Sunday, October 28, 2012

Inside vs. Outside: the Modern Chinese Battle of the Sexes

Last week I discussed the late imperial Chinese family in The Story of the Stone, a family that was wealthy and prominent. Many of the patterns described in the novel are similar to average Chinese families. One of my former professors has done historical research on the families of the coastal areas in Fujian Province. She found that the men would go out to work on long sea voyages, trading and doing business in Southeast Asia. While the men were working “outside,” the women would manage the family’s holdings and businesses “inside” China proper. Anthropologists studying the Hakka subculture historically and across Southeast Asia found that Hakka men would frequently travel long distances to find work, leaving their women in the family’s home town to raise the children, care for the elderly, and run the family’s farm and businesses there. The Hakka also have a dense concentration along the southeastern coastal regions in northern Guangdong Province and the mountainous regions of Fujian Province. I find it interesting that these two linguistic subcultures seem to give their women more equality in earning money because the Fujian and Hakka dialects are thought to be the oldest Chinese dialects. Perhaps their practices reflect the earlier more balanced view of women in Chinese culture.

As large clans break up and move off the family farms, these patterns are changing. When Ma and Pa were married, Pa’s eleven male cousins and their living parents, wives and children all lived in the three-sided family farm house up in the hills near Hsinchu. They shared much of the hill left to them by their ancestors with their distant cousins in the Upper House. The family had rice paddies, fruit trees, vegetable plots, and pig pens. The men and women worked in the rice paddies, and after the crops were planted, some of the men like Pa would go to the cities to work as laborers. While Pa was gone, Ma remained at the family farm caring for her elderly in-laws, raising her pigs for market (this was her own business), and raising her young children. Although the pigs were Ma’s, she was subject to the economic predations of her father-in-law, Grandpa Liu, who would frequently go into town and buy things for himself against the credit for that year’s pig. It drove Ma crazy because she never knew if there would be money to buy things for her children when she finally slaughtered the pig.

After Pa moved his family off the farm, he managed everything, and because Ma is illiterate, she worked for Pa at his construction sites when she had finished her household chores, which included washing in the creek behind the house all the laundry for her kids, her mother-in-law, her husband, herself, AND all of Pa’s apprentices, as well as cooking meals for 16 or 20 people three times a day over a wood fire. When I married into the family, several of Pa’s daughters were working at factories because Pa’s business could not support the family and pay his debts. Pa encouraged me to work part-time teaching English because it gave the family face to have a teacher among them and because it was reliable, well-paid work. Everyone contributed a certain amount to the communal pot, the amount of which was negotiated between each family member and Pa and Ma. The rest of the money that each person earned was theirs to spend or save as they pleased. Yuni was the only one who kept what he earned to himself. He would occasionally buy gifts or pay a bill, but as the heir-apparent, he would be supporting his parents in their dotage, and no one begrudged him his freedom early in life. (I think I was supposed to force him to pay into the communal pot, but when we were first married, I did not speak enough Hakka to understand that he didn’t have a separate arrangement with Pa to contribute to the household.)

Third Maternal Uncle ran his household much differently. He had 21 people under his roof. Three of his five sons were married, and their wives and children all lived with him. He controlled absolutely all of the money. His eldest daughter-in-law had been a nurse before she got married, but he forced her to quit her job and work together with her husband in the family business making banisters. Pa frequently berated Third Maternal Uncle for not sufficiently diversifying the family business interests. When I was first married, Pa was just recovering from bankruptcy, and Third Maternal Uncle was at the height of his power. Uncle did not even allow his children to handle money. He would give them small amounts of spending money before any function. In the end, this strategy did not work because when Third Maternal Uncle wanted to retire, his sons and daughters-in-law did not know how to handle money. I do not know all the details, but I know that Ma was quite sad about the situation in her brother’s family after they split into small households, and Pa felt fully vindicated in his criticisms of Third Maternal Uncle’s method of running a household.

