Rural Women in Republican China: A Study of the Wang Sisters from Shandong 1

By Zhang, Hong | Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Rural Women in Republican China: A Study of the Wang Sisters from Shandong 1


Zhang, Hong, Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies


Until recent decades, the role of women had been largely dismissed as peripheral to the study of Chinese institutions and society. The lives and experiences of rural women had received even less scholarly attention than women in other circumstances have. However, to study their lives is to recapture crucial aspects of China's past. An investigation of rural women in North China during the Republican period (1912- 1949) when Chinese society experienced tremendous political and social turmoil will add a critical element of analysis to our scrutiny of the history of China.

A fairly common view of rural Chinese women prior to 1949 is that they were hapless victims of Confucian patriarchal structure and culture. This image was powerfully portrayed by the prominent Chinese writer Lu Xun in his famous story titled "Xiang Lin's Wife." In this story, the nameless poor woman, known simply as Xiang Lin ' s Wife, endured appalling hardships and was victimized by all kinds of social injustice. The story of Xiang Lin ' s wife certainly perpetuates the image of "forever victimized women by Chinese men." However, this overly simplified picture of unremitting female oppression often fails to present the whole picture of gender relations in China (Li, 2000). As a number of influential works on gender relations in Chinese history demonstrate convincingly, gender relationships throughout Chinese history were far from being static, but were often fluid and being constantly contested (Ko, 1994; Ebrey, 1993; Mann, 1997).

The political and economic crises and cultural movements of the first half of the twentieth century exerted significant influence on the lives of Chinese women by undermining the traditional family structure and weakening the old mechanism that bound pattern them to traditional roles. While the political and social changes created possibilities for some women to break the chains of traditional restraints to move toward greater personal independence, the disruption of the traditional family pattern caused by the drastic changes also generated agony, pain and even havoc for some others, especially those rural women from relatively well-to-do families. The idea of women ' s rights often remained foreign to them. Still under the sway of Confiician influence of preserving personal chastity and family loyalty, they were unaware of or showed little interest in the new idea of individual freedom, and yet experienced the frustrations that resulted from the breakdown of the social and family order. The traditional family structure that required men to work outside and women to work inside had sustained them and their families ' well-beings. However, when men acted irresponsibly and failed to serve as household breadwinners, mral women often had to rely upon their own resources, and in the process, they proved to be resourceful and resolved.

This paper examines the married lives of rural women through studying especially the stories of four young women from one relatively affluent Wang family in Shandong Province in North China during the early part of the twentieth century. Having been brought up in a traditional milieu and then caught up in the vicissitudes of life after marriage, these women were forced to adapt to the forces of circumstances and a changing world. Their stories reflect the enduring tension between the changing social and cultural norms and the continuing influence of tradition. Often compelled to fend for themselves, they resorted to conducting a certain amount of maneuvering. Their experiences also testify to the strength, fortitude, and resourcefulness of Chinese rural women.2

This paper does not intend to simply rehash the oppression and suffering these rural women had endured or to just reiterate the story of female suppression and male dominance, but to demonstrate their perseverance and determination in the adverse circumstances and the complex ways in which they were embroiled in family relations and social changes and the kind of emotional and physical support these women offered one another during the times of crisis. …

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