Women in Traditional Chinese Society: an individual or object?

The book, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston is memoirs based on growing up as a Chinese woman. The first memoir, “No Name Woman” is very a powerful and painful piece. Kingston goes into extreme detail of how women were treated in Chinese culture and the harshness that came along with being a woman. Even to this day, women are always being viewed as lesser than men and unfortunately, they don’t have equal opportunities as men. This book shines a light on this issue of gender inequality that has been going on for hundreds of years. 

Kingston starts off the first memoir by diving into a horrific story that her mother told her when she was a young woman going through puberty. In this story, her mother tells Kingston about an aunt she once had that had brutally killed herself and her baby. The aunt had committed suicide due to the fact that she was having a baby without having a husband. This had been seen as shameful and unforgivable, no woman should be having sex and carrying a child if they are not married. The aunt committing suicide caused the family to neglect that there even was a daughter in the family. They were so disappointed with what she had done that they didn’t want to remember her. 

The family and the village were very aware of the growing baby bump but no one talked about it. They didn’t mention it because it would mean they would have to admit the shameful act she had done. Kingston recalls what her mother had once told her, “The village had also been counting. On the night the baby was born the villagers raided our house… At first they threw mud and rocks at the house. Then they threw eggs and began slaughtering our stock. We could hear the animals scream their deaths- the roosters, the pigs, a last roar from the ox” (5-6). Their house, animals, and food had been destroyed because what her aunt had done was so disgraceful. Not only did the aunt had to face the repercussions but so did the family. This horrible event of slaughtering and suicide had happened in the early 1920s and decades later Kingston’s mother is still warning her on what could happen if she disappoints the family. Kingston states, “Don’t let your father know I told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful” (5). This shows that a woman’s role in society hasn’t changed, they still have similar standards of being secondary to men. 

In Chinese culture, women were just there to listen to their spouse, look pretty, cook and clean. They weren’t viewed as people or as individuals. They had to bond their feet, to keep intact their tiny feet which would have been seen as beautiful but in reality, it was very painful and excruciating. Women had no say in what they could or couldn’t do, it was the men that were making the decisions. Even from the very beginning at birth, females are seen as inferior. Kingston states, “Mothers who love their children take them along. It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys” (15). She is saying that if her aunt had a boy that things could have maybe been different. The baby could have lived a full happy life but because she was most likely a girl then she wouldn’t have had a good life. Kingston demonstrates in her book how unequal the two genders live. 

Discussion Questions:

To this day, are women still viewed as objects or lesser than men? How? 

Did Kingston’s memoir of “No Name Woman,” help you to understand what Chinese females had to endure in traditional Chinese society or only complicate it? 

10 Replies to “Women in Traditional Chinese Society: an individual or object?”

  1. Hi Deirdre! I enjoyed reading your blog post, because I was shocked by the same things you were: how women were treated as property to a man. I was also shocked and appalled by the story of her aunt committing suicide. However, I think that, if I’m not mistaken, the people were mad because she cheated on her husband, not because she was having sex. Kingston states, “Adultery, perhaps only a mistake during good times, became a crime when the village needed food” (13). The women relied on the men to bring home food, but her aunt ruined that by cheating on him, making her a disgrace to everyone. However, in response to your second discussion question, this memoir definitely helped me understand what Chinese women endured in their society. I had no idea just how bad it was before I read this. I wrote so many times in the book when I was annotating that it must have been so difficult to be a Chinese woman, feeling so helpless and like someone else’s property.

  2. Hey Deirdre, I found your blog post to be really insightful with explaining the hardships women faced, especially in Chinese culture. Kingston’s memoir helped me understand further the impact of traditional Chinese values on women in society. Kingston states “fear at the enormities of the forbidden kept her desires delicate, wire and bone” (8). The values established centuries ago are passed down to every generation and children often grow up learning to stick to those principles. Therefore, it was extremely difficult for a woman to have personal freedom when morals are what make up a person. The importance of one’s family reputation was also an extremely big factor in what made up the pressure that Chinese women faced. Disgrace may result in social and familial alienation, which may also result in death. This was best exemplified by Kingston’s memoir of her aunt being hunted and harassed due to her social crime of adultery.

  3. Hi Deirdre, I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I found your first question to be very interesting. Yes, I do believe women are still viewed as lesser than men. One example of women being found to be lesser than men is the Wage Gap. Throughout history men have been thought to be able to handle more work and more high stress work environments than women, this is just untrue but it still occurs to this day. Today women only make $0.79 for ever $1 a man would make. This baffles me. In Women Warrior, Kingston grew up feeling like being born a girl was a set-back. The world treated her differently through no fault of her own. “‘I’m not a bad girl,’ I would scream. ‘I’m not a bad girl. I’m not a bad girl.’ I might as well have said, ‘I’m not a girl.'” While she may be right about having a set back being born a girl, this should not be the case.

