Pain and Prostitution: the Evolution of Female Chastity in Ancient and Late Imperial China

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It would be inappropriate to sentence him to the penalty for coercion. Not only were these cases ignored but this situation would also be predominantly classified as illicit sex, resulting in physical punishments inflicted on both the woman and the man. Punishments were dictated depending on the actions of the woman, indicating how the government began to integrate female chastity into their legislation. Female chastity began to be desired and was more clearly defined after the government introduced two categories of chastity, lie and jie, and began to give out these as awards to laud women who remained chaste under specific circumstances. Lie awards were given to sexually assaulted women who protected their sexual purity through self-mutilation ” or in some extreme cases, suicide ” while jie awards were granted to chaste widows who remained faithful to their deceased husbands. Scholar Siyen Fei asserts that the court regularly placed pressure on local officials to nominate candidates through touring regional inspectors.

This award-based government initiative was actually quite successful, giving women incentive to behave sexually morally under the definitions of the legal codes and especially publicly exemplify their chastity so they could be nominated. Chastity stone arches (known as paifang) were enacted in honor of the successfully chaste; these were visual representations of social norms and reinforced how the government believed maintaining their chastity should be a daily priority for all women. Other awards were also given out for proper behavior, like being a respected scholar or adopting orphans, but gazette archives revealed that editors had recorded an overwhelming majority of female chastity award recipients compared to other awards; clearly, women during this time embraced the notion of being chaste and being honored in their communities for doing so. Some newspapers and gazettes printed during this time also published biographies about women who cut off their noses or drowned themselves in nearby rivers to deter rapists from polluting their chastity. Evidently, being chaste was a public affair. Consequently, as women became more extreme in their moral convictions and desires to safeguard their sexual purity, the rate of female suicide also grew during this time. Of course, it is possible for some widows to have committed suicide due to financial and emotional hardship, but many accounts recorded by Qing dynasty legal secretaries detail stories of women who were defiantly chaste. For example, in a 1739 case, Wu Shi, a widow whose husband died of illness, remained chaste for ten years after. When she was forced to remarry, she hung herself, essentially martyring herself for chastity.

A widow and her in-law's decision to remarry could often be financially motivated; remaining chaste took an economic toll on the family and would only be realistic for widows from wealthy families. Charlotte Furth, when contextualizing Chinese medicine in history, characterized the female body was characterized as a 'sacrificial reproductive body' that fulfilled the duties associated with chastity through its dedication to a specific labor in service of the family. Furth goes on to assert that physical pain was an integral element of physical female virtue. Certainly, this was the case with widow chastity, as some women saw suicide as the only way to remain virtuous after they were forced into remarriage. The act of foot-binding, then, could also be put into this category of physical pain. During the Qing Dynasty, while the chastity movement was at its height, the foot-binding movement was also pervasive; foot-binding had become part of a beauty ideal that women of all social and economic levels coveted. In her book Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding, Dorothy Ko claims that those who had been frequently praised for the beauty of their feet may well have internalized this standard of beauty and been more than willing to help their daughters attain it as well.

The concept of thrice following implied a life of chastity: a girl's life was divided into three sections, where she followed her father before she was married, then her husband, and then her son if she became a widow. Therefore, to prepare for the next stage of their daughters' lives, mothers began footbinding their daughters at a young age, wanting them to attract a good husband; the smaller and more crippled the feet, the more beautiful the woman. Husbands chose wives sometimes solely by looking at their feet, as a woman's capabilities as a good wife could be tied to the size of her feet. Ko mentions a husband who criticized his wife's wastefulness by commenting on her feet, saying that keeping [her] around we would have no jacket and pants to wear; why, a pair of your shoes uses up three feet of cloth. For women, then, their social status and marriageability largely depended on this very superficial and visual aspect of their body. Women scrutinized other women for the way they walked and the size of their feet. Women with ugly feet ” specifically, women with poorly bound feet ” were bullied and called names such as half-squeezed-foot and little-crooked-bone. Notably, women with natural and entirely unbound feet were not snubbed as much as women who tried to bind their feet. Again, this may have been because foot-binding had expanded to lower social levels; women who didn't bind their feet altogether may have been left out of the narrative, while women who were not as successful at foot-binding were seen as posers who wanted to join the elite. Ko asserts that the surface of female bodies - especially the adorned bound foot - acquired significance as 'social skin,' a boundary between self and others as well as between social classes.

By observing a woman's foot, one could superficially lump her in with the group of the elite or with the poor. It is also important to acknowledge that the rise of foot-binding during the Ming and Qing dynasties may not have been a direct result of the rise of chastity - Ko concedes that other factors may have contributed to the movement. Changes in the way that homes and other domestic spaces were constructed resulted in more permanent enclosed areas, furthering the culture of seclusion for women and keeping women in this private sphere. Furthermore, changes in domestic furniture, namely, the growing popularity of chairs and tables would have reduced the pressures on feet and allowed women to sit down more comfortably, with their legs hanging rather than on the ground. However, it would be inexhaustive to not consider the connections between foot-binding and preservation of chastity; the elite class of women who were most successful at foot-binding were also practicing chastity at the highest level. Foot-binding, then, as a very visual and physical indication of class and civility was a way for women to gauge another woman's level of devotion to her sexual morality. Later in the Qing era, critics of the gender norms and sexual inequality included foot-binding in their criticisms. Yuan Mei, a well-known poet and scholar, not only encouraged casual interactions between the sexes but also explicitly condemned the suicides of rape victims, the custom of widow chastity, and even foot-binding as unnecessarily extreme expressions of virtue.

Even if foot-binding was not a direct result of female chastity, scholars from this time viewed foot-binding as a symbol of chastity to some degree. By studying the legal codes as well as analyzing stories of women over time, it is evident that life and expectations for a woman in ancient China was shaped through more complex ways than just her gender. Simply claiming that female agency was restricted during this time would be inaccurate; even the definition of agency for women evolved over time and had distinct significance for women of different classes. The stories and torturous practices that these women endured certainly underscore the oppression of Chinese women for centuries. But when studying the lives of these women, it is just as important for us to fully contextualize them in the economic and social climate of their time and understand the differing class expectations that all contributed to the rise and lauding of female chastity.

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Pain and Prostitution: The Evolution of Female Chastity in Ancient and Late Imperial China. (2019, Jun 24). Retrieved June 24, 2024 , from

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