Littell's Living Age/Volume 130/Issue 1683/The Whole Duty of Woman from a Chinese Point of View

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Littell's Living Age, Volume 130, Issue 1683
The Whole Duty of Woman from a Chinese Point of View

From The Pall Mall Budget.


The other day a learned judge, charged with adjusting the more serious differences that arise between married couples, delivered a long disquisition on the marked change that has taken place of late in the habits and manners of young persons of the softer sex. Ladies, in his opinion, are gradually assuming a freedom of action and demeanor from which a little while ago they would have shrunk with wholesome aversion. Unfortunately, however, he indicated no remedy for this state of things, although few persons are better qualified to offer advice upon a subject so closely connected with domestic happiness. Had he the requisite leisure he might employ it with advantage in the compilation of a work similar to one which, it seems, enjoys high favor among the Chinese. It is known as the "Nuu Shun; or, Instructions to Women," and has lately been brought home to us in a French translation.

In this popular vade mecum the whole duty of woman is set forth with all the minuteness of detail dear to the natives of the Celestial empire. At the beginning young ladies are cautioned how needful it is for them to observe the duties of politeness, to implicitly regard the injunctions of their parents, never to act from caprice, and to learn to make due distinction between persons of different positions. Young girls are, moreover, enjoined always to preserve a seemly demeanor, not to look round while walking, invariably to retire when male visitors make their appearance, and, above all, not to regard the latter too curiously. They are prohibited from going to the pagoda, counselled always to be provided with a lantern when unavoidably out at night, and enjoined to rise in the morning at cock-crow. Hilarity is evidently not considered becoming, giggling young ladies being but little esteemed by the Chinese. Neither is garrulity approved of, gossips creating, we are assured, not only mischief among others but ample annoyance for themselves.

Reading and conversation are treated of at length. "If," says our mentor to his disciples, "you do not read the books of saints and sages, how will you know the rites, the duties, the four virtues, and the three obediences" — namely, of the young girl towards her parents, of the wife towards her husband, and the widow towards the eldest of her sons? And he cites the example of Isoun, who threw herself against the sword that threatened her husband; of the mother of Ao, who, being too poor to buy books, taught her son to read by tracing letters on the sand; and of other worthy examples. "Women," he observes, "should know how to keep accounts in order to be capable of managing a household," a circumstance well understood out of China. And women, he insists, "should study books of filial piety and morality in preference to amatory poetry, should not store their memories with songs and anecdotes, nor listen to relations of romances;" in other words, should eschew Mudie literature. He is evidently sensible of the difficulties of the task he seeks to impose, for he observes that "effort upon effort must be made to follow these injunctions." "The merit of a woman," remarks this Celestial Solomon, "consists, above all, in being reserved, and not meddling too much in other people's business. A man should not speak of his home affairs, nor a woman of outside matters." "There are circumstances," he admits, "under which a woman ought to speak;" but he advises her to do so "with softness and moderation, and never to let bad or angry words escape her." The Chinese golden rule that "to speak little is a fine accomplishment," will be unwelcome to European or transatlantic belles with a reputation for brilliant small talk; but in these days of lath and plaster villas the wisdom of the recommendation that "if a visitor is in the drawing-room the mistress of the house should be careful not to speak too loud in the kitchen," will be very generally recognized.

Our Chinese mentor expresses himself briefly but to the point on matters relating to the toilette, and English husbands will certainly approve of his maxims: "Study simplicity and neatness. If you are painted and dressed in bright-colored garments, men will stare at you. Do not use rouge and powder every day. Be not too fond of gold, silver, pearls, and jade — all very expensive articles. Be careful of your embroidered and silk attire, and do not wear it excepting when necessary." A careful woman will dress usually in cotton stuffs, but we are not so sure that she "ought not to throw them aside even when they become soiled." She might wash them at least.

Parental respect is strongly inculcated. "The brother and sister, though of different sexes, owe the same respect to their parents; they should behave towards them both morning and evening in an amiable manner, ask them if they are warm or cold, bring them their food," and supply them with new shoes when necessary; they must obey their orders and endure their anger without replying." A young lady when grown up and married is enjoined not to forget the benefits she has received from her parents. "Once or twice a year she ought to ask her husband's leave to go and see them." Nothing is said, however, on the subject of return visits on the part of the mother-in-law. Ample directions are given as to the bride's behavior towards her husband and the members of his family. "From the remotest antiquity to the present time the rule in marriage is that the husband commands and the wife obeys. In all matters it is the husband who will decide, and it is the duty of the wife to conform to his decision." Not only is the wife to obey her husband, but she is to be even more attentive and respectful to his parents than towards her own." She must inquire after their health night and morning, help them to go in and out, always meet them with a smiling countenance, obey their orders, bring them food and drink at appointed times, and joyfully offer to wash their clothes, caps, and sashes. She must furnish them with new shoes, new clothes, and new blankets, fulfil all their wishes without delay, and make every effort to satisfy them. "Your new parents," she is told, "have the right to scold you if you are in the wrong," and under such circumstances she is only at liberty to reproach herself, and not to utter a single word against them. Younger sisters residing with their married brothers are enjoined neither to hate nor deceive their sisters-in-law, and if the latter have faults they are to conceal and not divulge them. For it is remarked that "young girls are too fond of telling everything, thereby causing serious misunderstandings."

