I typed up this excerpt from Ebrey, P.B. Chinese civilization and society: a sourcebook.
Approximately 2,000 years ago during the Chinese Han Dynasty
(Introduction: … a description of a real but far-from-ideal woman is also included here. It is from a letter written by the woman’s husband, Feng Yan, to her younger brother explaining his reasons for divorcing her.)
Letter from Feng Yan to his brother-in-law
Man is a creature of emotion. Yet it is according to reason that husband and wife are joined together or put asunder. According to the rules of propriety which have been set down by the sage, a gentleman should have both a primary wife and concubines as well. Even men from poor and humble families long to possess concubines. I am old and approaching the end of my life, but I have never had a concubine. I will carry regret for this into my grave.
My wife is jealous and has destroyed the Way of a good family. Yet this mother of five children is still in my house. For the past five years her conduct has become worse and worse day after day. She sees white as black and wrong as right. I never err in the slightest, yet she lies about me and nags me without end. It is like falling among bandits on the road, for I constantly encounter unpredictable disasters through this woman. Those who slander us good officials seem to have no regard for the deleterious effects this has on the welfare of the country. Likewise, those who indulge their jealousy seem to have no concern for the unjust strain this puts on other people’s lives.
Since antiquity it has always been considered a great disaster to have one’s household be dominated by a woman. Now this disaster has befallen me. If I eat too much or too little or if I drink too much or too little, she jumps all over me like the tyrant Xia Jie. If I play some affectionate joke on her, she will gossip about it to everyone. She glowers with her eyes and clenches her fists tightly in anger over things which are purely the product of her imagination. I feel a severe pang in my heart, as though something is poisoning my five viscera. Anxiety cuts so deeply that I can hardly bear to go on living. My rage is so great that I often forget the calamities I might cause.
When she is at home, she is always lounging in bed. After she gave birth to my principal heir, she refused to have any more children. We have no female servants at our home who can do the work of weaving clothes and rugs. Our family is of modest means and we cannot afford a man-servant, so I have to work myself like a humble commoner. My old friends see my situation and feel very sorry for me, but this woman has not the slightest twinge of sympathy or pity.
Wu Da, you have seen our one and only female servant. She has no hairpins or hair ornaments. She has no make-up for her face, looks haggard, and is in bad shape. My wife does not extend the slightest pity for her, nor does she try to understand her. The woman flies into a rage, jumps around, and yells at her. Her screaming is so shrill that even a sugar peddler’s concubine would be ashamed to behave in such a manner.
I would have sent this woman back long ago, but I was concerned by the fact that the children were still young and that there was no one else do the work in our house. I feared that my children, Jiang and Bao, would end up doing servants’ work. Therefore I retained her. But worry and anxiety plunge like a dagger into my heart and cause me great pain. This woman is always screaming fiercely. One can hardly bear to listen to it.
Since the servant was so mistreated, within half a year her body was covered with scabs and scars. Ever since the servant became ill, my daughter Jiang has had to hull the grain and do the cooking, and my son Bao has had to do all sorts of dirty work. Watching my children struggle under such labor gives me distress.
Food and clothing are scattered all over the house. Winter clothes which have become frayed are not patched. Even though the rest of us aare very careful to be neat, she turns the house into a mess. She does not have the manner of a good wife, nor does she possess the virtue of a good mother. I despise her overbearing aggressiveness, and I hate to see our home turned into a sty.
She relies on the power of Magistrate Zheng to get what she wants. She is always threatening people, and barbs are numerous. It seems as if she carries a sword and lance to her door. Never will she make a concession, and it feels as if there were a hundred bows around our house. How can we ever return to a happy family life?
When the respectable members of our family try to reason with her, she flings insults at them and makes sharp retorts. She never regrets her scandalous behavior and never allows her heart to be moved. I realized I have placed myself in a difficult position, and so I have started to plan ahead. I write you this letter lest I be remiss in keeping you informed of what is happening. I believe that I have just cause, and I am not afraid of criticism.
Unless I send this wife back, my family will have no peace.
Unless I send this wife back, my house will never be clean.
Unless I send this wife back, good fortune will not come to my family.
Unless I send this wife back, I will never again get anything accomplished.
I hate myself for not having made this decision while I was still young. The decision is now made, but I am old, humiliated, and poor.
I hate myself for having allowed this ulcer to grow and spread its poison. I brought a great deal of trouble for myself.
Having suffered total ruin as a result of this family catastrophe, I am abandoning the gentry life to live as a recluse. I will sever relationships with my friends and give up my career as an official. I will stay at home all the time and concentrate on working my land to supply myself with food and clothing. How can I think of success and fame?
(Translated by Lily Hwa)
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