The Cult of Chastity
The Cult of Chastity
Chastity. During the Song dynasty (960-1279) chastity was held as the highest virtue of women. This philosophical outlook was largely promoted by the Chenq (yi)-Zhu (xi) doctrines, which proposed that for a woman to lose her virtue was worse than starving to death. Such a high social demand on women became the moral base for the “cult of chastity,” which turned into a social trend. Neo-Confucian moral ethics discouraged a widow from remarrying, and in most regions her remarriage was considered adultery, because chastity required a woman to remain forever a wife to her husband, even after his death. When a widow was allowed to remarry, she was stripped of the privileges she once had with her former husband’s family. For example, she had no right to take with her the family property and could not retain her place in the genealogy of the late husband’s kin-group.
Widowhood. The “cult of widow” was pushed to its zenith in Ming times (1368-1644). By custom, widows were expected to dress in white, black, or blue outfits. An old saying referred to a man who took a widow as his bride as “marrying the wearer of a white skirt.” It was considered a disgrace to a family for one of its sons to marry a widow, and equally shameful for a widow to remarry. Even if a man of modest means chose to marry a widow because of the small betrothal expense, she was not allowed to ride in the red bridal chair to the residence of her intended husband. She was carried
instead on a black-covered bridal chair. Under this tremendous social pressure most widows chose not to remarry, because they did not want to bring shame to both their own dignity and the honor of their husband’s families. The stigma of widowhood was carried to such an extreme that a girl who had been betrothed, but her husband-to-be died before their formal wedding, would often be turned down for new engagements by families of potential suitors because she was labeled “a girl of bad luck.” Sometimes a girl under such circumstances chose to take her own life rather than live unmarried—her coffin would thus be buried alongside that of her betrothed. A woman who chose to die rather than lose her virtue by remarrying was highly praised. Halls of chastity were established in their honor and their names were recorded in books such as Net Xun (Advice from Palace), Nu Xue (Ethics of Women), Nu Er Jing (Principles of Women), and Gu Jing Lie Nu Zhuan (Stories of Chaste Women from the Past to the Present).
Song Tradition. In the Ming dynasty the imperial state went to great lengths to sponsor the cult of chastity, a tradition inherited from the Song dynasty and held as the ultimate moral identity for what was considered a decent woman. Virginity was a critical part of virtue for unmarried young women. A popular book at the time, Za Shi Mi Zhong (Tracking Down the Mysteries), taught men how to check on a woman to find out whether she was a virgin. Furthermore, state laws allowed the village-based family clans to enforce their own customary laws to punish “immoral women” by a variety of means, ranging from humiliating them to putting them to death (hanging or drowning were popular methods).
Virtuous Women. Incense and candles were burned in the local temples on the first and fifteenth day of each month to honor “virtuous and filial” women. Honorary tablets were installed to commemorate women who had devoted their lives to filial piety for their parents and husbands. In some regions huge slabs of black stone or granite were erected by the sides of main streets; inscriptions were carved on the crosspieces in praise of select women’s chastity and filial piety. These stones were often placed under the special permission and sponsor-ship of the imperial court. In some communities chaste and filial widows, when they reached the age of fifty, were eligible to have their names carved on tablets in praise of their long-term devotion (not seeking to remarry). In Ming times, because of massive involvement by the state, the social demand for women’s chastity escalated to such an extreme level that many widows took their own lives in order to be granted such honors. By way of comparison, as shown in historical documents, the women of chastity officially recorded in the Song Shi (History of Song Dynasty) were 55 in total; the number of documented chaste women increased dramatically, from 187 in the Yuan Shi (History of Yuan Dynasty) to more than 10,000 in the Ming Shi (History of Ming Dynasty).
Ruble S. Watson and Patricia Buckley Ebrey, eds., Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
Ruikai Zhu, Zhongguo Hun Yin Jia Ting Shi, translated as History of the Family and Marriage in China (Shanghai: Xueling Press, 1999).