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.