The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | Asia | Women and Children

5: Women and Children

<< 4: A.D. 220-1200 || 6: Literature and Education >>

The Chinese are very fond of animals, and especially of birds; and on the whole they may be said to be kind to their animals, though cases of ill-treatment occur. At the same time it must be carefully remembered that such quantum of humanity as they may exhibit is entirely of their own making; there is no law to act persuasively on brutal natures, and there is no Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to see that any such law is enforced. A very large number of beautiful birds, mostly songless, are found in various parts of China, and a great variety of fishes in the rivers and on the coast. Wild animals are represented by the tiger (in both north and south), the panther and the bear, and even the elephant and the rhinoceros may be found in the extreme south-west. The wolf and the fox, the latter dreaded as an uncanny beast, are very widely distributed.

Still less would there be any ground for establishing a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the very name of which would make an ordinary, unsophisticated Chinaman stare. Chinese parents are, if anything, over-indulgent to their children. The father is, indeed, popularly known as the "Severe One," and it is a Confucian tradition that he should not spare the rod and so spoil the child, but he draws the line at a poker; and although as a father he possesses the power of life and death over his offspring, such punishments as are inflicted are usually of the mildest description. The mother, the "Gentle One," is, speaking broadly, a soft-hearted, sweet-natured specimen of humanity; one of those women to whom hundreds of Europeans owe deep debts of gratitude for the care and affection lavished upon their alien children. In the absence of the Severe One, it falls to her to chastise when necessary; and we even read of a son who wept, not because his mother hurt him, but because, owing to her advanced age, she was no longer able to hit him hard enough!

Among other atrocious libels which have fastened upon the fair fame of the Chinese people, first and foremost stands the charge of female infanticide, now happily, though still slowly, fading from the calculations of those who seek the truth. Fifty years ago it was generally believed that the Chinese hated their female children, and got rid of them in early infancy by wholesale murder. It may be admitted at once that boys are preferred to girls, inasmuch as they carry on the family line, and see that the worship of ancestors is regularly performed in due season. Also, because girls require dowries, which they take away with them for the benefit of other families than their own; hence the saying, "There is no thief like a family of five daughters," and the term "lose-money goods," as jestingly applied to girls, against which may be set another term, "a thousand ounces of gold," which is commonly used of a daughter. Of course it is the boy who is specially wanted in a family; and little boys are often dressed as little girls, in order to deceive the angels of disease and death, who, it is hoped, may thus pass them over as of less account.

To return to the belief formerly held that female infanticide was rampant all over China. The next step was for the honest observer to admit that it was not known in his own particular district, but to declare that it was largely practised elsewhere. This view, however, lost its validity when residents "elsewhere" had to allow that no traces of infanticide could be found in their neighbourhood; and so on. Luckily, still greater comfort is to be found in the following argument,—a rare example of proving a negative—from which it will be readily seen that female infanticide on any abnormal scale is quite beyond the bounds of the possible. Those who have even a bowing acquaintance with Chinese social life will grant that every boy, at about the age of eighteen, is provided by his parents with a wife. They must also concede the notorious fact that many well-to-do Chinese take one or more concubines. The Emperor, indeed, is allowed seventy; but this number exists only on paper as a regulation maximum. Now, if every Chinaman has one wife, and many have two, over and above the host of girls said to be annually sacrificed as worthless babies, it must follow that the proportion of girls born in China enormously outnumbers the proportion of boys, whereas in the rest of the world boys are well known to be always in the majority. After this, it is perhaps superfluous to state that, apart from the natural love of the parent, a girl is really, even at a very early age, a marketable commodity. Girls are sometimes sold into other families to be brought up as wives for the sons; more often, to be used as servants, under what is of course a form of slavery, qualified by the important condition, which can be enforced by law, that when of a marriageable age, the girl's master shall find her a husband. Illegitimate children, the source of so much baby-farming and infanticide elsewhere, are practically unknown in China; and the same may be said of divorce. A woman cannot legally divorce her husband. In rare cases she will leave him, and return to her family, in spite of the fact that he can legally insist upon her return; for she knows well that if her case is good, the husband will not dare to risk the scandal of an exposure, not to mention the almost certain vengeance of her affronted kinsmen. It is also the fear of such vengeance that prevents mothers- in-law from ill-treating the girls who pass into their new homes rather as servants than daughters to the husband's mother. Every woman, as indeed every man, has one final appeal by which to punish an oppressor. She may commit suicide, there being no canon, legal or moral, against self-slaughter; and in China, where, contrary to widespread notions on the subject, human life is held in the highest degree sacred, this course is sure to entail trouble and expense, and possibly severe punishment, if the aggrieved parties are not promptly conciliated by a heavy money payment.

A man may divorce his wife for one of the seven following reasons:— Want of children, adultery, neglect of his parents, nagging, thieving (i.e. supplying her own family with his goods, popularly known as "leakage"), jealous temper and leprosy. To the above, the humanity of the lawgiver has affixed three qualifying conditions. He may not put her away on any of the above grounds if she has duly passed through the period of mourning for his parents; if he has grown rich since their marriage; if she has no longer any home to which she can return.

