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32: Female Children

A great deal of trash has been committed to writing by various foreigners on the subject of female children in China. The prevailing belief in Europe seems to be that the birth of a daughter is looked upon as a mournful event in the annals of a Chinese family, and that a large percentage of the girls born are victims of a wide-spread system of infanticide, a sufficient number, however, being spared to prevent the speedy depopulation of the Empire. It became our duty only the other day to correct a mistake, on the part of a reverend gentleman who has been some twelve years a missionary in China, bearing on this very subject. He observed that "the Chinese are always profuse in their congratulations on the birth of a _son_; but if a girl is born, the most hearty word they can afford to utter is, 'girls too are necessary.'" Such a statement is very misleading, and cannot, in these days of enlightenment on Chinese topics, be allowed to pass unchallenged. "I hear you have obtained one thousand ounces of gold," is perhaps the commonest of those flowery metaphors which the Chinese delight to bandy on such an auspicious occasion; another being, "You have a bright pearl in your hand," &c., &c. The truth is that parents in China are just as fond of all their children as people in other and more civilised countries, where male children are also eagerly desired to preserve the family from extinction. The excess in value of the male over the female is perhaps more strongly marked among the Chinese, owing of course to the peculiarity of certain national customs, and not to any want of parental feeling; but, on the other hand, a very fair share both of care and affection is lavished upon the daughters either of rich or poor. They are not usually taught to read as the boys are, because they cannot enter any condition of public life, and education for mere education's sake would be considered as waste of time and money by all except very wealthy parents. Besides, when a daughter is married, not only is it necessary to provide her with a suitable dowry and trousseau, but she passes over to the house of her husband, there to adopt his family name in preference to her own, and contract new obligations to a father- and mother-in-law she may only have seen once or twice in her life, more binding in their stringency than those to the father and mother she has left behind. A son remains by his parents' side in most cases till death separates them for ever, and on him they rely for that due performance of burial rites which alone can ensure to their spirits an eternal rest. When old age or disease comes upon them, a son can go forth to earn their daily rice, and protect them from poverty, wrong, and insult, where a daughter would be only an additional encumbrance. It is no wonder therefore that the birth of a son is hailed with greater manifestations of joy than is observable among western nations; at the same time, we must maintain that the natural love of Chinese parents for their female offspring is not thereby lessened to any appreciable degree. No _red eggs_ are sent by friends and relatives on the birth of a daughter as at the advent of the first boy, the hope and pride of the family; but in other respects the customs and ceremonies practised on these occasions are very much the same. On the third day the milk-name is given to the child, and if a girl her ears are pierced for earrings. A little boiled rice is rubbed upon the lobe of the ear, which is then subjected to friction between the finger and thumb until it gets quite numb: it is next pierced with a needle and thread dipped in oil, the latter being left in the ear. No blood flows. Boys frequently have one ear pierced, as some people say, to make them look like little girls; and up to the age of thirteen or fourteen, girls often wear their hair braided in a tail to make them look like little boys. But the end of the tail is always tied with _red_ silk--the differentiating colour between youths and maids in China. And here we may mention that the colour of the silk which finishes off a Chinaman's tail differs according to circumstances. Black is the ordinary colour, often undistinguishable from the long dresses in which they take such pride; _white_ answers to deep crape with us, and proclaims that either the father or mother of the wearer has bid adieu to this sublunary sphere;[*] _green_, _yellow_, and _blue_, are worn for more distant relatives, or for parents after the first year of mourning has expired.

[*] The verb "to die" is rarely used by the Chinese of their relatives. Some graceful periphrasis is adapted instead.

We will conclude with a curious custom which, as far as our inquiries have extended, seems to be universal. The first visitor, stranger, messenger, coolie, or friend, who comes to the house where a new-born baby lies, ignorant that such an event has taken place, is on no account allowed to go away without having first eaten a full meal. This is done to secure to the child a peaceful and refreshing night's rest; and as Chinamen are always ready at a moment's notice to dispose of a feed at somebody else's expense, difficulties are not likely to arise on a score of a previous dinner.