I think that Pa and Third Maternal Uncle show two mindsets among traditional men facing the modern reality that women can get real jobs outside the home. Pa is more forward-thinking and pragmatic. He does not feel threatened in his masculinity to have his daughters and daughters-in-law working outside the family business. He personally ran his business for the benefit of his clan. After his debts were paid off and he had enough work, if any of his nephews needed work or when his sister’s husband lost his job, Pa gave them work at his construction sites. He was always grateful that Eldest Paternal Uncle had given his family rice from the family farm to keep them from starving during the worst of his bankruptcy problems. Ma says that the bankruptcy changed Pa a lot. I never knew him prior to the bankruptcy, but from the beginning of my marriage, Pa was accepting of working women and appreciated their contributions to the family. He would even call me and Elder Sister in to the men’s discussions to ask us our opinions about business or the world situation.

Third Maternal Uncle, on the other hand, did not want his wife to work after she had daughters-in-law. He had her dress up in fancy clothes with make-up and jewelry. He was an absolute authoritarian. He kept total control of all the money and did not even trust his sons. In the long-run, his daughters-in-law resented him and his “indolent” wife, and his sons racked up gambling debts instead of running the business properly after Third Maternal Uncle had retired. If the cousins’ wives had been allowed to keep their outside jobs, and if the sons had been given their own money to manage, I don’t think Third Maternal Uncle’s family would have gotten into quite the troubles as it has.

I mentioned in an earlier post that my time in the hospital caring for Elder Sister seemed to change the dynamics of the family. In one respect, it pushed the boundaries open to women because Elder Sister and I handled everything without much input from the men. Because I am well-educated, I could read the hospital chart on Elder Sister’s bed, which was written in English to preserve confidentiality. I could also converse intelligently with the doctors. My friend, the lawyer, is a woman, and so when I asked Wenzhu to consult with us, I did not need to bring in a male because women and their friends are all part of the realm of “inside.” Pa and Yuni had given Elder Sister carte blanche to speak for herself. With Pa’s blessing, I worked with her to find a way for her to keep her children and support them. Pa and Ma would come down at least once a week to visit, and we would report to them and discuss things with them. We did not, however, consult with the Liu family’s heir-apparent, Yuni. In the past, he was the most highly educated in the family, and as heir-apparent, he handled many of the family’s business matters, even when he was in elementary school. I believe that Pa and Ma saw my efforts as Yuni’s contribution through his wife, and because these things related to Elder Sister’s health and children and were handled among Eldest Brother-in-law’s business associates and my female friends, these things never left the realm of “inside.” And I believe that on a certain level, Yuni felt the realm of “inside” had expanded to a threatening extent.

Since China’s defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th Century, there has been talk about the “yinification” of Chinese men. This means that Chinese men are seen as weak and unable to handle the challenges of the modern world. This kind of discourse continues in both Taiwan and China, as spoiled only sons have a hard time competing in the modern world. A friend of mine, who has worked long and hard in Japan raising money and founding shelters for victims of domestic abuse there, said that her perception of the situation in Japan is that the men went from a situation of complete privilege with respect to women to one in which women can own property, attend schools, and compete in the workforce. She asked me if I thought that Chinese men might not be facing the same crisis of identity. I believe that she is right. The realm of “inside” has broadened to include the “outside,” and educated, modern women are succeeding without any help from the men in their lives. To men who have been spoiled and pampered by mothers and grandmothers just because they could pee standing up, it must come as a rude awakening that the world does not revolve around them. Like Baoyu, many of them are adept at the use of the temper tantrum to get their way, and when as grown men they throw tantrums, domestic violence can result.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Inside versus Outside: the Traditional Chinese Battle of the Sexes

