The Question of Women's Character

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Nothing in human history is free of the laws of time and space, and there is nothing that does not have a beginning and an end. But a historical fact is not necessarily the truth, and someone who can understand the causes and effects of a historical fact and make critical judgments is one who has embarked upon the path of progress. Those who mistakenly believe that all historical facts are truths because they are steeped in old traditions are anachronistic obstacles to social progress.

Chinese people are always full of inertia and have chosen the path of "nonevolution." Instead of using universally valid logic and reasoning, they resort to the time-honored method of "following the old tradition." They are taking the tradition that has been passed down over generations as the eternal, unchanging truth. Today I am raising the issue of "women's character," which they may not bother to recognize as an issue. I anticipate that they will say: "There is no need to talk about women's character because there is none, as has been indicated by history. This issue was resolved by history long ago." I would not have much more to say to them, but I have pondered the issue and I have been moved by the speeches of several progressive people I recently read. My conscience would bother me if I did not write about this issue. The following are some of my thoughts.

To discuss this issue, one has to first define "character"; which means to me "the kind of spirit that distinguishes one from others." In other words, "a spirit of integrity and independence even when one is part of a group." In order to be independent, one has to develop one's abilities fully; in order to have integrity, one has to love truth and never follow others blindly—these are the preconditions of character. Due to differences of age and status, the "magnitude" of character also differs; but people of the same era and the same status should have the same kind of character because we are all part of the same society.

Now that we have the definition of "character," our discussion proceeds.

First, are women entitled to character? The answer is definitely "Yes, they are, because they are human beings."

Second, do women currently have character? Up until recent years, there have been only a small number of independent women. Most women did not have true, firm worldviews, as they were confined to the home and relied on others, and their lives were neither complete nor independent. It is no exaggeration to say that these women had incomplete character or had almost no "character."

Third, let's talk about the reasons for women's misfortune. It is utterly unfair to say that the incompleteness of women's character is due to their own sins. At the time when labor was being divided, women had the misfortune of being assigned to bear children and then were forced to stay at home to raise children and to do other household chores. As human intelligence improved, human society became more and more developed, and all kinds of productive activities emerged. As a result, the worry-free men were the ones who had direct contact with society, while women were unable to produce social wealth because they were restricted by household chores. Even for those women who were involved in some productive activity at home, they were still subordinate to men and could not serve society directly without being represented by men. Such a social division of labor went on from generation to generation and caused women to gradually lose their independence and the ability to be self-reliant.

Confined to the home, women could do only trivial, low, and tedious housework. How could bound and exhausted women have the time and opportunity to gain access to events and ideas of the outside world and pursue serious study? Passed on from generation to generation, wrongs became rights and eventually social customs. It appeared that only men could engage in serious studies and moral pursuits. Gradually, women lost their real, firm worldviews, and their natural inclination for truth atrophied and disappeared.

The above is about women's misfortune; but it does not stop there. Owing to men's influence, women themselves, unfortunately, fully accepted the assumption that "women are essentially different from men" and, therefore, tended to take their own character lightly, either by not wanting to actualize it or by simply discarding it.

There are two kinds of "isms"[1] men hold toward women: one is "temptationism," which involves tempting women with all sorts of honors into discarding their own character; the other is "male chauvinism"[2], which involves putting women down and refusing to treat them as equals.

Especially tempting are the "appellations." The "Three Cardinal Principles and Five Constant Virtues"[3] and "Three Obediences and Four Virtues"[4] are all powerful instruments used against women. These appellations are derived from "traditions lacking in truth." Taking for granted that "tradition is truth," the broad masses of people have blindly accepted these "principles" as "the relationship between husband and wife is just like that between the king and the subject" and "the ruler guides the subject, and the husband guides the wife." Since the Han dynasty, those who could really speak up have been mainly the followers of Confucius; and yet Confucius was the most spineless—he only wanted to serve as the loyal subject of one single ruler. It is no wonder that he, taking himself as the role model, made those insidious rules and codes of conduct. Human beings are often unclear in their thinking, and tend to be self-centered. Women, being the weaker sex, are often oppressed by men, who, in an attempt to gain certain benefits, made all those unjust rules. Someone put it well that "if it had been the wife of the Lord of Zhou[5] who made all the rules, they would certainly have been better and more balanced." As we can see, these rules and codes of conduct are the end products of men's selfishness.

