Women and the Family in Chinese History

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey | Go to book overview
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Introduction

Westerners have long been fascinated by the Chinese family and Chinese women, though the approaches they have brought to these topics have naturally changed over time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, missionaries emphasized the features of the Chinese family that stood in contrast to Western practices, such as ancestor worship, legally recognized concubinage, and large multigenerational families with several married brothers living together. Many were reformers at heart and took up the cause of the subjection of women. They wrote with feeling of the plight of girls who might be killed at birth by parents who did not need another daughter, who could be sold at 5 or 6 as indentured servants, whose feet were bound so small that they could hardly walk, who were denied education, who had to marry whomever their fathers chose, who had few legal rights to property, who could be divorced easily and denied custody of their children, and who might be pressured not to remarry after their husbands' deaths.

By the mid-twentieth century social scientists occupied a similar position of authority in writing about Chinese women and the family for Western audiences. They not surprisingly framed their work in very different ways, trying to avoid both ethnocentrism and condescension. They placed China in a comparative framework that classified family systems according to their method of reckoning descent, their forms of marriage, their ways of transmitting property, and the like, leading to our common understandings of the Chinese family as patrilineal, patrilocal, and patriarchal. Long-term change was not a part of this analysis, and historians impressed by the anthropological model usually discussed the Chinese family as part of the background to Chinese history, much like its geography or language, rather than treating its development as integral to their main historical narrative. Anthropologists themselves commonly treated the household as relatively well understood and devoted much of their fieldwork to analyses of kinship organization beyond the household. One reason for this was that the Chinese lineage corresponded in interesting ways to the segmentary lineages found in Africa, and by studying Chinese lineages they could contribute to anthropological debates on lineage structure. Women were rarely key players in

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