Over the last few weeks, I posted quite a lot about Chinese ideals of masculinity. These ideals were formed and developed in the traditional agrarian society. In even earlier posts, I discussed the position of Chinese women throughout history, and I think I mentioned the idea of inside/outside. The Chinese have a saying: 男主外,女主內。(Nan zhu wai, nü zhu nei. Men are in charge of the outside; women are in charge of the inside.) This means that men work outside the home, acting as officials and running businesses, while women work inside the home, managing the domestic finances, raising the children, and keeping the household fed and clothed. As I discussed in a post on the position of women, in antiquity, women were responsible for sericulture and acted as a balance to men, who were responsible for agriculture. Although the patriline became supreme as ancestor worship became popular among commoners and was limited to only the ancestors of the husband, the balance between inside and outside was still important to each family’s economic success. Third-wave feminist scholars of the history of Chinese women have found documentary evidence that as late as the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), women owned and ran businesses and that women retained the property of their dowries, returning with that property to their natal families in the event that they were widowed. Women were not legally considered chattel until China was conquered by the Mongolians during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE). When Han Chinese rule was restored in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), women regained some of the earlier rights, but they were more restricted than they had been the medieval era of imperial China, especially as the cult of the chaste widow grew during the Late Imperial Era.

If any of you took my advice and started reading The Story of the Stone, you can see that the realm of “inside” could be quite broad. The women, in particular Grandmother Jia’s favorite granddaughter-in-law Wang Xi-Feng, ran a household that resembled a business conglomerate. Xi-feng was responsible for feeding and clothing scores of family members and their servants. She also supervised repairs, oversaw the family’s farms, coordinated the management of the family’s businesses within the city, and in general, wielded an incredible amount of authority. BUT as a woman from a high official family, she was behind the scenes. She could not run the family’s pawn shops; instead, she managed the poor cousins who worked in the shops. As the family met with disaster, none of the women appeared before the Emperor or officials; the men of the family, especially the men who had passed the civil service exams, could and did deal with problems by meeting with the emperor and other imperial officials. Thus, in this case, “inside” referred to all the family’s enterprises NOT related to the government, while “outside” referred to the imperial posts and official duties that the top males of the family fulfilled. This novel was written during the Qing Dynasty, but set in the Ming Dynasty. It has been called China’s “novel of manners” because it describes in great detail the lives of members of imperial China’s upper classes.

Under this paradigm, women have great responsibility and a fair amount of freedom, but they obtain their status and businesses from the highest-ranking male in the household. Ultimate legal responsibility for actions of household members falls to the high-ranking males as well. Therefore, the women in the story had to find ways to stay in favor with the males, if they wanted to keep their power in the family. Wang Xi-feng used her connections to Grandmother Jia and her top daughter-in-law Lady Wang to get into power, but she worked from dawn to late at night to keep her power. She had to keep her husband sweet to keep her power, and she had to be more efficient than the other men so that they would continue letting her see to everything. It is obvious throughout the entire book that Wang Xi-feng is never totally secure in her position.

The only women free of the need to suck up to the males or higher-ranking females are the mother of the highest-ranking male and the mother of the heir-apparent. Their status as mothers of the top sons trumps everything. One reason that Wang Xi-feng is in a precarious position, the reason perhaps for her desire to hold the reins to the “inside” business power, is that she has a daughter, but no sons. In the beginning of The Story of the Stone, when the family is in royal favor and at its peak, Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang thoroughly enjoy a life of luxury, privilege, and ease due to their status as mothers of high-ranking sons. All their days are spent in the pursuit of pleasure. When Grandmother Jia’s highest-ranking son, Sir Zheng, tries to temper his mother’s behavior, she uses the weapon of filial piety against him. Because a reputation of being unfilial (bu xiao 不孝) can ruin a man’s career, Sir Zheng is always forced to retreat in defeat from the women’s inner sanctum where his mother reigns supreme. And Grandmother Jia continues enjoying her life of ease.

The mother of the heir-apparent is supposed to ensure that her son studies the proper books, which will allow him to pass the civil service exam and inherit his father’s positions in government. This becomes a problem in The Story of the Stone when Grandmother Jia insists on indulging her favorite grandson in his aversion to studying for the exams. Because Baoyu’s elder brother died young (before the beginning of the novel), Lady Wang is afraid of putting too much pressure on her one remaining son—her ticket to a life of ease. Baoyu is an extremely emotional young man, and he has perfected the art of the tantrum. Before the reader even meets Baoyu face-to-face, tension builds among the servants who are terrified of Baoyu’s horrible tantrums that literally make him ill. The need of the mothers to pander to the heir causes them to undermine the authority of the men in the realm of inside and to totally spoil Baoyu.