"To be a good mother and virtuous wife" is another big admonition women have to follow. In recent years, women's schools have been founded; but to use this admonition as the founding principle is ridiculous; how can you expect a woman simply to be somebody's wife and somebody's mother? A woman is expected to be a good mother, simply raising children for her man, and to be a virtuous wife who helps her man to be successful in his career. If a woman as a person is reduced to being responsible only for individuals, doesn't it mean that her life differs not much from that of a dog or a cat?[6] If she has nothing to do with the big collective, doesn't it mean that she has become a dispensable tumor?

One can also look at it from the opposite point of view: if a woman is supposed to be "a good mother and virtuous wife," then a man ought to be "a good father and virtuous husband." Why are men allowed to monopolize scholarship when they can't commit themselves to being "good fathers and virtuous husbands"? It seems that any person with a complete personality is not interested in being one who belongs to others; he or she wants to be a whole, independent element in society. Unfortunately, women who have to be " mothers" and "wives" have been too easily deprived of their character.

There are other kinds of strong temptation, such as "chastity" and "martyrdom." This means that when a woman is married to a certain man—even if in name alone—she is never allowed to leave him, just like an indentured slave. If an unmarried woman is facing rape, she must protect her chastity in order to gain social approval. She might be praised not for refusing to succumb to violence, not for keeping herself unharmed, but for keeping her "chastity." It is as if once a woman is married or betrothed to a man, she has obligations toward her man alone, as a subject to a ruler, and hence should be content and reconciled. In fact, such things should not be an issue, since the most important thing between a married couple is love. If one must define "chastity," I would define it in terms of love. Love should be on both sides; if one party is no longer in love, it will not work, and the couple should separate. If people practice this, there will not be any problems regarding chastity. If a couple is deeply in love, they are certainly devoted to each other and would not have to concern themselves about infidelity or "chastity." In that case, love is chastity. Hence, the most essential concern of a couple should be about love. When two people are in love, active and free, they feel blessed and spiritually blissful, so much so that they might be willing to devote anything to each other, even perhaps their own lives. Needless to say, this kind of love and devotion is not what one would call "slavishness"; it should not be used as a yoke imposed on women. In reality, however, there are couples who are not in love and yet still remain together. Out of their selfishness, men created many rules and regulations to control women and to maintain the relationship—the concept and "title" of "chastity" being one of those. In fact, this kind of honor and praise is even crueler than those admonitions. Even some sensible women would be prone to vanity and thus pursue relentlessly those titles and honors, regardless of reality and truth; as for those who are uneducated and insentient, they simply follow suit inadvertently. Here, not intending to talk big, I simply hope that these women would tell me honestly whether they are truly willing or not. It is my belief that except for a few men and women who are truly in pursuit of lofty love, the rest are only doing things for an ulterior motive. If a person does not really treasure life and does not pursue true happiness, is his or her personality complete? Yet, all this has already been accepted by the world as Divine actuality and Heavenly Principle—no one would challenge its unfairness and unjustness. Thus, women are deceived and victimized.

One can detect male chauvinism whenever and wherever one looks. For instance, I have heard that a woman is just like a machine: (a) as long as a woman is paid for, she can be selected and can be moved into the house; (b) after being obtained, she can be used by her man at his will and at any time; (c) a woman can provide products—children—and the more, the better; (d) women like machines can be purchased and stored—you can never have too many; (e) if she is like a machine that is not satisfactory or cannot produce, the woman can be discarded and replaced. As we know, machines are dead things without free will and feelings; so this is an abominable analogy that flatly denies women their humanity.

Ever since Confucius said that "women and petty people are difficult to deal with," men have joined this misogynist chorus. Consequently, sayings like "never indulge in sex with women" and "never deal with women" have become men's sacred mottoes. To those men, "sex" is the only connection between men and women, and women are akin to "poisonous snakes and wild beasts"—absolutely unapproachable. One can deduce from it that "being a woman is evil"; a woman is considered evil not because of her ideas or behavior but simply because of her physical difference from men.

There were some capable and ambitious women in the past who did something worthwhile, though not necessarily significant. Then some men would start to make comments or write their biographies, using compliments like "women warriors" and "putting the men to shame." On the one hand, it is commendable for them to do that to "set up moral standards" and to "encourage the men." On the other hand, it does sound like they are saying that "all the lofty causes and virtuous deeds should be patent to men; yet, now that some women have done such things, we men, the noble stock, should try to catch up." In other words, women are not qualified to be engaged in some causes. Although the so-called democracy adamantly advocates that "all men are born equal," it does not recognize women's rights to participate in government and politics. While we can further discuss whether participation in politics is good or bad; we do see here that the so-called "human rights," in these people's eyes, were meant to be "men's rights."