  4. Hello Deirdre, I thought you blog post was a very important one. The fact that we see people as objects, both men women and children, is an interesting yet sad insight about out society. In this book It highlights the extreme objectivity of women in comparison to men, “Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us” (2). The fact that her family sees her as a source of pride or shame lessens her value as a human being. Fortunately, in the past century things have improved for women in terms of equality, but not in objectivity.

  5. Hi Deirdre, I’m glad that you wrote your blog post on this topic because I think that it was a very important aspect of the story. The author’s aunt never had a true chance of having a good life. She was married off to a stranger at a young age which could’ve eventually worked out except her husband left to sail off to America for years the day after they got married. Throughout the story, the bravery of the aunt is emphasized because of what she went through during that time period. One part that really stuck with me was the fact that “she kept the man’s name to herself throughout her labor and dying…” (Kingston). I found this quote very moving because it really shows how much the women in China were taught to listen to men’s orders. Kingston suspects that her aunt could have been coaxed into having sex with this man and then threatened not to tell anyone. If this is true, this part of the story truly shows how much of an impact men had on the women in Chinese society.

  6. Hey Diedre! I thought your analysis was really insightful and I was equally disturbed with how women were treated as described in the text. I think Kingston does a great job of illustrating where her family came from and the intensity of what her mother is trying to explain to her now. It’s a double-edged sword that shows a warning and also a story of heartbreak. I did find your question interesting and although the story did help me understand what traditional Chinese women had to endure I also think it speaks to a more universal experience. As Kingston said, “and she might have separated the rapes from the rest of living if only she did not have to buy her oil from him or gather wood in the same forest.” (7) We can see how this could have truly happened to any woman in any place and how much more painful that makes the story because it truly could happen to anyone.

  7. Hey Deirdre, I really enjoyed reading your blog post as it highlighted a few of the characteristics which surprised me regarding Chinese culture, such as the bonding of feet & how adultery was hated in a society with a flawed marital system. Regarding your first question though, women are still viewed as lesser by some people (although that thought is rightfully declining) and it tends to occur more in some specific cultures, opposed to just random people thinking that. The memoir however did help me understand what Chinese females had to go through, and it didn’t complicate my thoughts, as I have heard about this stuff before, the memoir expanded my knowledge though. In the memoir, the narrator states, “But there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have.” (16). The previous quote helped me understand how a thought approach was passed along in this culture. The first feeling towards the aunt was anger, so that was passed down in every family member, and it is expected to feel one way, which is mentally unhealthy.

  8. Hello, Deirdre I like the discussion questions you posted because it gave me another reason to go back and re read and think more about those topics.

    I believe that the unequal treatment and the stereotypical house wife idea is changing because now women are going to college getting an education and pursuing careers that, in the past, were mostly male dominated. The fact that Chinese women had to deal with this treatment and the responsibility of not humiliating their family in any way was harsh. I know that in many religions that having child out of marriage is frowned upon however now we have many different sources to help with future mothers.

  9. Hey, Deirdre! First of all, I really love your title. The subject of individual versus object is intriguing and relevant to the text. I was horrified while reading this memoir because of how disturbing it was. The people who attacked the home in, “white masks…[and those] with long hair hung it over their faces. Women with short hair made it stand up on end. Some had tied white bands around their foreheads, arms, and legs.” (1) are made to sound extremely animalistic. It was chilling and put the reader deep in the shoes of the family being attacked. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to be a woman in traditional Chinese society. In answer to your question about whether this text helped to understand what Chinese females had to endure, I feel that it did give me a vivid perspective and also made me curious to learn more about stories like this one. It is important to note that the aunt was not necessarily a cheater as many believed. Kingston believed she was taken advantage of— that, “Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil.” (2) and this could very likely have been the case. It was common for women to be raped or forced into marriages and be treated like objects as you have pointed out, yet the villagers did not take this into account. They instantly viewed the aunt as a disgrace, an adulterer, and attacked her home without mercy. They turned into these inhuman beasts like a herd of demonic sheep. I felt a great amount of sympathy for the aunt. Another example to support your idea of women being treated like objects is shown when Kingston says, “She obeyed him; she always did as she was told.” (3). This is powerful because it shows the “keep your head down and speak when spoken to” ideal that many Chinese women endured and might still endure today. If forced by a man, there was no way the aunt could have stood up for herself. She had no voice and no means of escape. It is a heartbreaking tragedy that many Chinese women have probably gone through.

  10. Hey Deirdre, I really liked reading your blog post and I thought you did a great job summarizing and analyzing the text. This section that we read was really interesting and I was really surprised at parts of it. I like how you talked about the way the family just acted like the daughter was never even born, because I was really taken aback by that. “We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born” (3). I was really surprised that a family could be that ashamed to act as if their child was never even born. I really like your discussion questions and I think they are important to have in mind when reading the text. Even though this case might be a bit of an extreme seeing as it took place so long ago, I definitely do think there are still inequalities between men and women today.

Leave a Reply