A criticism of female oppression in ancient China
When reading both Lu Hsun’s story of the “New Year’s Sacrifice” and Mary Daly’s impassioned article about footbinding, I found myself moved to extremes of emotion in more ways than one, but one peskily pervasive sensation proved common to both, and it was one that I had long since thought to be extinct in myself: the feeling of righteous indignation, bordering on rage, on the behalf of women. Understand, please, that I by no means wish to dishonor my sex in making this claim, but I consider myself to be a proud anti-feminist, as I see no benefit to empowering the ostensibly ‘weaker’ sex by denouncing, dismissing, and demonifying the views and feelings of men, and simultaneously reinforcing societal conventions of feminine weakness by relentlessly branding women as ‘vulnerable’ and in need of safe spaces and protection. That being said, however, the treatment of women in ancient China, as portrayed by both of these articles, could never feasibly be said to anything less than utterly deplorable. Women were treated as playthings, as chattel, as beings of nothing more than monetary worth; they were “grotesquely crippled from very early childhood,” and made into objects of the fetishistic carnal desires of a patriarchal society (Daly 135). No matter how culturally rich as China may have been in its days of pre-Communist glory, its callous attitude towards societal abuse of women is a tarnished blight on the face of its golden outward image, one that no amount of historical pussyfooting can ever hope to hide.
The depiction of female suppression in New Year’s Sacrifice was nowhere near as brutally graphic as it was in Daly’s article, but it was precisely that puissance of indifference, of apathy, which was woven into the fabric of the tale that could easily be construed by the feminist mind as loathsome. The sole female character of note, Hsiang Ling’s Wife, was never named, and no one seemed particularly keen to learn her name; she was defined purely by her role as wife, as mother, as worker: subject to the whims and wills of all around her, even as she grew too feeble in mind and body to work and was forced to wander the streets of Luchen, forlornly babbling the tragic tale of her son’s death to anyone who would (or wouldn’t) care to listen. She was described, after her ill-timed and largely unexplained death, as a “tiresome and worn-out toy” by the narrator, and as the story began to delve into her life, she was assigned value in much the same way that one would assess an animal for work, being praised for her “big strong feet and hands” and “meek expression…(showing) every sign of being tractable and hardworking” (Hsun 130-131). Her intelligence was only considered a virtue insofar as it blessed her with the ability to serve attentively and work well; in essence, she was viewed as an object by the society to which she was bound: fit to serve, fit to be negotiated for, but easy enough to cast off when her usefulness ran out.
Of course, casting a woman aside for failing to maintain the standard of perfect obedience and utility expected of her is all well and good if no other harm is done to her, but actively crippling her to forcibly induce submission and dependence in spheres mental, emotional, and physical, is another matter entirely. Though I cannot help but laugh slightly at Daly’s overly opinionated, even radical, outcry against the patriarchal structure of Chinese society (or, indeed, the dominance-- nay, presence-- of men in society at large) in her facilely flippant inclusion of such statements as “men prefer women to be bent badly “out of shape” on all levels-- physical, mental, and spiritual” and “it was men who desired this portion of the mutilated female anatomy,” in which a puissant misandry is palpably present...I cannot bring myself to truly contest any of the claims she makes regarding the utter wrongness of this systematic subjugation of womens’ wills (Daly 145). Crippled and condemned to lifelong agony from childhood, Chinese girls learned quickly that one ought to “never trust a woman,” cementing their bondage to the word and whim of the men in their lives without ever clueing them into the scope of the patriarchal abuse they were made to suffer at these same mens’ hands. What sort of society, one might be tempted to ask, would permit, even insist upon (for unbound women were, for a long while, considered ugly and therefore unmarriageable) such grossly degenerate methods as these to dominate a group that had done no real wrong? Why was ancient China so obsessed with patriarchy and filial and/or spousal obeisance, that it could mistreat its women with such complacent ease?
While these are not questions that I was able to answer fully in reading these pieces-- nor, indeed, questions that could be answered fully without carrying out a great deal of extraneous historical research-- I was struck by the fact that China’s misogynistic practices dated back to Confucian times and teachings. Confucius, half-divine editor though he was, had precious little to say about women in his meticulous prescriptions of the Way, and what he did say tended toward the tyrannical, suggesting that one of two scenarios could come about: that women were meant to be either wholly obedient and subservient to the men in their lives, or that they were inferior and unclean beings prone to getting “out of hand” if they were treated with kindness, or becoming resentful and contrary when distanced (Waley 217). Such derogatory views were intrinsic aspects of Chinese schools of thought for centuries, so really, it’s little wonder that mistreatment and oppression of women occurred so blithely, and with so little contestation, for so great a period of time...though of course, that does little to change the fact that it was, is, and always will be incontestably WRONG.