China’s gender reversal of fortune

When my American grandparents arrived in China as missionaries in 1891, they were shocked to discover that traditional marriage was a contract between families rather than love between two individuals. This was during the last years of the imperial Manchu Qing Dynasty when Chinese parents often arranged weddings while the future bride and groom were still infants. Spouse selection was based on family need and the socioeconomic status of the potential mate rather than love or attraction. An arranged marriage was accomplished by a matchmaker, who acted as a link between the two families. It involved the negotiation of the bride’s price, gifts to be bestowed on the bride’s family and a dowry of clothing, furniture or jewelry. The exchange of monetary compensation for a woman’s hand in marriage was also utilized in purchase marriages, in which women were seen as property that could be traded, bought or sold at a husband’s whim.

But the ancient custom that traumatized my grandmother the most was the wicked custom of foot binding and fetishism. Chinese Han girls had their feet bound when they were as young as 7 years old while their bones were still soft. The arch was broken and tightly bound with cotton strips – forcing their four smallest toes to fold gradually under the soles, causing them to curl up into stumps that created three-inch “golden lotuses.” The bandages were not supposed to be removed, except for periodic washing, until the girl was married. The excruciating process led to a lifetime of agony and labored movement. The “lily feet” resembled hoofs or “fists of flesh” but were regarded by men as sexually exciting and the epitome of feminine beauty.

Among upper-class women, foot binding was a prerequisite to getting married. According to one custom, the bride’s malodorous bandages were removed on her wedding night when her husband indulged himself by drinking wine from her ornate slippers.

Walking was so painful that the women hobbled along with a stylized, mincing gait. When they dressed in gold embroidered robes and wore their exquisite hand-embroidered slippers, their sexy movements reminded men of “lotuses blowing in the wind.” Their grinding gait seemed to bewitch men, young and old alike, perhaps because they didn’t have to worry about their crippled women running away.

As these women could not walk well or do any physical labor, only upper-class women could afford to have their feet bound. Hard-working lower-class women escaped the cruel custom as they needed normal feet to do their chores. Not all upper-class women practiced foot binding. The Manchu Qing rulers forbade it among Manchu women. Most ethnic minorities in China did not practice it.

One of grandmother’s Chinese friends, a Buddhist who believed in transmigration, said that when she died she would rather be reincarnated as an earthworm than a Chinese woman. My grandparents opened the first school for ordinary girls and boys in the interior of China. The only requirement for entry was that the girls unbind their feet. It is now the largest middle school in Hubei Province.

When I arrived in China half a century later, the barbaric practice was almost gone. Even though it fell out of favor at the turn of the 20th century and was generally viewed as an antiquated and shameful part of imperial Chinese culture, I still saw hundreds of elderly women hobbling around as a reminder of the past oppression of women, insularity, despotism and disregard for human rights.

In the Communist era, the custom was considered a vestige of the feudal era, its beauty defined by backward men. The People’s Republic established the Marriage Law in 1950, causing fundamental shifts in family dynamics. The law banned the most extreme forms of female subordination and oppression and gave women the right to fall in love and select their own husbands. In 1980, a new marriage law prohibited concubines, polygamy and bigamy and banned mercenary and arranged marriage.

The law that really transformed the ancient customs, however, stated that both men and women had a right to lawful divorce. It took 2,000 years, but women were finally empowered to initiate divorce proceedings. The divorce rate soared. But the women met stiff resistance, especially from rural males. Thousands of women even lost their lives for attempting to divorce their husbands. Others committed suicide when the divorces were denied.

It soon became evident that divorced women were often given less than a fair share of housing and property. But the worm had turned. There was a significant increase in women committing violence against men. Domestic violence was finally criminalized in 2005.

Not all of the changes favored women. The one-child policy initiated in 1978 to control China’s burgeoning population mandated that each married couple may bear only one child. Traditionally, Chinese favor sons over daughters, because sons take care of aged parents. Although the new law encouraged sexual equality, the result was the illegal practice of sex-selective abortion made possible by the availability of ultrasound, child abandonment and infanticide. The orphanages were filled with female babies. Women were sometimes subject to forced abortions by their husbands if the embryos were female.

Decades later this policy led to a high male sex ratio with a large number of marriageable men finding it difficult or impossible to secure a willing bride.  The society is out of balance. According to a report by the State Population and Family Planning Commission, there will be 30 million more men than women in 2020.

The shortage of women has already resulted in a 180-degree swing from traditional marriage customs and the superior male attitude towards women. Women are free to “hold up half the sky” and be fickle. They select their own husbands and plan their own weddings. Instead of the traditional red gowns, the shop windows are full of voluminous, modern white bridal gowns. Wedding parks have been established in many cities where Western style weddings are held with wedding cakes and Champagne.

Women now enjoy legal rights to property almost identical to men and have equal opportunities for education and inheritance. But there is still a long way to go. Women have lower salaries and no place as political leaders. At the top level of decision-making, no woman has ever been among the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo.

Yet if you’re a woman, you can’t help but feel a certain schadenfreude at this reversal of gender fortune.

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