Towards the end of the book, when the family is in rapid decline after Wang Xi-feng’s shortcomings as a semi-literate steward of the family businesses come to light and the lesser wastrel men are caught in crime and debauchery, Grandmother Jia uses her feminine morality to rally the family and turn the situation. Whereas she had been the leader in extravagant living at the beginning of the novel, after the crisis, Grandmother Jia takes the lead to economize and sacrifice for the sake of the family. Because she is the eldest and highest-ranking family member, the rules of filial piety require all the other family members to accompany her in austerity measures to repair the family fortunes. In this instance, Grandmother Jia combines filial piety with feminine martyrdom as a way of shaming the men (and the younger family members) into doing the right thing. She pulls out her secret stashes of cloth, jewelry, and money accumulated over her long life-time and donates them to the family to pay fines and cover household expenses. She also gives up all but one or two of her servants to economize. Her exemplary feminine virtue becomes a guilt-trip that forces the men to do the right thing. (Martin Huang’s books discuss how feminine examples of virtue are a frequent literary theme used to shame men into behaving properly. )

Outside the novel, Chinese women traditionally use their sons to carve a place in their husbands’ households. They are frequently considered outsiders until they bear a son, and even then, the husband and wife sometimes compete for influence over the heir. Mothers have a strategy in preparing for their old age: they undermine the fathers in their stories to the sons to make the boys feel sorry for the mothers. They do this to ensure that after the fathers retire or pass away, the mothers will be pulling the strings in the household. Chinese mothers tell wonderful stories of all they have suffered in raising their children and in exhibiting filial piety to their thankless in-laws. The stories instill a deep layer of guilt in the children’s hearts, guaranteeing that the children will leap to serve their mother’s every whim in her old age. At least, that is the hope of the mothers… This is part of the battle between the inside and the outside and something at which Ma Liu excelled.

The scenario of grandmothers spoiling their eldest grandsons also seems to be a perennial condition in Chinese families. Pa often complained that Grandma Liu had thwarted all his attempts to discipline Yuni, a fact which Yuni cheerfully confirmed out of Pa’s hearing, describing how Grandma Liu would have his sisters complete his punishment chores while she took him into the kitchen for a bowl of noodles to “take away the fright” of having been scolded. Ma certainly continued this tradition by spoiling her eldest grandson after Yuntian got married and had sons.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Modern Notions of Chinese Masculinity

In explaining my own framework for analyzing traditional masculinity last week, I forgot a very important element of the “constant” section. Men have to be true to their heaven-given nature, and they have to respect the heaven-given nature of others. This means that Song Jiang in Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳) has to accept and deal with the ferocious berserker Li Kui because Li is one of his sworn brothers. Li does his best to learn self-control, but due to his heaven-given nature, he is not terribly successful. Jia Baoyu in The Story of the Stone is an immortal stone in love with a flower fairy. He has been sent to the human realm to learn a lesson, and he must attain balance and self-control by eventually studying and passing the imperial service exams as an exercise in filial piety to his family. He is, however, mainly controlled by his true nature and returns to the immortal realms after successfully passing the exams. In the real Liu family, Pa is very in touch with his own nature, and he takes great pride in knowing the natures of each of his seven children. He deals with each child in a particular way based on his perception of that child’s true nature. Perhaps this deep sense of a fated or heaven-given identity is what enables Pa to feel secure in the face of Western masculinity. 

Although Pa is not worried about comparing himself to men of the West, most scholars tend to agree that Chinese men have been in a crisis of masculinity since China’s defeat in the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century. Since that time, more and more Chinese men have felt that they come up short in comparison to Westerners, and they keep trying to improve themselves to restore their traditional sense of confidence vis-à-vis the “over-sexed hairy barbarians” or “Western devils.”