Altogether, the Chinese woman has by no means such a bad time as is generally supposed to be the case. Even in the eye of the law, she has this advantage over a man, that she cannot be imprisoned except for high treason and adultery, and is to all intents and purposes exempt from the punishment of the bamboo. Included in this exemption are the aged and the young, the sick, the hungry and naked, and those who have already suffered violence, as in a brawl. Further, in a well-known handbook, magistrates are advised to postpone, in certain circumstances, the infliction of corporal punishment; as for instance, when either the prisoner or they themselves may be under the influence of excitement, anger or drink.

The bamboo is the only instrument with which physical punishment may legally be inflicted; and its infliction on a prisoner or recalcitrant witness, in order to extort evidence, constitutes what has long been dignified as "torture;" but even that is now, under a changing system, about to disappear. This must not be taken to mean that torture, in our sense of the term, has never been applied in China. The real facts of the case are these. Torture, except as already described, being constitutionally illegal, no magistrate would venture to resort to it if there were any chance of his successful impeachment before the higher authorities, upon which he would be cashiered and his official career brought abruptly to an end. Torture, therefore, would have no terrors for the ordinary citizen of good repute and with a backing of substantial friends; but for the outcast, the rebel, the highway robber (against whom every man's hand would be), the disreputable native of a distant province, and also for the outer barbarian (e.g. the captives at the Summer Palace in 1860), another tale must be told. No consequences, except perhaps promotion, would follow from too rigorous treatment in such cases as these.

Resort to the bamboo as a means of extorting the confession of a prisoner is regarded by the people rather as the magistrate's confession of his own incapacity. The education of the official, too easily and too freely turned into ridicule, gives him an insight into human nature which, coupled with a little experience, renders him extremely formidable to the shifty criminal or the crafty litigant. As a rule, he finds no need for the application of pain. There is a quaint story illustrative of such judicial methods as would be sure to meet with full approbation in China. A magistrate, who after several hearings had failed to discover, among a gang accused of murder, what was essential to the completion of the case, namely, the actual hand which struck the fatal blow, notified the prisoners that he was about to invoke the assistance of the spirits, with a view to elicit the truth. Accordingly, he caused the accused men, dressed in the black clothes of criminals, to be led into a large barn, and arranged around it, face to the wall. Having then told them that an accusing angel would shortly come among them, and mark the back of the guilty man, he went outside and had the door shut, and the place darkened. After a short interval, when the door was thrown open, and the men were summoned to come forth, it was seen directly that one of the number had a white mark on his back. This man, in order to make all secure, had turned his back to the wall, not knowing, what the magistrate well knew, that the wall had been newly white-washed.

As to the punishment of crime by flogging, a sentence of one or two hundred—even more—blows would seem to be cruel and disgusting; happily, it may be taken for granted that such ferocious sentences are executed only in such cases as have been mentioned above. An acute observer, for many years a member of the municipal police force in Shanghai, whose duty it was to see that floggings were administered to Chinese criminals, stated plainly in a public report that the bamboo is not necessarily a severe ordeal, and that one hundred blows are at times inflicted so lightly as to leave scarcely a mark behind, though the recipient howls loudly all the time. Those criminals who have money can always manage to square the gaoler; and the gaoler has acquired a certain knack in laying on, the upshot being great cry and little wool, very satisfactory to the culprit. Even were we to accept the cruellest estimate in regard to punishment by the bamboo, it would only go to show that humanitarian feelings in China are lagging somewhat behind our own. In The Times of March 1, 1811, we read that, for allowing French prisoners to escape from Dartmoor, three men of the Nottingham militia were sentenced to receive 900 lashes each, and that one of them actually received 450 lashes in the presence of pickets from every regiment in the garrison. On New Year's Day, 1911, a eunuch attempted to assassinate one of the Imperial Princes. For this he was sentenced to be beaten to death, some such ferocious punishment being necessary, in Chinese eyes, to vindicate the majesty of the law. That end having been attained, the sentence was commuted to eighty blows with the bamboo and deportation to northern Manchuria.

The Chinese woman often, in mature life, wields enormous influence over the family, males included, and is a kind of private Empress Dowager. A man knows, says the proverb, but a woman knows better. As a widow in early life, her lot is not quite so pleasant. It is not thought desirable for widows to remarry; but if she remains single, she becomes "a rudderless boat;" round which gathers much calumny. Many young women brave public opinion, and enter into second nuptials. If they are bent upon remarrying, runs the saying, they can no more be prevented than the sky can be prevented from raining.

