Gender Roles in China: Comparing Literature
When China was an Empire, Confucianism was an official state ideology. It was admitted by the Han Dynasty. According to this ideology, women were in a subordinate position to men. They had a certain power as for the domestic and familial affairs, but women did not have any significant social, cultural and political roles; they did not have suffrage, as well as women could not hold any important posts in society. According to Confucianism, both men and women had strict gender roles and it was the cornerstone of the family. It was believed that firm traditional families and conformity to these gender roles had a significance of societal stability in the Chinese Empire. A Chinese woman was upholding certain subordination. First, to her father, before she got married. After the marriage, she was subordinate to her husband. The marriages in the Chinese Empire were usually arranged. The families were often agreeing to marriage even when their children, the future married couple, were kids. The arranged marriages were of great importance. They were not built on love and mutuality. The polygamy was normal in Imperial China. Also, according to the state ideology of that time, a woman cannot remarry, when her husband passes away. She was supposed to uphold the chastity after his death.
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Nowadays there are two types of marriages. Liberal marriage is based on one’s freedom to choose their spouses and most often is built on love and mutuality. The marriages arranged by the relatives in current days are not widely accepted. The arranged marriage usually consists of such important stages as information gathering, negotiation, engagement, wedding dowry agreement, and, finally, the wedding itself. Such marriages were usually arranged to obtain social status, wealth, respect; also, to ensure the survival and perpetuate the family name. Nevertheless, not always arranged marriages exclude love and true relationships.
We can see a good example in Six Records of a Floating Life, Shen Fu’s memoir of his life and relationship with his wife. Liberal marriages, on the other hand, not always lead to happiness and prosperity. After 1949, Chinese women became freer and liberating. They obtained the freedom to choose their spouses, as well as to divorce whenever they like. Despite all that freedom and availability of liberal marriages, not all of the relationships were happy and prolonged. There were many one-night romances, dating without obligations, divorces, even suicides, and homicides on these grounds. Mo Yan’s Big Breasts & Wide Hips, on the other hand, represents horrors of the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the impact of all of these events on the Chinese social life and the change of values inside the society.
Shen Fu’s autobiographical novel is an extraordinary story in a non-chronological order that represents feelings, cultural features, and philosophies of his time. “Shen Fu’s story is a portrait of lower literati lifestyle and consciousness” (“Chen Hongmou and Shen Fu: Elite Consciousness amid Social and Economic Change in Qing China” n.par.). The story is also considered as one of the best as for the description of life in the Qing Dynasty China. Six Records of a Floating Life describes his relationship with his beloved wife. Their marriage was arranged by their relatives when they were very young. However, Shen Fu describes his endless love for Chen Yun and his devotion to her. The story begins with Shen Fu’s self-deprecation.
He says that he never completed his studies and he regrets it (Fu n.p.). We can see that he was a failure in many ways, often in debts, but he was a dreamer and a romantic. In the story, “Shen Fu is often focused on the pleasurable things in life: his wife, gardening, socializing, traveling, and drinking” (“Chen Hongmou and Shen Fu: Elite Consciousness amid Social and Economic Change in Qing China” n.par.). Such narration reveals the philosophy of a lower literati class of Qing Dynasty China. Six Records of a Floating Life is a multi-faceted chronicle which helps to comprehend the difficulties and the features of Shen Fu’s life and the romance between him and his beloved Chen Yun.
The first chapter, The Joys of the Wedding Chamber, tells how Shen Fu first met his wife, Chen Yun, about their arranged marriage and their family life. He describes their time together, their love of poetry and art; he also provides a sentimental description of Chen’s unique charms and mannerisms. Through the description of his wife, we can see how strong and genuine his love for her, the value of his loyalty and devotion. Though their relatives arranged their marriage and his wife was his cousin at the same time, it is a good example of how such marriage can turn out to a good and lead to a true love relationship. However, despite Yun’s devotion to Shen Fu, much of her passion and romantic nature was expressed through her relationship with Hanyuan, a concubine that she attempted to gain for Shen Fu.
It is unclear, whether Chen Yun gained the concubine for her husband to ensure his stay at home or to herself in the first place. However, it seems that without Hanyuan, Chen Yun was fading in color. Having concubines was usual in Qing China. While traveling to find a job, Shen Fu was estranged from Chen Yun. It was prevalent in Qing China to provide the escort services of a female company. In the fourth chapter, Pleasures of Roaming, Shen describes his visit to a Guangdong province. It seems that his loneliness overcame him and he spends a night with a woman named Delight, who reminded him of his wife. We can see the contrast between the traditionalism and conservative Confucianism and the more contemporary cultural behavior of Shen Fu. However, he truly loved his wife.
