China argues that the increase in female literacy during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties allowed elite women to create a rich culture and space of their own even under the constraints of Confucian code. During this time, socioeconomic and intellectual changes in the gentry community enabled women to become more visible in a male dominated world, and to also expand their accepted gender roles often bending what was considered appropriate for the prestigious woman. The most important of changes, specified by Ko, included a flourishing of commercial printing, the rise of a reading public especially among girls and women, a new emphasis on emotions, the newfound importance of women’s education, and, the emergence of new definitions of womanhood.
One of the first major advents of female literacy was that they now had a social world of other readers that they could interact with. Instead of staying at home and only taking care of their house and family, many women were now reading poetry and stories, and had other women to discuss the literature with. This helped build up interpersonal relationships and social circles that most likely would not have existed before literacy. On top of the social aspects of literacy, it also gave many women a chance to find a mental escape from their daily lives. Now, women could immerse themselves in the worlds of stories or in the flowing verses of a poem. While in the past, many women that were either talented or educated would find their husbands in arranged marriages an unfit partner, at least intellectually. These women could now seek out other likeminded women to cope with the situation they were in, instead of carrying the burden alone. The ideas within this book are very similar to Margery Wolf’s essay on the uterine family and female communities. Even in Seventieth century China, woman found solace and support in other women around them.
As female literacy increased, so too did the woman’s place in China. Besides being able to read and having social circles of likeminded readers, women were now bringing money into the house, often on levels equal to or surpassing their male counterparts. This social status increase made many men uncomfortable, so more importance was put on the idea of beauty (mei) when it came to womanhood, even among those women who were educated. These labels and the obsession with beauty in women came forth out of need to create order out of “gender confusion.” Despite the need to further define the male and female spheres, women were able to enter the public realm without jeopardizing their roles as dutiful, virtuous wives.
One notable woman in Ko’s histories was Lu Shengji; a poet who was in a “phoenix and crow” marriage. She was an intelligent, respectable woman who married a man that was of gentry pedigree but otherwise unremarkable. Because she was a loyal wife, obedient daughter, and a member of the gentry herself she was considered respectable, but despite that, she was remembered for her poetry and not for her husband or values. Literate women like Lu Shengji negotiated between their Confucian calling to be a domestic woman and their potential to support their families through their public professions. Often, this was accepted among the community because women were able to justify their public profession in Confucian rhetoric of fulfilling their wifely duties.
On top of their emerging success as writers, many educated women used foot binding to embrace femininity. Foot binding became increasingly popular in the seventeenth century and would remain a part of Chinese culture well into the twentieth century. While the process made their feet severely handicapped, this gave them gentry women a release from household work and allowed them to focus more on their preferred endeavors. Foot binding was perpetuated almost solely with the help of women themselves. Because of this new idea of beauty and privilege, mothers would bind their daughter’s feet at a young age. The idea that foot binding meant safety, education, and a good life for their daughters meant women would uphold the tradition for centuries. Without the cooperation of women, foot binding would not have lasted as long as it did. Because of this, Ko explains, women were now spending their time reading. They came to understand how much power the Confucian tradition gave them as a domestic guardian. Instead of laboring around the house, they could use their knowledge to change things around them. By being vigilant in their Inner Chambers, women could restructure the public and private domains that they existed within.
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