Friday, August 18, 2006

Proverbs 31 in Chinese

Who should control the checkbook in the family? The husband or the wife? Despite the stereotypes of male domination in the East, it is interesting that throughout East Asia, the answer is clear: the wife should control the checkbook and have full power to manage all aspects of the household. A husband who inquires into how his paycheck shows a small-mindedness unbefitting of a man. By contrast, the tendency in traditional European households was to follow the description given by Mr. Tilney to Catherine Morland:

In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman, the woman to make the home agreeable to the man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile.

Making the home agreeable may certainly involve some managerial functions, but the focus on smiling seems to indicate a largely decorative role for the wife.

Recently, I've been reading Bettine Birge's rather dense book on how the Mongol conquest influenced women's legal position in China, Women, Property, and Confucian Reaction in Sung and Yuan China (960-1368). The book is pretty good academic history, although rather on the dry side (even for me and I'm a specialist!). But it does have some very interesting quotations from case law and eulogistic literature. In one chapter, Professor Birge traces the origins of the East Asian concept of "woman as household bursars." It seems to have originated rather late, in the Neo-Confucian revival of about A.D. 1000 (yes, in Chinese history, that's late). Before then, wifes are only rarely praised for their efficient management of household resources.

From then on, eulogies of model wives focus particularly on the frugal management of the household. For example, the eulogy of Madam Li writes:

Her husband had a famous reputation both in the capital and out in the prefectures. He devoted himself to affairs of office and never asked about the resources of the household. Madam Li said, "Managing the household is my occupation." She took what she had accumulated [from household funds] as well as her own personal dowry property, and used these to buy good land and build a house in Linquan, fulfilling the family's intention of establishing a residence there.

One day someone came carrying a sack of rice to deliver to the house. Her husband was surprised and asked her about it. She laughed and said, "This is rent for our household." He thereupon thanked her for being a true help to the family. . .

Madam Li was skilled at managing the family. She had rules for governing all household matters, large and small. With money and grain she knew when to economize. She relieved relatives, both agnates and affines, according to their needs and relations to the family (p. 180).

A eulogy of Madam Shao notes that her husband had a rule for the whole family that:

The comings and goings of men and women, all income and expenditure of money and property, all procurement and dismissal of servants and maids must be reported to the head of the family

But the head of the family meant here is his wife, Madam Shao, not himself. Her role extended outside the family as well:

Of the farming households of southeast Qingjiang [modern Jiangxi], several hundred lived in thatched huts along the river. Periodically the river flooded over them. The people scrambled up buildings and trees to save themselves, but some would be swept away. Madam Shao began to order boats and rice porridge to save them and she came to do it every year. She would store up coffins in advance and dress the bodies of those who died in epidemics. People cherished her kindness (p. 176-77).

A good husband was "genial and easy-going" and "did not consider matters of the family and the property to be his business." This is illustrated in the eulogy of Madam Xu:

Mr. Zhang's family previously had abundant wealth, and he loved to entertain guests. In his middle years, when the family became in want and constrained, he was not in the least bit troubled. When old friends came to the door, he always ordered the kitchen to prepare delicacies, and together with his guests would enjoy drinking as in former times. When he housed guests in his home, he did not mind if they stayed ten days or a month. His wife economized with her clothes and food in order to provide the [needed] money, and never expressed any difficulty. She did not let Mr. Zhang know that things were different from before (p. 175).

Neo-Confucian writers like Zhen Dexiu also noted that this meant that yielding and obedience were not the sum of an ideal woman's character:

The Book of Changes takes the female principle (kun) as the way of a woman, but people are only aware of yielding (rou) and obedience (shun) and that is all. Previous Confucians elaborated on this, saying, "If a woman is not resolute (jian), she will not be able to complement (pei) the male principle (qian). Therefore even though the worthy women of old took complaisance (wan), yielding (i), purity (shu), and kindness (hui) as fundamental, when it came to their accomplishments, there are some things that even heroic men cannot do. Who can have done these without strength (gang) and intelligence (ming)? Can one say that women like Madam Cai [an admirable widow] are not strong and intelligent?

He concludes with this admonition:

Use obedience and submission to establish the foundation, use strength and intelligence when extending to action. Only then will a woman's virtue be complete (pp. 184-85).

Professor Birge goes on to describe some of the more regrettable results of the Neo-Confucians revival, particularly the deprivation of inheritance rights for daughters and widows, and the legal impediments to widows remarrying. Likewise, the eulogy of Madam Xu already shows hints of the over-rigid adherence to principle that seventeenth-eighteenth century Confucians would later criticize in the Neo-Confucian revival. But the Neo-Confucian elevation of a wife's managerial function, like the similar elevation in Proverbs 31, seems to point to a fuller and more satisfying exercise of a wife's talents than "he is to purvey, and she is to smile."

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