Women and the Family in Chinese History

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey | Go to book overview

4
The women in Liu Kezhuang's family*

As any reader will remember well, the Jia family in the Dream of Red Mansions (Honglou meng) was centered around the elderly grandmother. To the youthful Baoyu the family's key members, other than his father, were all females; they included his grandmother, his elder cousin's wife, his elder brother's widow, and his own sisters and cousins – not to mention the senior maids and concubines. The novel informs us of the life histories of most of these women, and provides enough information on their background, experiences, and opportunities for us to find their varied fates plausible.

Despite the prominence of these women and girls in the novel, no one could assert that this family was a matrilineal or matriarchal one; the family was orthodox in almost all the formal aspects of family institutions. Descent was patrilineal, marriage was patrilocal, authority and property were vested in the senior men, and it was these men who dealt with the outer world. The women themselves did not reject the male-centered family structure in order to create an alternative world of their own. The grandmother may have felt strong affection for her brother's or daughter's children, but she never questioned that her sons' sons and their sons came first. Nevertheless, the novel shows that the constraints on women and girls created by the structure of the family did not render them unimportant in the lives of the men and boys with whom they lived. The more senior of these women had considerable authority over men; and perhaps even more importantly, the emotional dimension of life at home for men was overwhelmingly based on relations with women.

The Dream of Red Mansions is a unique piece of literature. There are not even many other pieces of fiction that can compare to it in the portrayal of family life. Yet the Dream of Red Mansions raises questions about the lives of women and their place in the emotional lives of men that historians cannot easily ignore. For most Chinese in the past, life at home could never have been as dominated by women as it was for Baoyu, given that only the wealthiest would have had so many extra female kinsmen and maids and

____________________
*
This article was originally published in Modern China 10 (1984:415–40). Copyright ©1984 Sage Publications. Reproduced by permission of Sage Publications.

-89-

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