Lao She wrote many popular works, but there is no sole writing about women. Yet it does not mean that he was indifferent to women. On the contrary, he gave intensive focus in his novels to women at the bottom, specific those who suffer.
Before the introduction of Western culture to China, women had not much status; women were men's accessories. With the three-obediences and the four-virtues, it was traditionally accepted that female ethics were like a spelled curse, tightly binding women's body and spirit, so that those women with small, bound feet, for all their lives, had to rely on the arms and shoulders of men and were a man's playthings and property. Under such high pressure, women who were disabled to rebel could only be like Lu Xun's "Sister-in-law Xiang Lin", who in superstition and self-complaining coped with life. Her misfortune was certainly worthy of pity, but was also a cause of anguish as she chose not to stand for herself. From missionaries' objectives in running female schools so that women could enter a church to a large number of Chinese student returnees from overseas under the enlightenment struggling for equality between men and women, the decisive transformation of the status of women in China started with the Western powers using their "big guns" to open the door to China.
This transformation brought both the awakening of female autonomy and men's sympathy of women's misfortunes. From Lu Xun's "Biography of Q" that revealed the almost torturous customary norms, to Sister-in-law Xiang Lin's unfortunate life; from Bing Xin's little Cui in "The Last Rest", to Lao She's Li Jing in "Old Zhang's Philosophy". They tried hard to tell the world about the traditional etiquette of women and tell us the tragic experience of women's life in that era.
Under the background of the New Culture Movement, they began to examine the traditional rituals and norms that bound women and began to pay more attention to their misfortunes.
Unlike "Bing Xin who, while focusing on women's misfortunes, shaped the ideal image of new women in the Christian context", Lao She's focus on women was mainly an intensive description of their tragic plight.
In "Lao Zhang's Philosophy", Lao She depicted Li Jing, a woman at the bottom, who was sold under customary feudal norms.
Li Jing grew up an orphan, was raised by her aunt who showed love to her and regarded her as her own daughter.
Li Jing's aunt was an extremely ordinary woman, ordinary enough to represent the image of Chinese women at that time: "Li Jing's aunt was sixty years old and still very strong. Her look, her figure, her clothes, were no different from anyone else." "She really loved Li Ying and Li Jing, and she was really responsible for caring for her brothers - the uncles of Li Ying. She was also really responsible for the Li's, not only for the family, but for all the social morality, and family discipline. She had a very positive and self-respecting, responsible expression."
Living in the traditional norms, encountering suffering after suffering, the aunt, however, acknowledged such norms from her heart, and consciously maintained it. She married, became someone's wife, and was abused by her mother-in-law, but she thought a daughter-in-law was deserving of it.
When old Zhang came to buy Li Jing to be a concubine, the aunt advised Li Jing to accept it. This is the cycle of Chinese women's fate. After being totally engulfed by traditional norms, she also sent her own daughter to experience likewise..
In order to pay off the debt of Li Jing's uncle, the uncle sold Li Jing to Lao Zhang. Although Li Jing and neighbor Wang De had been in love since childhood and had privately determined to marry each other, because of filial piety, Li Jing chose to marry Lao Zhang as a concubine, thereby sacrificing their love. The aunt, in order to prevent Wang De from the infarction, had not a moment left in Li Jing's presence, and urged Wang De's parents to drive Wang De to the countryside to find a wife. The aunt had certainly become a guardian of the tradition of filial piety.
Her aunt, who suffered from this feudal code of ethics, had to teach Li Jing, the night before her marriage, how to play the wife's role, how to wait on her husband, how to carry on her husband's words, and how to manage household. In the aunt's view, women were born to be a plaything for men and if men gve them enough to eat, wear, and use, they should be satisfied.
Lao She, through the aunt and Li Jing, tells us that women's experiences are so desperate in the cycle of the feudal code of ethics.
In "The Camel Xiangzi", Lao She depicted the plight of a woman, Xiao Fuzi, who acted both as a plaything of men and as a money bag for her father's drinking by working as a prostitute.
Her father, Er Qiangzi, sold her, Xiao Fuzi (Little Blessing), to an officer for two hundred yuan, and then with that money bought a cart and new clothes for the family and for himself.
The officer bought her as both a servant and a sexual companion. After the officer left for duty, Little Blessing was abandoned and had to sell the bed and chairs to pay the rent the officer owed. Back home the situation of the worsened family after her mother was killed by her father. In order to support her brother, she had to work as a prostitute. Even so, the father turned everything upside down to find her, sometimes scolding her, calling her a slut which caused him to loose face, and sometimes asking for her money to go drinking.
Yun Mei's life values in "Four Generations in One House" lies in the fulfillment of traditional code of ethics. To the elder generation, she waited on her parents-in-law, enduring their scolding and beating. And to the younger generation, she took care of her children and husband, not considering herself. This is just like the law of the Pharisees, i.e., everything that has to do with the law is important at the expense of the people. The big sister in "Under the Red Flag" was more like the mother-in-law's pet , with even the right to return to her own mother's house not being a given.
Lao She's own standpoint was obviously that of Western culture's view that there is equality between men and women. Only from this view could he describe the slave status of Chinese women. Lao She intensely portrayed these women by focusing on their tragic plight, something that stemmed from his inner sympathy regarding the tragic status of Chinese women.
- Translated by Charlie Li