Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XXXVIII - Women and Morals
So far as it is possible to judge from the concrete instances in which women are mentioned, it appears that in ancient Chinese times their confinement and seclusion was neither nominally nor actively so strict as it has been in later days, and they seem to have been much more companionable to men than they have been ever since the ridiculous foot-squeezing fashion came into vogue over a thousand years ago. When the Martial King addressed his semi- barbarous western allies, as he prepared his march upon the last Shang Emperor in 1122 B.C., he observed: “The ancient proverb says the hen crows not in the morn; when she does, the house will fall"–in allusion to the interference of the debauched Emperor’s favourite concubine in public affairs; and we have seen, under the heading of Law in Chapter XX., how one of the imperial statutes, proclaimed or read regularly in the vassal kingdoms, prohibited the meddling of women in public business. But, in spite of this, so far as promoting the succession rights and political interests of their own children goes, wives and concubines certainly exerted considerable influence, whether legitimate or not, in all the states. The murder of an Emperor and flight of his successor in 771 B.C. was in its inception owing to the intrigues of women about Court. A few years only after that event, we find the orthodox ruler of Wei marrying a beautiful Ts’i princess (her beauty is a matter of history, and is celebrated in the Odes, which are themselves a popular form of history); and then, because she had no children, further marrying a princess of Ch’en. This princess unfortunately lost her offspring; but her sister also enjoyed the prince’s favour, and her son was, after her death, given in adoption to the first childless Ts’i wife. This son succeeded to the Wei throne, but was ultimately murdered by a younger brother born of a concubine, who was next succeeded by still another younger brother, whose queen had also been one of his father’s concubines. Thus in the most orthodox states (Wei was of the imperial clan), the rites often seem not to have counted for much in practice.–This book, it must here be repeated, deals with specific recorded facts, and not with civilization as it ought to have been under the Rites of Chou.–So, even in comparatively modern China, 1500 years later, the third emperor of the T’ang dynasty married his father’s concubine, and she ultimately reigned as empress in her own right, which is in itself an outrage upon the “rites.”
In 694 B.C. the ruler of Lu (also of the imperial clan) married a Ts’i princess, who, as has been stated in Chapter XXXIV., not only had incestuous relations with her brother of Ts’i, but led that brother to procure the murder of her husband. In connection with this woman’s further visit to Ts’i two years later, the rule is cited: “Women, when once married, should not recross the frontier.” The same rule is quoted in 655 when a Lu princess, who had married a petty mesne-vassal of Lu in 670, recrossed the Lu frontier in order to visit her son in Lu.
The Second Protector, during his wanderings, we know, married first a Tartar wife and then a Ts’i wife, both of whom showed disinterested affection for him, and genuine regard for his rights to the Tsin succession, Yet the ruler of Ts’in supplied him with five more royal girls, of whom one had already been married to the Second Protector’s predecessor and nephew, the Marquess of Tsin. It is but fair to the memory of this uxorious Tsin ruler to say that he only took her over under protest, and under the immediate stress of political urgencies; he ultimately made her his principal spouse at the expressed desire of his ally the Ts’in ruler. He must have later married a daughter of the Emperor too, for, after the succession of a son and grandson, another of his sons named “Black Buttocks,” being the youngest, and also “son of a Chou mother,” came to the throne. Thus in those troublous times the honour of imperial princesses evidently did not count for very much at the great vassal courts. The readiness of Ts’in to induce the Tsin ruler to take over his nephew’s wife (being a Ts’in princess) accentuates the semi-Tartar civilization of Ts’in at least, if not of Tsin too; for both Hiung-nu (200 B.C.) and Turks (A.D. 500) had a fixed rule that a Khan successor should take over all his predecessor’s women, with the single exception of his own natural mother. In the year 630 the King of Ts’u married or carried off two CHENG sisters (of the imperial clan). The ruler of CHENG had been insolent to the future Second Protector during his wanderings in the year 637, and, in order to avoid that Protector’s vengeance, had been subsequently obliged to throw himself under Ts’u protection. “This ignoring of the rites by the King of Ts’u will result in his failing to secure the Protectorship,” it was said. However, these princesses, though of the imperial Ki clan by marriage into it, were really daughters of a CHENG ruler by two separate Ts’i and Ts’u wives: moreover, previous to the accession of the Hia dynasty (in 2205 B.C.), a Chinese elective Emperor had married the two daughters of his predecessor, whose own son was unworthy to succeed: and, generally, apart from this precedent, the rule against marrying two sisters, even if it existed, seems to have been loosely applied (cf. Chapter XXXIII.).
In connection with the Cheng succession in 629, it is mentioned that “the wife’s sons being all dead, X, being wisest of the secondary wives’ or concubines’ sons, is most eligible" (cf. Chapter XXXVII.).