The May Fourth movement was one way in which Chinese men of the early 20th century attempted to redefine themselves. They looked to Meiji Japan and saw that its rapid Europeanization enabled it to become an imperial power in Asia; hence, the men of the May Fourth movement attempted to emulate the Japanese in westernizing themselves. In general, the May Fourth men tended to be warriors with the pen. In The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers, Leo Ou-Fan Lee describes a book of satire from the 1920s that describes these men. “Such a man is able to read and to write and is somewhat familiar with traditional Chinese literature as well as Western authors. He is bohemian and amorous, emotional rather than rational. He is up-to-date on the literary scene. He has modern, fashionable clothes; drinks and smokes; patronizes brothels; and has debts and an illness (preferably tuberculosis or syphilis). He writes his own original fiction or translates literature on fashionable topics into Chinese. He regularly contributes articles to journals and magazines.  He attends meetings and gives long speeches. He sponsors new writers, and he is ready for change (39-40)” (Summary from my MA thesis). I think the bite of the preceding satire shows that men of that era were not entirely satisfied with the May Fourth model.

During the Maoist era, ideal masculinity was redefined as the rugged, stolid peasant fighters of the People’s Liberation Army. These men populate the pages of the short stories by Ru Zhi-juan and the novels Tracks in the Snowy Forest and Red Crag. They are also seen in the genre of films known as “Red Classics.” Xueping Zhong has written a book called Masculinity Besieged about Chinese films and literature of the post-Mao era and how they continue to seek a satisfactory ideal for Chinese masculinity in comparison with Western men.

My perception of the preceding styles of masculinity is that they are not balanced. The May Fourth version seems to have swung to the wen and yin extremes. Confucianism was considered to be rigid, out-dated, and an impediment to progress, while Buddhism and Taoism were seen as ignorant superstitions that are incompatible with modern science; hence, the Confucian-Buddhist/Taoist binary was discarded among the May Fourth intellectual elite. The Maoist view of masculinity seems to be a pendulum swing to the wu and yang poles. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism were also eschewed as superstitious, feudalistic thought during the Maoist era.

With the repudiation of China’s three religious/philosophical traditions, modern men may lack a nuanced compass for their constancy. Filial piety still resonates strongly, but it is increasingly reduced to earning lots and lots of money with which to support elderly parents and to give them elaborate funerals. Honoring one’s ancestors mainly means that a man must be a resounding business success in quantifiable, monetary terms. These views differ from what I have noticed in Pa’s practice of filial piety. His idea of filial piety includes caring for the feelings of the elderly. This is why he took pains to ensure that Ma could spend time with Grandma Chu. Pa strove for success in business, but to me, it seems that a large part of what he considers a life well lived lies in the facts that he did not sell off any of his daughters, even when the family was poor, and that he successfully raised his children to be upright, contributing members of society. He is quite proud that all of his grandchildren are becoming successful adults in a moral sense, instead of a merely in a monetary sense. Yuni and many of his younger Maternal Uncles do not share Pa’s emphasis on feelings and upright living. They focus mainly on money and business success as the measure of their masculinity and the proof of their filial piety.

This shift in emphasis on the meaning of “filial piety” might confirm Kam Louie’s argument that contemporary, transnational businessmen have replaced the Confucian literati scholars as ideal men in China…

Last summer, when I was in Shanghai, I read a newspaper article about an elite school in Beijing that trains beautiful women how to be wives of China’s new elite class of billionaires. Only beautiful women with exquisite skin and figures are accepted. They learn how to manage luxurious households, how to deal with mistresses, how to order at the finest restaurants, how to listen sympathetically to their men, etc. etc. When they are ready to graduate, the school also provides discreet matchmaking services at the expense of the billionaires who want elegant, well-trained, docile wives.

