On Monday, we visited the one and only museum in China focused exclusively on women. I have to say it was one of the most fascinating museums that we’ve seen so far, and most of the participants agreed. This museum is actually at Shaanxi Normal University, but at the new campus to the south west of town.
The first display that we saw was all about the tradition of foot binding. The ideal of feminine beauty was to have incredibly small feet, so starting at the age of five, parents would start to
bind their daughters’ feet so that they would not grow. This of course led to incredibly deformed feet and women had a hard time walking; they basically had to shuffle around. Now, this tradition did not apply to everyone. It was basically done by just the upper classes and by prostitutes. Why prostitutes?? Well, if they did not bind their feet, they would not be seen as beautiful and therefore would receive no customers. Middle class and peasant women did not traditionally bind their feet, as they needed to be able to move around in the fields for their survival. This practice also only really applied to the Han Chinese, or the “real” Chinese people. The 54 other ethnic groups in China realized that the practice was not the smartest thing to do. However, towards the beginning of the 1900s, lower class women did start binding their feet in an effort to appear upper class. Once the Communists firmly took over in China, the practice died out. The tour guide likened the practice to what Victorian women did with corsets in the west. I would have to agree with her assessment. Working class women did not constrict themselves with corsets. They still wore them, as they were a vital part of supporting their clothing, but they didn’t try for the wasp-like figures as the upper class women did.
The next exhibit focused on women’s contribution to the war effort during World War II. Women in China, as elsewhere, had to fill in for the men who were off fighting against the Japanese and having to take care of their families. As the Communists rose to power in that period, the party advocated a one gender policy where everyone was treated the same, everyone dressed the same, whether man or woman. Women cropped off their hair and wore clothing that flattened their breasts in order to fit that mold. Some women took it a step further by refusing to marry, which was a huge break with Chinese custom. There was a big sisterhood of unmarried women who looked out for one another. However, upon their deaths, their families would not bury them unless they could find an unmarried dead man to whom the dead women could be married to before burial. If not, the woman was bound for an eternity of suffering in the afterlife.
We then saw an exhibit on a female script used by a certain ethic group within China. It differed from traditional Chinese script, was passed down from generation to generation of females, yet no man was ever taught the language, until recently as scholars started studying the language. It was a way for women to transmit their thoughts, hopes, dreams, and complaints about their lot in life without worrying that the men in their lives would read it. Several of the female teachers commented that they wished that they had had that in high school for writing notes! Then we saw an exhibit of handicrafts that women traditionally made in China. The better a women sewed and was able to create beautiful objects, the more attractive she was in the marriage market. From the time that she was young, a typical Chinese woman would be sewing things for her future husband as part of her dowry.
The final exhibit that we saw was a display of the wedding outfits of the 55 ethnic groups of China. There were some amazingly beautiful dresses there. The amount of work that goes into each one is mind boggling. You’ll notice that there is a lack of white dresses. That is because in Chinese culture, white is the colour of death. Red is the traditional colour of weddings.
Yesterday evening, I had to wash a couple shirts to have enough clean clothes to get me through the flight home this weekend. Normally I go to the laundry service and they have my clothes done the next afternoon. Yesterday, I walked down to the laundry with my little bag of clothes. They pulled them out, counted them and started to write up my order. They informed me that the clothing wouldn’t be ready until the 6th! That’s three full days! It’s also the day we leave Xi’an to fly back to Beijing. So I put my stuff back in the bag and tried to explain that I was leaving that day and left the building. When I got on the bus to go to the museum that afternoon, I was telling Rene what had happened. Pam, who was sitting across the aisle from my said that she had just dropped off her stuff at the laundry and that her stuff would be ready by 8 am the next day! Things make no sense here sometimes. (Well, frequently…) So my roommate, George, took me to the laundry room last night and showed me how to operate the machine. Now I have enough to get me home, which is coming quicker than I could imagine!