History has seen the prevalence of patriarchal concepts throughout almost every major civilization. In fact, the subordination of women as inferior to men has since manifested through a variety of social constructs that has extended beyond customary practices towards acceptance as universal facts. This review on an article authored by Charlotte Furth, entitled Concepts of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Infancy in Ch’ing Dynasty China, seeks to tackle a social construct that has framed women as inferior to men treated as a universal fact within a social setting – the reproductive system of women as seen in pregnancy, childbirth and infancy.
Furth discussed the concepts of pregnancy, childbirth and infancy during the prevalence of the Ch’ing Dynasty in China under the thesis that such relate to insights on the way Chinese people that time perceived issues on gender. Said thesis statement runs along the source of the argument pertaining to the inferiority of women to men with regard to their reproductive system.
As per clarification, it is important to emphasize that the entire context of this article review refers to Chinese people as those who have thrived during the Ch’ing Dynasty and not to those at present. Primarily, Furth emphasized that the Chinese under the Ch’ing Dynasty viewed women as inferior to men mainly because of the way their reproductive system worked. Thus, Furth argued, through documentary evidence, that such belief is highly apparent in the way the Chinese approached pregnancy, childbirth and infancy – concepts related to medicine that are exclusive to women. In asserting the thesis, Furth assumed that the Chinese approaches to medical concerns exclusive to women, as mentioned earlier, are a reflection of the way they treat women as second-rate compared to men.
Documentary evidence from the Ch’ing Dynasty has shown that pregnancy has entailed the Chinese to brand women as the “sickly sex” on account of their reproductive system, since such leads them to lose vast supplies of blood in the fertile stages of their lives – from menarche to menopause. Applying the Chinese symbolism for gender in the form of the yin and the yang, women in China are perceived as “necessarily weak” due to their vital role in procreation, in contrast to men who are seen as strong and restrained in terms of controlling their sexual emissions. Apart from strength, another application of the Chinese yin-and-yang symbolism pertains to cleanliness. Under such an analogy, the Chinese see women as dirty compared to men who they acknowledge as clean, given the customary acceptance of fertility as a harbinger of perils. Such perils, in turn, have led to customs forbidding women to do certain things when they are menstruating or postpartum-bleeding. Women with menstruation or under postpartum have to be secluded from men, given that they are associated with sicknesses and are both associated with ritual impurity. Yet, Furth detailed that the perception of the Chinese on the dirtiness of women only stood because men refused to acknowledge that they are, in fact, powerful, especially because of fertility.
Childbirth, for the Chinese under the Ch’ing Dynasty, stood as a “spiritually responsible work” within which women have to master by themselves, thus emphasizing the fact that their reproductive system made them weak compared to men. While such acknowledgement digresses from the mostly negative impressions the Chinese have on women, it nevertheless recognizes childbirth as a valuable undertaking and thus brings back the description of women as procreators. Yet, elements of childbirth have also been subject to mysticism. For instance, the Chinese believe that the umbilical cord and placenta, both of which are disposed after childbirth, stand to have immense medicinal properties that are also harmful to the health of newborn children. In addition, instead of putting honor for women undergoing childbirth, the Chinese perceive such an endeavor as pitiful, making compassion perhaps the highest moral regard given to them. The Chinese do not see women as people of higher degree in childbirth, unlike perhaps in other cultures where there are recognitions of divinity due the fact that they give life. Rather, the Chinese see women as an attachment of various taboos due to their natural function of childbirth, with such seen as only evoking of compassion at best, thus denying them of a place of honor. Again, Furth notes that such stands as a denial of their immense powers as life-givers.
In infancy, the Chinese during the Ch’ing Dynasty hold a two-sided medical view on cleansing: rationalization and ritualization, both of which represent attempts to justify the weakness of women because of their reproductive system. Under rationalization, Chinese doctors regard remnants of childbirth – the umbilical cord and placenta, as disposable and potentially harmful to newborn children. Although documentary evidence show no direct proof that the umbilical cord and placenta can cause harmful effects to the health of newborn children, their disposal nevertheless stands as a health precaution. Additionally, with the best interest of newborn children in mind, Chinese doctors ensure that they push through with practices that involve ritual baths and the use of birth tonics, among many others. On the other hand, however, ritualization stands as one alluding to the lack of documentary evidence proving that post-childbirth elements are harmful in any way to anyone exposed to a mother who recently gave birth to a child. Given that women in China generally receive the perception that they are weak and impure due to their fertility, it is especially important to take note that the Chinese see newborn children as inherently weak largely because of their blood connections with their mothers. The blood connection between mother and child attune to their weakness and mutuality in the form of breastfeeding and other manifestations of maternal care. Newborn children, according to the Chinese, become stronger as they grow with the help of cleansing rituals, which nevertheless do not have any rationalizing support. However, Furth noted that the perceived weakness of newborn children and its direct association with the pollution of women is, in empirical terms, based on the high rate of their mortality rate during the Ch’ing Dynasty, particularly because the Chinese lacked relatively sophisticated facilities that enable the smooth conduct of childbirth that time.
Several implications related to the argument on the weakness of women to men due to their reproductive system attune to the arguments raised by Furth, which she derived from the findings she described coming from documentary evidence linked to the Ch’ing Dynasty. Firstly, the Chinese constantly argued along argumentative lines attuning to the weakness of women, even though they have an implied impression recognizing their strength due to their fertility. For the Chinese, fertility stands as more of a “necessary weakness” of, and a cause of pollution for women brought forth by their nature as procreators than a symbol of their omnipotence. Furth, however, noted that men actually feared what they thought as the immense strength of women brought by their fertility, which is why they used such arguments as their defense mechanisms justifying their superiority. The rituals related to the post-childbirth stage also have strong attachments to the beliefs that women are weak and polluted, regardless if they are either rationalized or ritualized. For the Chinese, the continuous subduing of women towards inferiority compared to men extends to the rituals believed to strengthen newborn children – seen as weak due to their blood connections with their mothers. Given that documentary evidence show a strong sense of denial over the unique capacity of women to procreate, Furth has remarkably implied that male superiority is a culturally embedded feature of the Ch’ing Dynasty that extends even to medical practice. Such documentary evidence may also have extricable links to cases of suppression of women in China during the Ch’ing Dynasty.
Furth, Charlotte. “Concepts of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infancy in Ch’ing Dynasty, China.” Journal of Asian Studies 46, no. 1 (1987): 7-35.