The effect of what women want in men is probably important to the construction of contemporary masculine identities. Fall semester of 2010, our Asian Studies graduate seminar did a sociological study of 40 consumers of Korean popular culture among the residents of southern California. One of the surprising results was that most of them liked the K-pop stars and Korean TV dramas because they wanted to watch the beautiful male stars. Many of these consumers, the majority of whom were Asian-American females, espoused standards of male beauty similar to those enumerated in Song Geng’s The Fragile Scholar and other scholarly works about traditional Chinese masculinity among Confucian literati officials of the imperial era. In addition to the almost effeminate beauty of the male stars, the women were attracted to their designer clothes and affluent life-styles. Looking back on my arguments with female friends in Taiwan when I was preparing to marry Yuni, I realize that most of my friends objected to the fact that he was too brawny, too dark, too unrefined, and too poor. They, too, were looking for successful businessmen in the fragile scholar style as their ideal men. So modern women, perhaps, are not as worried about comparing Chinese/Asian men to Westerners, creating a quandary for the men… do they try to show up the brawny Western devils or land a nice Chinese wife with their lily-white skin, ruby lips, slender hips, and bulging wallets?

In conclusion, I think that contemporary Chinese masculinity is a work in progress. Men of different regions, different generations, and different social classes all seem to have different ideas of what it means to be a proper man. Yet, the Confucian ideals of filial piety and honoring one’s ancestors, at the very least through lucrative professional accomplishments, seem to resonate among Chinese men of all ages and social classes around the world. The Taoist and Buddhist ideals in my father-in-law’s version of masculinity do not seem as prevalent among younger men, urban men, and men of my acquaintance from mainland China. I expect this lack of mitigating factors gives modern men more stress and more feelings of inadequacy, especially since guilt-tripping men about their lack of filial piety and career success is a woman’s best weapon in the modern Chinese battle of the sexes.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Buddhist and Taoist Ideals of Chinese Masculinity

Two weeks ago I discussed Confucian ideals of Chinese masculinity and observed that they put extreme pressure on men. Confucian norms of conduct make up the bulk of what I saw in school textbooks in Taiwan while I was living there and in the books my sisters-in-law sent for my children to use learning Chinese. The biggest pressure in textbooks and social commentary is the idea of filial piety. From the first grade on, children memorize the phrase: “Parents support us when we’re young; we will support our parents when they’re old.” Sons, especially eldest and only sons, are exhorted from a young age to study hard and bring glory to their parents and ancestors. It is expected that each generation will do better than the last. 

In practice, though, the Confucian norms are mitigated traditionally by Buddhist and Taoist ideals. Scholars tend to agree that traditional Chinese culture is made up of three strands: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism (Daoism), but in researching my thesis, I did not find any scholarly works discussing Buddhist or Taoist norms for masculinity beyond a book or two on Chinese monasticism. Beata Grant has two interesting books on Buddhist Chinese women, and she discusses how Buddhism opened space in society for women to escape the strictures of Confucian culture. There are no such studies yet on masculinity, but from my observation of the men in the Liu family and their relatives and friends, I have noticed Buddhist and Taoist sensibilities that seem to counter-balance the rigidity of Confucian mores. For example, Confucian men are supposed to be rigid patriarchs, yet both Pa and Yuni have a certain reluctance to physically harm anything, even flies. I have watched them spend over an hour chasing a fly around the house to herd it outside where it would not bother them. When I asked why they did not just swat the pest, they both seemed shocked that I did not understand that one always does one’s best to avoid killing anything. They used the phrase bu keyi sha sheng (不可以殺生), which is Buddhist. If the fly came back to pester them, however, it was usually not so lucky. Yuni is quite adept at catching flies in mid-flight and killing them, when he wants to. 

