It is, perhaps, tolerably safe to say that the position of women among the Chinese is very generally misunderstood.
In the squalid huts of the poor, they are represented as ill-used drudges, drawers of water and grinders of corn, early to rise and late to bed, their path through the vale of tears uncheered by a single ray of happiness or hope, and too often embittered by terrible pangs of starvation and cold. This picture is unfortunately true in the main; at any rate, there is sufficient truth about it to account for the element of sentimental fiction escaping unnoticed, and thus it comes to be regarded as an axiom that the Chinese woman is low, very low, in the scale of humanity and civilisation. The women of the poorer classes in China have to work hard indeed for the bowl of rice and cabbage which forms their daily food, but not more so than women of their own station in other countries where the necessaries of life are dearer, children more numerous, and a drunken husband rather the rule than the exception. Now the working classes in China are singularly sober; opium is beyond their means, and few are addicted to the use of Chinese wine. Both men and women smoke, and enjoy their pipe of tobacco in the intervals of work; but this seems to be almost their only luxury. Hence it follows that every cash earned either by the man or woman goes towards procuring food and clothes instead of enriching the keepers of grog-shops; besides which the percentage of quarrels and fights is thus very materially lessened. A great drag on the poor in China is the family tie, involving as it does not only the support of aged parents, but a supply of rice to uncles, brothers, and cousins of remote degrees of relationship, during such time as these may be out of work. Of course such a system cuts both ways, as the time may come when the said relatives supply, in their turn, the daily meal; and the support of parents in a land where poor-rates are unknown, has tended to place the present high premium on male offspring. Thus, though there is a great deal of poverty in China, there is very little absolute destitution, and the few wretched outcasts one does see in every Chinese town, are almost invariably the once opulent victims of the opium-pipe or the gaming-table. The relative number of human beings who suffer from cold and hunger in China is far smaller than in England, and in this all-important respect, the women of the working classes are far better off than their European sisters. Wife-beating is unknown, though power of life and death is, under certain circumstances, vested in the husband (Penal Code, S. 293); while, on the other hand, a wife may be punished with a hundred blows for merely striking her husband, who is also entitled to a divorce (Penal Code, S. 315). The truth is, that these poor women are, on the whole, very well treated by their husbands, whom they not unfrequently rule with as harsh a tongue as that of any western shrew.
In the fanciful houses of the rich, the Chinese woman is regarded with even more sympathy by foreigners generally than is accorded to her humbler fellow-countrywoman. She is represented as a mere ornament, or a soulless, listless machine—something on which the sensual eye of her opium-smoking lord may rest with pleasure while she prepares the fumes which will waft him to another hour or so of tipsy forgetfulness. She knows nothing, she is taught nothing, never leaves the house, never sees friends, or hears the news; she is, consequently, devoid of the slightest intellectual effort, and no more a companion to her husband than the stone dog at his front gate. Now, although we do not profess much personal acquaintance with the gynecee of any wealthy Chinese establishment, we think we have gathered quite enough from reading and conversation to justify us in regarding the Chinese lady from an entirely different point of view. In novels, for instance, the heroine is always highly educated—composes finished verses, and quotes from Confucius; and it is only fair to suppose that such characters are not purely and wholly ideal. Besides, most young Chinese girls, whose parents are well off, are taught to read, though it is true that many content themselves with being able to read and write a few hundred words. They all learn and excel in embroidery; the little knick-knacks which hang at every Chinaman’s waist-band being almost always the work of his wife or sister. Visiting between Chinese ladies is of everyday occurrence, and on certain fete-days the temples are crowded to overflowing with “golden lilies” [a poetical name for the small feet of Chinese women] of all shapes and sizes. They give little dinner-parties to their female relatives and friends, at which they talk scandal, and brew mischief to their hearts’ content. The first wife sometimes quarrels with the second, and between them they make the house uncomfortably hot for the unfortunate husband. “Don’t you foreigners also dread the denizens of the inner apartments?” said a hen-pecked Chinaman one day to us—and we think he was consoled to hear that viragos are by no means confined to China. One of the happiest moments a Chinese woman knows, is when the family circle gathers round husband, brother, or it may be son, and listens with rapt attention and wondering credulity to a favourite chapter from the “Dream of the Red Chamber.” She believes it every word, and wanders about these realms of fiction with as much confidence as was ever placed by western child in the marvellous stories of the “Arabian Nights.”