Gender over the Life Cycle

According to the Chinese Classic for Girls (Nu er Jing), the ideal qualities of women over the life-cycle is the "three obediences and four virtues." The "three obediences" prescribe that a Chinese woman obeys the authority of her father when young, her husband when married, and her sons when widowed. The four virtues required her to behave in total compliance with the rules, speaking properly, knowing her place, and performing her domestic duties.

A girl learned at a very young age that she would eventually marry and move to another household. To a large extent she was raised to become the wife of a stranger and daughter-in-law of another family. Marriage was the most important event in a Chinese woman's life; it entailed the transformation of a young girl to a mature woman. A successful marriage would provide the woman with security and happiness.

If marriage marked a girl's passage to womanhood, it was also the beginning of the most difficult phase over her life cycle. In rural China parents usually arranged blind marriages for their children. It was common for a young woman to marry a man whom she had never met until the day of their wedding. The marriage arrangement usually included a payment from the groom's family to the bride's family. By paying a "bride price" the groom's family reimbursed her family for the expense of raising her. Through the marriage ceremony the bride left her own family, gave up all the protections and affectionate ties that she had been accustomed to, and entered the family of her husband. The woman was expected to assume obligations that include domestic labor, child-bearing, and child-rearing under the supervision of her mother-in-law.

It was not unusual for a Chinese man to take concubines and he could divorce his wife, but the movements of a married woman were closely watched by the husband's family. It was almost impossible for a woman to escape from an unhappy marriage. Even after the death of the husband, she would still be expected to remain faithful to him and his family. The traditional Chinese society honored faithful wives and encouraged the ideals of lifelong widowhood and widow suicide. If she remarried, a widow had no right over her children or her husband's property. Her deceased husband's family might even request a payment of "bride price" from her new husband's family.

A woman began to gain some status and respect in her husband's family after she gave birth to a son. As the mother she had some control of child-rearing and played an important role in making arrangements for her children's marriages. When she became a mother-in-law she had the power to supervise wives of her sons.

However, immigration broke the system of traditional family structure. Few Chinese American women shared the same roof with their parents-in-law. Since the immigrant man did not have affectionate ties with members of his family, the conjugal relationship between husband and wife strengthened. Working outside the home helped improve immigrant women's positions within the family. She was consulted on major family decisions, and she usually had the authority of supervising daily activities of the children.

Before World War II, most American-born Chinese women attended school. After the war, an increasing number of them received a college education and were economically independent. This new generation of Chinese American women challenged traditional norms and concepts, and most of them would not let their parents select marriage partners for them.

Socialization of Boys and Girls

The birth of a girl was less welcomed than that of a boy by families in traditional Chinese society, because the status of women was low in the patrilineal and patrilocal kinship system. In a traditional Chinese family, the sons had a permanent place in the house and could inherit family property, because they would carry on the family line. Daughters, who would eventually leave their own families at marriage, were not permanent members of their parents' house. Their place in the family was secondary compared with that of their brothers. Matrilocal marriage, in which the husband settled in the wife's family home on marriage, was negotiated under unusual circumstances, often in cases when the bride's family had no male offspring.

Chinese parents had different expectations for their daughters and sons. Only at a very young age could Chinese girls play with their brothers or other village boys. Like the boys, young girls would run in the fields, climb trees, or catch bugs. But as they got older, the girls were reminded that they were different from boys. While boys were praised for their physical strength, girls were discouraged for any boyish behaviors. Young girls were taught to walk slowly and speak softly. It was improper for them to run with their brothers and get muddy.

The practice of footbinding, which can be traced back to as early as the 10 th century and was outlawed in the beginning of the 20th century, was widely practiced for a few hundred years among girls of all families except the poorest and certain ethnic groups. Parents would tightly wrap the feet of their young daughters with bandages to compress and restrict the growth to a few inches in length. Big feet were thought to be a sign of poor breeding.

Girls with bound feet had difficulties in playing with their brothers outside the house. They could not run or walk fast. While their brothers attended school or helped out in the fields with their fathers, the girls stayed at home under the supervision of their mothers.

A very small number of girls, mostly from gentry families, did learn to read, but until the late 19th century tutoring for girls was mostly accomplished at home. Not until the early 20th century did an increasing number of Chinese girls gain access to missionary schools or public schools for girls. As most of these schools were located in large cities, the majority of the girls in rural

China remained illiterate during the first half of the 20th century.

The early Chinese immigrants also favored sons over daughters. Though girls who grew up in the United States before World War II were taught proper behaviors according to Chinese tradition and were expected to perform domestic duties, few were confined to home. Footbinding was abolished in China in 1911 and was rarely practiced by the immigrants in the United States. Most Chinese American girls played games with their brothers at home and with classmates in school. Beginning in the early decades of the 20th century, traditional gender concepts were the subject of criticism within the Chinese American community. Even the most conservative immigrant parents found it impossible to confine their daughters to domesticity, and attempts at arranged marriages were often rejected. At school, church, and workplace, young Chinese American men and women had greater opportunities to socialize, and the majority of Chinese American men and women enjoyed the freedom of selecting their own marriage partners.

Puberty and Adolescence

In traditional Chinese society, young girls could be married off shortly after puberty. Once they reached adolescence, girls were usually confined to domesticity, while their brothers would join their fathers to work in the field. Farming and construction were jobs for men. Sewing, embroidering, washing, cooking, cleaning, or feeding family livestock were female-specific chores. Although washing was usually done in the river and occasionally adolescent girls were sent out to buy merchandise from peddlers, these activities took place near the home. Usually, adolescent girls would not have much contact with men outside the family. Socialization between adolescent boys and girls was disapproved. In Southern China, women sometimes worked in the rice fields during the busy transplanting and harvest seasons, but their work in agriculture was subsidiary, and their activities in the fields were supervised by male family members. Only after the Communist revolution in 1949 did large numbers of women join agricultural and industrial labor force.

Attainment of Adulthood

Marriage marked the passage to adulthood for both men and women. After the marriage ceremony a woman moved from the household of her father to the household of her husband. As a girl her hair was braided into one or two pigtails. Once married, a chignon replaced the pigtails. She was no longer under the protection of her parents. Supervised by her mother-in-law she was expected to do domestic work and give birth to heirs of her husband's family.

Upon marriage a boy entered manhood. No longer sharing rooms with his brothers, he and his young wife occupied a quarter of his parents' house. A married man was expected to take family responsibilities and provide for his wife and children. He would join his father and other adult male members of the family in business dealings and decision-making.

Before a young man's journey to America, his parents would usually find a wife for him. It was believed that a married man would be more responsible to his family. The new wife stayed in the village taking care of her children and parents-in-law. When the husband settled down in America, he wanted to send for his wife and children. However, after 1882 harsh laws were passed in the United States which made it extremely difficult for the Chinese women to immigrate. As a result, a large number of early Chinese immigrants had transnational families.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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