When I travelled to Guangzhou in 2002, I found China to be a country that was careering head first towards the 21st Century. My base was a hotel housed in a skyscraper which was circled by endless cavalcade of cars and flanked by a shopping mall packed with affluent and well dressed shoppers in the latest designer labels. When Leung and Tai Po were struggling to raise their family, life in the rural villages had remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. The people grew their food in their own vegetable patches and paddy fields. There was neither medicine nor communication with the outside world. To be born a farmer meant being destined to die as one; trapped in a cycle of poverty. To survive famine, flooding and periodic attacks by bandits, everyone was forced to work towards a common goal, to feed their families.
As a woman, life in China in the 1900s held no prospects whatsoever for my grandmother. Their society dreaded the birth of daughters, often treating them as little more than subhuman, a burden on the family. Mao Tse Tung wrote that all Chinese people had three ropes round their necks, political authority, clan authority, religious authority. But a woman also had a fourth; the authority of the husband.
This suppression of women was engrained in the feudal Chinese social system. Before Mao, Confucius had perpetuated the domination of men over women, fathers over daughters and husbands over wives. Confucianism is characterised by conservative values, strong ethics, emphasis on the family and respect for elders and cold logic approach to man’s problems. Even at the beginning of the Twentieth century, it formed the basis of the views held by many Chinese citizens. The result was that for thousands of years, political power in China had been closely associated with the control of women.
Women did not have any rights over property, nor did they enjoy any independent decision-making power in matters affecting the family and clan. Nor was education an option for women. A shame, as my grandmother proved to be an intelligent and inquisitive child. Women, particularly rural women, were
regarded as objects, whose body and mind were under the total control of their husband. It is an attitude embodied in an old saying describing marriage:
“Having married a cock she must follow the cock; having married a dog she must follow the dog; having married a carrying pole she must carry it for life.”
So profoundly negative was society’s view of female children that every year thousands of new born baby girls were routinely murdered or abandoned by their mothers simply because of their sex.
As the third girl born to rural farming family, it would not have been uncommon for my grandmother to be abandoned on the hillside, fed poison or be buried alive. Some Chinese women even believed that sacrificing a daughter could guarantee the birth of a son in their next pregnancy. In practice, they may have believed that sentencing their daughters to death far better than condemning them to the life of a woman in China. All that lay ahead of my grandmother was a life of discrimination, poverty and drudgery.
However my great grandfather, Leung felt strongly that his daughters were valuable in their own right, that they had the ability to develop their lives into something positive in the generations beyond his lifetime. This, combined with my grandmother’s natural self belief and determination, would change her destiny. Not just for her but for all her female descendants myself included.
When I was at school, my ambition was always to become a lawyer. My parents expressed some concern that I had chosen to work in such a male dominated environment but not my grandmother.
She told me a story that Leung would tell her as a child. A favourite of his that confirmed the value of patience and commitment to one’s ambitions despite the odds. In the story an eccentric old man who decides to level two huge mountains to open a road from his village southward to the bank of the Han River. He was laughed and scoffed at by his neighbour.
‘How can you dispose of so much earth and stones,’ they asked him. His reply was simply:
‘Though I shall die, I shall leave behind my son, and my son’s a son. From generation to generation I hand this task. Since these mountains cannot grow any larger, why shouldn’t we able to level them?’ After five generations the mountains were finally levelled.
My grandmother explained to me that her father told her even though I was a girl, she could earn her place in the world. It was a valuable lesson.
This excerpt is taken from the book Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse. Published by Random House and sold into 33 countries. Now available to download on Kindle.