Role of Women in Chinese Society

Posted: October 17th, 2013





Role of Women in Chinese Society

The Story of the Stone: The Golden Days by Cao Xueqin and Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan are books written at different times, the former in pre-modern and the latter in the modern era. Both works of literature were originally written in Chinese and translated later to English. The common feature in these books is that they contain Chinese history and many of the themes are similar. Though depicting different times in the history of China, they both give the reader a glimpse into the daily life of the Chinese in a traditional setting. Although these literary works can be analyzed and interpreted differently, there is one theme, which stands out in both, that is the role of gender in traditional Chinese life. This paper sets out to analyze both books and shed light into how gender was an important aspect of Chinese culture, including the purpose that members of both sets of gender, more so women served in their society.

The Story of the Stone: The Golden Days provides an interesting read, especially with its enormous cast of female characters. This book does well to portray the domestic life of the Chinese in the 18th century. It is more of a love story, which delves into the intrigues of wealth and societal status. The author throughout the book portrays women as protagonists, a move contrary to that of previous authors from earlier times. This is not a common feature in Chinese literature given the fact that their society has always been patriarchal. The role of women as embodied in this book brings out the writer as a pro feminist. Women are responsible for most of the happenings in the society at the time, more so in the setting provided.

The book can be interpreted simply as a form of literature defining the Chinese societal norms during the time it was set. Other than the outstanding theme of gender, there are others such as education, family and sibling rivalry. Reality and illusion form a central part of the story given that it was initially set in a mythical realm before it was manifested in the actual world. Traditionally, the Chinese people are very religious and mythical, with their culture being an infusion of supernatural beliefs intertwined with real occurrences. For instance, the story begins with a mythical stone, which is a supernatural entity that finds its way into the mortal world. The stone is endowed with consciousness. Its fate is entangled with that of a creature from the Land of Illusion, as it is responsible for its transformation into a fairy girl (Cao 19). This creature vows to repay him with a debt of tears. In the real world, the main male character is born with a jaded spoon in his mouth and growing up is romantically entangled with a sickly girl who is a representation of the creature from the land of illusion. These excerpts are proof of Chinese cultural belief in mythology.

From above it is clear how the author intended for the reader to be acquainted with the life of the Chinese people over the centuries. As a reader, I was able to comprehend how this society has undergone transformation over time to what it is today, especially where women are concerned. The love story in the book is the beginning of trouble for the family the author is discussing. In a society where women were betrothed to potential husbands long before they became adults, love between persons other than those intended for them was tragic. This is among the roles women are subjected to in the Chinese culture. There is no room for deciding their course of action as far as marriage is concerned. The main male character who loves a woman, despite him being destined to marry another, suffers this fate. Given an opportunity, they would have been married, despite opposition even from the supernatural realm where the fairy girl swore to avenge the stone through a debt of tears.

The author further portrays women as guards of the home. This is evident through his use of various characters to depict how they would go to any lengths to protect their families and advance their interests. For instance, the matriarch of the family, the hero’s grandmother, exhibits qualities such as kindness and compassion, which help to keep her family together. She often provides a voice of reason whenever any crisis looms in the household. This is despite the fact that she is in charge of a very large compound of extended family members. One particular aunt fusses over the large family and can be said to be almost perfect in maintaining peace, not to mention how well she gets along with the matriarch.

However, one of the more depressing characteristics of women in this book is the subordinate nature. They have been made to resign to less dominant roles, more often defined by their sexuality. Those that are married have to contend with the moral indiscretions of their husbands. The Chinese society has always been patriarchal; therefore, the men could do whatever they pleased even at the detriment of the fairer sex. The sister of the lead male character was groomed to be an official concubine. This is an example of how women at the time were undermined sexually. The entire literary work does little to portray women as being strong and in command of their destiny despite the fact that it still brings out positive aspects of their lives. As aforementioned, China is one of the countries that oppress women greatly, especially at the time when the book was set.

Big Breasts and Wide Hips is set in different times in Chinese historical wars and revolutions. The characters in the book take the reader through these periods of change in Chinese society readers are taken through the ordinary life of the Chinese during the war period. Unlike the other book, the background is tumultuous and insecure. In the story of the stone, the story revolved around opulence, what the characters went through to obtain it, their lifestyle and the eventual decline of their dynasties. There was no war; therefore, the tribulations of women were far less concerning than those in this book. However, the domestic setting is still given priority in this work although in a different manner, brought about by the conflicting historical backdrops of the stories at hand.

Contrary to the other book, the author of this work brings out women to be strong and in command of their own lives, albeit using unconventional means such as their sexuality. Most chapters of the book are set during wars and revolutions, from the Japanese Invasion to the Mao Communist Era. Before having a male child the matriarch in this story undergoes tremendous abuse from her husband’s family. This is among the ways in which women in this society are oppressed. It was of essence that the patriarchy be extended through generations of male offspring. Failure to do so warrants mistreatment from one’s family. It is of concern that her husband was sterile, a fact which should have been blamed for their misfortunes. Additionally, the wrath unleashed on the matriarch included that of the female members of the household, whom one would expect to come to her defense. These further displays the aspect of submission expected of women in the Chinese society at the time.

The sterility of the matriarch’s husband is an obvious hindrance to procreation. Despite this complication, she manages to have nine children with the last being the much desired male heir. This is puzzling except for the fact that readers are taken through her sexual escapades. It therefore goes without question that her children are the result of illicit relationships. Being a war period, these relationships include rape and an incestuous affair with her uncle (Mo 198). None of this matters, for as long as she finally delivers a male heir. All this efforts are in vain because by the time she has a male child all those that persecuted her are dead because of war. It is not of help that she delivers in the middle of a raging battle. One wonders at the sanity of society at the time. The inflictions on womenfolk do not have any justification, especially if the supposed heir fails to live up to societal expectations.

In this case, the title of the book attracts the reader to this significant aspect of gender roles. It points at eroticism and some sort of female dominance, at least in the story at hand. The main male character is not befitting of the title. His obsession with female breasts leads him to ultimate ruin. First, he goes on to breastfeed until adulthood and thereafter allows himself to be dominated by his carnal desires. His stint in prison is caused by a foolish sexual act with a dead woman. Women in this book are seen as highly carnal beings that use their feminine attributes to achieve their desires. For instance, all the male protagonist’s sisters climb political and societal ladders, because of illicit affairs. The same women prevent the male heir from ascending to his rightful position as he constantly falls into temptation.

Conclusively, both books satisfy those that are curious to understand the domestic aspect of the Chinese culture. Based on mythology and traditions passed down through generations, the role of women has been defined in various forms. Though the authors depict different times, their peek at domestic aspects of the Chinese society manages to bring out contrasting yet intriguing roles of women. Sometimes they are strong while other times vulnerable to societal norms and beliefs. However, despite these contrasting portrayals, women have managed to stand out and evolve throughout centuries to what they are today. Much of what they were being subjected to clearly arose from the times they were living in and the occurrences accompanying these periods, such as war. Therefore this paper has served the purpose of effectively analyzing both literary works and discussing the common theme of gender roles with focus on women.


Cao Xueqin and David Hawkes. The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel in Five Volumes. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.

Mo Yan and Howard Goldblatt. Big Breasts and Wide Hips: A Novel. New York: Arcade Pub, 2004. Print.


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