Written by Maria Giglio
International Women’s Day (IWD) will take place next Sunday. Every year, on 8th March the world commemorates the efforts of worldwide women’s movements in advancing gender equality. Although today it carries no flags, IWD was particularly meaningful in the context of socialist and communist ideologies as the emblem of social struggles during the 20th century. Some may turn up their noses to the significance of Women’s Day in modern days. If women were equal to men, what’s the need for a special day for women, you may ask. Sure, almost every woman in the world can cast a vote today. Women can drive buses, lead successful companies, go to space, and men can stay at home looking after children. However, gender inequality is also a matter of culture, of mindset. It follows women in many aspects of their daily lives, from family, to work and the street. IWD serves as a memento not only for the past, but also for the future, that women are, and must be, equal.
Now, moving on what is the meaning of IWD in China? Let’s just start from the fact that China’s history is as massive as its geographical extent, being characterised by great changes and overturns. For example, the establishment of Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1911) marked the end of the Han era, bringing a radical cultural makeover with the abandonment of Confucian tradition and lifestyle. Other important changes happened during the 20th Century, such as the fall of the Empire and constitution of the Republic (1911) and Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1949).
As you may imagine, the image, status and role of women in Chinese society changed throughout history. How come we moved from loose cut Hanfus, lotus feet to sexy Qipaos? This article is an overview of such (R)evolution.
Troublemakers: the Confucianist conception of women in Ancient China
Because in ancient times Chinese society was strictly patriarchal, history was men’s business: made and told by men. Women are not much talked about, except the times they cause trouble. As a result, the picture of women we get from early historical records is that of sorts of Messalinas: manipulative, unreliable, selfish.
The idea that women were somehow inherently bad and not to be trusted is nested in Confucian ideology. In Confucius Analects (17:12) we read:
“Shaoren and girls are difficult to handle. If you get familiar with them, they cease to be humble. If you keep them away, they get resentful.”
Confucian scholars followed the lead by constructing a conception of women as passive human beings, in need of guidance.
“The woman with no talent is the one who has merit.”
“Women are to be led and to follow others.”
In this context, the only social function attributed to women was connected to their unique ability to giving birth. As a result, women unable to have children were considered useless, a waste of society. Having a son, rather than a daughter, was a relief.
It’s a man’s man’s world. The Han Period
The necessary separation between men and women started to be expressed in terms of yin and yang. If men were strong leaders (yang), women were docile followers (yin). If men were action, women were stillness. Because entrenched in yin-yang culture, the distinction started to be endorsed and socially accepted as something natural, falling in the universal order of things. For the centuries to come, it would be featured in all Chinese social institutions.
During the Han period (202 BCE – 220 CE), women gained a new light as members of the family. Women could even be family heads if widowed before the coming of age of their eldest son. As mothers, wives and daughters, they would show virtues of obedience, humbleness, self-sacrifice, resignation for the sake of the family. As expressed in Confucian teachings:
“When young, a woman should obey the father, when married, the husband, when old, the son.”
Because Han laws allowed concubinage, the rule of virtues was instrumental to keep family women and especially wives from expressing their jealousy or conspiring against extra-marital offspring.
Women as doers. Rise and fall of women’s status.
In the Centuries following the Han period, women started to earn a different place in society. Girls would be now educated with their brothers, Buddhist nuns would provide spiritual guidance, entrepreneurial women would run their hotels.
Women were almost emancipated. However, by the beginning of the Song Period (960-1279), Neo-Confucian waves stroked again to revive the old idea of separation between men and women.
It is during that time that the practice of foot-binding started to spread, to continue until up recent times. Although never explicitly endorsed by Confucian scholars, foot-binding was socially perceived as a physical expression of Confucian virtues and soon became a way to distinguish virtuous women, worth to marry, from unvirtuous ones.
At the same time, a new belief caught on that while a man could marry twice, a woman could not. Although widow chastity was never formally enforced by law or endorsed by Neo-Confucian exponents, you can bet that widowhood could become a true nightmare for women, especially when childless. This is when the awful practice of widow suicides started to diffuse, being welcomed by many as the ultimate act of a woman’s self-abasement.
Art is an expression of feelings and most of the times of the painful kind. This is probably why, by the end of the Qing period (1644 – 1911), woman literature had proliferated in China. Generations of female novelists and poets from empresses to maids would find in writing a way to express their unspoken feelings, fears, and desire.
Uprising women: The Cultural Revolution
With the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911, the Country gained a new face. It was with the rise of the Communist party, though, that women could redesign their role within Chinese society.
Although International Women’s day had been officially recognised worldwide since 1914, in China it was marked as a holiday in 1922, following the example of the Soviet Union. There, women’s Day was regarded as an emblem of social struggles and the Communist fight. On March 8th 1917, a group of Russian women protested for ‘Bread and Peace’, opening the way to a series of revolts that would then lead to the October Revolution and the establishment of Lenin’s Communist regime.
In China, women were granted suffrage in 1947. In 1949, after the end of the civil war and the constitution of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Tse Tung, the International Women’s Day became an official holiday. Women also enjoy a half-day off for the occasion.
In Mandarin, the International Women’s Day is called 妇女节 (Fù nǚ jié). The characters used for woman, “妇女”( Fù nǚ), generally refer to married women and because of that, the day doesn’t resonate with young ladies. As a result, Chinese young folks created their own “Girl’s Day” (女生节, Nǚ shēng jié). This is celebrated on March 7th and, unlike IWD, it has nothing to do with politics. It developed during the 1990s in universities as a sort of Valentine’s day. On this day, students engage in bold courting activities, such as hanging huge red banners to declare their love to their fellow girls.
 Valeria Messalina was the third wife of Emperor Claudio. Cousin of Nero and second cousin of Caligula, she couldn’t fall too far from her genealogic tree: clever, charming and influential, Messalina had a reputation for being scheming and promiscuous. After discovering that her wife was conspiring against him, Claudio ordered her execution.
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