I mentioned last week that the Chinese have a culture of shame. And as I have been working on projects for school while reflecting on my experiences in Taiwan with the Liu family, I concluded that the concepts of “face” and “shame” are gender-based. The Liu family is rural and working class, so I thought that some of the attitudes would be slightly different among urban, upper-class, highly-educated elite, but after reading “Two Sisters” by Yu Lihua, I realized that the attitudes seem to be pretty much the same in every class. These concepts have a several-thousand-year history in China, and they are very prevalent. Mao attempted to change things, but since his death, even urban elite and Party members in China are going back to the old gender-stereotyped ways.
So what are those ways?
I think the best way to describe it is to post a few You Tube clips from the Wu Tianming’s movie “The King of Masks.” This movie is about an elderly street performer in China during the 1930’s. He performs Sichuan opera mask-changing, and he is one of the best. Unfortunately, his wife abandoned him and their infant son because she could not stand their hard life. He did his best to raise his son, but the boy got sick and died in childhood. Now he needs a male heir to carry on his name and to learn the family’s art. So he goes to a child market where starving families, who lost their homes in a flood in the next county, are selling unwanted children. Most of the children for sale at the market are girls, but his family tradition states that he can only pass his art down to a boy of his family. He has to adopt a grandson. He is about to give up in despair when he sees a little boy. Unfortunately, after he and the child, Doggie, have bonded, he learns that “Doggie” is a girl. He tries to get rid of her, but she has been sold seven times by child slavers. Each time they try to pass her off as a boy, and when the family learns she is a girl, they throw her out on the street. The old man takes her on as a servant because he knows that the slavers beat her, and he treats his monkey better than they treated her. Since she is a girl, he can only teach her acrobatics and make her into a servant. She can no longer call him “Grandpa;” she has to call him "Boss." Together they pole his houseboat up and down the Yangtze River, going from town to town doing shows in the market place. One day, they watch the old man’s friend, a famous castrati opera star, perform the story of Guanyin, a woman who attains Nirvana. Doggie gets interesting ideas. But she does not have a tea-pot spout. Later in the film, Doggie accidently sets the houseboat on fire, and she runs away from shame. She is kidnapped again and kept to care for the little boy the kidnappers caught. Doggie uses her acrobatic skills to escape with the boy and discovers that he has a teapot spout. Since the boy is too young to know his family name or address, she delivers the boy to the King of Masks, so he can have the grandson he desires. I won’t tell you any more of the movie. It is well worth the cost of joining Netflix or sitting through 10 ten-minute segments on You Tube.
"You don't have a little teapot spout."
"Guanyin has breasts, so why do you worship her?"
Here we see a real "teapot spout."
Watching the movie and the close-up of the little boy’s “teapot spout” reminded me of the Liu family rules. Boy toddlers could run around in the summer without pants to prevent diaper rash (and to show off their genuine spouts to the neighbors), but girl babies were taught from day one that their privates were shameful. They had to keep them hidden. No matter how painful the diaper rash, a girl baby could not run around bare-bottomed. The source of shame was not the exposing; it was the lack of a teapot spout. When boy toddlers were bad, the worst threat was that their spouts would be cut off and they would be just like a girl. So before the child can talk, it is indoctrinated that people with “spouts” are somehow superior to people without.
Throughout their lives, boys are privileged. They are not expected to help with chores. They can order their mother and sisters around to some extent. They do not have to control their tempers. All they have to do is get good grades in school and learn how to earn money. Earning money and bringing glory to the family is the way a man gains face. His gender is NOT a source of shame. Even in his worst failure, he can comfort himself that his “teapot spout” sets him that many inches higher than any woman alive, no matter how successful she may seem.
Women do not gain face in and of themselves. The only way for a woman to gain face is for her to bear a son and to nag that son into becoming a successful adult. That is a woman’s true face. In the Hakka language, sons are called “children,” and daughters are daughters. So Ma would say to people, I have two children and five daughters. This does not mean that Ma hates her daughters. She loves them very much and worries about them and frets about them, but linguistically her sons have always been privileged, and that shaped family attitudes towards the boys. A woman only gets individual face when she is a widow living with her grown, wealthy son, and he treats her with honor and respect as his mother.
Before a woman attains that blissful state of widowed motherhood, she gains face by having a rich husband and acting as a fashion mannequin for his wealth. Her face comes from her husband. And so can her shame. If her husband does not earn as much money as her brothers, a woman feels that she cannot hold her head up. If her husband has a failure in business, a woman might be too embarrassed to visit her relatives for many years. For most of their lives, women live with vicarious shame and vicarious face. Everything depends on their husbands. While women do not have individual face, they might have individual shame beyond the “original shame” of their sex. If a woman fails to keep house, she is shamed. If a woman squanders the family’s hard-earned money, she is shamed. If a woman fails to bear sons, she is shamed. If a woman contradicts her husband, she is shamed. People shun her and then whisper behind her back and point at her.
For truly touching portrayals of women in Chinese families, I recommend two films by Zhang Yimou (also on Netflix): “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Ju Dou.” Both are brutal and NOT for family movie night, but they hauntingly portray the tragedy of women in traditional Chinese families.
I was apart from this face/shame paradigm because I was an American. I do not have that innate sense of shame. It never occurred to me that my lack of a “spout” made me a second-class citizen. I was given leeway because I am an American, and because in everything I did, I was a cheerful contributor to the family. But I was too successful outside the home, and then I got injured and sick from the botched surgery. It was a very sticky situation, and the most expedient way for a man to live down shame is to go away and come back after having done something so “face-making” that all previous shame is wiped away from the collective memory.
I mentioned last week that face is a matter for the family. That is true; an individual’s loss of face reflects on the entire clan. It also determines a man’s worth within the clan. If a man has much face, his words are weighty and everyone listens to him. If a man loses face, people turn their backs on him and ignore his suggestions without even bothering to listen. It is a very painful and traumatic situation, especially for someone who has been pampered all his life as a privileged boy among many women and girls.
What happens when the King of Masks learns that Doggies is a girl.
The Sichuan Opera about the story of Guanyin
Real Sichuan Mask-changers (and they breathe fire, too!)