For Easter weekend, Josh and I drove to Dallas to spend the time with my sister and her family. While driving along Hwy 20 I read this slim volume about how Chinese women were expected to conduct themselves two thousand years ago. I have a feeling Chinese women no longer conduct themselves this way any longer. I wonder if they ever really did?
The Chinese Book of Etiquette and Conduct for Women and Girls: Entitled Instruction for Chinese Women and Girls by Lady Tsao
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Written almost 2000 years ago during the Han dynasty, Lady Tsao was a widower and brother of Pang Ku who was president of Hanlin College, the first college of the empire. Pang had been writing the history of the Han dynasty when he became blind. He recommended his sister to the Emperor as a qualified writer and historian to complete the task. Due to the request and gifts of the Han Emperor, Lady Tsao came out of her self-imposed isolation after the death of her husband to finish the Han histories. Her writing so satisfied the emperor that he asked her to serve as an "Instructor of Women." This book is a compilation of her teachings.
It was translated into English one hundred years ago by a Mrs. S.L. Baldwin who served as a Chinese Missionary many years. Her vocabulary in the introduction will probably come across as archaic and even offensive to some (as she refers to the Chinese as heathens), however, she is more complimentary toward the Chinese than she is negative, considering their culture as far more advanced in literature, education and etiquette at a time when the West was still suffering barbaric invasions and widespread illiteracy.
The purpose of the book, while not stated explicitly, seems to imply that the translator wanted to provide the West with a better comprehension of Chinese culture and to hopefully enable them to appreciate and understand a country that, at the time, must have seemed wholly foreign to them.
The book is divided into several sections that instruct woman as to how they should conduct themselves as daughters, wives and mothers. One chapter describes the cultivation of virtue, another the sort of work a women should employ herself with, another on how to behave towards her parents, her in-laws and finally on how to treat her husband.
Largely, a woman's role was to be subservient to everyone. She should not talk, and then only quietly, behind a fan. As a child, she should not run, shout, play or leave the house but only quietly work with her hands.
As a wife she should carefully prepare her husband's food to be ready when he arrives from work, making sure it stays warm. She should feed him first, then her children and finally herself.
As a daughter-in-law she should rise early, before her in-laws and prepare their food and wait for them to help them with dressing, and also to clean their rooms and make their beds. At night she should anticipate their return to the bedroom and should dress down the beds for their rest and have tea ready.
A woman or girl should never leave her house or talk to strangers. She should rarely talk and then only in the most formal of manners. In all things she should show only a gentleness of manner that creates harmony wherever she goes.
I think you get the idea. The part about making silk was interesting. I was hoping for more enlightenment on particular cultural practices, but only got a primer on how woman should act with everyone: as a quiet, gentle servant.
One wonders how many women put this into actual practice.
I hope not many. Not because women should not be altruistic. Harmony is created in a family when each member acts selflessly, but because if a woman were to actually carry out this sort of conduct she and her family members would tragically remain strangers to each other.
Formal manners are fine for company, but couldn't a wife and husband act a little more naturally toward each other?
Sadly, I think many cultures have created these kind of barriers between the sexes and perhaps is why these same countries have a long historical practice of prostitution. I mean, who's a man going to talk to when his wife only acts in the most reserved manner towards him?
Nevertheless, whether this code of conduct was more theoretical than practical, it is interesting to read what was at least expected of women during a certain epoch of time. Knowing the ideal of a country allows one to better understand the values that helped shape its culture.
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