Some Thoughts on Chinese Traditions

This is what my niece said in an email (slightly edited for clarity):-

"I was amazed at how traditional many modern people could still be deep down inside despite the fact that they have been pretty westernized. I really don’t know if holding onto traditions is a good thing or not. At some point I accept some customs simply because I believe that civilization is built upon a foundation of traditions constructed through time and history, yet at the same time I find certain traditions are beginning to burden the society, in a way as to hinder its ‘modernization’….. Perhaps society has advanced and developed too quickly that our inner conscience decided to slow down the process of human destruction."

When I was my niece’s age, I was much more of what one might describe as an iconoclast than she. I used to abhor most Chinese traditions like Chinese wedding and funeral rites, the twice-a-year grave sweeping, the preferential treatment of sons over daughters, the social acceptance of married men engaging in philandering or keeping mistresses, the expectation of married women to handle all household chores and child-rearing responsibilities, the discrimination against spinsters, divorcees and even rape victims, etc. etc.

As I grew more mature, I came to accept that certain traditions like wedding and funeral rites and grave-sweeping do have their cultural, filial respect and familial values and meanings , as, like my niece implied, they were passed down to us from our ancestors who became part of our own history. By practicing those rites we are able to bear witness to and perpetuate our past civilization that gives us our unique identity and place in this world, i.e. our Chineseness if you will. Also, these traditions are like a solid raft that we can cling onto when the world around us seems to be swimming in a tide of uncertainty and moral destruction - in my niece’s words, our inner conscience decided to slow down the process of human destruction….

However, there are also those traditions that I still detest because they smack of gross inequality of the sexes and have been a function of thousands of years of imperialism and Confucian teachings, which all embraced social stratification and class distinction of the sexes with a deliberate aim to suppress, dominate and exploit the weaker sex. An emperor in the ancient times, because of his heavenly mandate and hence unlimited power, was entitled to keeping a harem of countless concubines and every night he could pick one to go to bed with. Court ministers and ordinary wealthy men were allowed to keep several wives and concubines and buy numerous maid-servants. Confucius instilled conservatism and all sorts of rites in society, which etched, among other things, more inequities into society and the sexes. His thoughts and teachings, though virtuous in many humanism aspects, so profoundly immersed Chinese society into a patriarchic and 男尊女卑 (male superiority) mentality that even as of today most Chinese communities have been unable to shake it off.

Poverty and lack of education are undoubtedly attributing factors explaining why such mentality still thrives, especially in rural China. But people who have power and money anywhere in the country, like Badong county party officials in the Deng Yujiao case, and countless others in similar or more senior positions for that matter, are certainly of a mindset that the weaker sex are second-rate humans who can be bought by money like a commodity at any time and who can be violated if they don’t submit. Such male superiority complex, which is rooted in a deeply entrenched sex discriminatory culture, is unfortunately still pervasive in Chinese society today.

The Deng Yujiao case came to light only because manslaughter was involved. If Deng had not fought back and stabbed the two attackers, what would have happened to her? Would the media even bother to report what would likely constitute another rape case? How many other cases are there where women of poor means are subjected to sexual harassment or sexual assault by men who wield power and wealth in the mainland, but have no way of attaining justice due to a farcical legal system and social taboo on such crimes that would ‘bring shame to the victims’ families’?

In Chinese traditional culture, it is absolutely normal for men to indulge in carnal pleasure, obtained through whatever means, while it is sinful for an act of violation of women to be made known publicly - the shame is on the victim and not the perpetrator. The value of women in the traditional sense has long been of a dependent and subjective nature, as though they are simply a sexual object with no independent right of existence.

While men have been the main culprits in perpetuating the sex discriminatory culture throughout the ages, a good portion of women have always been the willing accomplice. The latter do their part by favoring sons over daughters, by condoning their spouses’ keeping of mistresses, by consenting to be mistresses, by disparaging divorcees, spinsters and rape victims, by showing no compassion or sympathy for sexual crime victims, or even by shifting the blame onto the victims.

Traditions like these are the ones that have indeed become a burden on society as my niece said, because they are hindering it from advancing to a modern state in terms of universal values. These are traditions that have fallen way behind the times and our inner conscience wants them to be discarded.

In this respect, Hong Kong women today are much luckier than their predecessors or their mainland counterparts. But Hong Kong society has come a long way since the days when foot-binding was a norm and polygamous marriages were lawful. It has been a beneficiary of an English common law system that condone equal rights for all, and of progressively increasing chance of access to a good education for women. Still, it was not until 1994 that women in the New Territories started to enjoy land inheritance rights and 1996 that the Sex Discrimination Ordinance came into force.

Yet, sometimes even modern and well-educated people in Hong Kong find it hard to untie the tight knot of traditional prejudices (the story in ‘Must A Girl Marry?’ is just one glaring example), and at such times, the ghost of imperialism and the unjust spirit of Confucianism still manage to resurrect to disrupt humankind’s modernization.