For the analysis of Buddhist ideals of masculinity in my thesis, I examined two sutras, which were popular in medieval China: the Lotus Sutra and the Vimalakirti Sutra. Both these sutras give instructions for laymen, which are particularly important, as historically, very few Chinese men became monks, due to the Confucian requirement of producing sons to carry on the family name. The Lotus Sutra essentially says that if anyone can learn even four words of the sutra and speak them to someone else, he will be enlightened. Furthermore, laymen should be humble and give alms. In other words, the sutra seems to provide a means of redemption for men who might feel they have failed in their lives. When juxtaposed with the essay “Record of the Thatched Hut on Mount Lu” by Tang Dynasty poet Po Chu-I (Bai Juyi 白居易; translated by Burton Watson in Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life), it seems that after men retired from their careers as imperial officials, they would look to Buddhism as a way of cultivating themselves and, perhaps, of making up for the damage done while they were in the service of the emperor. 

The Vimalakirti Sutra is more imaginative. Vimalakirti is a bodhisattva, who lives in the form of a layman with a wife and children. He behaves impeccably in all his doings. Throughout most of the sutra, he is lying ill on his bed in his small, spare room, and all the various buddhas and bodhisattvas come to visit him. He is able to confound them with his wisdom and to carry them to other buddha-fields with the power of his mind. (One sees where the authors of martial arts novels got the ideas for some of their stories.) I think that stories like the Vimalakirti sutra reinforce the idea that what lies beneath the surface is more important than appearance. It doesn’t matter in Buddhism if you appear poor or ill or relatively powerless; it is what is in your heart that counts. I frequently see such a spirit in Pa. He always keeps on going no matter what the outward circumstances, often by dint of his strength of character and his heart.
Traditionally, Taoism has been another counter-balance to Confucianism. Taoist texts emphasize oneness with nature and going with the flow. Taoists thought that too much learning could be counter-productive. Taoism is also full of yin-yang philosophy. The Tao Te Ching (道德經) exhorts men: “Know the male / But keep to the role of the female / And be a ravine to the empire” (XXVIII, 63).  Taoist men were supposed to be in touch with their feminine side and were supposed to choose to be rustic and humble. One of the highest virtues in Taoism is wu wei (無為,acting without doing). As I mentioned in my last post on masculinity, Pa said he is happy to be balanced by Ma in his marriage. He is also well able to roll with life’s punches. I did not realize how much his worldview is imbued with Taoism until I started studying for my MA. He is not the only male in the family to live by this worldview; most of the men in his generation seem to be attuned to nature and able to go with the flow. 

Indeed, my exposure to Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle gave me an idea for a paradigm to express traditional Chinese masculinity. I laid out the rudiments of this framework in my final paper for a class on classic Chinese novels in the fall semester of 2011. The key to my framework is two lines from the Three Character Classic (San ci jing 三字經): 

Zuo zhong yong, nai Kong Ji, zhong bu pian, yong bu yi.
(The author of Doctrine of the Mean was Kong Ji; it means balanced and constant.)

From this passage, I noted that an ideal Chinese man should be balanced and constant. I argued that Kam Louie’s wen-wu (literary-martial) binary, Song Geng’s yin-yang binary, and the notion of other scholars that there is a Confucian-Taoist/Buddist or a pragmatic-spiritual binary are all valid descriptions of Chinese masculinity, AND they all apply simultaneously. These binaries are the poles in a multi-dimensional grid among which Chinese men need to find balance. I see their balancing act as not merely balancing a see-saw or balancing a linear binary, but rather one of balancing on an exercise ball. They need to be balanced in a well-rounded, multi-dimensional manner. And in the midst of their balancing act they need to be constant or persistent in certain basic morals: filial piety, loyalty to friends and country, and diligence in their careers. In my paper, I applied this analytical framework to the heroes in five of China’s most important classic novels: Liu Bei of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演講), Song Jiang of Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳), Tripitaka of Monkey (西遊記), Jia Baoyu in The Story of the Stone (紅樓夢), and Ximen Qing in The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅). I will not rehash that analysis here; I did get an A on the paper. 

