Chinese Cultural History
The Female as the Underappreciated Manager
The family letters written by heroic court official Yang Jisheng and esteemed family matriarch Gu Ruopu stand as two of the more candid glimpses into Ming-Qing family life available to us. The two letters arise out of different circumstances and carry different goals: one letter was written to a reluctant soon-to-be-widow, while the other was written by an accomplished, battle-hardened widow. Both indicate the role of women as essential family managers who toiled as they did because they needed families as much as the families needed them. Just as women seemed to not exist without a husband or a son, families could not function without the management of women.
Underlying the recommendations in both letters was the concept of the family as the most important corporate form, the political unit around which to rally. Among the Ming-Qing gentry, the family unit was constantly under threat of “disgrace” and “extinction.”
This fear gave rise to a nervous caution against spoiling the hard work of familial ancestors. Yang’s charge was to perpetuate the good name of the family and also to defy his enemies, who would be pleased with the failure of his sons. Gu’s charge was two-fold: the first was not “violating her ancestor’s law” and squandering her “parent’s concerned care” in bringing her up to be a good wife to her husband. Gu’s second responsibility was to her husband’s family in raising the good sons, so as to not “ruin the bygone elder’s enterprise.”
Both letters convey anxiety about the relationships between different nuclear units of an extended family in regards to property, money, authority, and honor. Yang seems to anticipate these types of disputes between his wife and his brother, asking his wife to “â€¦let him have the advantage, and he will be happy. You must not fight with him.”
Yang also anticipates familial disputes between his own sons, recognizing the divergent social backgrounds of his prospective daughters-in-law.
He asks them to acknowledge each others’ characteristics, respect each other, and eat together to prevent conflict.
Considering the huge expectations laid upon them, women received a remarkable dearth of practical guidance in carrying their burden. Both letters indicate that men in the Ming-Qing era expected women to accomplish a great amount with very little guidance. Yang’s instructions to his sons took up over six pages, while his instructions to his wife accounted for less than one page. Similarly, Gu remembers her husband’s sparse final instructions: “â€¦to be frugal with his funeral, to teach [his children] well so that [his children] can inherit his family’s scholastic tradition, and to serve [his children’s] grandfather with devotion to make up for his own untimely departure.”
The posture and the objectives of the two letters reveal a great deal about gender differences in Ming-Qing China, especially in regards to parental roles. Yang seeks to teach his children life lessons and moral values, whereas Gu seeks to notify her sons of her achievements, her immediate plans, and the reasons for those plans. Yang is a motivational speaker and Gu a day-to-day manager. Yang appears to understand moral values and principles as the most important element of parenting, whereas Gu considers “comfortable quarters” and “adequate food and clothing” as a parent’s most important contribution.
The letters indicate that, broadly, the job of males was to achieve honor for the familial body whereas the job of females was to support males in achieving such honor, both their husbands and sons. Yang’s letter is concerned both with internal affairs and external affairs. His wife is expected to handle internal affairs and his sons the external affairs. Internal affairs included the cultivation of healthy relations with the extended family and the management of household finances. It also entailed the nourishment and regulation of the family’s children, particularly the sons.
In many ways, women were understood to not have lives if they did not have either a husband. Yang betrays this understanding when he implores his wife to not choose an otherwise honorable suicide after his own death, explaining quite matter-of-factly “Among women, there are those who die with their husbands. This is because the husband is [the wife’s] master, and there are no children to maintain: there would be no purpose in living.”
Yang elaborates that, in situations where the husband is dead and there are still children, if the wife “â€¦dies, then she is abandoning her husband and master’s ancestral sacrifices, letting his work degenerateâ€¦”
Whether dead or alive, the husband is always a woman’s raison d’etre.
After her duty to her husband, a woman’s next duty was to her sons, who would continue her husband’s pursuit of honor for the family line. Among the many loose ends Yang Jisheng was to leave in his family affairs upon his death, he related that “â€¦his only regret will be that [his] two sons are both young.”
He promises his wife that “If each is able to complete their household and establish their objectives, then it will be as if I am alive” and “I will be grateful to you.”
Yang does not even think to address his unmarried daughter, presumably leaving her training up to his wife. This omission, when viewed in conjunction with the sparse instructions to his wife, reveal that men actually knew very little about what a wife does and even less about how she does it.
Yang’s instructions regarding to his wife regarding his sisters reveal that they were people to be helped, not people to not expect help from. This indicates that the responsibilities of a woman in that era were always too great, that there was always something for them to do. In the event that a woman was deficient, she would need help from her birth family. In the event that she was wildly successful, all of her efforts would be expended on her husband’s family and she would have nothing to spare.
The burdens and responsibilities encumbering wives in the Ming-Qing era comports with an understanding of the wife as the trusted manager. Yang seemed to depend on his wife considerably, even suggesting that “â€¦whether our family does or does not have me does not matter. [But] if it does not have you, then nothing will be accomplishedâ€¦”
Yang’s letter to his wife was almost like a business memo, that of a departing chief executive issuing broad directives to a trusted manager.
Like the modern American middle-manager, Chinese wives of the Ming-Qing era operated with little guidance and unclear expectations. Similarly, their performance could really only be measured in the long-term and many were dismissed prematurely. Finally, they always seemed to have more to do and their contributions were often taken for granted.
Susan Mann and Yu-Yin Cheng (eds.), Yang Jisheng, Final Instructions, from Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Chinese Gender in Chinese History (2001).
Susan Mann and Yu-Yin Cheng (eds.), Gu Ruopu, Letter To My Sons, from Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Chinese Gender in Chinese History (2001).
Gu Ruopu, 152
Gu Ruopu, 151
Yang Jisheng, 123
Yang Jisheng, 125
Gu Ruopu, 151
Gu Ruopu, 151
Yang Jisheng, 122
Yang Jisheng, 122
Yang Jisheng, 122
Yang Jisheng, 122
Yang Jisheng, 123
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