To understand the mindset of the Chinese women in particular, one must readily immerse themselves into the many customs, rites and rituals grilled into their thoughts since time immemorial. Collectively, the many do’s and don’ts made up what is known as traditions. And these traditions manifests as good moral behaviours exemplarily found only in the Courts of the Mandarins, Mandarins being people of higher social standing in the world of the Chinese. The whole world describes Chinese as purposeful and enterprising but unknown to many, to be born a women in a Chinese household was to be submissive, not even looked forward to. Heirs must be from the stronger sex and so is the throne.
In olden days China, Emperors are believed to have the mandate from Heaven to govern and rule. And ruled they did, as some of them make rules based on the teachings of anointed people of their times such as Confucius, Lao Tze and the Lord Buddha. Buddhism eventually became a revered religion of the Emperors that spreads its roots from India to the Far East before it was brought to the archipelago of what is today known as Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, Buddhism is a tripartite cocktail mix with Confucianism and Taoism. And with religion came steep must-dos and morbid forbids submissive believers adhere to. Some good, others extreme, whilst others are purely bizarre. And with each dynasty, rules bend according to the wishes of such anointed rulers. Some ruled by brawn, others with their brain. Many loyal subjects followed their ruler’s belief, and the rites and practices that goes with it.
There is this age old tradition that womenfolk born into Straits Chinese households of yesteryears are never allowed to straddle beyond the confines of the family home, until the day she marries. They don’t get to go to school because that’s the privilege of the menfolk. So her early childhood education is stifled and fate depended on the matriarch, the maître d’ of the household (who is usually the most senior womenfolk) who taught her rudimentary skills like mannerism and conduct according to the revered teachings of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, rituals, customs and traditions, grooming, seaming, cooking, and cleaning the once fashionable extended family home where three generations of the same family purportedly lived together in a perpetual cyclic motion till fate and time decides the future outcome. All in the course of preparing her to be a commendable maiden for a fleeting finale, to be given away in holy matrimony to a suitor she never had seen nor knew of.
And thank god for the trendy middle courtyard that lungs the passageways, she could play and mingle with her siblings and cousins day and night amid some greenery besides catching the occasional glimpse of the moon, the cold breeze, and the pelting of rain. Not forgetting the daily updates from gossips happening in and out of the kitchen to revitalise and work her sanity.
Womenfolk in the Straits Chinese household never get to choose their own husbands. And so is her wedding date and other preferences. They are the domesticated party to the nuptial agreement by virtue of tradition while the menfolk were encouraged to work hard for a living and raise his own family. Everything is adhered to, in strict century old traditions and rituals of which by now she is routinely acquainted with and her suitor, like an unwrapped gift, comes with surprises and add-ons depending on her luck pre-assessed by her own three generations of extended family headed by the matriarch, after bouts and bouts of cordial discussions between both families with a marriage broker (Mui Lang Po) as their intermediary.
To look for a Chinese wife, the menfolk would cluster themselves along the roadsides and riverbank ready to catch a glimpse of the most likely love interest who would during Chap Goh Meh (or the Fifteenth Moon of the Chinese Calendar), arrive in a motorcade to participate in the quaintest ritual of all- an annual courtship gala of throwing Mandarin oranges (Tim Kum) into the river or sea which is believed to attract blessings of a good marriage for the maidens and likewise for the menfolk who threw apples (Kor) for the same reason- to find a good wife. Once a year, these womenfolks would be heavily coiffured and decked in the finest of jewellery where they were given permission to leave their homes in lure of the pearl of great price. And these Chinese Cinderella’s do not dare leave their slippers behind. Chastity is of great importance and honour to the Chinese household (hence the roasted piglet adorned with a paper-cut tail on the offering table!) what more they must be proven on the wedding night or the menfolk can revoke their consummation if found to be in the contrary. Thus, there is no better way than to keep them in the safe confines of three generations of walking cctv’s than to expect unruly things from happening to a maiden before she got married.
Upon spotting his chosen candidate, the man would then return home and express his love interest to his own family who would then hire a marriage broker (Mui Lang Po) to investigate the maiden’s family background and demands before pairing them up. If fate were to be cordial to them.
Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism rituals reigns thick in these households beginning from the early migration of the Chinese to the southern hemisphere until the late sixties. Therefore the practice of honouring and respecting the elders not forgetting appeasing the spirits of bygone ancestors is encouraged to ensure abundance of blessings to come. These believes and practices were then handed down the generations and faithfully re-enacted year after year.
Where taboo is concern, misfortunes and the mere mentioning of the word ‘death’ was frowned upon by the Chinese. That said, the rites and rituals of appeasing spirits is common place. Thus the Chinese All Souls Day (Cheng Beng) is marked by tomb cleansing, paying homage and a family get together.
These practices continued till the modern day for some families but as the months and years passes by, succumbed by the British Colonialists who took a stranglehold of our motherland, many traditions and customs were gradually weeded out. Not by the British but by the inquisitive repatriators. Progress took on new forms. Dwellers became more liberal. And in came concerns and fairer treatment for the fairer sex.
Nowadays, Chinese womenfolks can finish school, choose their own husbands, travel and as the larger extended family homes became more and more expensive to maintain, each family went their own way leaving behind derelict mansions being consumed by weeds and undergrowths. Whilst some prefer to stay out of town, there are those who strive for a living in the bustling city. There is no longer the once landscaped courtyard that embellishes a family home and a compound of today is no bigger than five strides both-ways. Many of these womenfolk now has the privilege to travel West and as a result, many exchange their wooden clogs and embroidered sandals for stilettos. Many of these privileged womenfolk intermarried with foreigners and never came back.
However, for those who do, many converted and eventually gave up Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism practices. But at the back of the minds of these neophytes stood subconscious moral teachings and observations ingrained into them since time immemorial. When they returned, they too hardly break these laws in front of their elders for fear of being beaten, chastised, or estranged. In consolation, they would assure themselves that these are the customs of the Chinese which has nothing to do with their own belief at all. These includes the annual celebrations of Chinese New Year and All Souls Day. And chastity was surprisingly still a big hit till the early seventies.