Chen Yun and Shen Fu both were dreamers and romantics. However, they were “non-traditional in their approach to their family” (“Chen Hongmou and Shen Fu: Elite Consciousness amid Social and Economic Change in Qing China” n.par.). They were in a consistent conflict with Shen Fu’s relatives. “Shen Fu relies on his family as a means of economic support and professional opportunity, but his familial clash is in opposition to traditional morals” (“Chen Hongmou and Shen Fu: Elite Consciousness amid Social and Economic Change in Qing China” n.par.). After one misunderstanding, Shen Fu and Yun became alienated from Shen Fu’s family. They deeply stuck in the debts. Eventually, they resolved the conflict, but only after two years of estrangement. Through this part, we can see features of the relationship between a couple and their families, which were common for Imperial China. The solid traditional family was a significant issue for Chinese stable society. That is why such an incident is “surprising in a society and economy with the family at the center” (“Chen Hongmou and Shen Fu: Elite Consciousness amid Social and Economic Change in Qing China” n.par.).
Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips describes the horrors of the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, the Cultural Revolution, and the impact of all of these events on the Chinese social life and the change of values inside the society. The author genuinely represents violent and corrupt times through the chronicle of the Shangguan family. Through Jintong’s story, who is the main narrator, we can see how the values changed inside Chinese society and how life is hard, when the civil wars, political instability, and foreign invaders are tearing the country apart. The story focuses on Jintong’s childhood, which is rich in terror and violence.
The change in values inside the Chinese society and families, in particular, we can see through the life of the Shangguan family. Shangguan Lu, Jintong’s mother, is an unconventional character. She had eight children from eight different men. She is one of those, who are defying traditional values. She is “married into a traditional peasant family, unable to bear any child with her sterile husband, and is seduced or forced to sleep with other men, including her uncle” (Ng n.p.). We can see how the attitude to marriage and sex was changing during the wars and revolutions. Women are no more devoted and submissive to men, as they were earlier. We can see it through the Jintong mother’s “sweet memories of her romance with the foreign missionary” and her other affairs (Ng n.p.). This novel reveals quite a different attitude toward women’s role in society. We can see a significant change in the women’s representation in literature after all the wars, revolutions, and reforms.
The state marriages became more liberated, but not happier. The mother’s marriage is not love-based. Her true love was a Swedish missionary, Jintong’s real father.
Much as Mother hopes to maintain harmony within their extended family and assume the role of protector in the relationships between her daughters and their lovers, she is incapable of bringing their love affairs to happy endings… Tilting against the odds of political instability and national disintegration, flirtatious lovers and metaphorical marriages meet with tragic endings. (Ng n.p.)
The Third Sister gone mad after the unrequited love, she started to imagine that she is a bird (Yan n.p.). The change of values and immoral attitude to sex and relationships are well reasoned and brightly represented in Mo Yan’s novel. The Eldest Sister, just like her mother, is “daring in having sexual encounters” with different men and these episodes “take place in the heat of battle and their frenzied chase for wealth and fame” (Ng n.p.). Mo Yan with the help of “erotic passion and political turmoil” created a “monstrous history of modern China” (Ng n.p.).
Through Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips, we can see the impact of historical conditions and turn of culture into a modern one on marital relationships, society values, and gender roles. It is clear that women became more liberate; they became able to express their appeal and sexual desires. However, we cannot say that marriages became happier and life changed into good. In contrast, Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life represents a love-based relationship of Imperial China’s couple. The material security or social status were not primary concerns in this relationship, while in Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips all the affairs and sexual encounters were mostly a “chase for wealth and fame” (Ng n.p.). It is hard to say whether things in general changed for better, but through the comparing of these two significant literary works, it is visible how gender roles, marital relations, and social values changed.
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Chen Hongmou and Shen Fu: Elite Consciousness amid Social and Economic Change in Qing China 2012. Web.
Fu, Shen. Six Records of a Floating Life, New York: Penguin, 1983. Print
Ng, Kenny 2005, Big Breasts and Wide Hips. Web.
Yan, Mo. Big Breasts and Wide Hips, New York: Arcade, 2004. Print