Great political complications arose in connection with a clever and beautiful princess of Cheng who had had various liaisons with high personages in the state of Ch’en and elsewhere; in the end she was carried off in 589 by a treacherous Ts’u statesman to Tsin; and indirectly this adventure led to his being charged by Tsin with a mission to Wu; to the subsequent entry of Wu into the conclave of federal princes; and to the ultimate sacking of the Ts’u capital by the King of Wu in 506: it is easy to read between the lines that the Kings of Ts’u were considered unusually arbitrary and tyrannical rulers; over and over again we find that their most capable statesmen took service with powers inimical to Ts’u. In 581 the ruler of Cheng, being forcibly detained in Tsin whilst on a political visit there, was temporarily replaced in Cheng by his elder brother, born of an inferior wife.
A marriage between the two states of Sung and Lu having been arranged, the imperial clan states of Lu and Wei had certain duties to perform at the wedding, which took place in 583; and it is recorded that the latter sent “handmaids” The explanation given is a little involved, but it seems to throw some light on the marriage of sisters question. It seems that the legitimate spouse and her “left and right handmaids” were each entitled to three “cousins or younger sisters” of the same clan-name as themselves, “thus making a total of nine girls, the idea being to broaden the base of succession.” Not content with this, Lu sent a special envoy to Sung the next year to “lecture” the princess. It is explained that “women at home are under the power of their father; married, under that of their husbands.” Tsin also sent handmaids this year. It is further explained that “handmaids are a trifling matter, and they are only mentioned in this Lu princess case because her marriage turned out so badly.” The following year Ts’i despatched handmaids, but, “being of a different clan-name, Ts’i was not ritual in doing so.”
The precise functions of these paranymphs, or under-studies of wives, together with the rules governing their selection, are doubtless clearly enough described in the Rites of Chou; but we are only dealing here with concrete facts as recorded.
In 526 B.C., when Ts’in gave a princess in marriage to the Ts’u heir, the Ts’u king decided to keep her for himself (see p. 234). Only a few years before that, Ts’u had given a princess of her own in marriage to the heir-apparent of one of the petty orthodox states (imperial clan), and the reigning father had had improper relations with her, which in the end led to his murder by his son; thus Ts’u, however delinquent, had already been given a bad example by the imperial clan.
After his humiliating defeat by the King of Wu in 494 B.C., the King of Yiieh introduced a veritable Lex Julia into his dominions, in order to increase the population more quickly, and to prepare for his great revenge. Robust men were forbidden to marry old women, and old men to marry robust women. Parents were punished if girls were not married by the time they were seventeen, and if boys were not married by twenty. Enceinte women had to be placed under the care of public midwives. For every boy born, a royal bounty of two pots of wine and a dog were given: for every girl born, two pots of wine and a sucking-pig;– the dog, it is explained, being figurative of outdoor, the pig of internal economy. Triplets were to be suckled at the public expense; twins to be fed, when big enough, at the public expense. The chief wife’s son must be mourned, with absence from official duty, for three years; other sons for two; and both kinds of son were to be equally buried with weeping and wailing. Orphans, and the sons of sick or poor widows, were to receive official employment. Distinguished sons were to have their apartments cleansed for them, and had to be well fed and handsomely clothed. Learned men from other states were to be officially welcomed in the ancestral temple. With reference to this curious law, which is totally un-Chinese in its startling originality, it may be mentioned that it seems to have gradually led to that laxity of morals in ancient Yiieh which is still proverbial in those parts; for, when the First August Emperor was touring over his new empire in 212 B.C., he left an inscription (still on record) at the old Yiieh capital, denouncing the “pig-like adultery” of the region, and, more especially, the remarrying of widows already in possession of children. Only a few years ago, proclamations appeared in this region denouncing the pernicious custom of forcing widows to remarry. Although Kwan-tsz is supposed to have “invented” the Babylonian woman for Ts’i, nothing is said in any ancient Chinese history about common prostitution; nor is female infanticide ever mentioned. In 502 B.C. the Lu revolutionary, already mentioned in Chapter XXXVII., who was driven to Tsin by Confucius’ astute measures, had, before leaving Lu, formed a plot to murder all the sons, by wives, of the three “powerful families" who were intriguing against the ducal rights, and to put concubine sons-being creatures of his own-in their place; thus the succession principles applied not only to ruling families, but also to private houses; though, as a matter of fact, these three were all, in their origin, descended from previous ruling dukes. As explained in Chapters XII. and XXXIII., after five generations a fresh “family” is supposed to spring out of the common clan.
In spite of Wu’s barbarism, the fact of its belonging, by remote origin, to the imperial clan (through its first: ruler having magnanimously migrated from Chou before Chou conquered China in 1122), made it technically incest for Lu to intermarry with Wu; thus, when in 482 B.C., a Wu princess (evidently forced for political purposes upon Lu) died, her husband, the ruler of Lu, was obliged to refrain from a public burial, as has been explained in Chapter XXXIII. on Names.