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Imagined subtexts: Westerners read sexism into Chinese narratives

I found the article Mistranslated English subtitles in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon give wrong impression of Chinese culture interesting because it talks about how Westerners choose sexist interpretations for Chinese stories even when the original narrative does not imply that particular aspect of sexism towards women. I would like to share two personal experiences which illustrate this point.

A very young European male was telling me about the Chinese movie "Raise the Red Lantern". His understanding of the movie plot was: "In China at that time, women were not allowed to go to university, so the heroine decided to make a living by joining the household of a rich man as his fourth wife..." This interpretation of the story really surprised me because I too had seen the movie and the story did not at any time imply that women were not allowed to go to university. The story was set in pre-WWII China - an era in which women were already going to university. The heroine was a university student who had to quit school because her stepmother refused to pay her tuition after her father's death. True, misogyny did exist in Chinese society as it did (and still does) in Western society, but women's education had never been taboo, even 2000 years back. Middle-class families with limited financial resources might give priority to educating their sons over educating their daughters, but the daughters of rich families had always been educated. Many women from the lower echelons of society were illiterate but so were their brothers.

Another time, I was having a conversation with a woman who read Pearl S. Buck's "The Good Earth". She remembered the heroine O-Lan as a long-suffering woman who never said 'no' to her wife-battering husband Wang Lung. In the Western reader's retelling, O-Lan was tolerant and humble to the point where she even served her husband's pampered second wife. This is not how I remember the novel. I too had read "The Good Earth" - Wang Lung was not a wife-batterer. O-Lan was long-suffering and humble but she was pretty good at saying "no", as shown in the scene where she stood up to the looters who had invaded their home and shamed them into leaving without the loot. O-Lan also refused to serve the second wife. She ran the kitchen for the whole family, but if the second wife needed food, the second wife's personal maid had to do the cooking. Before O-Lan passed away, she issued a warning that the second wife and her maid were not allowed to touch her belongings or her spirit would return to curse them. Hardly a portrait of tolerant servitude.

It would seem that Westerners have been so thoroughly brainwashed with ideas of a uniformly misogynistic Chinese culture to the point they would read misogyny into every other action performed by every other Chinese person even if it is not there at all. Perhaps it is time to tell different stories of Chinese women's lives - the kind of stories that Western media chooses not to tell:

Chinese women in history - soldiers, pirates, scholars, sages and rulers

The fact that indigenous Chinese sexism exists is not to be discounted, but whether Chinese sexism is 'better' or 'worse' than Indian, European, African or any other cultural forms of sexism is debatable. Many articles on Chinese women's history written from a Western perspective seem to take for granted that traditional Chinese misogyny is worse than 'the norm', that is, traditional Western misogyny. I take issue with such a simplistic view. In some aspects of women's history, such the number of female military leaders in medieval China vs the number in medieval Europe, Chinese might have 'scored better' than Europeans. But in other aspects, such as the 'foot-binding' tradition imposed on a significant segment (but definitely not all) of the Chinese female population, vs the corsetting practiced in Europe, the corset might be the lesser of two health evils. The point is not which culture is 'better' or 'worse', but rather to question distorted ideas of Chinese women's lives.

Another point I find interesting is M.G.'s observation in Unlearning stereotypes of Asians - a personal journey about Western movies being sometimes more likely than Asian movies to portray Asian women as meek and weak. It appears in some cases the people most interested in promoting the idea of the dainty, submissive Asian female are in fact, not Asian. Likewise, it has happened before that the people most interested in promoting the idea of the dainty, submissive Chinese female were in fact, not Chinese. The Mongols, after establishing the Yuan dynasty in China, encouraged the previously limited practice of foot-binding to spread to all classes of indigenous Chinese women.1 During the preceding (indigenous) Song dynasty, foot-binding was practiced only by women of the court. The Mongols did not let their own women bind their feet but they wanted Chinese women to bind their feet because the foreign conquerors saw it as a way to literally cripple the potential resistance to their regime. Even so, indigenous Chinese women whose families practised the martial arts, including, but not limited to military families, did not have their feed bound because daughters, like sons, were expected to learn the fighting arts. It should also be mentioned that the Hakkas, a widely dispersed Chinese sub-ethnic group, never accepted foot binding. The Hakkas were a hardy hill people and known for their fiery-tempered women (and men).2 In short, foot binding was not as universal as many Western writers make it out to be.

Another example of foreigners discouraging the idea of the strong Chinese woman is the Manchurian Qing Dynasty treatment of the indigenous Song Dynasty legend of Yang Paifeng, a maidservant from the Yang family of generals. The Yang family, at least in legend, seemed pretty egalitarian by the standards of the day - both women and men were formidable warriors. Wives came from other military/martial artist families and were well-trained in the arts of war before joining the Yang family. Even the servants were expected to train in the martial arts, functioning a private army. Yang Paifeng requested to go to the battlefront to fight the Liao (Khitan) invaders. Since she had not been in actual combat before, she first proved her mettle by defeating an older, more experienced male Song officer. Seeing Paifeng's astonishing strength and skill, the matriarch of the Yang family brought out the armor she wore in her youth and put it on the young upstart, another sign of the relative egalitarianism of the Yang household. Paifeng went on to flatten enemy generals with her staff. According to popular tradition up through the Ming Dynasty (which preceded the Manchurian Qing Dynasty), Yang Paifeng's upper body strength was exceptional, not just by women's standards but by human standards. However, when the Manchurians established the Qing Dynasty, they promoted a different version of the legend of Paifeng's victory in which she defeated the enemy using a clever fire-spouting pole, instead of using brute force as in the original story.3 The alleged aim of promoting this new lore was to preserve the conqueror's control by watering down the fighting spirit of not only Chinese women, but Chinese people in general.

Not everyone who wrongly believes a cardboard stereotype of uniformly sexist China necessarily has bad intentions. In a sense, people cannot be blamed for being ignorant, that is, for not knowing what has not been told them. But it is probably worth asking why some people take an interest in promoting stereotypes of weak, oppressed Oriental women.


  1. Chinese Foot Binding
  2. Interview with S.Y., a 72 year old Hakka man
  3. The Yang Family - Part II