by Cecilia Yau
Two hundred years ago, on September 7, 1807, the first Protestant missionary, Robert Morrison, set his feet on the soil of Canton, China.
Canton was the only place open for international trade and proselytizing activities were forbidden. Morrison had to work as a secretary and translator for the British East India Company in order to take up legal residency in China. In 1809 he married Mary Morton in Macao and later returned to China alone because foreign women were denied entrance to the country.
By the time Morrison came to China, Qing Dynasty was already in decline. Yet in its less than 300 years of reign, the plight of women’s lives reached its apex. It was the accumulating effect of three thousand years of discriminatory customs and traditions.
Although it was clearly forbidden by law for many generations, polygamy had been a common practice during the long history of China. The practice was justified by a patriarchal system intended to perpetuate the patrilineal line and carry on the family name. If a wife could not produce a son, it was only legitimate for the husband to get another wife, or another wife until a male heir was born. Since women were considered part of men’s properties, marriage was an exchange of goods. The men who had money and power could get as many ‘properties’ as they wanted.
The Chinese ideal of womanhood is found in Confucius ideology. It prescribes that a Chinese woman obeys her father before marriage, her husband after marriage and her eldest son when she is widowed. She is to serve her husband as unto heaven (‘tien’ or god). The spheres of men and women are clearly defined. A woman’s place is in the home. She does not need education or talent. In fact, “A woman without talents is considered virtuous.” An educated woman was thought to be ‘licentious’.
In terms of marriage and family, a Chinese husband could divorce his wife for any of the seven reasons: sickness, jealousy of her husband’s lover, stealing, bad-mouthing, inadequacy in serving her husband’s parents, committing adultery, and inability to bear a son.
A widower was allowed to remarry. But a wife could never divorce her husband nor remarry. In order to show her fidelity to her deceased husband, a ‘model’ widow would self-mutilate by cutting off a part of her body, an ear or a nose, or become a vegetarian for life, or just hang or drown herself. Some fathers would go to the extreme to help their daughters to perform such ‘duties’ if they were too scared to do so.
Women were not only properties but also toys for men. For almost a thousand years, girls of 4-5 years-old, especially those from good and upper-class families, would be forced to have their feet tightly bound so that they could grow no more than three inches. The process was very cruel and painful. Sometimes bones would be crushed and blood would be retained in the cloth for a long time.
The custom caught the fancy of men who enjoyed treating women like a plaything. They thought women with bound feet were sexier when they walked. Others thought this a good way to keep women in the house as they would be unlikely to walk very far. When men chose their mates, one important criterion was the girl had small bound feet.
Because of the system of primogeniture, girls were much less valued than boys. In poor families, baby girls were either deserted or drowned. Or if they were lucky to grow up, they might be sold to rich families as maids (mui tsai or slaves).
In a nutshell, when Robert Morrison came to China, the Chinese women had no brain, no physical strength, no financial means and no future. Of course, there were some women who for various reasons could overcome the hurdles and made an impact but they were as rare as the morning stars. And there were men who could see the injustices done to women and tried to do something about it. But they were far too few.
During the Qing dynasty, there were voices targeting against the ill treatments of women through novels and articles. The cruelty and barbarianism had reached its limit and the cries for reform were bursting at the seam of a dynasty that was decaying with so much political instability and moral corruption.
For the first 35 years after Morrison’s arrival, work of evangelization progressed very slowly owing to the closed door policy of China. But after the Sino-British Opium War and the subsequent Treaty of Nanking (1842), the door of China was blasted open by gun boats and brutal force. It brought mixed results. A love-hate relationship began to develop between China and the western countries. Nonetheless, a window was opened and the Chinese women’s fate saw a new light.
At first, as Kwok stated, most female communicants were from the poor and lower classes as they were marginal members of the society. The rich and upper class women were forbidden by their families to join a foreign religion, not to mention the physical limitation created by their bound feet. (Kwok, p. 10-12)
Since segregation of the sexes was the norm of the day, woman’s work had to be conducted by female missionaries who often took up the whole pastoral role including preaching to the female members of the church. Their ministries became a model for future Chinese Bible women.
A major reform brought by the missionaries was the opening of girls’ schools. They championed on the ground that educated mothers could better develop intelligent children. This had a great appeal for a nation that was frantically finding means to strengthen their human resources. In 1844, the first mission school for girls was established in Ningbo by an English woman, Miss Aldersey of the Society for the Promotion of Female Education in the Far East. Within ten years, 11 such schools were established in the five open ports. (Kwok, p.11)
When the Chinese opened their first school for girls in Shanghai in 1897, there were more that 300 mission schools with more than 7,000 students. A national system of government supported girls’ schools was instituted in 1907. In 1908, the number of girls in government-supported schools exceeded that of mission schools. (Kwok, p. 17)
Foot-binding was another area that missionaries tried to do something about. They taught that women’s feet were the creation of a loving God. Distorting them was not only presumptuous but also bringing unspeakable pain to women for life. In 1874, Rev. John MacGowan of London Mission Society organized “The Natural Feet Society” in Xiamen with other missionaries. Sixty some career women joined the membership and the work spread to other cities.
In 1882, Chinese reformer Kang Youwei tried to start a similar society but did not materialize until 1894. To the reformers, half of the population were handicapped by foot-binding and could not contribute to the welfare of the country was just deplorable and appalling. The Dowager Cixi in 1902 declared the eradication of such practice. Millions of girls and women were ‘liberated’. (Yau p. 263-4)
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