hăo nǚ bù shì èr fū

Building on what has been articulated previously, the following chapter will discuss other aspects of female sexual morality, as well as its consequences for women’s education and lifestyle choices. As a society renowned for its traditions, China presents itself as a perfect case study to illustrate sexual conservatism.[1] Still today, the official attitude to sex is very puritan. In many regions of the country, the subject remains taboo, people retaining an extremely cautious stance on the matter. As an indecent, bestial and shame­ful act, the close association of intercourse with feelings of obscenity, sin and filth persists. Although young people in the country’s first-tier cities become increasingly open-minded, the bulk of the population considers sexuality as a negative, even bad, thing.[2] Sex is rarely discussed, even in private, and nobody ever dares to talk about it in public. Sexual education in schools is virtually non-existent, as a majority of teachers feel embar­rassed and refuse to explain the topic to their pupils. When facing the question of where babies come from, many mothers are likely to avoid providing a clear answer, even when their daughters are getting close to their first period.

Notice, however, that the proverb chosen here epitomises the rigid code of sexual conduct for wives only. Matrimony, widowhood and women’s role in the family has always constituted a key part in the defini­tion of “feminine ethics”, at least in China. For instance, women who were bold enough to re­marry have been frowned upon for a long time. This so-called “vidual chastity” forbade widows to commit to a second man, even if they had lost their husband at a relatively young age. For the sake of ci­vility and in order to preserve the reputation of their families (i.e., their own but also that of the deceased), they had to relinquish the possibility of finding happiness in a new mén­age and were doomed to stay single. For the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) philo­sopher Chéng Yí (程颐), dying of star­vation was a morally better outcome for a widow than to marry and obey another man, thus betraying her dead husband and losing her virtue. Consequently, the easiest way a widow could uphold a position of honour was to stay as the elderly mother in her in-laws’ home. Alternatively, she could choose a life under the guardianship of her eldest son. Yet not many would go for this op­tion and move back with their birth families because they had already “married out” and were considered to belong to her husband’s family. New lovers, even stable ones, were also prohibited or, at any rate, not recommended for these “chaste widows”. Any kind of sexual contact with somebody else would provide evid­ence that she was impure, offering an excuse for in-laws to expel her from the family and reclaim the pro­perty (which she was not allowed to take into a remarriage) and the custody of the children she had had with her husband before he died.[3] In return, the families of early widowed women who had resisted fleshly temptation and had remained unmarried until the age of fifty received tax exemp­tions, while the “Confucian martyrs”[4] themselves were awarded chastity memorial arches (贞节牌坊, zhēn jié pái fáng) for their effort and misery.[5]


[1]    That this has not always been the case can be testified by the existence of ancient pieces of literature exhibiting quite a variety of salacious elements, which sometimes even include graphically explicit depictions of sexuality. The most notable works in this category are probably the Biography of Yingying (莺莺传, yīng yīng zhuán) by Yuán Zhěn (元稹) or The Plum in the Golden Vase (also called The Golden Lotus, Chinese original: 金瓶梅, jīn píng méi) by Lán Líng Xiào Xiào Shēng (兰陵笑笑生, a pseudonym).

[2]    In this context, it is worth noticing that the Chinese word for vagina, when decomposed, can be interpreted as “the path to darkness” (阴道, yīn dào). While 阴 (yīn, literally: shade, cloudy, hidden, sinister, as well as female, has a rather negative connotation, the logogram 道 (dào) stands for constructive ideas, such as road, way, or path, but also method, morals, principle, and doctrine. By the way, it is precisely this character that confers the Taoist (or Daoist) philosophy its name and substance.

[3]    Notice that similar, although less strict, rules applied in Europe. In his manual of Christian devotion The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living, Jeremy Taylor, clergyman in the Church of England, asks widows to abstain from marrying while she is with the children she had with her late husband and within the year of mourning.

[4]    http://www.patheos.com/Library/Confucianism/Ethics-Morality-Community/Gender-and-Sexuality

[5]    See chapter 21 “You can’t lead the life of a whore and expect a chastity monument”.

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