Instead, I want to describe how I believe this framework is borne out in the lives of Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle. Neither of them is very literate. The family was blacklisted during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan because Great-grandfather Liu was a Chinese medicine veterinarian and Great-grandmother Liu was a Chinese medicine midwife/pediatrician. The great-grandparents worked with the anti-Japanese resistance movement, treating the fighters’ injuries. This did not go over well with the Japanese, and their sons and grandsons were not allowed to go to school. Great-grandmother Liu taught the eldest son of each of her sons to read; Eldest Paternal Uncle learned to read in this way. When Pa was old enough to go to elementary school, Great-grandmother Liu pushed Grandpa Liu to see if the family could bribe his way in. Pa was the only child in his generation to attend formal schooling. He went to three years of Japanese school, and three years of Chinese school. Great-grandmother Liu oversaw his homework and tutored him. Although neither man was very educated, both respected education and encouraged their children to get as much education as they could. This was their wen (literary) aspect. In their wu (martial) aspect, they excelled at their manual labor. Eldest Paternal Uncle was (he passed away in 2007) an excellent farmer; Pa became a master mason. Among the working class of Taiwan, the phrase I mentioned last time of wen wu shuang quan “perfect in all things literary and martial” frequently is used to refer to someone who can read and write and who has manual skill or dexterity. So for their social class and generation, Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle were balanced on the wen-wu binary.

The yin-yang binary of Chinese masculinity, as I see it among traditional working class/peasant men in Taiwan, is a combination of patriarchal responsibility with an ability to express emotions, especially grief. Both Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle were stern patriarchs and took their masculine duties as head of household very seriously. Yet I have seen both of them touched to tears, even to the point of weeping, especially during socially acceptable occasions, such as funerals, or upon hearing of the death or injury of a child. Had they been truly literary men, they would probably have written eloquent poetry. Instead, they allowed themselves the freedom to embrace and express appropriate emotions. But they were balanced; when expressing anger, they shouted a lot, but they never beat women, and I have only seen Pa push or strike a person in self-defense. 

In the Confucian-Buddhist/Taoist binary, of course, the responsible patriarch comes out again. This seems to be the principal yang and Confucian role. In this binary, the diligent patriarch is balanced by a reluctance to harm sentient beings, a harmony with nature, an acceptance of fate, and a sense of humility. Both Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle followed Confucian mores to work hard to better the family’s fortunes, attempting to make their generation better than the one before it. Yet, they also realized that no matter how hard they labored, they could not control everything. When fate gave Pa an apprentice who cheated him out of everything and forced him into bankruptcy, he did not lose heart. He rallied the family and worked hard to recoup. If Eldest Paternal Uncle had a bad year due to drought, he took it in stride. They did not feel like failures because of life’s setbacks. I do not know if this was because they spent their childhoods under the Japanese occupation with the constant threat of being taken by the Japanese army and sent to fight during WWII. Or perhaps, it is because they grew up as peasant farmers without the benefits of electricity and running water, and so they had deep first-hand experience of living at the mercy of Nature. Maybe it was a combination of both. 

Within their balance, I found Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle very constant in matters of filial piety; loyalty to family, friends, and country; and diligence in their work. Eldest Paternal Uncle never missed a ritual sacrifice at the family tomb, which is on the ridge above where he lived. Pa always sent him money to ensure that the sacrifice was bountiful. When Eldest Paternal Uncle had a bad year, Pa sent him money (even if his family was tight) and employed his son in Pa’s construction business. When Pa was in bankruptcy, Eldest Paternal Uncle sent rice and produce from his farm to feed Pa’s household. They took their voting rights very seriously, and Pa would discuss politics with Eldest Paternal Uncle to keep him up-to-date on the latest news from off the mountain, so that he could vote intelligently. They were both diligent and did excellent work. 

Because they were peasants, farming their own land and owning their own business, they were able to maintain this traditional masculinity even into the twenty-first century. Pa is extremely comfortable in his masculinity. He does not question his right to rule his household. He does not need to bully the women. He did not do great things, but he feels that he accomplished the important things in life for a man of his class. And so, he expresses pride in what he sees as a life well lived. He is not at all worried about comparing himself to men of the West.