, is one of a gradual understanding and acceptance of changing times.
Both films, as mentioned, look back at the Revolutionary period from the post-Mao era. There are therefore other agendas at work here.
These agendas might include the authorities’ desire to portray the Revolutionary period as a time of change and confusion (and a battle against ignorance) that only concluded upon the glorious rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Yet both works resonate with a modern viewer by communicating a sense of realism, that this was in fact how it was.
Throughout history, China has operated under a series of authoritarian regimes where the penalties for questioning the prevailing order could, and did, include death.
Yet the authors of the works described here deployed their art provocatively to contest norms, inspire reflection, and contribute to a slow transformation of societal perspectives on gender roles.
In Peony Pavilion, Bridal Du is a young woman who pursues her dream to death and beyond. She is not presented as a virago, but she is not afraid to argue with her father, Prefect Du, to achieve that dream.
Chen Yun, in Six Records of a Floating Life, is a woman with a range of intellectual and artistic interests that lead her husband, Shen Fu, to treat her as an equal. All these portrayals were contrary to accepted customs for how women should live and behave.
In the Revolutionary period, writers were more free to push the envelope. The eponymous protagonist in Ding Ling’s “Miss Sophia’s Diary” is a modern woman in many ways. When placed against works from the imperial era, her behavior and language have the power to shock.
While the two films we looked at were made in the post-Mao era and carried water for the Deng Xiaoping-led regime of that period, both present moving insights into the struggles of women during the Revolutionary period.
The tragic character of Songlian in Red Lantern helps us better understand how young educated women could be caught in a terrible bind as societal transformation proceeded in fits and starts. In Girl from Hunan, we see how societal change might have been effected in rural China — through grudging reactions to specific conditions.
I come back at the end to what I said in the beginning — to understand today’s China, it is essential to understand the China of yesterday and yesteryear.
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