Sherry J. Mou, a Chinese woman, is an associate professor of Asian Studies at DePauw University in the United States.
Mou recently flew from Indiana to Jakarta to speak at a public lecture at the University of Indonesia's Humanities School on May 25.
Mou examines the role and development of women in Chinese society and literature, specifically focusing on Confucianism. She spoke to The Jakarta Post about Chinese cinema and feminism. Here are the excerpts:
What is the role of women in the Confucian tradition?
Confucian tradition is very family-oriented. In American and European countries, the smallest unit of society is the individual, but in Chinese society the smallest unit is the family.
Individuals behave based on their family orientation. In this tradition, people must consider the consequences of their behavior for their family. In Confucian philosophy, it is necessary to have the approval of your family for almost everything you do. If you want to marry, your family will choose who you marry.
Filial ties, for example, go beyond the family. A family consists of parents and children. At what point do things go beyond the family?
In the family, loyalty is of paramount importance; the youngest family members must be loyal to their elders. It is about the hierarchy of generations. The same rules apply beyond the public sphere: the employee should be loyal to the boss and all court officials should be loyal to the ruler. This is very important. Society resembles the model of a family.
They look like a big family, they act like a family. I think Japanese society is similar. Filial loyalty is strong in Japan; Japanese corporations are also like a family.
In ancient or pre-modern China, family is very important. The position of women in the family is very important, as it is in the domestic and public domain.
When a higher officer dies, all his family members come and mourn for him. It is the mother who decides when the mourning period ends.
Is Chinese society matrilineal or matriarchal?
It is still very much patriarchal, because the Confucian hierarchy follows a patriarchal line. Women get married and they move to their husband's house. When a couple has children, they carry their father's name, but it doesn't mean that women have no power at all.
In the Javanese tradition, women were assigned the roles of cooking and taking care of the children. What is the role of women in traditional Chinese culture?
We have what we call the "three behaviors." The worst of the three is not having a descendant, or not having a son to carry on the family genes.
We know that a man needs a woman to continue the family line. Although it is not the responsibility of women, they usually get the blame.
For example, when a wife gives birth to a girl and not to a boy, her husband will take another woman or may find a concubine.
As far as I remember, there is no written law about the role of women, but there is advice for young women about what they should do and how they should behave.
People usually think this is very unreasonable or very oppressive, but there is also a good side. There is advice about education for women. This is believed to be the oldest document in the world that advocates education for women. It says we should educate our daughters as well as we educate our sons.
You told me about women's obligations to take revenge for the death of their husband or father. How is this related to filial bonds?
Yes, that's the cause of filial ties. Filial obligations extend to the husband or wife, not just to parents and children. If a woman's husband dies, she is expected not to remarry as a mark of commemoration to her late partner. In reality though, many women remarry after their husbands die.
In the film, A Touch of Zen, the cause of the lady knight errant, is a moral obligation. It propels someone to do something. Sometimes, it violates the government rule.
The law does not allow people to kill each other, but if it is done because of filial ties, people will say, "Look at her; she is such a good daughter."
In A World without Thieves, the female characters are strong and practical. Can women dominate men?
In general, do most young women behave like men? No, they don't.
Take the example of a young family with young children. Do the women look after the children, or do the men? Women do more. Even when they have a career themselves they often do the housework too. Women have power, but not in the same way that men do. The women in the film are pretty much equal.
After the women get pregnant, they use their pregnancies as a weapon, as something they can use against their husbands.
Child care is a very important issue in regards to gender equality.
In real life, women do not always follow their husbands. Women have more say.
In most societies, there is no gender equality. In the newspaper, we read a lot of stories about domestic violence, there is a lot of discrimination.
Are there similarities between women's issues in Indonesia and China?
I can only make general comments about this because I don't know much about Indonesian women. The younger generation is very different from the older generation.
Women still follow a certain kind of social code, as portrayed in the films.
Even they can cope with reality. When they are about to start fighting, they will look at their mind.
Do you think Western feminism can be applied to Chinese society?
No, not without moderation. Western feminist theory is closely related to the 19th century Western society. Although many concepts are useful, you cannot apply them without moderation. Even the word feminism has sparked complaint from many people.
One could say: women-how, women-ism, women power-ism or women gender-ism.
A lot of women activists in China do not want to be called feminists. They behave like feminists, but they reject the title. They don't want to dominate men.
The public calls them "feminists" and then people think they want to grab power. People think women want to be as powerful as men. Feminism is not all about power, just a few parts of it.
What is the definition of feminism? Don't you think it is about power?
I don't think it is about power. It is about equality. Why do we study women? It is because women are still being oppressed. Women are still underestimated. You have to study gender relations. It is not about power.
You study English. What is really your interest?
I am interested in literature. I am not an activist. I use different perspectives to analyze literature, like psychoanalysis, post-colonialism and feminism.
Why did you choose to study feminism?
I didn't really. I did, but I didn't really choose to. I am writing my thesis and I was working on a 20th century Chinese female writer. I went to a class about women in the English Department and it was very fun.