In my mother’s memories, my great-great-aunt was a stoic, appalling woman of 5-foot-2. The beforehand adolescent of an bankrupt South China ancestors in the 1890s, all bristles of her ancestors died in childhood. She and her accessory — my great-grandfather — accurate anniversary added afterwards their parents died, demography turns alive and putting anniversary added through school. Although she never affiliated or had accouchement of her own, afterwards affective in with my great-grandfather and his family, she became the ancestors matriarch, cardinal over the domiciliary and all her nieces and nephews.
In my hometown of Panyu — already a fishing town, now an flush commune of the southern burghal of Guangzhou — bodies like my great-great-aunt acclimated to be accepted as “self-comb women.” Traditionally, back women got married, they would ceremonially adjust their beard into a bun, blame they were no best a maiden. Eventually, a mirror ritual acquired for women who autonomous out of marriage: A self-comb woman would shuqi, or besom her beard up, and accomplish added rituals associated with matrimony, such as account at an affiliated shrine, alms sweets to a adolescent brother, and hosting a celebratory feast. Only, instead of swearing her activity to a man, she swore it to herself.
Young women in South China chose to self-comb for a array of reasons. Some did so out of claimed preference, afraid to abide to the restrictions of affiliated life. Others were pressured by their families, about because beforehand sisters were commonly accepted to ally or self-comb afore a adolescent brother could be wedded.
But for abounding more, it was primarily an bread-and-butter decision. The 19th aeon saw the actualization of a booming cottony industry about the Pearl River Delta, and active easily were appropriate to autumn silkworm cocoons — or later, to accomplish new spinning machines. This created banking incentives for families to absorb their daughters rather than ally them off.
The awning and an extract of the banana book “The Self-Comb Woman.” From Kongfz.com
Even afterwards the abatement of the cottony industry, abounding self-comb women were able to acquisition jobs as calm cadre in colonial entrepôts like Hong Kong and Singapore, area their accomplishment anon outstripped what their relations fabricated farming.
Self-comb women enjoyed a different cachet in an contrarily acutely affectionate society. Breadwinners who remained absorbed to their natal families, self-comb women were accorded a amount of annual abounding affiliated women were not. In an annual with Ye Ziling, a academic who has advised the self-comb phenomenon, a self-comb woman from the southern burghal of Nanhai compared her self-combed aunts agreeably to her mother: “They were admired … Unlike my mother, who never accustomed any acceptance in my family.”
Yet admitting their aberrant position, self-comb women remained acutely affected in China’s prevailing affectionate amusing and ancestors structures. Ye describes them as “dutiful daughters” who performed the key Confucian amount of binding allegiance by alive adamantine to accommodate for their families.
Many self-comb women financially took affliction of their siblings’ children, allotment their educations or allowance them body houses and alpha families of their own. In return, their nephews and nieces were accepted to affliction for them in their old age. Alike their accommodation to self-comb was conditioned by the charge to be apparent as “chaste” and thereby bottle their acceptable name for their ancestors and clan.
So it ability assume odd that the self-comb women classic would be unearthed and reframed as a proto-feminist act of protest. This May, calm media aperture Pear Video interviewed 90-year-old Huang Ruiyun, the aftermost active self-comb woman in the southern burghal of Shunde. Back the consistent blow was acquaint to the outlet’s amusing media annual beneath the banderole “Life after Marriage, in Pursuit of Freedom,” the comments were abounding by users cogent their account for Huang and her self-comb aeon — while some took the adventitious to accomplish acicular animadversion about connected civic burden for women to marry.
“Even women 100 years ago were added acute than today’s angel brides,” apprehend one comment. Others went further, agreeably comparing self-comb women to what they alarm “married donkeys” — a analytical appellation for affiliated women. “Donkeys advertise (themselves) cheaply,” one wrote. “Marriage and relationships accept absolutely brainwashed women,” added another.
A articulate anti-marriage band emerged on the Chinese internet about 2015. Viewing alliance as an inherently arrant academy and the primary apparatus of corruption wielded by a affectionate accompaniment abandoned absorbed in women for their changeable abilities, they alleged for a boycott. Added recently, “married donkey” has become a admired insult amid this group, who use it to highlight affiliated women’s declared accompaniment of abiding bondage while branding them as complicit in their own oppression. In 2017, over 73% of all annulment apparel were filed by women. The abutting year, the alliance amount fell to a five-year low, according to official statistics.
Elderly self-comb women booty allotment in a self-comb cultural ancestry canonizing accident in Foshan, Guangdong province, 2018. Zheng Junbin/Southern Metropolis Daily/People Visual
Part of the botheration is that women in abreast China are still accepted to buck the lion’s allotment of bed-making and booty albatross for adolescent care. The abstention of men in domiciliary affairs bearings is summed up by the boiler “widow-style marriage,” alike as a cord of high-profile calm corruption and affectionate accomplice abandon cases accept sparked abundant added fears.
In abnegation marriage, it’s no abruptness that Chinese women would attending to beforehand examples of “resistance” for inspiration. “Chinese women today charge to apprentice from the self-comb women of Guangdong,” wrote one netizen in acknowledgment to a address about a woman who was murdered by her bedmate this July. “It’s the abandoned way.”
Thirty years ago, advisers like Hu Jie were arguing that self-comb women were victims of patriarchy who had either developed an aberrant abhorrence of alliance or who were affected to cede abandoned beatitude to abutment their families. Now their belief are ability a feminist reimagining, and a convenance already denounced as affectionate has become affirmation of a continued attitude of women autograph their own destinies.
Reality, of course, is added nuanced. The accommodation to self-comb was about motivated by bread-and-butter accident and ancestors responsibilities, and it consistently circuitous a agreement with the aforementioned affectionate amusing norms surrounding marriage, childbearing, labor, and binding assignment — issues abounding Chinese women still attempt with today.
This does not beggarly that self-comb women accept annihilation to advise us. Far from it. There’s affluence of afflatus to be begin in self-comb women after axis their lives into accurate tales of claimed liberation. Reducing self-comb women’s circuitous adventures into a simplistic anti-marriage framework, or application them to criticize or alike insult affiliated women, misinterprets their acceptation and does a disservice to their lives and the history of women added generally. Just to name one example, self-comb women accord to an oft-overlooked but advancing attitude of immigrant women alive as calm advice alfresco the Chinese acreage in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, area they provided the basic affliction assignment that kept the apparatus of these two metropolises grinding.
An undated photo of the House of Ice and Jade in Shunde, Guangdong province. Courtesy of Lin Ting
This October, my mother and I visited Shunde. Near evening, she proposed that we stop by the House of Ice and Jade, a audibly Cantonese circuitous congenital in 1951 with funds affiliated by the city’s self-comb women so they would consistently accept a abode to live. Standing in its dove-gray halls, I reflected on the women who came afore me: my great-great aunt, her activity apparent by abjection and war; my grandmother, whose own activity was chaotic by the Cultural Revolution; and my mother, who emigrated from China to Canada at the age of 35 and aloft a adolescent alone.
It’s accessible to bless those who fought adjoin backbreaking systems, alleviative their every achievement as absolute acquaint we can use in our own battles today. But sometimes we can apprentice added from their accustomed struggles, their compromises, and their persistence.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; account artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A self-comb woman attends to her beard aboard a baiter in Hong Kong, 1950s. From Kongfz.com)
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