Remarks on Chinese Character and Customs
This article was published in a Protestant missionary journal, based in Canton, that operated from 1832 until 1851. Its readership included both the foreigners living in Canton and home religious communities in Britain and the United States. It is worthwhile noting that the title of the article places the author in the position of knowledgeable observer, thereby rendering his comments both “factual” and honest. The author maintains a sympathetic attitude towards Chinese women, citing their beauty and charm, yet paints them as victims of insensitive males and an oppressive culture, presuming an invisible sorrow shared by all women in China. Confucianism is named as the primary offender, and Christian conversion the sole savior. One may presume that this portrayal of delicate Chinese women as victims of brutish Confucianism helped to excite enthusiasm for the missionary cause in China both at home and abroad.
This source is a part of the Western Views of Chinese Women teaching module.
No apology can or ought to be made in the behalf of the unfeeling practice of spoiling the feet of the female. It had its origin solely in pride, which after the familiar adage, is said to feel no pain. It is deemed, however, such an essential among the elements of feminine beauty, that nothing save the sublimer considerations of Christianity will ever wean them from the infatuation. The more reduced this useful member is, the more graceful and becoming it is thought to be. When gentlemen are reciting the unparalleled charms of Súchau ladies they seldom forget to mention the extreme smallness of the foot, as that which renders them complete, and lays the topstone upon all the rest of their personal accomplishments. The compression of the foot does not render the Chinese lady incapable of walking, nor does it give that awkwardness to the gait which one might be apt to expect. Walking among females of the lower orders is often effected with difficulty, but this arises from the imperfect manner in which the operation has been performed, and the inequality of the surface they are obliged to tread upon. But the speed with which many of them trip over the ground when roused by any emergency would sometimes almost induce us to think they had sustained no loss at all.
Within the dwellings of those whom Providence has favored with a larger share of its gifts, the ladies move about with a quick and noiseless pace, and seem to a lively imagination to float rather than walk. The ordinary specimens of the street and the wayside are not often calculated to give us a high opinion of female beauty in China. But amongst the better ranks, examples of great personal attractions are not uncommon. In them to a loveliness of form and feature are joined a peculiar softness of manner, an eye beaming with a flood of light, a smile replete with nature's own enchantments, and a voice that lights upon the ear like the melting strains of an Æolian harp, or the subdued pulses of distant music. In youth and at home she constitutes the chief joy of her mother, and requites the wakeful exercises of maternal fondness, apart from those observances which filial duty demands, with a variety of well-pleasing arts, such as the most ingenious mind alone could invent, and the kindest heart feel and put in practice. To preserve the delicacy of her hand she is not permitted to bear her part in the active duties of the household, but spends her time in works of embroidery, conversing with her female friends, or in dutiful attentions to her mother. In the common walks of experience, I know not a more engaging sight than that of a mother and her daughter, each apparently forgetting herself to make the other happy. At home her attire is often plain, sometimes rich, but only splendid when occasions of festivity render gay clothing a point of etiquette. Some latitude must be given for the diversity of tastes, but I think the costume of a Chinese lady is in shape, style and combination of colors not surpassed by anything we meet in our own country.
At home or abroad, in holiday robes or in plain clothing, the heart of a Chinese female seems to be at all times ready to overflow with mirth and good humor. Ill usage or misfortune may make her sad for a while, but the smallest efforts to soothe or amuse on the part of one whom she values drives away all her heaviness. Confucian philosophy has done its best to unfit a Chinese for the possession of such an heritage, by assigning to woman nothing but the privilege of drudging for her lord. Those well chosen terms of esteem and preference with which we are wont to address females, and the countless variety of polite offices which we perform as matters of course, find no place either in the written or unwritten laws of Chinese society. Native poetry and romance descant upon the accomplishments of the lover and the charms of his mistress, and in beautiful terms and imagery eulogize the bliss of chaste and well-requited love. But these sentiments seem to be confined to the poet, whose imagination guided by the promptings of his heart, and the refinement of his understanding, portrays what ought to be, but what I fear seldom happens.
It is hard to conceive how a man can behold the object of his best affections, and exhibit no desire to show her any marks of regard, especially when his heart has been softened by education, and no external circumstance interferes with the display of his feelings. I have seen bride and bridegroom at their home surrounded only by friends, and have chided the latter with want of attention to his partner, but without effect. To present her with a cake, or an orange, seemed to be beyond the sphere of his acquirements. In obedience to my wish he would order a servant to perform the office, but would not venture to do it himself. Whenever the light of heaven-born Christianity shall dawn upon this people, and begin to dissipate the mists of a diabolical system of ethics which has so log brooded over the land, one of the first evidences of its presence will be a restoration of fair woman to all her rights and privileges; she will then be regarded, as she ought to be, "the glory of the man," and a Chinese will then behold a paradise yielding flowers to embellish his feasts, to adorn the friendly board, to refine, ennoble and rejoice his own heart. Now a Chinese woman looks forward to no such recompenses in her husband; her solaces prospective as well as present must be found chiefly among her female friends and acquaintances; as they do not form the subject of her hope, so the loss cannot affect her with any keen sense of disappointment. Still sorrow at being slighted an joy at being honored, are so natural and instinctive, that we can scarcely conceive a human heart to be without them. But if she wants the prerogatives which belong to her sex, she by no means lacks a fitness to enjoy them;—no one is more perceptive of what is kind and courteous, no one more ready to evince her sense of it by words, and acts that are always clothed with meekness and humility.
Lay, G. Tradescant. “Remarks on Chinese Character and Customs.” Chinese Repository 12 (1843): 139-142. Digitized at the Internet Archive.