The days of "golden lilies," as the artificially small feet of Chinese women are called, are generally believed to date from the tenth century A.D., though some writers have endeavoured to place the custom many centuries earlier. It must always be carefully remembered that Manchu women—the women of the dynasty which has ruled since 1644—do not compress their feet. Consequently, the empresses of modern times have feet of the natural size; neither is the practice in force among the Hakkas, a race said to have migrated from the north of China to the south in the thirteenth century; nor among the hill tribes; nor among the boating population of Canton and elsewhere. Small feet are thus in no way associated with aristocracy or gentleness of birth; neither is there any foundation for the generally received opinion that the Chinese lame their women in this way to keep them from gadding about. Small-footed women may be seen carrying quite heavy burdens, and even working in the fields; not to mention that many are employed as nurses for small children. Another explanation is that women with bound feet bear finer children and stronger; but the real reason lies in another direction, quite beyond the scope of this book. The question of charm may be taken into consideration, for any Chinaman will bear witness to the seductive effect of a gaily-dressed girl picking her way on tiny feet some three inches in length, her swaying movements and delightful appearance of instability conveying a general sense of delicate grace quite beyond expression in words.

The lady of the tenth century, to whom the origin of small feet is ascribed, wished to make her own feet like two new moons; but whether she actually bound them, as at the present day, is purely a matter of conjecture. The modern style of binding inflicts great pain for a long time upon the little girls who have to endure it. They become very shy on the subject, and will on no account show their bare feet, though Manchu women and others with full-sized feet frequently walk about unshod, and the boat-girls at Canton and elsewhere never seem to wear shoes or stockings at all.

The "pigtail," or long plait of hair worn by all Chinamen, for the abolition of which many advanced reformers are now earnestly pleading, is an institution of comparatively modern date. It was imposed by the victorious Manchu-Tartars when they finally established their dynasty in 1644, not so much as a badge of conquest, still less of servitude, but as a means of obliterating, so far as possible, the most patent distinction between the two races, and of unifying the appearance, if not the aspirations, of the subjects of the Son of Heaven. This obligation was for some time strenuously resisted by the natives of Amoy, Swatow, and elsewhere in that neighbourhood. At length, when compelled to yield, it is said that they sullenly wound their queues round their heads and covered them with turbans, which are still worn by natives of those parts.

The peculiar custom of shaving the head in front, and allowing the hair to grow long behind, is said to have been adopted by the Manchus out of affectionate gratitude to the horse, an animal which has played an all-important part in the history and achievements of the race. This view is greatly reinforced by the cut of the modern official sleeves, which hang down, concealing the hands, and are shaped exactly like a pair of horse's hoofs.

In many respects the Manchu conquerors left the Chinese to follow their own customs. No attempt was made to coerce Chinese women, who dress their hair in styles totally different from that of the Manchu women; there are, too, some tolerated differences between the dress of the Manchu and Chinese men, but these are such as readily escape notice. Neither was any attempt made in the opening years of the conquest to interfere with foot-binding by Chinese women; but in 1664 an edict was issued forbidding the practice. Readers may draw their own conclusions, when it is added that four years after the edict was withdrawn. Hopes are now widely and earnestly entertained that with the dawn of the new era, this cruel custom will become a thing of the past; it is, however, to be feared that those who have been urging on this desirable reform may be, like all reformers, a little too sanguine of immediate success, and that a comparatively long period will have to go by before the last traces of foot-binding disappear altogether. Meanwhile, it seems that the Government has taken the important step of refusing admission to the public schools of all girls whose feet are bound.

The disappearance of the queue is another thing altogether. It is not a native Chinese institution; there would be no violation of any cherished tradition of antiquity if it were once and for ever discarded. On the contrary, if the Chinese do not intend to follow the Japanese and take to foreign clothes, there might be a return to the old style of doing the hair. The former dress of the Japanese was one of the numerous items borrowed by them from China; it was indeed the national dress of the Chinese for some three hundred years, between A.D. 600-900. One little difficulty will vanish with the queue. A Chinese coolie will tie his tail round his head when engaged on work in which he requires to keep it out of the way, and the habit has become of real importance with the use of modern machinery; but on the arrival of his master, he should at once drop it, out of respect, a piece of politeness not always exhibited in the presence of a foreign employer. The agitation, now in progress, for the final abolition of the queue may be due to one or all of the following reasons. Intelligent Chinese may have come to realize that the fashion is cumbrous and out of date. Sensitive Chinese may fear that it makes them ridiculous in the eyes of foreigners. Political Chinese, who would gladly see the re-establishment of a native dynasty, may look to its disappearance as the first step towards throwing off the Manchu yoke.

On the whole, the ruling Manchus have shown themselves very careful not to wound the susceptibilities of their Chinese subjects. Besides allowing the women to retain their own costume, and the dead, men and women alike, to be buried in the costume of the previous dynasty, it was agreed from the very first that no Chinese concubines should be taken into the Palace. This last condition seems to be a concession pure and simple to the conquered; there is little doubt, however, that the wily Manchus were only too ready to exclude a very dangerous possibility of political intrigue.

<< 4: A.D. 220-1200 || 6: Literature and Education >>