We can look at the so-called "civilized wedding." The most civil part involves having the bridegroom say: "Yes, I will protect my wife" and for the bride to say: "Yes, I will respect and take good care of my husband." "To protect" normally means to take care of children or the vulnerable, which in essence deprives the protected of their rights. Why should a woman's rights be taken away by a man? And why should a woman be obligated to take good care of a man? One day when I had quite a few friends over at my place, one of them said: "So-and-so fell ill; but his wife really took good care of him, giving up sleep and pleasure but never complaining." When the rest of my friends heard it, every one of them praised her highly—not so much for the deep love between them as for the way she performed her "sacred duty." To be able to wait on men! Why? That same day, another friend there said: "So-and-so recently lost his wife, and is feeling extremely sad and lonely. When she was alive, the two were such a handsome and happy couple who often walked hand in hand." Upon hearing that, the crowd laughed and one of them even went so far as to say: "Mr. So-and-so is indeed a filial husband."[7] From all this, I figured out the psychology of men. When a woman dies, she is not even worthy of being remembered. Where is love? Mr. So-and-so went against the common psychology of men, and was thus ridiculed by other men. From this, we can see all the praises we heard from them before were fake.

Women get married because they are supposed to wait on men and then be protected; but after marriage, they even lose their maiden names and are called "Mrs. So-and-so." If we try to go against this tradition by addressing a man as "the husband of So-and-so," the man would certainly not be happy. It is because he believes that "women are only subordinates and enjoy no social status whatsoever."

These are the causes of women's misfortune. To sum it up briefly, we can come to the conclusion that, due to oppressive social realities, women have gradually lost their own identity and reasoning ability. Because of their selfish motives and beliefs, men have been taking advantage of that fact and trying to lure women with all sorts of honors and titles and at the same to repress women with their male chauvinism. More or less conditioned by this kind of repression, women have come to accept the status quo; and other people have also taken this for granted and live under the delusion that "this is reality!" This goes on like a vicious circle, during which women have lost their character.

Women's misfortune is a fact, one that is caused by thoughts and situations based on the wrong notion of "tradition is truth." To rectify the situation and arrive at a satisfactory, happy solution, a woman needs to have a certain degree of consciousness. She ought to know that she is a "human individual" and try to develop her ability to its full extent and achieve as an individual human being. She should also know that, while adhering to truth, she should discard and destroy those erroneous "appellations" and "pseudo morals." She differs from men in physiology alone, which is natural and nothing to be ashamed of, and has nothing to do with good or evil, superiority or inferiority. Women's ability to bear children is not for men alone but also for society; and it is a sacred cause. Importantly, when a woman cannot be independent and self-reliant because of her duty as a mother, society has the duty to reward her. Therefore, we need a fundamental socioeconomic reform, one that is unprecedented in history and yet will be certainly achieved in the not too distant future. The fact that a woman marries a man is a most natural thing and should be viewed as the same as a man marrying a woman. A married woman should not be the property and slave of her man; she should not be reduced to helping him manage family affairs and making the property grow.

At the same time, men should know that one who does not respect other people's dignity is also damaging one's own dignity. Men's superstition that "tradition is truth" and their selfish prejudices have already ruined numerous women since ancient times and have hindered human progress for numerous generations. If we as a society want to get onto the road of progress quickly, we need to get rid of "temptationism" and "male chauvinism" completely.

Men and women should be united as "human beings." Each and every one of us is part of the collective effort for social progress. Each and every one of us should endeavor to be independent, and each and every one of us should enjoy happiness, light, respect, and freedom.

  1. Along with the influx of Western thoughts and ideas, after the May Fourth Movement, "isms" (zhuyi) became popular among young Chinese intellectuals during the May Fourth era.
  2. The original text is shili zhuyi; literally, it means "snobbery."
  3. The Three Cardinal Guides are that the ruler guides subject, father guides son, husband guides wife; and the Five Constant Virtues are benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and fidelity.
  4. The Three Obediences are that a woman should obey her father before marriage, obey her husband when married, and obey her son after her husband's death; and the Four Virtues for women are morality, proper speech, modest manner, and diligent work.
  5. The original saying goes "The Lord of Zhou made the rules and rituals." (Zhou Gong zhi li); the version here is "The wife of the Lord of Zhou" (Zhou Po zhi li).
  6. The original text uses "Ah Hei" and "Ah Huang"—common names for dogs and cats in China.
  7. Normally, the term is "filial son" xiaozi; "filial husband" is used here as a contemptuous joke.