A very delicate section, but one which has no application in this country, is that treating of "the consideration to be shown towards the second wife." If the first wife has not the happiness to give birth to a male child, the husband chooses a person whom he loves, in order to have a son who will continue his race. In these circumstances, remarks the sage, it does not do to give way to sentiments of jealousy, for it is necessary that all who live in the same house should maintain amicable relations. But he concludes by recording the sad fact that "nowadays great dissensions exist between first and second wives. Out of a hundred first wives scarcely more than one or two are of a mild and affable character." For this reason he considers it all the more necessary to impress upon such of his fair readers as have to yield their places to second wives the desirability of controlling their feelings.

The rules laid down for the management of children are very few. They are to be kept clean, they are not to be allowed to eat and drink gluttonously, nor to play too much for fear of contracting idle habits; and whenever a visitor arrives the girls are to be sent away and the boys only presented. Here also there are rules for summoning servants of both sexes. Their master is to exhibit towards them a serious air, and to forbear jesting with them on any pretence; but if they have committed a fault they are on the first occasion to be called to account — on the next they may be beaten. Paterfamilias, after reprimanding his butler for making too free with the '32 port, is afterwards justified in kicking him downstairs. The calculating wisdom of the Celestial crops out in the advice given to feed servants well, "since if you are sparing of their food they will be sparing of their exertions." As regards one's neighbors the having of a good understanding with them is held up as "a magnificent thing," and elsewhere "unity between neighbors" is proclaimed to be an "inestimable jewel."

The section devoted to "woman's work" may possibly not find favor in the eyes of the advocates of woman's rights. Chinese women are enjoined to rise early, since "as spring is the most favorable season for the work of the year, so is the dawn for that of the day." They are, moreover, bidden to take care of the hemp and the mulberry-trees; to spin with zeal silk and cotton for their own use; to learn to cut out and make their own garments, and not to have recourse to assistance elsewhere; to wash these when they get soiled in order not to become an object of repugnance to others; while such leisure time as they can find is to be devoted to making shoes for their husbands and children, their fathers and mothers in law. Mr. Buckmaster and other professors of the school of cookery will be pleased to learn that in China the care of the kitchen is regarded as one of the first of the wife's duties. Morning and evening she has to prepare the necessary dishes of fish, meat, soup, and vegetables, taking care that they are neither too salt nor too sour, and that the cups and plates are always clean. When a guest arrives tea and hot water are to be at once served, the one for internal, the other for external use. The wife is enjoined always to fall in with her husband's wishes when it is a question of pressing a visitor to stay to dinner. On such occasions the eatables and drinkables are to be the best that the house can afford, although we are assured that it is of little moment what is offered if it is only offered with politeness. And no doubt it is true that "the husband of a woman who knows how to receive a visitor is certain of being well received elsewhere."

A concluding section of the work relates to the libations and offerings accorded to the dead. Mourning for a husband and for a father or mother in law lasts for three years. During this time the wife has to wear garments unhemmed at the bottom, and of a sad color. To laugh in the presence of funereal hangings exposes the offender to universal contempt. "In spring and autumn offerings have to be made to the dead, and this established rule is not to be lightly disregarded." "The porcelain utensils reserved for this purpose must be of the best quality and scrupulously clean." The wife is required to prepare all with her own hands, "letting her zeal testify the sincerity of her sentiments." Conjugal fidelity is expected of her not only during her husband's lifetime but after his decease. She is adjured to emulate the virtuous heroines of antiquity — the wife of Ven-tchiang, who cut off an ear to disfigure herself; the spouse of Wang-i, who cut off her arm to escape a seducer; the lady of Koung-Ki-ang, who "took an oath as tough as a boat of cypress wood;" and the widow Soung, who refused to quit her husband's tomb. Finally, she is told "not to imitate faithless women who transgress their duties, but to keep her heart, hard as stone and iron, always pure."