Term Paper: Women Throughout Chinese History

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[. . .] " (Watson & Ebrey, 1991, 235). The girl split from her first family with the understanding that she was never going back to them nor even allowed to communicate with them unless she had the permission of the man. On the surface the procedure is very much like a father marrying off his daughter, making the same arrangements as if it was a legal marriage. However there were a few things that distinguished the wife's status over that of the concubine. Legally, a Chinese man can only have one wife but could possess innumerable concubines. So the status of wife was more special than that of the concubines. Wives were also allocated property upon their marriage while concubines were not. Concubines did not have dowries and their first family did not receive any presents from the man upon losing their daughter.

Concubines were important in securing male succession in the family. They were not treated like wives. To affirm this difference in wife/concubine status, a concubine had to serve formal tea to the wife (Watson & Ebrey, 1991, 242). This signified the permanent status of the concubine with the house. This serving of tea indicated that the pairing of the man and his concubine was "something more than a fleeting liaison." (Watson & Ebrey, 1991, 242). Males were expected to be produced from this union (http://www.wm.edu/CAS/anthropology/faculty/hamada/Virtual_Classroom/wwwb.../208.htm,1-2).

Even if a concubine bore a son and was completely accepted in the house, she was still not treated like the wife and primary mother. Concubines had no real kin after leaving their first families. She had no interaction with her birth family, and limited interaction with the man's family. She was effectively aloe with no relations to speak of (http://www.wm.edu/CAS/anthropology/faculty/hamada/Virtual_Classroom/wwwb.../208.htm,2).

A concubine's identity was always overshadowed by the wife's identity and position in the household. Even though concubines rely on their master and his family for their livelihood, they are also outsiders who don't really fit in the household. If she did give birth to a son, this act didn't necessarily bring her closer to the affections of the family. The wife has the option to recognize the child as her own (thereby giving the child's existence legitimacy in the eyes of the law), which meant that she would ignore the truth about his birth. Even though the concubine is his mother, this would not be related to the child. He was treated as the son of the wife and her husband. The father would not be able to change this arrangement. All decisions regarding this area of family life would always be in the domain of the wife (Jaschok, 1988, 76). Alternatively, the wife may choose not to acknowledge the son of the concubine, thereby classifying the child as illegitimate (http://www.wm.edu/CAS/anthropology/faculty/hamada/Virtual_Classroom/wwwb.../208.htm,2).

If the concubine and her life were explored by an outsider to Chinese tradition and culture, it would seem that she had been fortuitous in entering into a family of respect, wealth and comfort. But from an insider's perspective "the world of women, the territory of a household, excluded the concubine from its inner circle [and] she remained the outcast on the domestic periphery." (Jaschok, 1988, 32). She had no relations to belong to or call upon in times of need and she may not even be able to claim her children as her own if the wife willed it (http://www.wm.edu/CAS/anthropology/faculty/hamada/Virtual_Classroom/wwwb.../208.htm,2).

However, even in such oppressed circumstances, many women achieved fame and fortune through this station in society. Many of the women of creative renown were concubines or courtesans. And although the concubine's station in society is considered much lower than that of a wife, concubines and courtesans were generally not viewed as contemptible or disgusting as in the West. Actually, their company, education and talents were frequently all that was requested. In a polygamous society, sexual favors were easily accessible to men, especially the wealthier men, so this service was not always asked of courtesans. "Men frequented the company of courtesans often as an escape from carnal love, a welcome relief from the often oppressive atmosphere of their own women's quarters and the compulsory sexual relations." (Bennett, 2001, 1). A good literary education was vital for any concubine or courtesan with aspirations to better their life and they expected to be handled with respect and civility by their masters or customers (Bennet, 2001, 1).

However a concubine's or courtesan's life was not always one of joy and luxury (although still a long way off from that of a prostitute). A concubine or courtesan's existence can be described as a "life of constantly welcoming new guests and seeing off old ones. When unhappy they still had to laugh loudly and when they could not stand the taste of wine they still had to drink a great deal; when sick they still had to entertain guests and when their throats hurt they still had to sing." (Bennett, 2001, 1-2).

An example of a concubine who used her talents and situation in life to full advantage was Lady Pan, concubine of the Han emperor Ch'eng (32-7 BC). "Poets a millennia later were still referring to an image she created of the abandoned women as a fan of white silk discarded in autumn. Yu Hsuan-chi (ca844-871) was from a poor family and self-educated. She eventually did so well from her literary work she was not officially registered as a concubine." (Bennett, 2001, 2).

Bondservants, like concubines, also inhabited the household but under different 'contractual' obligations. "A service oriented bondservant is one who feels the need to serve in a more defined aspect. This may entail a need to cook and clean, or provide laundry services. In return for services rendered, they may only wish to be secure in the knowledge that they have pleased a respected one, or been accepted in a household.... Bondservants may never have any wish to be anything different than who and what they are. A bondservant may offer for a set time frame sometimes with options for extensions to serve one in so many roles, from sexual companion to sexual beast, or as... Maid without any sexual contact." (Burns, 2002, 1). While wives were primarily responsible for maintaining domestic harmony and concubines were intended for sexual gratification as well as ensuring the ancestral line, bondservants normally performed a myriad of tasks from domestic servitude to sexual gratification. Because of their multitudinous capabilities they had access to many spheres of their master's life and were privy to a lot of information. They could also be both men and women.

The practice of keeping bondservants has been around for centuries. As early as 1661, bondservants have been written about in the annals of Chinese history, along with their household rivals, the eunuchs. The Manchu dynasty kept family bondservants (usually prisoners and Chinese rebels) as well as eunuchs. "In 1661 a restructuring of the imperial household administration (neiwu fu) put both bondservants and eunuchs under its control. The department operated a two-tiered structure that put eunuchs at the bottom and bondservants at the top. The bondservants supervised the eunuchs at the bottom, but contact between the two was discouraged to prevent alliances." (http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~kaplan/H371/re31.pdf,3).

Since female bondservants could also gratify their masters sexually, they were sometimes likened to prostitutes. However, female bondservants and prostitutes were distinctly different from each other. Theoretically, female bondservants were the equivalent of unpaid household labour, while prostitutes would charge for sex. In reality, though, female bondservants were often sexually assaulted or transformed into concubines by their masters. Sometimes they would also be presented as a present to another family. Among the female bondservants who do provide sexual favors, their main difference with prostitutes is that their bodies would be for 'private access' while the prostitute's body would be for 'public access.' In the event that the female bondservants do not provide sexual favors, they differ greatly from prostitutes. In this regard, female bondservants always had a higher social status than prostitutes (http://www.hku.hk/hkcsp/ccex/ehkcss01/a_pdf5.htm,1).

Although wives and, to a lesser extent, concubines and bondservants wielded power in relation to the arenas men afforded them, prostitutes were further down the social ladder. Chinese prostitutes could be located in mining outposts, railroad camps, agricultural towns (Sridharan, 2000, 1), dance halls or even at the side of the road, halting diners and trucks to offer their services (Wei, 2000, 1). It has become a thriving business, for the girls and the organized sex traders. In Beijing alone, it has been estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 prostitutes reside there. Prostitutes in dance halls and bars are usually of three types:

From the countryside, very young with little education. They have no skills and have a hard time getting a decent job in the city so it is very easy for them to fall into that line of work. The cruelest fact… [END OF PREVIEW]

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