Women’s Rights in France and China
Although the cultures of France and China are a world apart, they do share one similarity (among others of course) and that is the treatment of women. In an age where men were seen as the poles of a standing hierarchy, women were expected to be subservient and obedient to their male counterparts. In all areas of life, even if it were a century apart, women’s occupation was little more then wife, child bearer, and mother. The roles that women played were quite limited especially in areas of divorce, bringing legal action, and to own and/or inherit property. The authors, Jonathan D. Spence of The Death of Woman Wang, and Natalie Zemon Davis of The Return of Martin Guerre provide the readers an in-depth look at the cultures of both China and France where the lives of women were exploited in more ways than one.
Women had little say in the ways of divorce, it was usually up to the man who decided if he wanted a divorce or not. As was mentioned before, women were little more then material possessions; they had no real value compared to their male counterparts. In The Return of Martin Guerre, Bertrande de Roles, the protagonist of the story, is left husbandless when her husband goes off to war. Bertrande de Roles was now stuck in limbo, as she could not go out and look for a new husband, for that would have been viewed as an adulterer. However being a woman she had little power in terms of social status because of the absence of a husband, she had no power over her land or in some cases her possessions thus she was little more then a mother with children. With the sudden appearance of the imposter of Martin Guerre, Bertrande de Roles takes advantage of the situation and plays along with the new Martin Guerre’s schemes. This pivotal
point in the story illustrates just how powerless a woman was. In order for Bertrande de Rols to achieve any power that she could possibly hope to attain, she had to use all the guile and skills “of the weak opposite sex” in order to achieve the status she had previously lost when her husband had disappeared. Even after the discovery that Martin Guerre was an imposter and was really Arnaud du Tilh a.k.a. Pansette, little blame was placed upon Bertrande for she was just a woman and women were not as intuitive as men, thus her judgment on the role she played as an adulteress was dismissed simply because she was a woman.
In The Death of Woman Wang, it illustrated just how powerless a woman was in 17th century China. Wang illustrated how little room a woman had to move about in a male dominated society. In an area that was rife with diseases, natural disasters, and the occasional bandit raids, life in China was especially difficult for peasants. It was as though China was going through an endless cycle of misfortune. To make matters worse, the government of China had little compassion for its peasants and taxed its troubled peasants heavily.
Thus life in China was extremely hard for the average peasant and even harsher for the woman such as Woman Wang. Her marriage with Jen was an unhappy one, she had bad relations with her father-in-law, and her family was extremely poor. She found a way out in the form of another lover and wished to elope with him. However, when that lover abandoned Wang, her fate was set, she had nowhere to run but into the arms of death through the rage of her angry husband. She died an undeserving death left outside to be lost among the snow. In most cases this wouldn’t have picked up
much controversy but thanks to a man named Huang liu-hung this murder was brought to light. Thanks to him and some careful investigation Woman Wang did not die a shameful death for her murderer was beaten and had to wear the cangue around his neck to serve as punishment and a reminder of his sin.
Jonathan D. Spence and Natalie Zemon Davis both illustrated the fate of two women as they were forced to make decisions that were outside the laws of their culture. The only difference was that Woman Wang met a fate much harsher than the one that Bertrande de Rols had to face. In both cultures women were viewed as inferiors to their male counterparts, they were expected of little more then providing a child and taking care of both the child and the husband. However some exceptions can be made for the French and Chinese counterparts. Although women were expected to be obedient and subservient to their husbands, promoting virtuous values to others, the life of Bertrande de Rols was much easier than that of Woman Wang. Women who were married off in France were given a dowry, but in China brides were little more then to promote the male’s lineage and continue on with the family’s sir name.
A more extreme case of the Chinese culture was that not only were women’s role used to promote the family’s sir name, they had to possess a certain level of beauty to even be considered a bride to the family’s groom. In more ways then one women were nothing more then concubines in 17th-cenutry China. Although it is in no comparison to the views of modern day America, divorce in France was a much more acceptable issue then in China. In France a woman had the right to divorce from her husband if he was seen unfit as a husband and a
provider for his family. Even if the man were to be impotent her family members often coerced the woman to divorce him and find another man that was capable of providing for her needs. In China, the issues of divorce were all too different. In a way a lot of the Chinese culture was bound by a tradition of honor. A woman was expected to remain loyal and obedient even through the end to her husband and her family. Even if the wife were suffering through immense pain because of her marriage, such as sexual or domestic violence, mutilation by her husband the woman was expected to stick with her husband, or else leave him and the family name and never be married again because doing so would dishonor the husband and his family.
When it comes to the subject of a woman having the right to inherit any possessions that her husband has left behind this act also leaves women powerless over how they can retain those worldly goods. In both societies the inheritance of land often goes to the first male of the family. Thus a woman may be able to inherit a parcel of land from her deceased husband, but that is until her son comes of age and is capable of taking the land into his own hands to shape into his image. A woman no matter what culture we are talking about never gained the absolute advantage of owning land.
Although the cultures of France and China differ in many monumental ways, their underlying treatments of women were connected in an ironic sense. The Return of Martin Guerre, and The Death of Woman Wang illustrates this point sufficiently. In societies where the rich dominate and feed off of the poor there is always room for the poor to look down upon. Women were nothing more then objects in this cruel society.
They came in second in ways of thought. Men, no matter what the position that they held be it that of a serf or that of an emperor, always had women to look down upon as nothing more then trophies. These are the ways a peasant woman in 16th-century France and 17th-century China were viewed in the eyes of her fellow human beings and her status among her peers in her society.
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